My Journey Back to the World
Part Three of Five        (Read Part 1)    (Read Part 2)
“Freedom Bird”
Although my heart was pounding, I sat quietly as the aircraft taxied to a stop adjacent to the passenger terminal. I noted the plane belonged to the FLYING TIGER LINE and was a passenger version of a Douglas DC-8 Freighter.

No sooner had the whine of the aircraft’s engines ceased, than the welcome sound of the plane’s cabin and cargo doors opening was heard. Moreover, the noise of baggage being unloaded and loaded as well as the sound of the aircraft being serviced and refueled soon followed.

About half and hour had passed, when I began to notice some activity in the vicinity of the gate where the new arrivals would enter the terminal. Shortly thereafter, the troops, who had been on- board the aircraft, passed through the building and began boarding waiting buses.

As was the custom when new arrivals filed through the passenger terminal, all of us who were waiting to board, stood and clapped our hands and cheered loudly for them. This gesture was not so much to congratulate them for their arrival in VN; as it was for their exiting the aircraft so we could board and continue our journey back to the World.

When the new arrivals were gone we were given instructions and the boarding procedure began. As my number was one of the last to be boarded; I turned around and looked at the new arrivals that were still in the process of boarding the buses. I surmised that some had been here before; however, for a great number of them, this was their first time in Vietnam, or overseas for that matter.

A year had passed since I had been in their exact same situation. I thought of what had happened to me during the year and wondered if I had changed. Then, I heard my number called and my time for reflection was finished. I turned around and walked through the gate onto the tarmac; then up a set of portable stairs and I boarded my FREEDOM BIRD.

I walked through the door of the Freedom Bird and quickly found my seat. I had an aisle seat, which I thought would probably give me more room for my shoulders which would make the trip more comfortable. My row mates had previously boarded and were busy buckling their seat belts and sharing nervous chit-chat. I stowed my bag in the overhead, sat down, buckled my seatbelt and began quietly chatting with them.

A short time passed, and I started hearing the “clunk” of the baggage doors of the plane closing. Conversation among the troops on board had ceased. I heard two more “clunks” which were the main cabin doors closing. I saw the lights in the cabin flicker and heard the whine of the plane’s engines starting. The Flight Attendants began their safety briefing in the cabin as the plane started to taxi out to the main runway for takeoff. I leaned forward in order to peer out of a cabin window. I noticed that dawn was breaking. Another day was beginning in the Republic of Viet Nam. The wonderful thought then passed through my mind that I would not be present in the RVN to see this day’s sunset.

The plane slowed at the end of the runway, made a turn and stopped. Suddenly, I heard the engines whine loudly and the aircraft began to roll down the runway. The plane’s front pitched up and the vibration stopped. I heard the welcome “clump” of the landing gear retracting. We were airborne and on our way back Home!

I decided I could and should start breathing again. I looked around and virtually every one of the troops on the aircraft I could see was smiling. There was no conversation. The only sounds which I could hear were those emanating from the aircraft as it flew. I noted the time: 6:10 AM, Sunday, January 11, 1970.

When we reached our cruising altitude, the Aircraft Commander came on the intercom to welcome us aboard; inform us of our speed and altitude. He said our destination was Tokyo International Airport and our flying time from Bien Hoa would be approximately six hours. He stated that after refueling and a change of crew, the aircraft would proceed non-stop from Tokyo, Japan to Travis AFB, California.

As the aircraft flew toward Japan, the Flight Attendants began to serve breakfast. The food was typical airline food, but I was hungry and I ate all of what was served to me. The sound level of conversation was also increasing in the plane. I noticed books and decks of cards had been taken from carry-on bags as the troops settled in for the first leg of our flight back to the World.

After breakfast, the excitement of the moment began to wane and I became very sleepy. I asked the flight attendant for a pillow and went to sleep, as I leaned against the seat back in front of me. I was totally oblivious to anything that was happening in the plane.

I was awakened by a Flight Attendant, requesting I put my seat back in an upright position. I asked my row mates what was happening and they told me we were on our approach to Tokyo. I marveled at how short the flight here had been. My row mates had a good chuckle when I said so.

In a short time, we were on the ground at Tokyo International Airport. The plane was refueled and serviced. We were not allowed to exit the aircraft due to “Customs Regulations”. Thankfully, the main doors of the aircraft were opened and fresh air flowed through the cabin while we were on the ground. After about an hour we took off.

When we reached our cruising altitude, the Aircraft Commander again came on the intercom and informed us we would be flying non-stop to Travis AFB, California, located near San Francisco. The estimated flying time for the second leg of our flight back to the world would be twelve hours.

The attitude of the troops on the plane was much different after this stop in Tokyo. The noise level seemed to be greatly increased and consisted of much laughter and loud talking. As the plane continued to fly east and the sun began to fade; the sounds in the cabin changed to loud snoring. After about six hours of flight, the sky was totally dark and the cabin lights were dimmed until we were close to the World.

It was at this point in the flight I began to get very uncomfortable. It seemed that my seat had become extremely hard. In fact, I began to think that sitting on a block of concrete would have been more comfortable. I asked the Flight Attendant for a couple of pillows, which helped to some extent. I then realized that since leaving Bien Hoa AFB, we had been sitting in this aircraft for thirteen hours and we still had another six hours remaining before we landed. I thought, “Oh, shit!”

The aircraft continued to fly on and on and on into the night. Just about the time I began to consider that we had been caught in a Time Warp, I heard the engine noise decrease and I began to feel an increase in the aircraft cabin pressure. This situation had but one meaning – we were descending into Travis AFB. I heard the sound of the plane’s landing gear being extended. I began to get excited as did everyone on the plane. Again, the only sounds to be heard were those made by the aircraft.

As the wheels of the plane touched the runway, the ambiance of the moment before was replaced by utter pandemonium. The cheering and yelling was deafening. From somewhere, bottles of liquor appeared and were passed around for all to partake. I noted the time: 4:45 AM, Sunday, January 11, 1970. The time was an hour and twenty-five minutes before we had left Bien Hoa AFB.

As the aircraft taxied to our debarkation ramp, the Aircraft Commander again came on the intercom and said, “This is the most enjoyable part of these flights. On behalf of me and the aircraft crew; we would like to be the first to welcome you back to the United States of America and thank you for a job well done.” Thank you Captain!

The plane pulled to a stop and the cabin doors were opened. As I exited the aircraft; I immediately noticed the weather was cold and damp. It definitely was wintertime in the World, so, I pulled on the field jacket which I had been so reluctant to accept a half a world ago and walked down a set of portable stairs and onto the good earth of the United States of America. That particular instant was, and continues to be, one of the happiest and most memorable moments of my life.
Gary Graham
Norman, Oklahoma    Go to Part 4

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