Going Home

 

After more than a year of waiting and yearning to return to that glorious land of freedom and luxury called America, the time to depart finally arrived.   I had known the date of my departure for more than six months, ever since I had "extended", or signed up to serve for an extra month and a half in Vietnam.

Extending was a common practice among draftees.  Normally, when our one year tour of duty in Vietnam was finished, we returned to the United States.  There we served the remainder of our two year draft enlistment at one of the stateside bases, training more recruits, or serving on menial work details.  Since we had only combat skills, there was little else we were qualified for.  The Army adopted a policy where any draftee who returned with less than five months to serve would be discharged from active service immediately.  Taking into account the week or so of initial reception, eight or nine weeks of basic training, eight or nine weeks of advanced infantry training, various leaves and vacations, and exactly one year in Vietnam, the average draftee needed to extend from one to three months to qualify for "early out".

I started a "short-timer's calendar" three months before my departure date, and marked off one square each day so I could see at a glance just how much longer I had to wait.  As the final month arrived I started acting "short".  My days were filled with dreaming about all the things I would do when I returned, and about how I would catch up on all the living I had missed during my nineteen months in the Army.   I was going back to the "World".  Until you've been deprived of all the things we Americans take for granted it's hard to imagine just how much one can miss them.  Things like ice water and flush toilets, fresh clean sheets and taking a drive whenever "you" want to!  After a year of dirt and insects and jungles and death and danger and Army discipline, I was ready to return.

Boy, was I ready!  Weeks before it was time to leave I had already packed up my belongings and shipped them home. I donated and bequeathed all my temporal belongings to my buddies.  My custom-designed, hand-built room was already allocated to its next occupant.  All I had to do was leave.

I spent my last night in the club saying good-byes, and going around the company area to wish old friends a quick end to their tours also.

Early the next morning, travel orders in hand, I rode over to the airfield for the quick hop to Bien Hoa where my "Freedom Bird" awaited.  Hurry up and wait is the old Army motto.  I had learned to cope with the enforced boredom of endless waiting throughout my Basic and AIT months, and had survived my longest year of waiting without ill effect.  But now time dragged.  Each delay was agonizing.  How I wanted to be home, to be safe, to be free again.

While I waited to board I watched the passengers disembark.  I felt a pang of remembrance as I saw new arrivals, their spanking-new uniforms fresh out of the box, almost unwrinkled, their expectant faces looking ahead to the unknown.

The flight to Bien Hoa was uneventful.  I managed to sit near a window, and craning my neck, got one last glimpse of Cu Chi and our company area of operations to the north and west.  What memories it brought back!  I had walked and flown over much of that country.

Upon landing we were bussed to a debarkation area where we would bunk until our departure the next morning.  After dropping off my duffel bag I walked over and checked the lists to see what time my flight was leaving.  It wasn't.  I was flabbergasted to learn that because fewer replacements were coming into the country than were leaving, there was a shortage of planes to take us out.  No one could tell me when, if ever, I would be leaving.  They could only tell me to "keep checking" the list of departures until my name appeared.

At first I couldn't believe it.  My tour of duty was over.  The Army had no right to keep me in Vietnam.  I was scheduled to be discharged from active duty the very next day.  I was counting on it.  It was one last reminder that until I actually took that uniform off, I was a soldier - my life was not my own.  I could scream (one man did!), I could yell (several did that), I could curse all I wanted to (that's what most did), but I couldn't change things.  All I could do was wait.   And I had lots of company.

I could also worry.  No one at home knew I was going to be delayed indefinitely.   Sue was waiting in Wyoming.  My brother Dave was flying out to meet me in San Francisco.  Mother, Dad, my brothers and sisters - all would be waiting for word that I had made it back alive, safe and sound.  If I didn't come on time, they would be sick with worry.  After all, my return date had been guaranteed.

And they had cause to worry.  Five weeks earlier we had sent our forces into Cambodia.  My own Alpha company was there right now, ferreting out enemy supply dumps and underground command bunkers.  And the Viet Cong had just started retaliating by launching ground and rocket attacks against many of our bases, including Bien Hoa.   If I didn't make my flight home, my family would think I had been killed.   That had been their greatest fear for thirteen and a half months.  My only hope was that Dave, finding me missing, would determine the cause and report back to everyone that I had been delayed.  But what about the families of the hundreds of others waiting to leave.  It was a cruel trick Army scheduling had played on us.

