No Hero's Welcome
The Memoirs of Sgt. Robert Wheatley, USAF Security Service
Out of the frying pan, into the fire....
The thirty days of my leave passed all too quickly, and I wished it could have lasted longer. But duty called, and in mid-December, I took the 21-hour flight from San Francisco across the Pacific to Southeast Asia. Along the way, we made one hour refueling stops at Honolulu, and again later in Manila. There was no time to see anything besides the terminal at the airports, but we were thankful to at least have the opportunity to get off the plane and stretch our legs a bit. Honolulu and Manila were both really beautiful sights from the air. But once at cruising altitude over the ocean, there wasn’t much to see out the windows, just an endless expanse of water from horizon to horizon.
For most of the flight, there was precious little conversation in the cabin. Many either sat, staring at the bulkhead, or the back of the seat in front of them, or with eyes closed, deep in thought. Most just slept. Now that I was on my way, I was in a hurry to just have the trip over with and get into my new assignment. At first, I tried reading to pass the time, but I found it impossible to concentrate on the magazine I'd bought in San Francisco. My mind kept wandering to what my destination would be like and what perils might await me there. Like most of the others, a couple of hours into it, I gave up and slept through the biggest part of that seemingly interminable flight. I figured it would at least minimize the effect of jet lag. Periodically, I would awaken just long enough to eat a meal or use the lavatory. During those brief times I was awake, I couldn't help but notice how the stews took care to approach sleeping GI’s with great caution - much more so than on the domestic flights I'd been on. It needed no explanation. I remember thinking to myself, how easy their jobs must be on these trans-Pacific flights in comparison to flights in the US. Normally somewhat rowdy and boisterous, this group of GI's was pretty subdued. And the expressions on our faces, I'm sure betrayed our thoughts - thoughts that wandered to home and family and to the uncertainty of what lay ahead for each of us.
When we'd boarded at Travis, I had been fortunate enough to stake claim to one of the window seats, and I was able to look out from time to time to check our progress. Far below us, the scattered patches of clouds took on the appearance of puffy white cotton balls, laid out in patterns on a carpet of deepest blue - one that stretched as far as the eye could see. From this altitude, the swirls of the ocean's major currents and eddies could be discerned in the waters covering the big blue sphere below us. Were it not for those changing patterns of clouds and sea, it wouldn't have been obvious we were making progress at all. Off on the horizon, the curvature of the earth was distinctly apparent, and it felt as if we were detached from the rest of the world, suspended there, seemingly motionless at the edge of space. In the otherwise silent cabin, the only indication we were moving was the comforting steady low rumble of the 707's four jet engines, which thankfully, never stumbled.
In headlong pursuit of the sun, as it raced from East to West across the Pacific, the day for us lasted much longer than normal. But inevitably, the sun won the race and retreated beyond the horizon ahead, leaving us behind, an island of humanity in a slender silver tube, suspended in an inky black night sky, punctured by myriad pinpricks of light. They were hundreds of thousands of gleaming white diamonds, strewn across a blanket of black velvet as if by some giant hand. Far removed from any man-made light, the night sky over the open Pacific is absolutely breathtaking!
As we finally neared our destination, the pilot announced over the intercom, we were entering the air space over South Vietnam. I peered out the window into the darkness below and strained to make out some sign of life. I could faintly discern the shape of a landmass, where the moon's shimmering light on the water abruptly ended. Other than that, all that greeted my eyes was more darkness. I tried to imagine the life and death drama that must be going on in the darkened jungle 30,000 feet below. "Glad it’s not me down there!", I thought. It fleetingly crossed my mind that at least I would receive an extra sixty-five dollars "combat pay" this month for simply having flown over the war zone. I felt a little odd at the prospect of getting "combat pay" and hoped I wouldn't have to earn it in the way the name implied. It seemed such an insult in a way, not to me, but to the combat troops who were doing the fighting - sixty five dollars for the prospect of losing your life! Still, I wouldn’t be inclined to give it back when I showed up in front of the paymaster to collect my next pay! We would receive the same sixty-five dollar token twelve months hence when our return flight on the "freedom bird" would carry us back home.
I found myself wishing I could "fast-forward" my life to that day when I would be traveling in the opposite direction, and I didn't want to think about the possibility that some of us, perhaps even I, might not make that return flight. "No, I just won’t allow that idea to creep into my conscious thought – I simply refuse to acknowledge the possibility!" (As if that would make the apprehension go away!) Still, there it lurked, ever present in the shadows of my mind, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of the primitive "animal brain" – the part that doesn’t reason, only feels. And though it would ebb and flow with time in country, that feeling was one that would never completely go away for the whole duration of my tour there.
