On a typical hot and humid Vietnam afternoon in July 1966, I was on a work detail at An Khe base camp, the home of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in the Central Highlands, when I was told to report to the orderly room tent. The company clerk told me I had a phone call from Capt. Kelley in Nha Trang, a coastal city to the south. I picked up the handset and said, “Hello.” On the other end of the line was my big sister, Joan Kelley, an officer in the Army Nurse Corps.
“Michael, this is your sister. I am in Vietnam, and I want to see you as soon as possible. Over.” When using a tactical phone, you had to say the word “over” after a complete sentence. I was very surprised to hear Joan’s voice. I had not seen her since Thanksgiving 1964, when she was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. I was then a student at the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Joan had sent me an airline ticket so I could spend the weekend at her off-post apartment for a Thanksgiving dinner with my mother, who was staying with my sister for a few weeks’ vacation.
I told my sister that I did not know when I could go to Nha Trang to see her because I was on flight status as a helicopter crew chief and door gunner. Getting out of combat duty was not easy. I told Joan I would have to request some leave from my first sergeant. We had a good chat for a few minutes, and then I had to get off the phone. “OK Joan, I will do my best to visit you soon. Over.”
I requested to see my first sergeant to apply for leave: “Top (slang for first sergeant, the top sergeant in a company-level unit), I need three days’ leave to visit my sister down in Nha Trang.” The grizzled sergeant gave me a cold stare. “Kelley, this is a damn combat unit, soldier, not a country club,” he said. “We don’t have time to be screwing off on leave unless you have orders for some R and R. Besides, your platoon is short on manpower, and if you’re not on duty your bird will not be flying on combat missions.”
“OK, Top, I understand the situation. If you can do anything for me to get some time off, I would appreciate it very much.”
“I will take it under consideration, Kelley,” the sergeant replied. “I will let you know if I can do anything for you. Now, get out of my office and get back to your detail.”
Months slipped by as I got closer to the end of my tour of duty and return to the States. By early November, I was worried that I would not get to see my sister. My unit had a new first sergeant, a big guy from Samoa, who looked like a bear but was as easygoing as a favorite uncle. With all the courage I could muster, I went to see the new top sergeant to find out if I could go to Nha Trang. Without any fuss, he instructed the company clerk to fill out orders for a three-day leave for Nha Trang.
Off I went to the An Khe airfield to catch an Air Force C-130 cargo plane to the Nha Trang Air Base. It was about a 45-minute flight down the coast to Nha Trang, a beautiful city on the South China Sea. The first thing I saw were the little islands off the coast that seemed to have high mountains covered with jungle. It was fantastic.
I saw an Air Force snack bar and went in for a cold drink and food. The place had almost everything you could want: cold beer, cold soda, hot dogs and burgers. We had none of that in An Khe. Those Air Force guys sure had it good. I ordered a cold soda and a burger while two airmen entered the snack bar and sat next to me. “Hey soldier, I see you are with 1st Cav. How is the war going up north?” one of them asked.
“Yeah, I am with the Cav,” I replied. “We keep pretty busy up north.”
“What are you doing down here?”
“I came down to see my sister at the field hospital.”
The airman told the cook they would pick up my tab because I was with the Cav. I told them they did not have to do that, but they insisted. When I finished eating, they asked if I wanted a ride to the main gate to get off base. I climbed onto the back of their big blue Dodge airport pickup truck with the yellow “Follow Me” sign on the back. As we rode down the street we passed a row of Douglas AC-47 planes on the maintenance ramp.
“Is that Spooky?” I asked them. They said it was Spooky, the nickname for the AC-47 gunship. I asked them if I could get a closer look. They drove their big Dodge onto the airfield and parked next to a Spooky. Mechanics were around the plane, and the guy in charge said I could check it out. I got my 35 mm camera and began taking shots of the famous aircraft I had seen in action up in the mountains. This was an awesome bird with fearsome miniguns that could wipe out a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army company in 10 minutes. After I had my fill of the Spooky, I got back in the Dodge.
The airmen took me to the main gate and dropped me off so I could walk into town. But I didn’t walk. A jeep stopped, and a full colonel driving it offered a ride downtown. He saw my Cav patch and asked what unit I was with. I told him the 1st Squadron of the 9th Cavalry Regiment. “You must be one of Jim Smith’s boys,” he said. Smith was my squadron commander, a lieutenant colonel. It seemed like my Cav patch was getting me a lot of perks, free food and free rides.
I met up with my sister, “The Captain,” and she took me to her base at the 8th Field Hospital in a baby blue civilian jeep with a few of her nurse friends. Joan introduced me to her first sergeant who provided me with a bunk in a large World War II-type Quonset hut barracks. He had a few medics on temporary duty elsewhere, which meant there were some empty bunk beds in the hut. Vietnamese women worked inside the hut to keep things clean. I was shocked as they polished my boots, washed my uniform and made my bunk bed, just like hotel maids. Up north, the Cav did not allow any Vietnamese on our base. We were field soldiers, who did our own cleaning and slept in dirty sleeping bags.
My sister took me to a seaside French restaurant for a nice meal. I don’t recall what I ate as it was all French cuisine. Joan ordered everything, and I just ate it. It sure beat the hell out of C rations beef stew and hot dogs and beans. On the walk back to Joan’s villa, jeeps and cargo trucks passed by and the soldiers gave us a salute. I saluted back. My sister got upset with me because I was not an officer. But my uniform made me look like a young officer pilot—sleeves rolled up over my specialist 5 insignia, white air crewman wings on my cap and left pocket, and the gold 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, crest on my cap. I was having a ball because enlisted men do not walk with nurses, so the soldiers thought I had to be an officer. It was so funny.
Joan invited her nurse friends and some doctors to her villa for a party. I was the only enlisted person there. I was like a fish out of water. They were amused that Capt. Kelley had a kid brother who was an enlisted man. My sister was 31, and I had just turned 21. Those nurses were far from the real war and living on their nice base. It got late, and my sister suggested I stay overnight and sleep on the bunk bed of a nurse who was on night duty. I went to sleep on clean sheets and a pillow. When I woke up in the morning, I thought I was dreaming. The sheets had the scent of perfume and not the musty smell of my dirty sleeping bag.
When our “rendezvous in Nha Trang” was over, it was sad to say goodbye to my big sister. I would soon be going home as my tour ended, while she would be left in Vietnam for another six months. She stayed in the Army for 26 years and retired as a chief nurse colonel in 1986. I stayed in for over 22 years and retired as a master sergeant. We think we may have been the only officer and enlisted brother and sister to serve in Vietnam at the same time. V
Michael L. Kelley served in Vietnam December 1965-December 1966 as a helicopter crewman in a weapons platoon on a UH-1B Huey gunship and later in a scout platoon on an OH-13S Sioux observation helicopter with Troop C, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment. Postwar Kelley was a contracts production specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency, assigned to the Raytheon Missile System Division in Massachusetts. He lives in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.
This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.