Welcome to the war

In March 1967, as I finished my first year as a draftee in the Army, I kissed my wife good-bye in Tulsa and flew to San Francisco to go to war. The Oakland Army Terminal process was smooth and efficient; they had done this nearly a quarter-million times before. I received a bed assignment with orders to report the following morning for transportation to Travis Air Force Base outside San Francisco. At Travis, we boarded a chartered DC-8 airliner for the flight to Vietnam. There were about 120 seats—all the same from front to back—a long aluminum shipping tube without partitions or any divisions between officers and enlisted men.

DC-8 with Vietnam soldiers
The DC-8 was little more than “a long aluminum shipping tube.”

We took off from California at midmorning and flew eight hours over cloud-studded Pacific waters to Honolulu International Airport. Regulations required all passengers to disembark for refueling. My most persistent memory of Hawaii from that one hour on the ground is that importation of all goods to an island results in a hefty price increase for everything.

Back in the air, we climbed along the beach at Waikiki past Diamond Head and set a course at 30,000 feet for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The sun moves westward at about 1,000 miles an hour. We were headed the same direction at about 500. That meant the day was elongated so that 16 to 20 hours after leaving California, we still had sun low in the western sky as we refueled at Clark. Add to that the psychological disorientation of crossing the International Date Line, and jet lag begins to set in just thinking about it. The ground time in the Philippines, however, allowed night finally to catch up before we once more took off for the last leg of the journey westward.

As we began to descend over the dark coast of Vietnam, the captain’s voice came over the intercom. In his best Chuck Yeager/John Wayne imitation, he said, “The planes ahead of us have been reporting sniper fire on approach to Bien Hoa Airbase. The last one to land took a rifle bullet through the rear galley area. Because of this, we are planning a nonstandard arrival. Please secure your belongings and return to your seats because we will be turning off all interior and exterior lights in the aircraft. The only lighting will be the instrument panel in the cockpit. Keep all seat belts fastened and remain in your seats until we are stopped on the apron at Bien Hoa. I usually would wish you all luck during your stay in Vietnam, but tonight it appears that we may need some luck for our arrival as well.”

What normally would have been a time of contemplation of what lay ahead became doubly tense as we looked at each other and tightened our belts. The cabin crew made their usual walk down the aisle to check that we were strapped in, but no one had failed to follow the instructions from the cockpit.

Bien Hoa airport
Welcome to the war, or at least Bien Hoa airbase.

Military fighter pilots often use a procedure called an overhead arrival. Rather than slide smoothly down the glide slope dropping three feet for every 100 feet of forward progress guided by an electronic beam from the end of the runway, they cross the field at a high altitude and spiral down in a 360 degree turn to land. Many airline pilots flew in the military before entering their civilian careers with the airlines.

This captain obviously was a product of that system. He brought the DC-8 over Bien Hoa at about 3,000 feet aligned in the direction he wished to land. With reduced speed near the stall break, he dropped the nose of the airliner and kicked into a left descending turn to float down like descending a spiral staircase. From my seat near the rear, the entire cabin tilted downward and rolled left. The centrifugal force of the turn and sensation of the nose-down attitude were counterbalanced by controlling roll, airspeed, turn rate and descent. He leveled the wings when pointed at the runway inside the perimeter of the air base, well away from “Bien Hoa Bob” and his rifle. The plane touched down within seconds of our return to normal attitude. After reverse thrust and braking, the pilot restored the cabin lights and we continued to taxi to the apron.

When the doors popped open, a blast of hot, humid air swept through the cabin. We left the plane to stand in formation in the sweltering darkness of the Vietnam night waiting to retrieve our duffel bags, grateful for the safe arrival and apprehensive about the year ahead.

Welcome to Vietnam.

8 Comments

  • Dear Dan: Nobody thanked me for my service (1955-1961, active and reserve) until a few years ago when they saw my Honorable Discharge hanging on my office wall. I hope that I am not the first to thank you for your service so many years ago.

    • No, you are not the first to thank me. I will never forget the first: In 2004 during a household move, Vietnam was mentioned in connection with some household items. The mover said, “Thank you for your service.”
      It had been more than fourteen years, and it was the first. I almost teared up.
      I spent my year in the newsroom of AFVN in Saigon doing radio and television news. I had a good experience, but I accepted the thanks on behalf of those who never heard those words.
      Thank you again for your comment, and for your response. My thanks to you and those who served–no matter where or when.

  • We had an airman sent PCS to Bien Hoa from Blytheville AFB engine shop in about 67. We got word back that as he left the air plane at Bien Hoa a sniper off base fired a shot killing him as he took his first step out of the plane. Sure made us sad.

    I went TDY to Anderson AFB in September 68, we flew over there on a C-141, our fist stop was Alaska for refueling. Them made another refueling stop at Japan. At Japan when I got off for refueling my ears hurt me very bad. Thankful when I got back on & we took off they got OK. I was dreading landing at Anderson fearing my ears would do the same, thankfully they didn’t.