The flight had totaled twenty-one hours in the air, and it was late evening when we finally touched down in Bangkok. Because we were US military, we were expedited through customs. I took a taxi into town and spent an overnight there at the Rajah Hotel. I didn't get a chance to see much of Bangkok that day. For early next morning, I had to return to the airport, where I boarded a C-130 military transport, a.k.a. the "Klong" flight, north to my permanent duty station. In Thailand, Klongs were small holding ponds for water, used as reservoirs to supply drinking water for small communities in the up country during the dry season. The "Klong Flight" was one which made the rounds of all the Thai air bases twice a day, ferrying men and supplies in and out. Most of the other passengers on this outbound leg of today's flight were also new in country, and like me, they weren’t quite sure of what to expect. But unlike me, for most of them, this was their first overseas tour. Having the stripes of a Sergeant, they kind of looked to me for guidance and reassurance. In playing the leader’s role, I tried not to let them see that I was nearly as apprehensive as they. We tried to hide our apprehension by making small talk, but even that was limited. Though we sat shoulder-to-shoulder, we were effectively alone with our thoughts.
A far cry from the chartered civilian 707 that had carried us here, the cabin interior of the C-130 transport was not furnished with comfort in mind. The seats were simple web canvas slings hung from the outside walls of the cabin, and there was only a thin skin of sheet metal between the passengers and the outside. The heaters must not have been working well, as the cabin was downright cold when we got to cruising altitude. Once or twice I was sure I could see my breath in the cabin air. I had made the mistake of sitting directly over the wing, knowing it was structurally the strongest part of the airframe. The constant drumming of the four big prop engines made conversation impossible. I could feel the sound waves rattling around in my chest, as if someone was hammering me. Thankfully, it wasn’t a terribly long flight, but I remember I had quite a headache by the time we landed again. I wondered how the load master managed to put up with it, flight after flight, day-in and day-out. But he seemed quite impervious to it. At least he was afforded some ear protection by the headphones he wore to communicate with the pilots in the front. He cheerfully went about his business, as if he hadn't a care in the world, and I wondered to myself how much time HE had left in-country before he would be rotating back Stateside. Perhaps he was "SHORT". Maybe that was the explanation for his seemingly carefree attitude and cheerful demeanor.
I had been assigned to Ramasun Station, a small radio-listening outpost in the jungle. It was about 18 klicks (kilometers) outside of the town of Udon Thani, or Udorn, in far Northeastern Thailand. Udorn was where one of our major tactical air bases was located. It was just one of many located around the country, most of which had been built by the Americans or at least vastly upgraded by American money and American combat engineers. But the air bases and Army posts we occupied and ran remained the property of the Thai government, and it was understood, we were there as their guests.
"As the crow flies", Ramasun station was located much closer to North Vietnam than it was to Bangkok. It was about 400 miles NNE of Bangkok. Hanoi, North Vietnam's capital city, lay some 320 miles to the Northeast from there, within easy striking distance for our fighter-bomber aircraft. In fact, distance wise, we in Northeastern Thailand were actually much closer to the North Vietnamese enemy than most of the troops in South Vietnam were. Ramasun Station lay just off Thailand's main North-South highway, which runs alongside the railway between Bangkok and Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was situated about 60 kilometers South of Vientiane, which lies on the Mekong River - the very same Mekong of which we'd been hearing so much in the battle reports coming out of 'Nam. Just the name elicited a sense of dread in me.
But the Mekong is held very much in reverence by the people of Southeast Asia, as a bringer of life. More than for an ideology, some say it was the true reason this war was being fought and why all the blood was being shed. For the Mekong is to Southeast Asia as the Amazon is to South America or the Nile is to Egypt. Its source is on the high plains of Tibet. From there, it flows Southward across China into the sub-continent formed by Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Northeastern Thailand, it is the thin line of demarcation forming the border between Thailand and Laos. Further South, it flows on through central Cambodia and eventually into South Vietnam. There it spreads across a vast rich delta before finally reaching the end of its long journey, emptying into the South China Sea. Its effluvial plains form the rice-basket of the region. And to the people of Southeast Asia, rice is life itself! Those who believe that the purpose of the North was purely to bring their brothers in the South under the "benevolent" umbrella of Communism are fooling themselves. Politics and ideology aside, many scholars believe access to the Mekong Delta was THE reason North Vietnam was so doggedly determined to annex the South. Whether that’s entirely true or not, it was undeniably a prize plum for the regime in Hanoi. They were willing to inflict and to endure tremendous hardship to win it, along with that Crown Jewel of the South, the delta city of Saigon, which would in later years come to be renamed, "Ho Chi Minh City."
