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Michael J. Horton,
14th Engineer Battalion (Combat)

Door Gunner's View. (Submitted by Michael Horton)
Related Links
DEROS: A Year in Vietnam - Michael Horton's Web Site

The wind whipped my pantlegs as I stood with the others on the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base, where we had been bussed to catch our plane to Vietnam. There were about sixty-five of us, all army enlisted men, with several non-comissioned officers who were to escort us safely to Southeast Asia — or at least to see that we didn't go AWOL. It was late afternoon on March 24, 1967.

The important question for the moment was what kind of plane would fly us to this most unwanted destination halfway around the world. The Boeing 707's went directly to Tokyo, then on to Vietnam. The Air Force transport jets went, for the most part, to Anchorage, Alaska, and then on to Vietnam.

We were all looking around for our jet when slowly from our right there appeared a small propellor-driven aircraft with the words "SATURN AIRLINES" emblazoned proudly mid-fuselage. The man next to me extended his hands, palms up, and said to the NCO in charge, "Who? What? Is this some kind of joke? Mother of Christ, what is Saturn Airlines?"

"That, my boy, is a DC-6 and it's taking you to the jungles of Southeast Asia," the sergeant said defensively.

By the time our duffel bags were loaded and we boarded the aircraft, twilight was setting in. We hesitated momentarily at the end of the runway before the engines were revved and the brakes released. The old plane rattled horribly over the din of the engines as we accelerated along the ground. To my right, outside the window, I could see flames occasionally sputtering from the far outboard engine. The flames were strangely orange against the blood-red palette of the setting sun. We were soon over the waters of the Pacific, heading west.

It was unusually quiet after takeoff, since no one seemed inclined to talk to his neighbors. I'm sure the same thing was on everyone's mind. How many of us would return to these shores alive and how many would come back but never know it. A chill went down my spine just thinking about that.

About twenty minutes out, the pilot came on the intercom to announce that our cruising altitude would be 12,000 feet and our first stop to refuel would be in Honolulu, Hawaii. This was an instant hit with everyone since most of us, I suspected, had never been to Hawaii. When the pilot next told us our cruising speed would be 280 miles-an-hour, the whole plane erupted into laughter — guffaws and hooting of the most raucous kind. I think we offended the pilot, because he never bothered to turn on the intercom again.

Though slow, our plane at least had real flight attendants. Three women and two men in Saturn flight uniforms served us dinner, along with the non-alcoholic beverage of our choice. The guy sitting next to me was about 20 years old and also a PFC like me. He had probably just graduated from advanced individual training, as I had.

"What's your MOS?" he asked.

"Oh, me? I'm a pay clerk — 73C20," I said.

"That's at Fort Ben, isn't it?" he asked.

"Yeah, pay school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, outside Indianapolis. What a hell-hole. How about you?" I asked.

"I'm a cook, which I like a lot, but you know the worst part is, I've got orders for the First Cavalry Division. Man, that's really got me pushed out of shape. Why couldn't I get something safer."

"You might not go to First Cav though," I said consolingly. "I've heard that half the time they send men to a unit different from the one on their orders once they're in country. I'm supposed to go to the 864th Engineer Battalion. That's a construction battalion, whatever that is. In my case, I hope I go there. It sounds pretty safe to me. Probably not a lot of patrols behind enemy lines, you know?"

"God, I'll trade you orders — want to trade?" he asked in jest.

"Not on your life," I said, recognizing immediately what a terrible choice of words that had been. I patted him on the arm. "You'll be okay," I said.

Because I was about five years older, he seemed to accept my assurances about his well-being. What a lowering reflection this was for me. It reminded me that I was 25 and one-half years old when I had been drafted in the big body push of August, 1966. If I had made it to 26, I would have been too old for the draft. That August, however, the army took anybody who was warm. There was a draftee in my basic training unit who was so knock-kneed that his feet were about six inches apart when he stood at the position of attention. All the drill instructors would shout, "You there, I said attention! Get those feet together!" The rest of us in the platoon became so tired of hearing the screaming that we began to offer explanations on behalf of our afflicted brother. "It's okay, Sarge. He can't get them any closer than that. He's got this problem with his knees."

