As the airplane prepared to descend, one member of the flight crew entered the cargo compartment, made a quick announcement and left. It was hard to hear anything over the noise of the aircraft. I leaned over to the airman beside me, the only one on the plane I outranked, and yelled, “What did he say?”
“We’re landing on Guam and there will be a delay. Something’s wrong with the airplane and it might take several hours to fix it.”
“What do we do?”
“He didn’t say but he did say to carry all your gear. Have you ever been to Guam?”
“No. Except for a few trips over the border into Mexico, I’ve never left the States. How ’bout you?”
“Nope, but I’m here PCS [permanent change of station]. This is where I’ll be for the next 18 months. Where you headed?”
“Thailand, U-Tapao Air Base.”
I had assumed everyone on board was headed to the same place. Once we landed, I grabbed my duffel bag and made my way through to the front of the plane. As I stepped from the plane into open air, the sun blinded me. The nine-hour flight from Hawaii seemed like a week. We had flown in semidarkness inside the aircraft, making it difficult to read the book I carried with me, and the noise smothered any conversation. Blocking out the sun with my hand, I followed the line into the flight terminal. I made it inside just as the staff sergeant behind the flight desk asked if there were any questions. I had missed the briefing on the situation, but enough questions were asked to catch me up on our status. Our plane was delayed because of engine problems and would be here at least 10 hours. Officers would be taken to the officers’ club or to billeting, enlisted above E-3 could visit the NCO club, but nothing was said about the lower ranks, a group of one: me. The crowd dissipated as I stepped forward, asking the man what was available for those of us with little rank.
“There’s a few clubs right off base you can go to, but if you go somewhere you need to call in every hour or so to check the status of your flight. You don’t want to miss it. Or, you could find a chair and sleep.”
“Is that it?”
“At this time of day, yes. The BX [base exchange] is close by and they have an airman’s club, but I don’t think it’s open yet. Wherever you go, make sure you check in every hour. If you miss the plane, it’s your ass. There’s a cafeteria around the corner if you get hungry or you can walk to the chow hall.”
“Thanks a lot.”
A few noncoms had moved to the small waiting area. One or two were trying to sleep, one read a book and a few others played cards on the floor. I grabbed an isolated seat, laid my duffel bag out in front of it, stretched out and tried to read a book but fell asleep for an hour or two.
When I awoke, most of the others were gone and a new clerk stood behind the desk. Outside, the sun was setting. I approached the desk.
“Excuse me, sir. Where are the bathrooms?”
“There’s one down that hallway, and there’s a larger one out the front door and to your left.”
I stashed my duffel bag under one of the seats and walked outside into the cool air, instantly spotting the latrine. The empty facility was quite large with a long line of toilet stalls opposite an equal number of sinks and urinals. Two or three bare light bulbs lit the center area, leaving the fringe areas somewhat dark. I’d never seen so many toilet stalls in one place. I don’t know why, but I counted them—24—before choosing the best lit to use so I could read my book. After I sat down, the prominent graffiti jumped out at me. The walls were literally covered with it. Some offered the usual fare: crude drawings; off-color limericks; a few peace signs and a few cartoon figures. Most were etched into the wooden walls with the point of an ink pen or maybe a pen knife. As I read through the vertical record, I became aware of the deeper significance of the prose.
The island of Guam served as a crossroads for many soldiers coming and going to do their part, as I was, in the Vietnam War. The walls provided a random personal bulletin board for those who took the time to record their passage. Abundant soldiers’ names, usually accompanied by a hometown, played across all four walls. Most entries contained tidbits of trivia, such as destination, names of girlfriends, wives and children, or unit names. Some had team names tacked on, like “Go Dodgers!” Some soldiers had written lengthy diatribes about war; or poignant ditties about fighting for your country or honor, or because of the draft. Many had second entries, made on the return trip, celebrating a successful tour of duty in the war zone. Sometimes, other secondary entries, in different writing, announced the fate of those soldiers who didn’t make it. These often contained details of the death, obviously written by someone with firsthand knowledge of the man in question. Many of these were quite touching, speaking of friendship, camaraderie, loyalty and sorrow. Some names simply had “RIP” written above or below with a foreign name after, probably the locale of the soldiers’ deaths.
Sitting there, the walls drew me in. As a fan of well-written prose, I read the messages in the stall long after finishing my business, and went back to the terminal, where a few of the guys had returned and were again playing cards on the floor. One offered me a drink from a hidden bottle of bourbon, but I politely declined. I mentioned the graffiti to those sprawled on the floor but received little interest, so I found my chair and tried to sleep, but the messages on the walls wouldn’t let go of my mind. Twenty minutes later I returned to the latrine and went into the last stall. In the dim light, I began to read. When I finished that stall, I moved to the next, and so on. A few men entered and used the facilities while I worked my way down the line, but I continued uninterrupted. Every third or fourth stall I would walk outside to stretch my legs before returning to continue the fascinating study. Some entries brought laughs, others sadness and moist eyes.
About midway through the stalls, one entry on the left wall, toward the top, caught my eye. “John Wade Long Jr.—Salinas, Cal.” Amazingly, I knew John well. I, too, lived near Salinas. He lived in an area called Alisal. I lived in the rural area near the coast, and had been bused to a school near John’s neighborhood. We graduated together in 1969 from Alisal High School.
John was a city kid with a personality you couldn’t help but like. Blond, with surfer hair, good looking and athletic, he didn’t snub us “country hicks” who were bused in, as many city kids did. He always had a joke and a smile and it didn’t matter to him that I always got good grades and he didn’t. Our names, Long and May, automatically placed us close to each other when teachers arranged us alphabetically. When I saw his name, I smiled. The wall no longer remained faceless. Later, I returned to that stall before our flight left and scratched my name above his, right next to the top edge, with a “Hi John” between the two entries.
I spent the next 11 months in Thailand on a huge base supporting the bombers for the Arc Light missions. A family emergency sent me home early, and Guam was one of our scheduled stops. Eagerly, I awaited the layover in Guam, hoping for enough time to check out the walls.
Upon landing, I immediately made my way to the stalls. I tried one or two before I spotted my name, opened the door and stepped in, hoping to find a message from my friend. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light I saw John’s name—and a second entry, inked in below, with different handwriting. It said, “Died 6-10-70 RIP.”
My head swam. The date was only a few weeks past the first entry. He’d been killed shortly after he’d arrived, before I even saw the first entry. Even though I had been in the war, it was at that moment the war became personal. I wept quietly before standing and leaving. Silently I rode back to the States.
Until now, I’ve never told this story. Later I learned that John had died instantly after stepping on a land mine near the village of An Xugen in the province of Phu Yen while on patrol, approximately 39 days after he arrived.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.