Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dadlands: The thirteenth month

Tuy Hoa is where my Dad reached the end of his Vietnam tour.

I’m finished!!!!!! I’m so happy and relieved I’m going to burst with joy. It’s so great to be alive! -- August 5, 1968, Tuy Hoa

Apparently, it's common for soldiers in a war zone to grow increasingly anxious about the possibility of death as the end of their tour approaches. That's what happened to my Dad. He expected to get the traditional soft assignment to Bangkok for his last couple of weeks. Instead he got sent back into the thick of things.

I was so darned scared and pessimistic when I found out I was coming here rather than Bangkok.
The easiest part of it was the flying. The hardest part was thinking about flying. I couldn’t think of being with you and the kids without thinking of the awful pain if I didn’t come back.

The North Vietnamese have been getting more and bigger guns. Small arms never worried me but the anti-aircraft weapons they are using are too much for a C-130. And when you are landing or making a drop you are really vulnerable.

 Statue of a Viet Cong soldier taking a downed US Air Force pilot prisoner, DMZ Museum, Quang Tri
He went on to tell my Mom all the stuff he had hidden from her over the previous 13 months: stories of friends shot down or nearly shot down, and the tale of his own brush with disaster at a small airstrip called Prek Klok. His C-130, carrying 24,000 pounds of high explosives, was ambushed with mortars and gunfire just after landing. Somehow he reversed all the way down the runway toward the incoming mortars and took off again.

When we backed up we created so much dust that we couldn’t see how far we had moved. The airplane feels real strange when you’re backing up at 40 or 50 knots. We stopped and it was evident there still wasn’t enough room so we backed up again. This time it was OK so we poured the power on and I wasn’t sure until we got to 60 knots that we were going to make it. We knocked over a slender pole right at the end of the runway (it shouldn’t have been there anyway) and used every darn inch of it.

The whole crew got the Distinguished Flying Cross. Mom and all of us kids went to see Dad get his medal in Washington after his return. I've seen the family photos from that day, but until I read his description of the ambush I didn't really know what he had been honored for.

Reading the letters has been a great, if bittersweet, experience. My Mom's letters to him are a corker too, full of great period details like the time her mother took my older sisters out to "see the hippies" on Boston Common.

So, the moral of the story is: SAVE YOUR LETTERS, and archive your e-mail and blogs too. You never know who might find them interesting, even after you're gone. These letters survived only because one of those sisters of mine made a point of putting them in a safe place after Dad died.

Also, I'm very lucky to have a guy who lets me drag him to backwater towns, crummy hotels and deserted airfields just because my father happened to be there 40 years ago. The Dadlands Tour 2010 would not have happened without Chad, who sometimes supported it more ardently than I did.


RMD said...

Trish, your trip following in your dad's footsteps has been fascinating! Thx!

kopisusu2 said...

Thanks, Raquel! We become Westerners (and I mean Western Westerners) on July 29! Hope to see you soon after that!