We finally arrived over the Udorn Air Base sometime in late morning. I could feel my ears popping, as we began our descent from our 24,000 foot cruising altitude and circled in preparation for landing. Despite the engine noise and the frigid cabin, the flight had been a smooth one, as it was a bright sunny day, and there was not so much as a single cloud in the sky. We continued on a fairly steep descent, and finally, the plane pulled up slightly and flared. I heard the sound of the tires’ screech, and felt the plane jerk and lurch, as we touched down on the runway. Then came the bumping and shaking and the sound of rushing wind as the pilot applied the air brakes and the hydraulic wheel brakes to slow the aircraft to taxi. I swallowed hard to clear my stuffy ears and thought, "Well, I guess this is it!... Day one of 365. Day one, and counting..."
As the plane was taxiing in, I craned my neck to look out one of the small portholes in the fuselage for a glimpse of the base. My first sight was of red earth, banana trees and the "hooches" that were used as housing for most of the troops there. The mild sense of foreboding I'd been feeling in the pit of my stomach immediately increased a notch or two. For they were just as I’d seen the ones in the news video coming out of 'Nam. It looked like it would be a step down from the quarters we’d had on Okinawa, which hadn't been all that great. Trying to look on the bright side, I mused, "At least the ventilation ought to be better." The plane rolled to a halt in front of the terminal and I heard the sounds of the ground crew, as they chocked the wheels and tended to the plane. Then the load master threw open the cabin doors. It was time to get up and step into the strange, new world we would call home for the next twelve months. Upon disembarking and stepping out onto the tarmac, the tropical heat slammed into my body and took my breath away. "Yes", I thought to myself, "this is not a dream. You really are here!"
We waited around in a group, clustered about the cargo door of the plane and collected our bags, as the load master threw them off. Then , one by one, we filed into the terminal building, where we were directed to our various units. Everyone else on the flight up was assigned to units at the air base. I was the only one going to Ramasun, and there would be a wait of a couple hours before the next troop bus was to leave. The "two striper" behind the desk suggested I check out the town. "It's just a short walk out the gate. Plenty of places to have a beer, it that suits your mood, Sergeant." It was way too early in the day for a beer in my estimation. But rather than sitting around waiting in the terminal, I decided to make good use of the time and take a short walking tour of Udorn to kind of get acquainted with my new surroundings.
The air base was right at the edge of town, and one could walk out the front gate, down a short, dusty red dirt footpath alongside the road and be in town in a couple of minutes. When I reached the main road into town, I made a quick mental note that the Twilight Bathhouse was situated right outside the main gates. "A very handy location for someone with an hour to spare and a need to relax" I thought. It was just one of many in Udorn. I didn’t take time to go in that day, but being an unattached young man of twenty-one, with all the normal biological drives, I would spend many an hour there later in my tour being entertained by the beautiful young ladies on the staff.
I discovered Udorn is a good-sized city, and the streets were bustling with samlors (three-wheeled pedi-cabs), bicycles, motor scooters, taxis, and garishly decorated busses that zoomed around the corners with passengers clinging to the back and hanging out the doors. One had to take care not to get run over crossing the streets! The vast majority of the Thai people are Buddhist, and the monks, wearing their unmistakable saffron robes were conspicuous everywhere. I expected to get some strange looks from the local people. I must have stood out like a sore thumb, being a tall, pale skinned foreigner, walking about in my Class A khaki uniform amongst these dark tanned people of small stature. Most of them paid absolutely no attention to me, but those whose eyes greeted mine, smiled warmly. Politely bowing their heads, and placing palms together in front of their faces, they muttered something sounding like, "Sah-wah-dee Khap!" I didn't understand, but it was obviously a greeting and a gesture of politeness. Not yet speaking their language, I simply nodded my head, half-bowing, and smiling back at them responded, "Hello! How are you?" That seemed to satisfy them. They seemed a very friendly people, and in spite of my still considerable misapprehension, I was beginning to have a "not so bad" feeling about being here!
The streets were lined with shops selling souvenir trinkets and knick-knacks, undoubtedly catering to the ubiquitous GI's who were looking to buy a piece of the local culture to send to the folks back home. I stopped briefly to watch a local artisan in front of one of the shops, crafting an otherwise plain silver ring into a beautiful piece of art. His skilled hands seemed to fly, as he carved a beautiful design into the metal with his Dremel tool. I marveled at the quickness of his hand and the precise symmetry of his work, and I wondered to myself how many of those pieces he must turn out every day. Downtown, the open-air markets made an impression on me. The stifling hot air buzzed with the sound of flies. There were all manner of strange tropical fruits and bunches of bananas hanging about the vendor's stands, and a variety of meats were on display. Fresh fish, raw plucked chickens and ducks, water buffalo meat, and gobs of entrails hung from hooks in the open air, covered by the flies.
