From Basic Training I had gone to El Paso where I was sent to the specialized training for operating room nurses from December 1969 to May 1969. There were seven of us in my class, and we became quite close during training. Shortly before our graduation our orders came down and all but one of us were on the same set of orders to report to Vietnam on the same date. The one who didn't come down on that set of orders we heard arrived in Nam about six months after the rest of us.
My closest friend in OR school was a Navaho indian girl from Teec Nos Pas, Arizona. Rosie and I decided that we'd meet in San Francisco a few days before we were to fly out and have one last fling in the big city. We managed to score a room at the Transient Officer's Quarters at the Presidio and spent several days wandering around San Francisco and up to visit some of the redwood stands north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Everything still seemed like a big adventure to us, and I don't think any of the realization of what we were about to undertake had really sunk in yet.
Finally the day arrived that we were to leave, so we made our way out to Travis Air Force Base. The flight wasn't to depart until almost 2230 hours, so we went to the Officer's Club for dinner and had steaks and a bottle of wine along with some of the male officers who would also be on that flight. We figured if we had enough to drink before we got on the plane we might be able to sleep for awhile.
And then it was time. There were some 200 of us at the hangar to board that one flight. We would fly over on a chartered "stretch-8". It was a DC-8 jet in which they had maximized the number of passengers they could carry by decreasing both pitch and leg space between the rows to the bare minimum. My knees were literally touching the seat in front of me, and when he reclined ihs seat I had to stretch my legs under the seat to keep from being hit in the knees. Comfortable it was not. We left Travis at about 2230 on the first leg of our long flight.
Sometime around 0100 we landed in Honoluly to refuel. They let us off the aircraft to stretch our legs for a bit. We were permitted to walk around in one small area of the terminal. The place was basically deserted. You couldn't even find a soda machine to get a drink from. There weren't any doors on the terminal, but you couldn't see outside because it was pitch black dark. But I remember vividly the sweet smell of flowers and a hint of salt air. That short hour was my only visit to Hawaii in all my years of service.
From Hawaii we made the next long hop across the Pacific to the air base on Okinawa. There we were hustled off the plane and directed into a cheerless, windowless room. Not even a picture on the wall, just metal chairs. The air base was the home of a number of the bomber and fighter wings that were active over North Vietnam, and the entire base was considered to be under tight security. A short time later we were hustled back onto the plane and began the last long leg of the 19 hour flight. Our destination, Saigon.
Somewhere along our route after leaving Okinawa I looked out the window and spotted a flight of B-52's several thousand feet above us and headed home to Okinawa. There was a lot of cheering from the guys. But it was also the first hint that we were drawing closer and closer to the reality of war.
Perhaps an hour after we encountered the B-52 I was looking out the windows at the ocean when suddenly it wasn’t water anymore. A coastline appeared below, and dark greens and browns replaced the blue of the Pacific. There was a collective in-drawing of breaths, and the plane became silent. All of the bravado, the jokes, the usual banter of young men and women came to an end. THAT was Vietnam, and we were there. We looked at our seat-mates, at others in the plane, and we all knew that not everyone on this flight would make it out of here alive. The war wouldn’t care whether we were volunteer or draftee, officer or enlisted, black or white, good people or not so good. War is very impersonal that way, it kills all in it’s way without any preference or prejudice. This whole flight had seemed like a dream, but now the reality was right there beneath us. And at that moment I think that all of us on that plane were truly scared.
We flew down the coastline for a bit, then turned inland towards Saigon, catching a glimpse of the broad, brown swath of the Mekong River making it’s way towards the South China Sea. Suddenly the bottom seemed to drop as the plane entered a steep dive combined with some violent turning and twisting. The pilot announced that we were taking evasive action to avoid possible ground fire on the way in to Tan San Nhout. We crunched down on the end of the runway and rolled to a halt next to a dingy one-story building obviously left from French colonial days. Then we were told that busses were waiting for us to transport us to the 90th Replacement Depot, where we would be given our unit assignments and scattered across all of Vietnam.
I remember stepping to the door of the plane and encountering Vietnam first as a blast of hot, humid air that stank of raw sewage, rotting vegetation, and every other stench you could imagine. It was almost a physical blow. In all the places I have been across the world, I never, never smelled anything as nauseating as Vietnam. We used to say that if the perfume world had Chanel #5, then Vietnam had Sewer #6. It was like wading through a cesspool. And the air so thick with humidity you could hardly breathe. It was almost like drowning.
They loaded us into military busses to take us to the 90th RepoDepo. Think school bus painted olive drab, and with screens over the windows to prevent someone from lobbing a grenade into the bus. No air conditioning of course, just open windows so we could enjoy some more of the terrific smell we’d discovered. And hard plastic seats, and armed guards in case of ambush. And so we drove across the outskirts of Saigon on our way to Long Binh. And we caught our first glimpse of the markets, the buildings, the people of this “Paris of the East”.
It started raining and I was wondering why the Vietnamese were making no attempt to put on a raincoat or anything to keep the rain off of them. It wasn’t more than a few weeks before I realized that the rain was about the only cool thing around, and putting on a raincoat or poncho meant you just got wet with sweat instead of rain..and the sweat smelled a lot worse.
We arrived at the 90th and got checked in. Tomorrow we would meet with the Chief Nurse and learn where we would be going. In the meantime we went to the O Club to get something to drink and a meal before going to bed. I ordered a Screwdriver….it came made with gin and Orange Crush. I knew then that the world had turned upside down, and this was going to be a loooong war.
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