Once Again

All of us Air Force Palace Dog English teachers shared the experience of that first round trip airplane ride to start and end our tours of duty in the Republic of South Viet Nam.  Remember the dead quiet somber mood as we boarded the plane in San Francisco and after subsequent fuel stops along the way?  None of us really knew what to expect, almost all of us were leaving someplace we wanted to stay, and were going someplace we had tried to avoid.  I’m pretty much sure I wasn’t the only one who was more than a little scared.

Most of us didn’t want to expose what we were thinking.  None of us wanted to intrude on the private thoughts of those around us.  That setting led to a pretty quiet plane ride.  I recall the stewardesses being polite and upbeat, but not intrusive.  Those folks must have had some challenges, too, because they knew they were serving people some of whom would not be returning to the USA in the passenger cabins.  I wonder if we ever glanced around and wondered the same thing about others besides ourselves.  I don’t think I had such a mature perspective to consider doing that.  It wasn’t out of callousness.  It was just lack of life experiences.

We all took that westbound ride across The Pond.  Around a year later, we got on planes going the other way that were very different in character.  Raucous joviality permeated the terminal while people were awaiting boarding.  A bit of good natured pushing and shoving took place as we moved across the tarmac to climb the rollaway stairs to board another 707 for the ride home (no jetways then).  Smiles, stares out the windows and an anxiousness to get that front door closed so the pilot could move the plane away from Viet Nam and toward America.  Back to The World.

Then, at the point of rotation and lift off, a series of hollers and cheers rippled through the cabin.  People had served and survived their tours of duty in Viet Nam.  They were going home.

However, not everyone cheered.  By that time in April 1971, President Nixon’s Vietnamization had been underway for over two years.  The US was standing down and reorganizing its forces from combat and training to training and logistics.  Our long delay a year earlier to get in training and go Viet Nam was part of that shift.  This shift meant that by the time we were leaving, some of those in-country and leaving with us had volunteered to stay there.  Some did not want to leave for a variety of reasons.  Though I desperately did not want to go to Viet Nam and certainly was not a volunteer to do so, I was part of this group by the time we all left in 1971.

Most of us never looked back after getting off the plane in San Francisco.  Some of us did though.  Let me characterize the plane rides missed by most of my fellow Palace Dogs.

The day I signed in at Norton Air Force Base sometime in May, 1971, I started out-processing to return to teach again in Viet Nam.  Yeah!  At my new duty section that first morning someone overheard I’d just returned from Viet Nam doing that teaching job and alerted me that he’d just seen a bulletin offering the chance to for us teachers to return if we wanted to do so.  My in-country request to extend my first year had been turned down, but my CONUS request to return started processing that very day.

I started in-processing in the morning and out-processing in the afternoon.  Go figure!

In August I was again at San Francisco International Airport, waiting to board a charter 707 to take me to Viet Nam.  I assure you, there was no large group of friends to share that experience I’d had just fifteen months earlier.  However, the atmosphere was like a circus.  Almost everyone getting on the plane was an eager volunteer.  Recall how it felt and sounded leaving Saigon?  That’s exactly what it was like in San Francisco.  Weird.

All the way along the route hijinks were taking place.  The flight attendants were playful and joined in with all the laughter.  A constant flow of chit chat was going on among people on the plane.  The only problem we had was in Okinawa when there was a weather hold for a typhoon and we were stuck on the plane for four hours.  That cabin got loud and the air became stench.  Those attendants earned every cent of their pay that day.  By the time we arrived in Saigon everyone was talking about all the things they were going to do upon arrival and the next couple of days.  Let your imaginations run wild.  Yeah, there was not much talk of increasing our role in Vietnamization.

I and some others were in for a big shock when we learned the White/St George/Capitol BEQ complex was in the process of closing down.  This meant we’d be quartered in those big two story open bay barracks on Tan Son Nhut Annex.  We were back in Viet Nam, but it was a different place than we’d all experienced the first time around.  It had all changed in just four months.

Close to a year then passed.  It was very different tour of duty from the first one.  We were leaving before our one year tour was up because Vietnamization had accelerated.  Little did we know that two and a half years after this crescendo of Vietnamization that the North Vietnamese Army would ride into the same streets many of us had ridden along in cyclo mais and cyclo dops.  Remember that huge black statue of a Vietnamese soldier in a plaza downtown where most of us had at least one picture taken with ourselves in the foreground?  It was toppled the first day:  April 30, 1975.  Or, was that the last day?

Before that though, was our plane ride home to bring our second tour of duty in Viet Nam to an end.  It was quite a contrast to the flight I shared with several of my Palace Dog friends back in 1971.  A third of the plane was full of GIs and their new Vietnamese families (wives and children).  English and Vietnamese were spoken on the flight.  It was dead quiet as we took off save for a lone GI who gave out a single bleat of joy.  As much as all of us had been anxious and fearful of the unknown in the spring of 1970 heading away from San Francisco, much of my plane was full of people with those same anxieties as we headed away from Saigon.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, there was no overnight stay in a hallway with my close friend Tom.  I quickly got a flight home for Spokane.  It had been very different flight.  It was going to be a very different life.

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