The first and second days passed slowly, with no word of a departure time.  The waiting seemed endless.  On the third day, my name was posted on the board.  I was scheduled to leave at 10 o'clock the next morning.  Hallelujah!  I was going home after all!  My spirits rose immediately.  My luck was finally changing.   As proof, I even acquired a fan that afternoon from another GI who was leaving.   I spent the rest of the afternoon reading on my cot, with the fan providing a cool, steady breeze.rocket.gif (2414 bytes)

That night I slept soundly until about 5:00 A.M.  I woke suddenly to the sound of a rocket crashing to the ground several hundred meters away.  Instantly I rolled out of bed and onto the concrete floor, then crawled under the bed just to be sure.   Wham!  Number two hit.  Then three, four, five, six, seven, eight.   Eight was a common number.  Charlie would line the rockets up, quickly fire them one at a time, and scramble back to his hole before our return fire made the area uninhabitable.  After a full minute of silence I decided the attack was over and rose from the floor.  I found myself shaking, something I had never done in the field.   There was no way I was going to get back to sleep this morning.

I took my shaving kit and towel and headed for the shower building, about 50 meters beyond the row of single-story barracks.  I looked out over the gently sloping ravine which separated our debarkation area from one of the Bien Hoa chopper pads.  The rockets had landed in open ground, just missing both potential targets.  I could imagine what the new men must just have gone through.  I'd seen enough green troops to know.  First, they probably didn't come fully awake on the first round.  They weren't alert enough for that, yet.  Many of them probably sat there stupefied, their minds racing.  Then, about the fourth rocket into the attack, most of them probably headed for the big concrete drain pipes placed in the middle of the parade fields as rocket shelters, running out into the open to get there.  I watched as the new men slowly walked back to their hootches from the pipes.  If the rockets had been a hundred yards over, and up the hill, dozens and maybe hundreds of them would have been seriously injured, swarming out to "safety".  Soon they, too, would learn to survive as others before them had.

The shower hootch was a simple, open building.  The bottom half of the wall was constructed of cement blocks to a level of three and a half feet.  From there up the wall was made of screen, to let the air flow through.  A corrugated tin roof covered the structure.  There were no doors, just open doorways.  As you entered the doorway a line of sinks extended down the wall to the opposite door.  There was only one working faucet per sink.  It contained either hot or cool water, depending on the air temperature at the time you used it.  A big aircraft wing-tank was perched on a platform beside the shower hootch, and water fed by gravity down through the pipes.   This morning the water was lukewarm, and that suited me fine.

The back half of the hootch contained open showers, on the wall opposite and about twenty feet from the sinks.  Between them, and dividing the hootch, was a row of plain wooden benches.  No one else was up yet, so the hootch was deserted.  I took a long, leisurely, lukewarm shower.  After putting my jungle fatigues back on and lacing my boots, I went over to the sinks to shave.  I had just started lathering my chin when I heard a short, sharp whistle, and then a deafening explosion.

I was on my way to the floor before it exploded, and arrived just a split-second later.   As I lay on the floor under the sinks, with my body pressed close to the block wall - and trying to squeeze in even closer - I was looking out the door where I had entered.   In front of me was the ravine, and less than a hundred yards away a cloud of dirt and black smoke was rising from the ground where the rocket had hit.  Less than a second later number two landed, in front of the first one and on a direct line with the door.  They were coming right at me!  There was nowhere else for me to go now, and no time.  They would either hit me or miss me.

I watched as three, four, and five landed in rapid succession, coming closer and closer.  In another moment, number six slammed into the ground, less than a hundred feet away.  I could feel the ground vibrate from the impact.  Right behind six came number seven, no more than thirty feet from the hootch.  It hit just to the left of the doorway.  Dirt and rocks pelted the wall of the hootch.  I saw the plume climb into the sky above the level of the roof.