Actually, the pay clerk's school outside Indianapolis had not been all that bad. The wooden barracks we lived in had been old and rotten but the classroom training itself was first-rate. On the same day, the school had graduated six classes with 40 students each, more or less, after 10 weeks of rigorous instruction.

Learning to prepare and calculate payroll vouchers had been difficult and full of rules, but computing travel reimbursement was ultimately what separated the good from the best students. It had been instructive also, I had to admit, to be detailed to the Finance Center on the base to process real travel vouchers eight hours a day for three weeks while I was waiting for my orders. Funny thing about that. During those weeks after graduation, the staff at school had always told us that the students who wore glasses would be the first ones sent to Vietnam. Those of us with glasses had thought this was a joke. But I had noticed, day by day, as our orders came through, it was true. Ted, my best friend and pinochle partner at school, had laughed at me when I got my orders for Vietnam. He didn't wear glasses, and he had received orders for West Germany, a plum assignment.

After dinner, one of the NCO's went to the front of the plane to address the troops. "Okay, men, listen up. Here's the deal," he said in a loud voice. "I know you haven't been told much about this PCS. When we get to Vietnam, you'll all process through the 22nd Replacement Battalion, where you will receive your final in-country orders. The most important thing for you to know now is that your DEROS is 23 March 1968. Today is 24 March 1967 and you can only be kept in Vietnam for one year. DEROS stands for Date of Estimated Return from Overseas, and this is the last day you should be in Vietnam. The Army will try to have you back in the continental United States no later than your DEROS date, unless you voluntarily extend your tour. When you get your new orders at 22nd Replacement, look just below your name and serial number. That's where the word DEROS appears. Make sure the date shown there is 23 March 1968. Any questions?"

No one had any questions, but there sure was a good feeling on board at hearing this news. I had heard about the one year time limit, but I hadn't known for a fact it was true. This was probably the smartest thing the army had done in its entire history. Somehow, just knowing I wouldn't be in Vietnam more than a year made the whole thing more bearable.

I read magazines for several hours and then fell asleep. When I awoke, we were landing in Honolulu. It was very dark outside, but the air was clear and the runway lights sparkled brightly below. By my watch, our flying time to Hawaii had been just over nine hours. Once on the ground, the plane taxied to a stop about 2000 feet from the terminal.

"Okay, men. Get off the plane and stretch your legs," the sergeant said. "We'll be here about an hour to refuel. Stay in a group and don't wander off."

"Hey, Sarge," someone yelled, "don't we get to go into the terminal?"

"I'm afraid not this time," was the NCO's reply.

"What, do you think we're a bunch of animals," someone behind me shouted.

We milled around outside, talking, joking, and sometimes wondering out loud what it would be like in Vietnam. Despite the late hour of night, the temperature was about 70 degrees and the air was balmy. A new flight crew boarded the aircraft and soon we were airborne again, this time heading for Wake Island. I was somewhat relieved to notice that engine number four was no longer spewing flames on takeoff. Another NCO went to the head of the isle to talk to us. They seemed to be taking turns being in charge.

"Okay, okay, hold it down. Listen up," the sergeant shouted. Gradually it grew quiet.

"I know you men were disappointed about not going into the airport terminal at Honolulu," he said. "But we don't have a lot of time for these stops. After Wake Island, we have to refuel at Guam and also in the Philippines. This is going to be a long flight anyway. We just don't have time to let everyone go into the terminal and screw around," he explained. "If you want to see Honolulu, you can go there on your R&R after about six months in Vietnam. You guys who are married can have your wives meet you in Honolulu on your R&R. Now stop complaining about not going into the terminal."

"What if we're dead?" someone wanted to know.

"Well, then I guess you won't see Honolulu," was the reply. Next >>

Jim Schueckler
"Soon we were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women."

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"Fortunately, the firefight, such as it was, did not last long and nobody inside our company area was hurt."

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The average cost per B-52 mission during Vietnam was $41,421, with an average of 27 tons of munitions dropped.
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