On March 17, 1967, after 642 missions, I closed out my combat flight log. With only 10 short days remaining on a 13-month tour—“12 and 20,” as it was known throughout the ranks—it was understood that a soldier wasn’t as likely to make his best decisions, so they cut him some slack and sent him to the rear where he wouldn’t hurt anybody. Relegated to the role of wizened warrior, I wasn’t expected to do any more “heavy lifting,” and at last, I could start thinking seriously about going home.
You may remember the VMO-2 ball cap that Tom Selleck wore in Magnum PI. VMO-2 was my Marine Observation Squadron at Marble Mountain, four miles east of Da Nang, where I piloted my first combat mission on March 1, 1966. Our small band of rookie Huey drivers, operating so close to North Vietnam, found itself on the bleeding edge of a war unlike any other in history. This was a helicopter war where we shuttled grunts directly into live action practically on an hourly basis.
I knew I would never experience another bond like the one I shared with these men…
Most of the young pilots in my squadron were completely naive about death and combat when they were sent to Vietnam, and they certainly had no desire to kill anyone, which made the sheer volume of medevacs we witnessed even more heartbreaking. Some of us, especially medevac pilots, who were exposed to live combat nearly every day, almost expected not to make it out alive. It seemed arrogant to think that you would return home to lead a normal life when so many good people, some of them your friends, did not. Sleepless nights dogged by thoughts of bullets ripping through various parts of my body had kept me “entertained” for over a year. But I had somehow managed to dodge those bullets in the real world and could return home.
My orders home were slow to come in, so I spent a couple of weeks in a lonely twilight zone. The young lieutenants who were in my hooch when I moved in had one by one rotated home. Charlie Plunkett, Steve Waltrip and Poop Ashbaugh, who had entertained me with their antics for months, became quiet and reclusive during their end days. Together, we had experienced a coming of age in that little hooch on the South China Sea.
One night when our poker game was interrupted by a mortar attack, we sat in a dark bunker, trying to guess where the mortars were landing. When Waltrip courageously suggested that we put on flight suits and run down to the flight line to evacuate the Hueys, it only took a few seconds to conclude we weren’t doing that, not in a million years. We had all acquired leather holsters and were wearing nothing but our dyed-green underwear with our pistols on our hips like half-naked cowboys, wondering if it might come down to hand-to-hand combat. I knew I would never experience another bond like the one I shared with these men, the same way I knew I would never see them again when all this was over.
Each of my hoochmates entered into his own private transition for going home, though they prepared themselves in a similar fashion—writing home, reflecting and talking quietly with each other. There was no fanfare for their departure, nor did they want any. They just sort of dissolved. One day their duffel bags sat on the floor, the next day they were gone. New officers took their places and rearranged their spaces to suit themselves.
One of them, a senior captain named Jack Owens, asked to be put into a hooch with a “seasoned pilot,” and they put him in Waltrip’s old spot, next to me. He snored so loudly that we accused him of blistering the plywood on the ceiling. There was an unwritten rule that experience trumped rank, and one night Owens sat at the end of my cot and told me that I was one of the most respected pilots in the squadron. After that, I told him everything I knew about flying into hot zones and how to protect himself with common sense. Each pilot had to develop his own version of survival. Mine was to fly as often as possible and to not waste a bit of time, effort, energy, fuel, words, ammo or emotion.
Owens was an all-American guy and a good pilot. He reminded me of one of my best childhood friends who was killed by a drunk driver when he was 14—the first time I’d experienced the death of a close friend. I had felt overwhelming sorrow for my friend and for his grieving dad, who could barely stand at the funeral, but also for the poor fellow who hit him. That’s when I decided that no matter how complicated life is, death should be the easiest part. A couple of years after that, when I lost another teenage friend in a train accident, I felt I was being sent a message that I should prepare myself with a special set of survival skills.