    They had passenger plane seats & they served us one meal, it was not good but it was not to bad. Going over I had a window seat & remember looking out several times & seeing nothing but water as far as I could see.

    Going back home I flew in a KC-135, there was about 30 of us. I spent my time mostly laying on the floor catching up on my sleep after working 119 days 12 hours per day 7 days per week for the most part, the rest of the time we worked 4 12 hour days them one day off. The seats on the KC-135 was not very comfortable, fold down canvas seats on both side of the tanker. About the only time we set in them was on takeoff’s & landings.

    Dick is correct people didn’t give much thanks to veteran back in those days, however at times they did give the opposite of a thank you. Thanks to both of you for your service to our country. Yesterday I got my first free meal as a veteran at IHOP’s, it was enjoyable!

    • Thank you for your story, Jerry. I have been a member of a life writing group for more than three years. We concentrate on getting the things on paper which would be gone otherwise when we can no longer write. After the generals write their memoirs, the memories of the enlisted men preserved in letters and stories give the real flavor of a war.
      Vietnam was a strange experience for our country and everyone who was connected to it. The best part for me was spending time with people from everywhere and every background. It was truly one of those “would never do it aqain, wouldn’t take a million bucks for the memories” segments of life. After all these years, I guess my overwhelming feeling is that this draftee did indeed serve his country, but he especially served his buddies and his own growth.
      Thank you for your service, Jerry, and thank you for sending the details which made it a unique experience.

  • My most terrifying moment.

    Usually when a B-52 came back from a bombing run in Vietnam & had no write ups it seemed the 1st thing they did was fuel & load bombs getting ready quickly for another bombing run. And it seemed they would do this before we had time to do a basic BPO inspection of the engeines. One day I was put on a B-52 that had been refueled & loaded with bombs to do a BPO. I started with number 1 pod. I had opened the cowling & had to squat down a bit to get under the engines. I was looking things over & heard a great noise towards the other side of the B-52, I stuck my head out from under the cowling looking & I see 500 pound bombs rolling around the tarmac on the other side of the plane that had fell off the wing. I did not have to think for my legs just automatically took off running as fast as they could trying to put as much distance between me & the bombs.

    The crew chief was setting facing that direction on down the flight line & happened to see me running knowing something has gone wrong so he came down to see what the problem was. I told him & he called out the bomb shop. One of the bomb shop airmen came over taking to me about what happened & laughed at me for running saying it was impossible for the bombs to explode. I told him I’ve heard of bomb squadron airmen getting blown up by bombs they said could not go off, they yet did, so if it happens again I will run if able.

    I never will forget the sound of hitting the concrete & seeing those 500 pound bombs rolling around, that was a biggest moment of fear that I can remember in my nearly 68 years.

    Dan, thanks you much for the reply.

  • These stories remind me of several experiences in both WW II and Korea.
    During WW II I was supervising the loading of an ammo ship in 1942 at Pearl Harbor, when a load sling failed on a skip box loaded with 100-lb bombs, and they all fell into the hold! I was a third class Torpedoman and knew the bombs would not explode, but the seaman working with me didn’t and he nearly had heart failure. When we determined everyone down in the hold was okay, he looked at me and said; “Y’know I dont’t think those bombs are any good!”

    The other incident occured on 1 January 1951 as the RCAF Canadair Northstar [DC4 with RR Merlin engines] I was riding to Tokyo from Shemya Alaska, arrived against severe headwinds. The approach was of course saturated with many aircraft all of which were stacked to 10,000 feet in four columns! The RACF pilot declared a low fuel state and was cleared to land from FL10 direct to the runway. He dropped the gear, and with full flaps chopped the power and spiraled down at max IAS. Somewhere around 8,000-ft my right eardrum burst with a very painful stab. It has never been the same since although I flew many missions over Korea, and everywhere else since. Yes, I wear VA supplied hearing aids today.

    • Thank you for your comment, Warren, and thank you for your service. I submitted this article in August and all but forgot about it until it popped up the weekend before Veterans Day. The comments and stories have been gratifying. I would encourage you and other veterans to write down your memories so that they will not be lost.

      • Dan – Rest assured I have it all written down. Here I am at 91-yrs, retired and a working author leaning on some of the stuff I experienced and that of others I knew. [Not many of us left.) I have a published Ebook about the Naval Armed Guard aboard merchant ships on the road to Murmansk, Russia. [The Gauntlet 1943 to 1945. It describes the adventure of slow merchant ships of that era and the misfortunes and good luck some if them experienced. It is available at Kindle, Inook etc. I am currentloy working at the final cuts on the sequel, “Pacific Destiny 1945.”
        I was ashamed of the cruel stupid folks who took out their rightful objections to ‘Nam on the GI’s who were forced into that debacle. Whenever I meet a ‘Nam vet’
        I give him a hand salute. To those who deliberately ducked out of the draft [Bill Clinton included,] all I can say is “Go Ye Forth and Multiply.”GFMF!”
        Warren Smith

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