It is daylight, now, and I am in that stupor brought on my flying all night, not enough sleep, too much booze, and yesterday's sadness at wrenching myself away from my family. Sometime during the morning, the pilot points out Rangoon, Burma, below us, with the sun sparkling off the golden roofed pagoda. As far as I am concerned, that's the only bright spot of the day.
About mid-morning we land in Bangkok, and I get off the plane and roam around the shops. I notice that smell that only can emanate from the Orient, dust, cooking oils, sewage, teeming humanity, and humid air. There is some exciting stuff to buy in Thailand, like their bronzeware, but I figure it will wait until I'm on the way home, next year.
All too soon
it is time to get back on Pan Am 2, and I have to force
myself to board. I am glued to the window as we take off, full of heavy thoughts, and praying to God that I can come this way in a year. I assume there were seat companions all the way from Frankfurt, but companions is the wrong word because I haven't said a word to them at all. I don't even think I grunted at them!
We are flying over the Gulf of Thailand, and what's that coast looming ahead? It's got to be the West Coast of Vietnam! All too soon we pass into Vietnamese Air Space, and start our descent into Ton Son Nuit Air Port. I stare out the window, looking for signs of fighting, but don't really see anything. We are flying over jungle and water - is that the mighty Mekong River? All too soon, we are flying over what can best be described as a shanty town, and then the typical outskirts of any large Oriental city. There is one exception - the military! Military vehicles, fortifications, guns, soldiers - they are everywhere.
What are the
words to describe a landing plane? Bump-screech!
Bump-screech! We have touched down. Our stew sez, "Welcome to Saigon. Only those passengers terminating their flight here are allowed to disembark. Other passengers are asked to remain aboard because we want to unload and take on new passengers in a hurry."
Those of us whom the air crew thinks are military, are given a hand shake by the pilot, and wishes for good luck by the stews. One gives me a kiss on the cheek! "Come home," she says! I go down the steps, on to the tarmac. I don't know the time, nor the temperature; but it is around noon, maybe a little later; and humid! Oh, my God! Is it humid! It is about 24 hours since I left home, which is seven time zones away; and it is about 110 degrees hotter! I am in Vietnam!
I go into the terminal. There is a counter with some sergeants behind it, and I go up and tell them I'm reporting to MACV, and ask where to go. They are USARV, and say to look for a sign. Like a lost sheep, I look, and look, and finally spot a sign that says assignees to MACV are to go out a certain door and catch a bus that says, "Koepler Compound," on the front.
A rickety old Army bus approaches. It has screen and bars on all the windows! It has a little old Oriental man, wearing black pants and an open white shirt behind the wheel, and a mouthful of gold teeth! There is a small sign in the window that says, "Koelper Compound." It doesn't look very professional, and there is no one else around. Only me, this crappy old bus, and that VC behind the wheel! "MACV," I ask? The VC nods, smiles, and motions me to get on. "MACV," he sez! With great reluctance, I get on the bus and take the first seat. The door closes, and we lurch off with a grinding of gears. No one else, just me and the VC driver!
My head is swiveling like it is detached from my neck. What sights! Military vehicles of all types and shapes. Piles of supplies and equipment! Uniforms of all sorts. Army, Air Force, and that one looks like a Marine. And, there's the Navy! And rifles and pistols. They are all armed! (I'm not!) GIs, Whites, Blacks, and all shades in-between. And, those smaller soldiers, they must be the Vietnamese. Perhaps, if I make a fuss, someone will stop the bus and tell me what is going on.
And the noise! I have never seen so much air traffic in my life! Wow! We make our way to the main gate, and are waived through, out into the vil. Except this is a big, crowded vil. I am in Saigon, and still don't know where the hell I am going!
And, the traffic! I though Rome, Paris, London and Seoul were bad. They are nothing compared to this! Trucks, jitneys, motor cycles (well, more the cushman types, if you know what I mean), motor bikes, cyclos, bicycles and pedestrians! All colors, all sizes, all shapes, all manners of dress. Oh, there's a woman in black pants and an - ayo dai, is it? With a cone shaped hat on her head.
We wind our way through the teeming streets of Saigon, turning this way and that. I hope this VC knows where he is going - I'll never find my way back! God damn! Where am I? Needless to say, I am apprehensive. We do pass a couple of U S installations, but I am still the only one on the bus, and this verdampt VC doesn't talk my language. Forty-five minutes of this torture pass, and we turn into a small narrow white compound. The sign says, "MACV. Welcome to Koepler Compound!" Am I glad to get here!
I grab my bags, and dash off the bus, and into an office. The NCO on duty gives me a key, tells me my room is upstairs over there, the chow hall is over there, the movie is over there, and report in uniform tomorrow morning at 0700 over there!
My room is small, with two beds, white washed walls, and a hugh ceiling fan that is making lazy circles. And there are two lizards on the ceiling! It is hot! It is muggy! And, I am hungry!
So, down stairs,
into the chow hall, which is a snack bar, for the worse burger and fries
in my life. I take my soggy food, and luke warm ice tea to a table,
and start to sit down. "Ed? Ed St. Clair" Over here!"
It is a friendly face! "Kurt! What are you doing here?"
After lunch, he invites me to go to town with him, he knows a good bar. I beg out, saying I had just got in, and am dog tired. Besides, I am leery of going out down the streets of Saigon.
I go back to my room, and nap. Later I stagger down to the snack bar for an unsatisfactory dinner. Then I go over to the movie, which is outside under a canvas. There are four or five NCOs watching "Combat!" I hear one tell another, "I like this series. That is the real stuff!" I go back to my room, shaking my head, and collapse into bed; where I will sweat and toss and turn all night; startling awake at every little noise!
Day one is done, and I am a short timer, only 364 more to go! No! Damn it, this is a leap year, and I have to stay an extra day!
The great unknown awaits!