I had a remembrance, the other night on my drive home from work, about a chance encounter I had years ago. When this remembered event happened it shook me to the core. After it I pondered and worried about how my Vietnam experience was going to affect the rest of my life. I know that, as fellow comrades-in-arms, you will be able to relate to my feelings and to the person who told me his experience.
It was early summer of 1969 and I had been home from Nam a little less than a year. That summer I was having nightly combat nightmares that would continue to plague me for at least another four years. Even though I had only been back for a year, I was worried about what I felt was my slow psychological adjustment back to “normal” or at least as normal as I was before the Army. I had no idea how long I would continue to have nightmares and feel certain alienation towards society.
One night, that summer, I was setting in a sports bar with a friend, when an older guy next to me commented, “I see by your tattoo that you were in the paratroopers. What unit were you with?” I told him the 101st, at which time he got this funny look on his face. He tells me that he was a pilot during World War II and flew as a support fighter during a drop in Europe. He had tears forming in his eyes as he told me this. He said when the planes came in to make the drop they were taking a lot of flak and the drop pilots were afraid to fly any higher. Already this man is starting to cry. He said the planes were dropping the troops at five hundred feet and he was on his radio telling the drop pilots to gain altitude, but they would not, out of fear. He related how he flew under the drop planes trying to force the drop pilots to gain altitude because he could see the troops falling to the ground without their chutes opening. Then he told me about how he started running into paratroopers after they came out the jump door. He hit them with his fighter, striking them with the plane’s props, yet the drop pilots would not gain altitude. By this time the man is sobbing loudly and it is apparent he is in mental anguish at reliving this event. The torment this pilot had been carrying for years was pouring out of him. How many times in thirty years had he relived or had nightmares of this hell? It shook me because it made me realize I had no idea what shape mentally I would be in, in the future. Was this a picture of me in thirty years? Thankfully I have managed to put my combat experiences in perspective over the years and have not had bad dreams of Vietnam for years. But at the time this encounter occurred I had no idea how, or if, I was going to adjust. Looking back at that night I wish I could have magically relieved some of that pilot’s pain with consoling words, but I was crying so hard I had to leave in a hurry. My heart goes out to him and those who have not adjusted from the hells of their war experiences.
Jim “Doc” Webb