One night, Owens asked me if I had a relationship with Jesus Christ and if I had ever accepted him as my personal savior. I told him that I had screamed his name a few times on some of my missions. He chuckled uncomfortably, but I could tell he had a lot on his mind. I told him I was a Christian, if that’s what he meant. I think he just wanted to know where my calmness came from.
Seeing these new guys like Jack Owens come into the squadron just as I was preparing to leave robbed me of some of the excitement of going home. They were experienced pilots, but green to combat, and there was too much for them to process without practical advice and mentoring. In my early days in Vietnam, I flew copilot with some people who would spend 10 or 15 minutes circling the landing zone like a buzzard. Then they would make a conventional, into-the-wind approach, as though they were on a training hop. We learned to refine this “sitting duck” approach, and as I told Owens, “I don’t think it matters which way you approach, as long as you turn into the wind and have everything under control at the last second. The point is, don’t telegraph your plan. It’s like the old joke about never calling your wife from a bar. You’ll be yelled at on the phone and ambushed again when you come home. Sneak in with your shoes off.”
I also shared with Owens how important it was on a medevac mission to never look back, and told him about a wounded Marine, in shock, who jumped off his stretcher with no legs. The bones in his stumps stuck in the dirt as he hung helplessly by his elbows while his two terrified stretcher-bearers scrambled to help him back on the stretcher. The last thing I saw out of the corner of my eye, and the image I will never forget, was the red cloud of dirt and dust that our Huey stirred up around them as we lifted off the hospital pad. Jesus Christ!
When my orders to go home finally arrived, I visited the VMO-2 squadron line shack, where the crew chiefs and corpsmen hung out, and made my goodbyes, thanking everyone and shaking hands. Then they cranked up the medevac slick for our short ride to Da Nang. A few of us who had come over to Vietnam together sat in the back of the Huey on a stretcher that was stained brown with dried blood.
In Da Nang, we could see the long white Pan Am 707 waiting to take us home, but none of this seemed to be sinking in. It felt as if my mind were on a dimmer switch set to its lowest setting. Major Bob Plamondon and Captain Harold “Gus” Plum, on the other hand, were practically giddy with anticipation, taking snapshots with a new Polaroid camera and peeling off the developed pictures instantly. Amazing!
Dr. Curtis Richard “Doc” Baker, our flight surgeon, had given me a couple of pills so I could sleep on the plane. A stop in Okinawa would add an extra day to our 10,000-mile journey. Once we were inside the aircraft and the stewardess closed the door, it finally hit me that I would not be coming back to Marble Mountain. Images of my hooch entertained me for a few minutes: the “patio” deck made of wooden pallets where we shared so many stories and warm beers; our poor little fake Christmas tree still sitting there in March flocked in red dirt and sand; and the squadron’s adopted pet monkey, Justin Case, whose lack of house training epitomized the chaos that surrounded us.
When the pilot taxied for takeoff, my thoughts began cascading irrationally; rather than feeling relieved to be going home, apprehension and guilt began to chew my insides. My mind played tricks on me. Was this part of a cruel joke, and everybody on the plane was going to die in a spectacular crash? Time stood so still that I tapped on my watch to wake up the sweep hand. I leaned forward in my seat, unwilling to become too attached to it. As on my medevac missions, I needed to focus in front of me and not look back.
An Army officer sitting next to me was reading Senator William Fulbright’s new book, The Arrogance of Power, in which Fulbright strongly criticized the war. His book attacked the justification of it, as well as Congress’ failure to set limits on it. I read along with him for a while as he turned the pages. Fulbright blamed our involvement on Cold War geopolitics, claiming that the United States is cursed with a Puritan spirit that leads us to look at the world through a distorted prism of angry moralism. According to the senator, we have a glorified image of our nation, believing that it’s our duty to do God’s work. It made me wonder if the people who create wars actually know why we fight them.
