Sitting near the back of the jetliner I could see the other passengers talking as we taxied to the runway. They seemed excited, even exuberant to be leaving. I felt more relieved and preferred introversion, thinking about all the ways I could have been dead.
Our aircraft turned onto the runway and paused. The noise of the engines ramped up. Then the large canister we sat in started rolling, bouncing and trembling as the wheels reacted to the imperfections of the concrete surface.
I'd flown many times here, though mostly in helicopters. Sometimes I flew inside the cargo bay of large helicopters. Other times near the open doorways of troop transports. I had pretty much lost my fear of flying, but I remembered being afraid occasionally.
One time I sat in a lawn-chair-like seat behind the pilot and copilot of a small helicopter. I called that kind of helicopter a flying sperm because it consisted of a Plexiglas globe with a long tail boom. Sitting with no seat belt next to the open door, I could literally see straight down as we flew low over Da Nang harbor. Then the pilot accelerated straight upward, like helicopters can do, and I watched ships below me shrink into tiny objects. I held tightly to the seatback in front of me, becoming more afraid as we ascended, until I finally realized there was no reason for this maneuver other than to scare me, at which point my fear turned to chagrin.
Another time I sat in a similar canvas chair facing out the side of a Huey with the door completely open. As we neared our destination the pilot turned quickly, the Huey rolling over so that I looked straight down hundreds of feet to the ground unimpeded. Again I had no seat belt, and I couldn't hold on to anything with my feet against my cylindrical sea bag under the seat while my right arm held my rifle and my left arm carried my camera bag.
Invisible centrifugal, or centripetal, force held me safe. So I wasn't really in danger, but I felt anxiety. But then I felt that way to a certain extent the whole year. Danger and terror stalked this land. Without a little danger, without a little terror, it wouldn't have been an adventure. I actually did like this land, though. From what we called the mystery islands visible off the coast, to the rice paddies and plains of the coastal delta, to the villages and shrines, there was beauty. Everything began receding now.
The bouncing and trembling ended as the canister tilted upward with a smooth grace. The typical airport view outside the jetliner, with runways and dirt fields surrounded by hangars and the overlooking control tower, began to fall away. When the wheels retracted into the undercarriage, everyone on board broke into applause and cheers. We were leaving Da Nang, South Vietnam, after a year of experiences in 1969 that differed for each passenger.
Many were combat Marines whose experiences included carrying heavy weapons on long patrols, living for days in the field, enduring enemy bombardments, and engaging in firefights. My own experiences had been more benign. As a Marine Ground Control Approach (GCA) radar technician, I lived in barracks and worked near the air traffic control towers on various air bases.
I did it well enough to be sent occasionally to other air bases to help overcome problems with their radars. My responsibilities consisted of optimizing the radars so they created electronic lines on a radar scope that controllers sitting inside a dark box on the ground used to instruct (control) unseen pilots aloft how to adjust their flight so they could descend through storms and clouds to find themselves lined up directly for landings (approach).
At the Phu Bai airport, outside the old Vietnamese imperial capital at Hue, I maintained GCA radars that handled both military aircraft and civilian airliners. So I had an important job, just not as dangerous and courageous as the others seated around me on the flight. Not that I didn't experience real danger.
One morning in Phu Bai as I left the barracks, intending to cross the runway for my workplace, I realized I had forgotten to shave. So I hurried back to my bunk and extracted my electric razor. Shaving took only a few minutes to accomplish, but when I walked to where I normally crossed the runway, I found a civilian airliner on its belly billowing smoke amid crash trucks approximately where I would have been if I hadn't gone back to shave. That was certainly … wait for it … a close shave.
Leaving Da Nang, as the jetliner climbed to altitude, my thoughts shifted to more serious dangers left behind. In a war zone, people tried to kill us. The white tower above the passenger terminal at Phu Bai airport made a convenient aiming point for enemy rockets. The attacks were infrequent but awareness of their threat marked my daily existence.
Even walking from the barracks to the post-exchange, I continually looked for places where I would dive for shelter if an attack commenced. The threat also prompted protective sand-bag bunkers next to our barracks and in our workplace for us to scramble inside whenever explosions occurred around us, whether the pop of mortars or the kaboom of B-20 rockets.
I thought back to one occasion when the deeper ka-whump of a B-40 rocket hitting the tarmac near our workplace created a far more intense fear. The base warning siren started screaming immediately and seconds later, huddled with others inside a bunker, I heard another ka-whump outside, this time closer. A third, even closer, ka-whump revealed that a volley of rockets was walking across the tarmac directly toward our bunker.
None of us knew if our sand-bag bunker would protect us from a direct hit. Inside, that realization prompted differing responses. I found my stomach turning to jelly and my limbs trembling. We looked at each other without talking, but all of us grappled with fear. As the senior sergeant in our unit, the others looked to me for leadership and example.
