Forty-two years ago, I departed for a small country in Southeast Asia called, Vietnam. The United States was at war, and I was one of two-hundred teenage soldiers aboard a Pan American Boeing 707 jet airliner – we were packed inside, not an empty seat to be had. Several of these commercial flights left daily from military air bases on the west coast, ferrying newly trained soldiers across the Pacific Ocean to war – replacements not only for those injured and killed soldiers, but also for those young men who survived their twelve month war and were now going home.

While writing my book, “Cherries – A Vietnam War Novel”, I was surprised at how much I remember about that particular flight and the next twelve months. Even today, those details remain vivid and clear, as if it happened just last year. What I do find disheartening is the fact that I remember very little about my flight home on the “Freedom Bird” after my year in Vietnam. When thinking about it, this return flight was definitely supposed to be one of the most joyful events in life – right up there with marriage and the birth of my daughter. So why can’t I remember?

When leaving Oakland, California for Vietnam, the flight felt more like the beginning of a great adventure to most of us. Not a soul slept on the plane for fear of missing out on something. Thinking back, it was impossible to sleep anyway. These military passengers are a rambunctious group – only a few remained seated.

Small groups huddled together across the length of the plane – some of those seated are surrounded by soldiers who are kneeling on seats and standing in the aisles. Each group is comprised of young men who know one another from earlier military training; they have much in common and spend much of their time commiserating about their experiences during the last six months.
Most of the African American soldiers migrated to the rear of the aircraft. There are several small groups, many of them strangers and meeting for the first time, but it doesn’t take long for them to warm up to one another. Like the other groups throughout the cabin, discussions are about anything and everything; bouts of spontaneous laughter erupt sporadically from around the cabin. After a couple of hours into the flight, those soldiers in the rear of the plane break out in song and begin a singing competition. Each group will get a chance to perform, but must sing Motown songs made famous by the Four Tops, Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and others. And truth be told, every group was very good – earning applause from many of the passengers after each song. Unfortunately, this was our only entertainment, but it was great while it lasted.

I remember many of those discussions on the flight. Most were about girlfriends or wives left behind – of course, everyone has pictures to pass around. Others talked about special events in their life, muscle cars, sports championships, drinking, and of course, their fear of going to war.

Stewardesses are seen more so than not and seem to travel along the aisles nonstop during our flight. Dressed in their Pan American flight uniforms and mini-skirts, their passing usually results in cat calls, whistles, or proposals of marriage. Every passenger in an aisle seat leans over into the narrow aisle to watch the lovely ladies sashay up the aisle – admiring their legs and hoping to catch a glimpse of something more. The view is only good for a couple rows before bobbing heads in front of you block the view. This also proved to be dangerous; many passengers butted heads in the aisle in their haste to move into position. These collisions result in nothing more than dancing stars and a large, sore bump on the noggin. Many firmly believe the stewardesses are doing this purposely to see our reactions.

The southern leg of this flight originated in Oakland, California and our first scheduled stop is in Hawaii. All passengers are required to leave the plane and hang out in the terminal while the plane refuels and a new flight crew takes over. We were not allowed outside, but the large terminal windows afforded us all a glimpse of this tropical paradise. Everybody has their cameras out and taking pictures of the scenes before them. A rare opportunity and well worth it!

Our second stop is in Guam. The plane lands in a military airport and doesn’t have much of a terminal what so ever. This resulted in our having to remain onboard the airplane. From our vantage point, Guam also looks like a tropical paradise. However, it just doesn’t have the same appeal that Hawaii had offered. The stopover is very short and we are back in the air within forty-five minutes.

The Philippine Islands is the last stop before Vietnam. Here, we are allowed to wander through the terminal and even go outside for a look around. On every stop so far on this journey, the plane always parked out on the tarmac – a good 200 yards from the terminal. It was raining hard here and every one of us is soaking wet by the time we reach shelter – this would be our first taste of the daily monsoon rains. This airport is also the busiest of all the stops on our trip. Civilians outnumber the military by at least 5–1, hawkers are set up and selling electronics, watches, clothes, food, beer, insurance, handmade products and drugs on the concourse – the latter transactions taking place in restrooms and shady indiscriminate corners. It isn’t long before the unmistakable scent of burning marijuana is in the air. However, those partaking are very discrete in their use and difficult to spot. Most soldiers are opting beer – a luxury for those of us who are only 18 year old.

After an almost three hour delay, the airplane is back in the air and en-route to our final destination – Vietnam. On this last leg, the passengers are much more somber and thinking ahead to their landing in the war zone. Not sure if the change in mood was due to smoked joints and beer, but it sure didn’t hurt any.

One fact that none of us could believe is that this commercial jet, filled with Cherry soldiers, is going to attempt a landing in Vietnam. Many of us had thought that we would board a military transport of some kind in the Philippines for this portion of the flight.

So, now the speculation begins. Somebody mentions that the plane will not stop and be a sitting duck for the enemy, so passengers will have to jump from the moving plane, and then quickly seek out nearby foxholes and bunkers. Others believe the enemy will bomb the runway just prior to our landing; this spawns other concerns about the experience and skill levels of our civilian pilots. Had they ever landed in a war zone? If they’ve never had to dodge these types of obstacles before, then crashing this plane is inevitable. Many are thinking that the last thirty minutes of this flight was to be their last alive. The flight is uneventful, and the plane lands safely in Bien Hoa Air Base – one of the most secure areas within Vietnam. There is a collective sigh of relief when it is all over!

Now jump forward twelve months. Those who are fortunate to have survived their tour of duty in Vietnam will leave the country for home on the same commercial airliner that arrived with the Cherries earlier that day.

A Pan American 747 touching down at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon. Pan Am flew regularly scheduled trips between Saigon and the World. The World, of course, was anywhere but Vietnam and a Freedom Bird was any aircraft which took you to the World.

Every passenger had dreamt about this exact moment during the past year – it was a personal goal to walk up those stairs and board the “Freedom Bird”. Just like the final thirty minutes of our arrival flight one year ago, we are all anxious and paranoid. Some are calling out that the longer the plane stood out here in the open the more susceptible we are to mayhem. These veterans maintained a vigil and are looking through the cabin windows, glancing all about; watching for the telltale exhausts of tracers, rockets and RPG’s heading our way. All are squirming in our seats because leaving is not happening fast enough. Finally, the jet engines came to life and the plane began taxiing toward the runway – lookouts are still vigilant. Within minutes, the plane is in the air, lifting upward at a fast rate of speed. Everyone is holding their breath until we are out of range from enemy fire. Not one person said a word. Then, just as the plane levels out and is cruising over the South China Sea, the cabin erupts in a tremendous cheer. We are hugging each other, smiling like Cheshire cats and congratulating one another for surviving the nightmare. Others sat alone and cried!

Our return flight to the U.S. will take us across the northern route. We will stop briefly in Japan and Alaska then fly on to our final destination in Ft. Lewis, Washington. This may sound weird, but I have absolutely no recollection of that return flight. I do recall landing at Ft. Lewis in the middle of the night. We were still in our jungle fatigues and had to walk about four-hundred yards through a misty rain to a warehouse. There we are issued new uniforms, served a steak dinner, given new orders and travel vouchers, then all bussed together to the airport. I don’t know how long we were there or any other specifics of my time at Ft. Lewis. I just know that I wanted to get home.

Why don’t I remember? I could recall the earlier 366 days – even things I want to forget. For reasons unknown, thirty-six hours of my memories have vanished. Am I the only one this happened to? Is this a phenomenon? What are your thoughts?

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