On the crowded sidewalks, vendors were cooking some wonderful smelling dish, called "kow-paht". I later learned kow-paht was kind of the national dish there, about like hamburgers or hot dogs are in the States. It was prepared in woks with charcoal burners, and it sold for about 25 cents for a huge, piled-high plate of it. Its main ingredient was fried rice, but it also had bits of meat, scrambled egg, green onions, cucumber, LOTS of garlic, and God knows what else. As good as it smelled, I wasn’t brave enough to try any that day, but I later found that it was really delicious! I would come to develop quite a taste for it during my stay there. Although the humidity was low, the late morning sun was searing, blazing hot. And though the people of Udorn themselves seemed most amicable, it was becoming apparent the Thai sun would have no mercy on the pale, uninitiated skin of this "newbie." I could tell already I would have a sunburn to show for my walk after only twenty minutes of exposure. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to return to the air base and wait in the shade until the bus was to leave for Ramasun Station, my final destination.
On the bus, along the way from Udorn to Ramasun, I noticed a number of homes that had been built upon stilts. Curious, I had assumed it was for protection from the wildlife. We had been told there were actually some tigers in the area. Also, King Cobras up to twenty feet long, were in plentiful supply, as were the jungle vipers, including the deadliest one of all, the Russel’s Viper, which was rumored to kill thousands every year in Southeast Asia. Then there were the many sub-species of Krait. The Kraits were known to most GI's as "two steppers." Rumor had it, if bitten by one of these, you wouldn't have time to take more than two steps before you were dead. Indeed, there were few snakes in Thailand that weren't poisonous, and the wise rule was, "If in doubt, assume that it is poisonous. You probably will be right." But I had arrived during the dry season. Only later, when the monsoon rains came, did I come to understand the main reason they built their homes upon stilts. Then it was an odd sight, seeing the residents fishing from their front porches on what had formerly been dry land.
The monsoon rains, by the way, and contrary to what many think, were not perpetual 24-hour-a-day rains. But during the rainy season, it rained for a significant portion of every day for weeks on end. And when it rained, it came down as if someone was pouring it from some colossal bucket in the sky! Five to ten inches or more in a single day was not uncommon. But far from being a nuisance, the rains were eagerly anticipated by the locals. For a good monsoon season would assure a good rice crop. Without it, there would be none.
Ramasun Station was built at the edge of a tiny village in the boonies. Or maybe the village had grown up alongside the post; I'm not sure which. Nong Soong consisted of a handful of ramshackle plywood and thatch huts, some with corrugated metal roofing. As the bus turned off the road into the drive leading to the post, I caught sight of a couple of locals, smiling and waving at us as we went by. I took that as a good omen. Apparently, we were on good terms with the local population here too. As the bus entered the main gates and drove into the post, my eyes were drawn to the Poinsettias that had been planted all around. They were in full bloom, and the splashes of brilliant red were a reminder that Christmas was near. They provided a kind of cheery welcome for us. Thankfully, at last, my long, arduous journey had reached an end! After the bus dropped us off inside the gates, I slung my duffel and my two newly issued pair of jungle boots over my shoulders, picked up my suitcases, and taking a deep breath, I strode into HQ building to report for duty.
After presenting my orders to the clerk on duty, he announced my arrival and showed me into the commander’s office. Marching to the front of Captain Engler's desk, and standing at attention, I snapped the crispest hand salute I could muster. "SIR!! Sergeant Wheatley reporting for duty, SIR!!", I barked. "At ease Sergeant. We've been expecting you.... Pull up a chair, and we'll go over a few things, then we'll get you settled in." The tone of his voice and his general informal air put me somewhat at ease, and I felt the apprehension that had been building ever since I had first gotten my orders for Southeast Asia, begin to subside, just a bit more. After going over a few short standing rules and he’d described what was expected of me, we chatted a bit, then he turned me back over to his clerk to get me processed in.
In-processing didn't amount to much. I was issued my bed sheets and blankets and laundry bag. "What!?…No M-16??…. They told us at Goodfellow we'd be issued M-16's! Hmmm.", I thought. "Well, maybe that will come later." Then I was escorted to the barracks and shown my living quarters. My flight was on duty in the radio compound when I arrived, so it gave me time to grab some lunch in the chow hall, then unpack, settle in and collect my thoughts before meeting the guys whom I'd be supervising.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Next Chapter Previous Chapter Table of Contents