|Riding a Caribou|
Wavra, that’s where you’re going. Up
near Cambodia”, I thought the clerk seemed to quietly chuckle as he informed
me of my assignment. “Tomorrow morning we’ll get you over to 8th Aerial at Tan
San Nhut and you can hop on a Caribou for a ride there.”
Where the hell is Quan Loi and how is a Caribou going to take me there? Isn’t a Caribou some kind of Canadian moose?” I wondered.
“How far is it to Quan Loi?” I ventured to the clerk. “All day by convoy and about 50 minutes or so by air, Private”, he responded with a dull, almost bored attitude. “No more questions”, he said in a loud voice as he cut me off before I could get the words to my mouth.
“You’ll find out everything you need to know tomorrow. Just be happy you’re joining Alpha Battery 6/27th Artillery up north. And now, move it on out of here. Copies of your orders”, he said as he handed me a stack of papers. “Your worries are over”, he shouted with a tone of sarcastic dismissal.
“Yaw, sure, you prick,” I thought, as I turned and slowly walked out of the Orderly Room and back to the Temps Barracks where I was billeted. Not much to do now, except gather up my gear for the trip in the morning. I had been here at 23rd Artillery Group Headquarters at Long Binh Post for almost four days now and I was sick of pulling senseless duty and not knowing where and what I was going to be doing for the next 13 months. It was a relief to finally be going somewhere even if I didn’t really know where. “Quan Loi”, I thought, “wonder what it means in English?”
“Hey, is there a movie tonight?” I questioned Krepke in the bunk next to mine. “Yes”, he responded, “Ah…, not sure what’s playing, though. 1900 hour, I think”.
“I got orders”, I said, “Going to Quan Loi”, trying to make it sound like a great assignment. “It’s somewhere up north near the Cambodian border, they say”, I added. “That’s good”, Krepke grunted. “Wish they would make up their friggin minds where the hell they’re going to send me.”
The short ride to 8th Aerial Port at Tan San Nhut Air Force Base was uneventful. The open-air tin covered terminal was already teeming with guys when I arrived at 8:30 a.m. The sounds of various aircraft landing and taking off on the nearby runways at times drowned out the troop chatter of the terminal.
“You need to get in that line for a boarding pass,” the clerk pointed. “I have to head back to Long Binh now. Good luck” he snickered, glad that he wasn’t me, as he turned to leave.
The line was maybe 15 guys long. Short by Army standards. Already it was hot in the terminal as the sun shown in from the east. Slowly, the soldiers ahead of me moved forward until at last I faced an airman behind the counter. “Where to soldier? Copy of your orders,” he demanded. “Oh, the ‘Quan Loi’”, he said. “You just missed the morning flight. Doesn’t your support unit know you have to be over here by 6:15 to make that flight? Should be another one sometime this afternoon though”, he said matter-of-factly.
“What’ll I do until then?” I inquired. “Hey soldier, that’s your problemento”, he sniggered. Just don’t leave the area and listen up for announcements for boarding times and passes. No one will be babysitting you from now on and if you miss this flight, there is no other today. Next”, he said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
Five hours, 22 minutes later I heard the words “Quan Loi, Loc Ninh, Song Be, now iss_ _g boarding passes. Front and ce_ter anyone _oing to these lo_ations”, the voice said over the loudspeaker as it intermittently crackled and cut-out. “The flight to Quan _oi, L_c Ninh, Son_ Be will _eave at 1430 _ours”, the announcer continued in a slow, monotonous tone, as if he had been sentenced to say these words everyday for eternity. “Get your boarding passes at _esk nu_ber 8. The flight _eaves at Gate 7. Th_t is all.”
“First time to Quan Loi?” the quiet voice behind me asked. “Yes, how can you tell?” I said as I turned and faced the sergeant. His jungle fatigues were faded and his boots were worn and coated with mud. The whiskers on his face were approaching two or three day’s length. He had an M-16 slung over his left shoulder. He smiled and pointed at my dark green shirt. “I haven’t seen fatigues as clean as yours in I don’t know how long,” he said as he smiled again. “They’re always a dead giveaway for a New Guy”. Don’t take offense; we were all new here at one time”, he continued in a friendly manner.
