The Last Battle: Getting Home
We had a saying:
I was back in Phan Rang in the Air Force BOQ (bachelor officers quarters), because they had air conditioning and real beds. The Army BOQ had cots and old mosquito netting. It was the day I was supposed to fly to Cam Rahn to get my plane to get out of there. Of course all of us from Sherry had bad thoughts about that flight to Cam Rahn Bay. (Seven month before George Beedy’s plane ran into a mountain on that flight.) I’m up at 6:00 in the morning, it’s just getting light. I go outside my BOQ room, which is like a cinderblock motel, and there’s a guy out there with a mama-san smoking a joint. He’s an Air Force guy. I say, “How are you?” And I say, “I’m leaving today.”
He says, “That’s great. That’s really cool.”
I say, “I’m going to Cam Rahn Bay.”
He says, “Wow! Great! I’m flying that plane.” And he’s out there smoking dope.
I say, “You’re flying that plane?”
He says, “Yeah, we’re taking off in a couple hours.”
I thought: OK, there’s your sign. When Beedy’s plane ran into the mountain on his way to Cam Ranh it really shook everybody up. I convoyed from Phan Rang all the way up to Cam Rahn. My adventures were over. I was not going to fly in that plane.
Six months prior on November 29, 1970, Sp4 George Beedy died on his way home, when his plane out of Phan Rang hit a mountain in heavy cloud cover. There were no survivors.
So I got to Cam Rahn and hung around there for a couple days. We were in big barracks. They would come in and read off a list of names and you’d get on the plane. After two days or so, Bammo, there we go. I was the second plane of the day. The first plane went up and ours was four hours later. We get on the plane. I took a bunch of sleeping pills someone had given me and I was so wired to get out of there they didn’t do anything at all.
The pilot came on and said, “Look, normally we would make a stop along the way, but we got plenty of fuel, a tail wind that is kicking butt, and we can go straight on through. What do you guys want to do?”
Well you can imagine. Everyone said, “GO, GO, GO.”
So we did a non-stop, which was great. We landed at Ft. Lewis and started taxiing to the gate when the pilot came on and said, “We got a little problem. The plane that left four hours before us stopped along the way and got here just before us. We’re gonna be here on the tarmac for ten or fifteen minutes while they process those guys.”
Everybody’s fine with that. This is a whole plane full of lieutenants and captains. Everybody’s cool. Some guys could see their wives and their kids out at the gate waving to them. Fifteen or twenty minutes go by and nothing happens. Half an hour goes by and nothing happens. There’s no air conditioning on the plane. Finally somebody says to the pilot, “What’s going on here?”
The pilot says, “Well they got to search these guys and their baggage and they don’t have the facilities to search you guys at the same time. So they have to do the other plane before we can go in there. But we’ll be out of here shortly.”
Two hours later we are still on the plane. It’s hotter ‘n hell of course. The people are starting to get restless. I think the pilots had left at that point, sensing trouble. There was a major who was the ranking guy on the plane. He said, “Let me see if I can at least open up the doors.” They opened up the doors, but we’re all still sitting there.
Remember, most of us on the plane were getting out of the friggin’ Army in one or two more days, and whatever happened they couldn’t send us back to Vietnam. People could see their wives, kids and parents just a few hundred feet away. Some of them hadn’t seen their families for a year. The mood on the plane got ugly.
We’re now sitting on the tarmac for three hours or more. They send people out to the airplane and tell us it’s going to be ten or fifteen more minutes. The place went into open rebellion. People started tearing seats out and throwing them out the door. The door was fifteen feet off the ground and people were wondering: Can we just jump? They can’t stop us. It was crazy.
That did it. Someone came up and said they would take us off the plane now. They ran us through and didn’t bother to check us carefully. In another half an hour that plane would have been toast. I never saw anything like it in my life. It was the last insult.
When I got to the commercial airport it was six or seven at night. I got a plane back to Chicago, which left maybe six hours later. It was a Boeing 747, and I had never been on a 747 before. It was like the coolest thing in the world. I’ll tell you what the pilot did. I’ll never forget this. He came down and met me as I got on the plane. He shook my hand and walked me up to the front of the plane. He said, “You’re flying first class.” I was the only person in first class. I sat down and went to sleep before we took off and woke up when we were landing in Chicago.
But Am I Really Home?
Captain DeFrancisco used to point out a snaggletooth tree you could see from our firebase on top of a distant ridgeline that we used as an aiming reference. He said, “When I was here before I used that same tree as an aiming point.” When I got back to the states that was my nightmare: being at Sherry for a year and coming home safe, and then one day being sent back and waking up back in the same hell-hole, looking up at that same tree. I would wake up at night and be mixed up about where I was. Am I here or am I there? I thought maybe I was still in Vietnam and my life since leaving there had been a dream.
Going to Vietnam you’re in the United States and after a twenty-four hour plane ride you’re in Vietnam. I remember that flight coming down the coast at night into Vietnam, looking down and seeing the illumination rounds in the air below us and the tracers and all the shit going on and thinking: What in the hell am I getting into? Then they literally dive the plane into the airport to avoid being shot at. That whole jarring reality change in just a few hours.
It was even worse going back, because now you are settled into the reality of Vietnam, but you’re suddenly back in the States with people walking around like nothing is happening, another sudden new reality. I would wake up in the middle of the night not sure if this was a dream or that was a dream, or where I was. You lose your sense of reality. Am I in Vietnam dreaming about home, or am I at home dreaming about Vietnam? The realities were so different and the edges so blurred that I just didn’t know. That lasted for a few years.
It’s not like we had the worst experience in the world. I can only imagine what the infantry guys went through. These days I think a lot about the guys who are sent on multiple combat tours to the Middle East. How can you keep your head on straight after going through that?
Fired In Anger
Like many veterans Bob was conflicted about his time in the Army, and at the same time is proud of his service. He has close at hand an ashtray made from a brass artillery canister, presented to him when he left Vietnam. The inscription reads:
To 1st Lieutenant Robert Christenson
12 July 1970 to 3 June 1971
From the Officers of the 5th Battalion 27th Field Artillery.
It originally had a 50 caliber bullet in the center, but they confiscated the slug at Ft. Lewis, so now it is just an empty casing. It’s a wonderful thing to have. All the officers got one of those. It was made out of a canister from a white phosphorous round. If you look on the bottom it says “1944.” We had all that ammunition, just like our C-rations, from WWII. We used a white phosphorous round because its canister was brass. All the other canisters were heavy cardboard or steel. We’d put a minimum time fuse on them and shoot them straight up for a nice airburst or just over the wire. There were few uses for WP rounds in Vietnam, except maybe to start fires. On the bottom of the ashtray it says Fired In Anger, but really it was fired in order to get an ashtray.
Out of Vietnam Bob applied to Loyola Law School in Chicago, encouraged by a fellow officer at LZ Sherry. He had less than remarkable grades as an undergraduate, but gained affirmative action admission as a veteran. In class he sat with an intimidating group of other Vietnam vets. The professors and students gave them a lot of room, not knowing how crazy they might be and not wishing to find out. In a blind grading system, whereby the professors did not know the identities of the students they were grading, Bob graduated fifth in the class. He is now a successful labor attorney in Atlanta. He and his wife Kim have five kids and nine grandkids. Bob still flashes that mischievous smile he wore in Vietnam.