The nagging premonition of tragedy would not leave me alone. I could feel Doc Baker’s two sleeping pills lying loose in my left front pocket, but I’d waited too long to take them. I felt like a feral cat that had been forced into a strange domestic environment, hovering on the edge of anxiety. When we finally landed in Okinawa, I spent the rest of the day standing in line, being processed. After dinner that night, Major Plamondon brought me some very bad news.
Just hours after saying farewell that morning at Marble Mountain, my former hoochmate, Jack Owens, was killed on a routine recon mission out of Dong Ha. His plane was riddled with heavy-caliber and small-arms fire, and he was killed instantly. Doc Baker also perished in the crash, along with a 22-year-old door gunner, Corporal Paul Albano, and a 19-year-old crew chief, George Stevenson, both of whom I visited in the line shack before leaving. This horrific incident had coincided with my irrational anxiety attack on the plane. Doc Baker died before I could swallow his sleeping pills. I felt an urgent need to keep pressing on toward home.
By the time we boarded our flight to San Francisco the next morning, I began to feel as if my entire tour had been nothing more than a dream, similar to a long novel, and it would be up to me to write the ending. As soon as the stewardess handed me a Coke, I swallowed one of Doc Baker’s pills. As I struggled to relax, those images of bullets ripping through various parts of my body paid me another short visit. It’s simply not possible to process the weight of everything that a war can throw at you.
When the second pill didn’t calm me down, I began to suspect that Doc had actually given me amphetamines as a practical joke, but by the time we landed in San Francisco, I was so subdued that I barely remember the walk to the terminal. I said goodbye to Gus Plum and promised to stay in touch—a promise I couldn’t keep. Plum would be dead two weeks later when the helicopter he was riding on crashed into a mountain during an orientation flight at El Toro Marine Base, killing everyone on board.
I still had another long flight to Tennessee ahead of me. In the terminal, the shapely legs of women clicking their high heels as they walked past perked up my spirits. A man came over to shake my hand and thank me for my service, something I wasn’t expecting from reading the newspapers. I ordered a beer and watched the frost melt on the bottle; the bartender wouldn’t take my money.
Somewhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and the St. Louis Arch, my brain fog lifted. I stared out the window like a child on his first airplane ride. The closer we came to my home state of Tennessee, the more I began to realize I just might be out of the woods. It dawned on me that people wouldn’t be shooting at me anymore, and whatever challenges might be thrown my way, instant death wasn’t a likely outcome of a wrong decision. I promised myself that I would never worry about anything else because the worst was surely behind me.
I pondered how my experiences had changed me, knowing that I wasn’t the same person who left 13 months ago. That guy was never coming home. I’d picked up a few idiosyncrasies I’d have to work through. I could no longer tolerate whining and selfish behavior. And I seemed to have developed a hyper-awareness of everything around me. In my peripheral vision, I could see the stewardess with her cherry-red fingernail polish. “Sir, I need you to put your seat forward,” she said, every word carefully crafted from her corporate training. Her beverage smile was gone now as she collected empty cups and checked passengers for loose seat belts.
Through the open cockpit door, I could see the pilots going through prelanding procedures and talking to the air traffic controller. Books and magazines were being stowed. Several reading lights remained on. A sergeant coming back from the lavatory pulled on the back of my seat as he went by. He had a window seat in row 16. The men at the windows were staring intently down to earth. Those on the aisle looked straight ahead, watching the pilots. The seat belt light came on, accompanied by three soft tones.
I dug out my ballpoint pen to see if I could remember the oath I’d recited as a 12-year-old Tenderfoot Scout. On my honor, I will do my best…to do my duty …to God and my country….
I had no idea what would be waiting for me in the world that I left behind so many lives ago, but those simple words seemed to be as good a place as any to start my life over again. I knew that this landing would not mean the end of Vietnam for me. This war would never end. But my seat belt and tray table were once more in the full upright and locked position, and I was ready for landing.
A captain in Marine Observation Squadron 2 in 1966-67, Bud Willis is the author of Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir.