Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Forty Years Ago Today

I've been meaning to start writing this for days.  Didn't.  Maybe I thought the day wouldn't come.  That happened before, forty years ago, that day I thought might never come.

Forty years ago  today I went to war.  Drove from Reno to Travis AFB, got a send-off kiss, boarded a civilian Boeing 707 with a couple of flight school buddies and left my world behind.  This anniversary never bothered me before.  Most years I didn't notice.  This year is different.  Don't know why.

We had mechanical problems that delayed our departure in Honolulu.  There was enough time to call my old Sgt. Major, CSM Bernard J."Mick" Meehan.  He picked the three of us up, took us out and got us drunk before we had to re-board.  Fine man, Mick.  Brave and noble and tough, very old school.  He'd been my ROTC Sgt. Major at Cal Poly, severely wounded (again) on Hamburger Hill (he got a mention in the book) and was on a recovery assignment at Hickam AFB, something to do with mapping, or at least that was the story.

I was blissfully unaware, in more ways than one, of what was in store for me.  I had logged a couple hundred hours of pilot time in flight school, was type-rated in Hueys and IFR and I thought I could fly.  Thought I was invincible, too; maybe that was a prerequisite.  We stopped somewhere en route, maybe Guam.  I don't remember de-planing there but I may have been suffering a hangover. 

We landed at Bien Hoa, Republic of South Vietnam.  If you paid attention (I don't hold it against you if you didn't), Bien Hoa was the site of major battles during Tet '68.  I clearly remember getting off the plane in Bien Hoa.  Most everyone remembers the tidal wave of over-heated rotting-vegetation JP-4 laden air that overwhelmed you when they first opened the door.  Amazing how soon we ceased to notice it at all.  

Down the airplane gangway to the tarmac, past another line of GIs who were walking past us on the way to "our" plane.  There were whistles and taunts and cat-calls;  "You'll be sorry!"  "You gonna die, GI!", uplifting things like that. 

We were bused to the 90th Repo Depot at Long Binh, then the largest US military base in the world.  I noticed the heavy wire mesh on the bus windows.  Keeps the occasional grenade-thrower at bay, we were told.  Sure enough, no grenades but now I was thinking about them.  Got to the 90th, got a bunk assignment in officers quonset hut quarters (made grenading officers that much more convenient, it occurred to me) and walked around to stretch my legs.  There was a list of names and where they were going and when and where they were to ship out.  I wasn't on it yet.  

By that time I had met a senior warrant officer on his third tour.  I hung on his every word.  He was going back to the 1st Cavalry Division, for whom he had flown in the past.  He'd been a med-evac pilot, a breed of particularly lunatic and brave aviators, and he convinced me that was what I wanted to be and where I wanted to be.  Plus, of course, The Cav has that cool yellow patch.  Plus again, I was young and foolish.

When the time came I told them it was The Cav for me (ho-HO!), got my orders and we flew out together on a C-123 to 1st Cav HQ.  Couldn't help but notice when we got in the landing pattern that all the artillery was firing.  That's a clue that you may not be in the safest place you've ever been in.  It's also a clue that there are people who want to kill you within artillery range and we had probably just flown over them.  I didn't even wave.

We reported to the S-1, the CWO and I.  The chief got exactly what he wanted and was welcomed back into the fold with pleasantries and comradeship by all present.  Good deal, I thought, and when he left I told him I'd see him in a few.  Nope. Never saw him again.

Then it was my turn to report and report I did.  "Got any idea what you want to do?"  I smiled my best friendly smile:  "Yes sir, I want to fly med-evacs like the chief who was just here."  

"No.  Here's your orders.  You'll be going back to Bien Hoa as soon as you can find a lift.  Dismissed."

Whoa.  Just like that?  Where was MY friendly welcome?  They needed med-evac pilots, didn't they?  And didn't I just volunteer to be one?  And "NO"?  And what WAS an Assault Helicopter Battalion anyway?  I knew all those words but I'd never heard them strung together like that.  "Assault?"  Like, I'm going to be assaulting something?  In a helicopter?  Waiiiit just a minute.  In a helicopterMe?

Begged a ride back to the flight line.  Got on another C-123 and back to Bien Hoa, where I had landed oh, three days before.  I was already going in circles.  Didn't have the faintest idea in the world where B/229AHB/1CAV was or even if I was on the right base.  I asked around like the hopeless newbie I was.  Aside:  You've never really been a newbie until you've been a newbie in a combat zone.  Talk about a green bean!

I discovered that I was supposed to be looking for the 229th AHB HQ.  AHB.  Assault Helicopter Battalion.  There were those words again.  Further discovered that I was on the Air Force side of Bien Hoa and I was supposed to be on the Army side.  I didn't even know that bases had sides and I was on the side where I wasn't supposed to be.  Figures.

Hitched a ride with some sympathetic driver and reported to 229AHB HQ.  No more ceremony than when I reported to CAV HQ.  Was told to go to B Co. HQ and report to the CO.  At least I knew that company level was the end of my reporting in and that some kind of beginning was in sight.

That was it, the end of a transition that began 40 years ago today, ended 39 years ago tomorrow and changed my life forever.  I'm writing this to fix certain events in my mind and to share them with whomever might care to read about them.

This isn't about what was to come.  The fear, fatigue, boredom and occasional horror that is part and parcel of war, even for aviators.  

No, this is just what happened to me forty years ago today with a few more days added on.  The transition from garrison soldier to combatant in 120 hours or so and from young man to old in a year.  It made me who I am today... and I damn it for that.

* * * * *

All war is deception.  --  Sun Tzu


  1. Good post Chuck. I'm glad we had an opportunity to talk it through this morning BEFORE I read it. Three days . . . hard to believe.


  2. Afternoon Chuck - I keep looking here for more material. I'll be interested to read your thoughts about the current budget happenings.