Another much louder ka-whump rained debris onto the metal roofs of the buildings just outside our bunker. A lieutenant openly whimpered. Even a corporal who had experienced the siege of Khe Sanh seemed shaken, but then announced, "The tower will need the radios set up in the emergency tower." He scrambled outside.
That seemed crazy, but as my own fears roused into terror, I found facing death preferable to revealing my cowardice to the others. I announced "I'll give him some help" and scrambled outside.
The corporal climbed into the safety-glass enclosure of the exposed emergency tower just yards away from our bunker. I climbed up behind him on the ladder. Just having something to do comforted my terror, even though I knew next to nothing about radios. The base siren blared at us from the loudspeakers attached to the main tower, then eased away into silence. There could have been another rocket, but there wasn't.
They had a saying in the Marines: "if the green weenie is going to get you, the green weenie is going to get you." You just never knew. I thought of that in the safety of the airliner carrying me over the blue ocean to Okinawa. Sometimes seemingly insignificant things made a difference.
Once, I had been sent to Marble Mountain to fix a persistent problem with their GCA radar. I spent the first day traveling and getting oriented about the symptoms. That night we went to the NCO club where my new colleagues bought rounds of beer. The next day I traced the radar problem to an unusual circumstance that I felt rather smug about resolving. I planned to go to the club that night to celebrate before leaving the next morning but a call from Phu Bai ordered me home immediately.
I flew out that afternoon disappointed. However, that evening, Marble Mountain suffered a rocket attack. Many people who ran out of the NCO club were injured when a rocket exploded nearby. Had I been allowed to fly the next day, I would probably have been running out of that club when the rocket exploded. You just never knew.
I didn't participate in firefights or combat attacks like many of the other Marines on my flight, but I did experience danger. Although, technically, I did participate in one firefight at An Hoa, a forward combat base southwest of Da Nang. The base could only be resupplied by air during the rainy season, so they build a short runway on the edge of the base right next to the perimeter wire.
I had been sent there to install a GCA radar system to replace the one that had been destroyed when overrun by an enemy attack. We installed a portable control tower and radar between the runway and the perimeter wire. Our underground living quarters were about fifteen yards from the above-ground perimeter defensive bunker right next to the concertina wire.
Late one night the guard in the bunker discovered an enemy patrol cutting through the wire just feet from his position. The guard opened up with a machine gun. That triggered an all-out attack with the perimeter bunker being hit with bullets and rifle-propelled grenades. The latter exploded on impact spewing bright glowing metal shrapnel that looked somewhat like the Fourth of July fireworks common at home. The next morning they found 8 enemy bodies in the concertina but the attack failed to penetrate the defenses.
During the attack we got into combat gear to take up positions in sandbagged fighting holes just yards from the battle. Our instructions, however, were not to fire our weapons and only to wait for the signal to fall back into the secondary fortifications across the runway. Never-the-less, I took the safety off my rifle and fired one shot in the direction that the RPGs seemed to be coming from. Thus technically I can say I fired my rifle in combat.
These recent events occupied my mind while flying placidly towards Okinawa from Da Nang. Remembering adventures I could have died in. Even away from combat, while hitch-hiking to Da Nang from Marble Mountain, a jeep pulled up to the stop sign near me. They looked at me and shrugged, noting that the jeep was already full. The jeep pulled away and a few minutes later a deuce-and-a-half truck stopped for me to jump in the back.
With me standing behind the cab in the bed of the truck, a short while later at the top of a hill I could see that at the bottom of the hill the jeep had stopped at a T-junction intersection where a line of oncoming vehicles waited behind another deuce-and-a-half. The waiting deuce-and-a-half thought the jeep had stopped to let it turn into the intersecting road.
However, I could see that the jeep had stopped only because of a fire truck with flashing lights barreling down the wrong side of the road alongside the vehicles backed up behind the deuce-and-a-half. When the deuce-and-a-half turned in front of the jeep, it turned in front of the oncoming fire truck as well. The collision careened into the jeep, sending the occupants flying.
I don't think anyone died in that crash, but it emphasized how you could never know when the green weenie would get you. I knew that I wasn't quite home free even on a commercial troop plane contracted to fly us for the military.
I knew about a troop plane flying into Da Nang that mistook the lit up short take-off and landing (STOL) runway at Marble Mountain for the Da Nang airport. The air controllers at Da Nang told the pilot he was off course, but he insisted he had the runway in sight.
Give the pilot credit. He thought the runway looked short but he figured that if other pilots had done it, he could land on it and somehow managed to stop with only the nose wheel slightly off the end of the runway. Sometimes superb skill is needed just to overcome your own stupidity.
Our jetliner touched down in Okinawa smoothly and rolled to a stop. As I walked quietly towards our luggage reception area a helicopter flew overhead. Catching myself looking for a place to dive for shelter, and feeling my muscles automatically contracting in reaction, reminded me that leaving Da Nang also meant leaving behind a lot of other behaviors my subconscious reserved in the expectation of death as a normal daily event.