14th Engineer Battalion (Combat)
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
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
your MOS?" he asked.
me? I'm a pay clerk 73C20," I said.
at Fort Ben, isn't it?" he asked.
pay school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, outside Indianapolis.
What a hell-hole. How about you?" I asked.
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
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?"
I'll trade you orders want to trade?" he asked
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
Sarge," someone yelled, "don't we get to go into
afraid not this time," was the NCO's reply.
do you think we're a bunch of animals," someone behind
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, hold it down. Listen up," the sergeant shouted.
Gradually it grew quiet.
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."
if we're dead?" someone wanted to know.
then I guess you won't see Honolulu," was the reply.