“Yes, I got in-country six days ago’, I replied. “Hey Sarge, you been to Quan Loi before?” I asked him. “Yes, that’s our base camp – the 1st Cav.,” he said as he pointed to the yellow and black horse patch on his shoulder. “What kind of a place is it?” I shot back. “Well”, he paused, “Let’s just say it’s the kind of place that will get under your skin, a place you’ll take a little bit home with you, and leave it at that. There sure are a lot worse places you could be going”, he tried to reassure me as he once again smiled at me.
“One more, Sarge”, I pressed my luck. “Can you tell me what the hell is a Caribou?”
He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t sure if I was pulling his leg, and then he replied as he slowly realized I wasn’t: “Oh, a Caribou, (PDF File) the airplane, that’s what you mean”, and he began to laugh, a laugh which seemed to be of relief. I’ll tell you,” he glanced at my name stenciled above my breast pocket. . ., “Wavra”, he hesitated. “A Caribou beats the hell out of the alternative any day, any time. If you ever have a choice between taking a convoy, a chopper or a Caribou to get someplace in this shit for a country, choose the chopper first, then the Caribou and just do your best to miss the convoy altogether. You’re going to get a first-person experience with a Caribou in just a little while. That’s what we’re riding to Quan Loi”.
The line of 40 or so guys moved swiftly through Gate 7 and soon we were almost running towards the back of a green and brown camouflage airplane which sat at the edge of the taxiway. I struggled to keep up. Most of my gear was in the heavy duffel slung over my shoulder and I carried a couple smaller Army-issue waterproof bags. As we approached, the short ramp at the rear of the plane slowly lowered. Just for an instant the back of the plane reminded me of a mouth on a huge alligator being opened. I was sweating now from carrying my bags and the wind from the twin propellers that were already running felt good on my face but the noise from them hurt my ears. “Is this thing really safe”, I thought. “Not very sleek looking to be an airplane”.
“Hustle it up, hustle it up,” yelled the Air Force loadmaster in charge. “We can’t waste Uncle’s fuel while you guys sashay your butts to get on this aircraft. You’re guests of the U.S. Air Force now. We got places to go, and people to meet. Just move on up and fill the seats along the sides. Don’t leave any spaces”, he emphasized the “don’t”. “Buckle up as soon as you’re seated. When all the seats are filled, whoever does not have one - find a place on the floor. Don’t worry, it’s a short flight to Quan Loi, seats will open up then. You won’t be on the floor for long. We got a full flight this afternoon”, he yelled above the drone of the engines. “Places to be, people to meet. Hurry it up, please!”
The seats quickly filled and as the last ten or so of us approached the rear walkway the loadmaster directed us to find a spot on the floor. All the red colored web seats along both sides of the aircraft were taken. The loadmaster could only point in the direction of the middle of the floor in front of a small cargo pallet of boxes since any vocal directions would have been lost in the noise from the whir of the engines. As I sat on the floor I felt the constant vibration from the dual engines and it tickled my butt. I glanced forward and up into the cockpit and noticed the pilot and co-pilot busy going through their checks. “Where was my seat belt?” I thought as I looked for a handhold in the floor. “Typical Military”.
Slowly, the rear ramp rose and continued to rise until it stopped half way. The top rear door of the plane was left partially open. “Air Conditioning”, I thought. The engines revved and the plane, first shuttered, and then begin to move. The engines’ loud roar made talking impossible as we moved along a taxi-way towards what, I could only guess since I had no vantage point, was the end of the runway and eventual takeoff. A look of wide-eyed expectancy was on every soldier’s face that I could see as I glanced down the row of seats along the right side of the aircraft. There were, however, those veteran Caribou flyers, whose eyes were already closed. “Certainly they were not sleeping”, I thought. “Then why close your eyes and miss the excitement? Not me, no sir”. This was new for me and I examined the walls and the ceiling of the plane and then tried to look out one of the small windows.
