Flight home

Richard F. Denne

I served time as RTO for the great Tom Furgeson.
Alpha Company 2n Bn/327/101st Airborne (June 1966 -1967)
I was the 7th man out the door of the 1st Plane during Operation Junction City Feb. 22nd 1967 {NO SLACK}!

Here are a few notes from my diary on coming home from the Nam.

I was flying back to safety in some rear area airfield to catch my ride home. The long nightmare was over. Or so I thought. How could I have known that when I got back to America, It wouldn’t be there?

Soon I was standing with hundreds of other service personal waiting to be processed at a huge airbase near Saigon. The shock of going home was so overpowering, I really can’t recall just what my reactions were at that time except that I was not at all that sure that I wouldn’t be pulled out of this process and sent back into the Hell I just escaped.
I remember that it was a long wait however, because nothing in the military moves along swiftly, combat situations being the exception. Even waiting to board the civilian Continental 707 seamed to be a mind-numbingly slow event. Anticipation mixed with apprehension, hope with prospect, fused together into unwelcome feelings of not making it off the runway, overpowering the reality that I was in fact finally homeward bound. The line finally started moving, and we waddled aboard in a promenade like hot penguins heading for a refrigerated flying refuge.

I was fortunate enough to find a window seat. Even though the most popular saying in the NAM at that time besides “Sorry About That,” was, “Don’t Look Back.” Nothing was going to stop me from watching this little corner of Hell disappear from my field of vision. We settled in and waited for takeoff. And waited and waited and waited. Gazing out my window, I recall thinking, oh, this is great. Come on, come on! Let’s go! I can’t, breath! Why aren’t we moving? I was beginning to hallucinate and I wasn’t even on any drugs.

There’s probably VC on the runway! I’ll never get out of here. What if I’m here the rest of my life? Maybe I’m dead. And this is my Hell! Stranded in Vietnam! I envisioned lifting the plane off the damned ground with my bare hands, flinging it into the air, and jumping back on board as it gained altitude. Anything to get this fucking aircraft into the air and out of this place! We were all frozen in our seats with anticipation and all silently pondering the same thing. When the Hell were we going to move? Knowing we’re not out of here yet and still smelling and tasting this place. Jesus Christ, I’m leaving Vietnam, but it’s not leaving me.

A lifetime or two passed before we began to move and taxied into position for takeoff. Everyone on board seemed simultaneously to take a deep breath. The air was thick with tension, all of the passengers willing the plane into the air. We were moving faster and faster, but we were still on the ground and still holding our breath. There was a deathly calm in the cabin now. I started to move up and down in my seat, pulling on my hand rest to help lift us into the air. Maybe if I yelled for everyone to do the same, we could help get this bird airborne. Then came that exhilarating feeling of takeoff. Still, we were paralyzed in our seats. Sweat was now running down my forehead; my eyes felt as though they were popping out of their sockets as I peered out my window. Yes! Everyone is getting smaller. I’m screaming on the inside to those little Asian people wearing those black pajamas. Good-bye you slope-headed, slant-eyed, rice eating, fish-breathed GOOKS! F… every one of you! Do hear me? (I really didn’t feel that way but had to say it anyway).

Shortly after we were airborne, the captain made an announcement over the intercom “We are now leaving Vietnam air space and heading for home.” An explosion of cheers cut through the plane like nothing I’ve experienced before or since. Pandemonium broke loose for a time. Then I only remember sinking back into my seat and drifting off to incredible daydreams of Disney girls in Disney worlds. And thoughts of HIM, the warrior in Vietnam who had made me rethink my life, my actions, and my future.

It was in June of 1967 when that 707 touched down on American soil. Even as the plane came to a stop and the men were disembarking, even then I couldn’t accept the fact that I had made it home from Vietnam, that place of unspeakable horror, sorrow and regret. My experience wouldn’t let me forget the carnage I had left behind.

As my foot touched the tarmac, I fell to my knees and kissed the very soil I had been propagandized into believing I had been protecting. Mind you, it wasn’t a peck-on-the-cheek kind of kiss either; I laid a big wet juicy one on her. I had given up all hope of ever seeing her again, and I had missed her so much. She never did forsake me; it was my country’s leadership that fell from her grace.

Even though I was surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, I felt all alone, for I knew not a single face, much the same as my flight into Vietnam had been.. What a long, strange trip it had been; however there was nothing about that war that wasn’t strange.

As significant as my homecoming was, I really can’t recollect much of it. I do recall holding my duffel bag and standing in lines, waiting once again on orders, this time for my 45-day leave. Hurry up and wait. Standing in line was by definition synonymous with life in the military.

There was no homecoming party for us; none was expected. We were, however treated kindly by the military personnel, which at least made an effort to make this process go smoothly. They had set up a 24-hour mess hall, fixing us whatever we wanted. Steak and eggs, hamburgers and fries, milkshakes and coffee were the most requested, I recall. The food looked and smelled wonderful and I was running on empty, but I couldn’t eat anything. How was that possible? Many times not so long ago while I had been walking patrol in the boonies of Nam had I dreamed of French fries and all of the other tempting food now surrounding me in abundance. I had promised myself that if I made it home I would never take anything in the real world for granted weather it be toilet paper or a glass of clean tap water.

Richard F. Denne