“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man [or woman].”
Please enjoy the last story in our 2015 Christmas Story Collection by Little CAB Press in its entirety from a Vietnam Veteran who reminds us how precious each new day is and the price that has been paid so that we may ring in the New Year in freedom! We, the authors, at Little CAB Press wish to thank every military man and woman, (and the families who support them), who has ever served our great country! We pray God’s blessings on you and our nation in this New Year!
Coming Home from Vietnam— The Longest Day
By Jeffrey B. Ward
When I volunteered for a year’s tour in Vietnam to help out our busy unit, the Air Force held me to a year in-country. They extracted almost the entire year to the date as I left Danang on December 30th, 1966 for Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. As I sat in the terminal, it was announced there was space available on a C-141 cargo flight non-stop into Miramar Naval Station near San Diego. Yes, I gave it serious thought but I’d kept my nose clean for 3 ½ years and didn’t want to be hauled off to the stockade for busting my travel orders.
My plane to connect with my overseas flight out of Saigon was a C-123, otherwise known as “the flying boxcar,” one of the workhorses of the Vietnam conflict. We made intermediate stops in Cam Ranh Bay and Na Trang on the way. One thing I’ll never forget was the cargo that was carefully loaded aboard. At first I didn’t recognize what were body bags being flown to Saigon, probably for proper cleaning up, embalming, and placement in a casket for shipment back to the United States. They were husbands, sons, fathers, and friends also going home. It made me all the more apprehensive because I wasn’t out of country yet and I later discovered that approximately 1,448 soldiers died on their very last day in Vietnam.
Upon landing in Tan Son Nhut, I checked into the base casual barracks where I remained for the next 24 hours, too nervous to go anywhere or do anything. That night, I could hear distant rocket or mortar fire and saw the ever-present Huey helicopters circling the base proper with searchlights glaring.
Our MAC charter flight was schedule to depart at 6:00 PM on December 31st, New Year’s Eve so we lined up at the terminal for check-in. The flight was mostly combat-hardened Marines with just a handful of us Air Force guys for variety. About that time, an announcement came over the P.A. that the flight would be delayed about three and a half hours. It was suggested we return to the nearby casual barracks to wait. Not a single soldier budged from our line. The weary faces of the Marines told the story. They were that close to leaving and they weren’t going anywhere else but on that airplane! The most beautiful sight we ever saw taxied up to the terminal in the form of a shiny World Airways 707. The plane looked brand-new, all polished and newly painted. At about 9:30 PM, we lifted off the runway and a tumultuous shout went up throughout the cabin. The young and pretty flight attendants were a vision for a plane full of weary G.I.’s but everyone was on their best behavior. Well, we were almost on our best behavior. The Marines had smuggled on a plane-load of pints, half-pints, and hip flasks full of liquor, anticipating a midnight celebration. Where did they get the booze? I don’t know but they were Marines and the world’s best at assessing, planning and overcoming adversity. Drinking alcohol on board MAC charter flights was strictly forbidden. However, the entire crew, bless their hearts, mercifully looked the other way as they supplied us with our favorite beverages to mix celebratory cocktails. What seemed like hundreds of small bottles of booze were discretely passed between seats. A wave of what could be described as pure relief and euphoria passed through the plane as we celebrated New Year’s, 1967, somewhere between Tan Son Nhut and our stopover point of Yokota Air Base, Japan. Our flight landed early in the morning for refueling and we then re-departed for Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, California. We flew all day into the early evening while most of us slept off and on, weary from exhaustion.
That evening, a current of eager anticipation swept through the cabin as our flight made its final approach into Travis. When our wheels touched the runway a deafening shout of joy erupted throughout the entire cabin. As we deplaned, almost every G.I. got on their knees to kiss the tarmac and many rolled back and forth in weeping ecstasy. I don’t think there was a dry eye anywhere at that precise moment, including the flight crew! For me, it had been almost three years since I had departed from this very point for duty in Japan and Vietnam. Emotionally overcome as well, when I got off the airplane and as my feet touched American pavement again, I also fell to my knees, rolled over flat on my back and gazed into the night sky, rejoicing with all I had in me.
And what time did it happen to be at that moment? Déjà vu! It was Saturday night, December 31st, 1966, New Year’s Eve again! We had flown through the International Date Line on our way home! I could not have fashioned a more cosmic and perfectly-timed event! Upon meeting with the processing officer, I was told I had to report back to Travis on Monday and stay there until my personnel records arrived from the Philippines because they are never stored in a combat zone. Four of us then hired a taxi, stuffed our duffels in the trunk, and headed for the San Francisco International Airport. Three of them were to catch flights to their homes but lucky for me it was only a 3 mile taxi ride to my home in San Bruno which overlooked the airport. I had the cabbie stop at a liquor store for a couple bottles of champagne and then headed home. I thought my Mama would just swoon when she opened the door and recognized me! So, we settled in to celebrate New Year’s, part two, this time in the good old U. S. of A.
And what about that base detail I was supposed to report to at Travis? Well, shame on me because I never went back. My honorable discharge papers were mailed to me a couple of months later with this written explanation: “Discharged in absentia.” I was now officially a Vietnam Veteran but thought little of it at that time. However, I became gradually aware of how very-very fortunate I was to have served in Vietnam back in 1966 because that was tough enough but the war soon escalated to terrible heights I’d never imagined. The San Francisco Bay Area was the epicenter for the anti-war movement and I found myself being regarded with utter contempt. In the media, we were routinely tagged as mercenaries, goons, murderers, or baby killers. Tragically 50,000 men and women bled and died before the most unpopular war in American history came to a merciful end. Over the decades and in small increments, the people of this great nation came to show gratitude towards the military men and women who selflessly answered the call and did their duty in Vietnam just like all the other fighting men who preceded us. Do you love freedom? Thank a veteran. You have no idea what that simple gesture means to us who served in Vietnam. Wishing all of you readers many more happy New Years and all of God’s best.