The engine noise eased a bit and the Caribou bumped along as the pilot slowly maneuvered through a right turn, straightened out, and almost completely stopped. I knew we were set for takeoff. The pilot increased the engines throttle speed and the plane began to lumber forward. Faster and faster it moved as the noise from the engines grew louder and louder, until suddenly, I could feel the change. My stomach lurched as I silently realized we were leaving the ground. Without warning there was a kind of strange quiet all contained within the noise of the roar of the engines. An uneasy smile appeared on many faces until, suddenly several loud thumps or bangs came from somewhere in the plane. Then there was the sound of a creak or almost a groan from the planes structure. All the New Guys looked forward in search of the loadmaster – searching for some reassurance that this was natural, that all was normal and loud noises did not mean something had failed and we would shortly be crashing to the ground and to our deaths.
Finding no reassurance from anyone, I closed my eyes. I thought of my family back home in North Dakota, of the jet black dirt in the fields of the surrounding countryside, of flowers and trees that would be in bloom on this fine day in May. I thought of anything that might take my mind off my worst imagined fears. “Please don’t let us crash! God, I just got here. How would that look in the papers back home?” I thought.
As I felt the plane began to level off, my fear of the imaginary crash began to abate. “This wasn’t so bad. Really,” I thought, as a cool breeze now flowed across my face from the partly open rear ramp. I realized the temperature in the cargo hold had dropped and it was now quite pleasant. I began to stretch for a view out one of the side windows. Off in the distance I could see the lush green of the trees below. “This was all right,” I thought, again. “Not first class, but all right. Next time I flew I would plan to be in the front of the line – that way I could get a regular seat along the side instead of on the floor. For now, all we had to do was land safely”. I closed my eyes and thought of my destination, Quan Loi. What was in store for me there?
The pilots’ voices drifted from the cockpit and I slowly came out of a bored daze. “We must be getting close to Quan Loi”, I thought. Bang!, Grr, err. . . The sounds grew louder and I once again panicked but quickly realized it must be the wheels being lowered. The plane began its descent as the loadmaster barked out that we would land soon. I reached to find a handhold as I found myself now sliding forward. Lower and lower we descended. Closer and closer we drifted until finally I felt the bump of the wheels touching the run-way. The plane bounced, touched down, bounced again and finally touched down for good. I could feel every pot hole and bump on the runway. The aircraft slowed and after a brief taxi run it came to an uneasy stop in front of a group of trees. The engines were still running.
“Okay, hustle it up. This is Quan Loi, next stop Loc Ninh – be sure to take all your gear – you won’t see it again if you leave it”, yelled the loadmaster. “Move it out, guys, we don’t have much time to spend here”, he continued. I gathered my duffel bag and the rest of my gear and struggled, dragging it, to the rear of the plane. My first impression – “this ground is red – what the hell kind of soil is this red?”
Over the next 13 months I flew in Caribous maybe eight or ten times. The entire process to do so was never easy and a few times it was a little scary, but each time I made it to my destination safely. I never did ride in a convoy, an experience 30 plus years later I still don’t regret missing. Two or three times I traveled in Huey Choppers, a fun experience for an artilleryman if the circumstances had been different, but when it was time to start the first leg of my journey back to the World it was an old reliable Caribou that took me there. After these many years have passed I send my sincere thanks to the Air Force pilots and loadmasters that got me there in their trusty airplanes, the C-7A Caribou, as well bringing us our mail, movies and many needed supplies to Quan Loi.
|Epilogue - How I came to write this story.|
|If you would like to experience a Caribou flight here are some links to some Youtube videos:|
|C7A Caribou Aircraft Training (1969) - Classic Air Force Film|
|Vietnam Veterans Fly the Caribou Again|
|John Wavra Then and Now|