Clods of dirt ricocheted off the wall and past me as I prepared for the eighth and final rocket.  At the last instant I buried my head in my arms and held my breath.   From the line taken by the other seven, I calculated that the last would either hit directly on the roof, or just outside the wall opposite me.  Either way, it wasn't going to be fun.  As I waited for the deafening sound of the explosion, I thought about thirteen and a half months - those long months filled with ever-present danger, the booby-trap I had almost stepped on, the one beside my head, the ambushes and the firefights - and that I was supposed to be home right now.  It didn't seem fair.

Time seemed to stop.  All that was left was the waiting.  After what seemed an eternity, I suddenly realized that it had been too long.  The rocket should have hit.  The roof should have collapsed, but it hadn't.  I waited a bit longer, motionless.  It could still be coming.

Finally, slowly, I rose.  The eighth rocket had not come.  Perhaps it had fallen short in some other area of Bien Hoa.  Perhaps it was a dud, and had never launched.  Perhaps they just plain ran out of rockets.  It didn't really matter.   I walked to the door and just stood there, looking out over the seven shallow craters.  Up on the hill, the rookies were once again evacuating their pipes.   I'd have bet money they made it to the shelters at least one second earlier this time, those that didn't just hit the dirt right where they were.

Thirteen and a half months, and I was still coming just that close.  It was definitely time to be getting out of here.  I finished my shaving - the foamy was no longer thick and rich enough - combed my hair and returned to the mess hall for breakfast.   The morning dragged along until nine-thirty, when busses arrived to take us to the airfield.  I began to get excited.  It was really going to happen after all.   No more delays, no more waiting, there was actually a plane that was going to take me out.

Soon we arrived at the airport terminal, a one story building made of corrugated tin.   After a short delay we received our final call and walked out onto the huge tarmac field toward the jet waiting to take us to Guam, Hawaii, and on to San Francisco.  We climbed aboard and waited fifteen more minutes until the doors were closed and the air conditioning turned on.

Everyone was quiet, but the air was electric.  We watched from the windows as the plane started to roll out of the boarding area toward the runway.  We taxied past concrete revetments where the warbirds slept - Phantoms waiting for their next air strike.   We passed an occasional Birddog spotter plane, and Hueys sitting in the open.   We crossed a large open field, and turned onto the main runway.  The pilot paused only a moment or two, and then poured on the power.  We were gently pushed back into our seats as the plane accelerated.  The plane dipped a few times as it rolled down the uneven runway, and then with a sudden swoop, lifted clear of the ground and pointed its nose toward the skies.

And then we cheered.  We were free of Vietnam.  Free from the bonds which had held us to it, never to return.  It was a joyous moment.

The ground fell quickly away as the plane climbed higher and higher.  As I watched from the window I saw the light green of the fields and forests, the reflecting ponds of a hundred rice paddies, the occasional brown road stretching toward the haze in the distance.  It was all still a part of me, but something of which I no longer had to be a part.

The rest of the eighteen-hour flight was mostly quiet.  Some talked, but most of us slept or read.  We made brief stops to refuel, first in Guam, and then in Honolulu.  Leaving Hawaii, we climbed aloft on the last leg of our trip.   Throughout the long flight the stewardesses were fantastic.  Most of them had probably made this trip many times, but they treated us like royalty.  We were served four meals, each one a real treat.

Brothers Reunite in San FranciscoAbout four the next morning we started our descent toward the American coast.  As we got closer the pilot updated us on weather and landing conditions.  Oakland Air Force Base was our target.  The city was fogbound, and we probably wouldn't see the city lights until we were on our final approach.  The stewardesses walked up and down the aisles spraying aerosol disinfectant to kill anything we'd brought with us.

And now I could feel the plane descending.  We were getting close.  The engines cut back and were no longer the steady background roar we had listened to since Nam.  Closer and closer we came.  Suddenly we saw lights - we were over the city - an American city!  Then we saw the airport beacons and the ground lights on the runway.  A few moments later we were down with a gentle "bump".  The tires squealed once, twice, and then we were rolling down the runway.  The engines once again roared to life as the pilot reversed their thrust to slow the plane.

Now we cheered again.  A cheer of happiness, and release, and gratitude, and patriotic fervor.  We were home again.  We were in America.  We had made it back.

 

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Going Home:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995