BACK TO THE WORLD

BACK TO THE WORLD

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Back to the World

The Vietnam morning was like so many others: rainy. But it didn’t matter, because for me, this day was different. Today, I was going home.

Dennis, a fellow U.S. Army infantryman who’d become one of my closest friends, stayed with me until the transportation came. We didn’t talk much; we couldn’t, because all the things we had meant to each other were about to end. When the truck pulled up, we silently shook hands and squeezed the other’s shoulder. As the truck drove off, I watched Dennis hang his head and walk away.

It wasn’t until we were ten miles down the road that I realized that I hadn’t asked Dennis for his home address. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but in my anxiety to go home, I just wanted to forget everything associated with the miseries of the war. I never saw Dennis again.

As we continued driving, an eerie sensation came over me. I felt the unearthly presence of GIs who had perished, some whose deaths I had witnessed, others I seemed to remember, though I couldn’t understand how. As their faces flashed through my mind like a mournful roll call, the truck hit a bump, abruptly returning my thoughts to the more pleasant prospect of going home.

At the Phu Bai airport, I followed other homeward-bound GIs through a yellow archway reading, “DEROS AND ETS PERSONNEL REPORT HERE.” I remembered looking jealously at this sign on other trips through Phu Bai. Now it was finally meant for me.

After completing some initial paperwork, we boarded a C-130 transport plane that brought us to our last in-country stop at Cam Ranh Bay for final processing of our records. It had been exactly one year since I had passed through this same replacement station, but it felt like a lifetime. The atmosphere was familiar. Small groups of clumsy new guys, dazed at being in Vietnam, gawked at me with the same awe that I once had for old-timers.

Every day, over two hundred homebound GIs from all over Vietnam converged at the replacement station, and although the processing was the usual maze of forms and long lines, the mood was surprisingly relaxed and upbeat. Though somewhat cocky, and with every reason to celebrate the end of our tour, we had yet to leave Vietnam. So we avoided doing anything rash that might delay our departure. Still, the spirit of the moment reflected on every GI’s face. Glancing anxiously at the other men, I could see they all radiated the same excitement: “This is really it!”

Then as we watched in awe, the magnificent silver “Freedom Bird,” a McDonnell Douglas DC-8, touched down. The plane, seemingly aware of its importance and audience, rolled to the end of the runway and majestically taxied back to stop directly in front of us. Never before had a symbol of American technology meant so much to me. The Freedom Bird, an angel descended from heaven, had come to take me home.

It seemed too easy, then, to just walk out and board the plane, but there was nothing else to do. As we crossed the tarmac, a tropical breeze blasted us with hot, humid air— a final reminder of what we were leaving behind. As I approached the passenger ramp, the navigational lights flashed brightly, and I floated up the steps as if I were in a movie. Smiling stewardesses greeted us at the door, and I dashed for a window seat with all the enthusiasm of a child.

As the seats filled, I looked out at the sand dunes of Cam Ranh Bay and wondered how such a beautiful country came to be so filled with trouble. Meanwhile, the excitement on board was building. GIs celebrated by shouting out military slang. “Short!” was the favorite, followed by “Take off! One round will kill us all!” Others yelled, “Hot LZ!”

As the plane’s engines spooled up, our boisterous chatter dropped off to whispers. The aircraft nudged forward and taxied to the end of the runway, where it turned around and stopped. At that instant, all talking ceased, and time stood still while we waited for clearance to take off. Then, finally, the engines revved faster and louder as the freedom we had only dreamed of was about to begin.

The pilot released the brakes, and the plane lunged forward. The accelerating takeoff roll glued us to our seats. Rumblings and vibrations echoed louder until . . . we were airborne! The moment we lifted off, every GI let out a war whoop that out roared the aircraft itself. As we climbed out of South Vietnam’s airspace, the men cheered with delirious joy. We were now safe from the war, with the plane aimed straight across the South China Sea toward the six-thousand-mile expanse of the North Pacific Ocean.

The mood on board was so relaxed that I slept for several long stretches. After the sun went down, with the backdrop of the engines’ steady droning through the blackness, I imagined that the airplane was a spaceship bound for Earth. After all, we were going back to what could have been a completely different planet.

Several hours later, the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign blinked, signaling our descent. Everyone quickly found their seats and silently buckled up.

The plane’s captain broke the silence, announcing that the shoreline of the State of Washington was directly ahead. We craned our necks toward the windows, straining for a first glimpse in over a year of our homeland. Suddenly a voice proclaimed, “I see lights! It’s the world!”

A flurry of cheers, pointing fingers and bobbing heads confirmed that we were only moments away from landing.

“Cold LZ!” a lone voice yelled, exciting another round of cheers.

As the plane descended, the cabin was once again eerily quiet. Everyone sat still, sorting out the emotions racing through our minds. For a tense moment, it was as if every GI sent out the same silent prayer: “Please, God, let this be real.”

Then the DC-8 touched down with a simultaneous thump, screech of tires and howling deceleration of reverse thrust. Before the plane had even slowed to ground-maneuvering speed, pandemonium erupted. The thrill of landing on American soil was celebrated with euphoric war whoops, tossed hats and the popping of airsickness bags. GIs ran up and down the aisle, emotionally overwhelmed. Many shook hands, some hugged and more than a few wept. We were strangers by name, but as combat veterans, we were linked—savoring these final survival moments together.

“Gentlemen,” said the captain. “This is my seventh return trip from Vietnam, and I never get tired of making the same announcement: ‘Welcome home.’”

Arthur B. Wiknik Jr.

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