When I arrived in Korea I was extremely naïve about the workings of the world. But as my time to depart approached, I had grown, I had matured, I had learned.
By June 1969 I had been promoted four times by the Army, the most any soldier could be promoted. When I entered the army, my monthly pay was $102.30 per month, and when I left I was earning the grand sum of $254.70. That is not a typo, per month is correct. An army captain in 1969 received exactly $466.20 per month. No one went into the military to get rich. But most of us were extremely proud to have served. And when our time came to leave the military, we were extremely happy to go. I refer to those years as “crazy days.”
This is an example of how things got crazy. A couple of months before I was scheduled to leave Korea, a buddy of mine was supposed to leave. But on the specified day of departure, he was nowhere to be found. It turned out he was shacking up with his Korean girlfriend. He was almost literally dragged back to Camp Coiner and informed he would leave the country either voluntarily or under guard. He left under guard. I cannot say I understand his actions but I can assure you that his level of insanity was no greater than a thousand other guys who did crazy things.
An incident I heard about went like this. A guy was driving a 2½ ton truck through a Korean village. Every GI has witnessed at one time or another mamma-san walking out in front of traffic and simply raise he hand as if to magically stop traffic. She was usually successful but when it comes to a deuce and a half, what we called that type of truck, you need a little more room to stop. Mamma-san was killed. The military police were quickly called to the scene and before the Korean government could react, he was spirited out of the country and out of the reach of the Korean police. The Korean government most likely protested the incident but they were certainly aware of mamma-san’s actions and the inevitability of what happened. It was a terrible accident which happened too many times, but it was tragic, not criminal.
I also heard of other guys, not so lucky, who got drunk and drove a military vehicle through a rice patty. Rice is of course a staple of the Korean diet and the farmers, poverty stricken, could ill-afford to lose any of their planted rice. The GI in question was forced to pay the damages, or so I was told but knowing how thing went over there, there is little reason to doubt it.
The fall of 1969 was quiet for me. Word came down that I would depart Korea on December 20, 1969. The last day for soldiers to leave the country. December 20th was a very early day. Those of us who were leaving, I think there were five from my unit, had to be at Kimpo International Airport by 6AM for a 9AM flight out of Korea. We would board one of the big “red tails.” We called those airplanes that because Northwest Orient Airlines painted their tails red and the military used them almost exclusively to ferry troops between the U.S. and Korea.
We all checked in with the Air Force Military Airlift Command desk where we were checked against a roster. That done, we had only to wait. But on this day all did not go as planned. Somehow the five or so of us from Stratcom were told the flight had been overbooked and we would not be leaving that day. We all knew that meant we would have to stay another month. One of us, however, was a sergeant major. A sergeant major is the highest rank an enlisted man can gain and he is usually assigned to a battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel or to a brigade commander, a colonel. Our sergeant major went one better. He was part of a general’s staff and he did not take kindly to the news. He told us to wait and he would take care of things.
We heard him tell the desk sergeant he wanted to speak to his commander immediately. We were shuffled away and did not see the sergeant major for another 2 hours at least. I remember when 9:15AM rolled around we all watched forlornly as the Northwest Boeing 707 left the gate and departed. We were certain all was lost. But a little while later the sergeant major returned and informed us that we were going to leave on a 1:15PM flight that day. No one asked him how he did it, we just thanked him profusely. And so at 1:15PM our 707 left the gate with all aboard. We first flew to Tokyo where we changed planes. It was just a two-hour flight and the change in flight was quick. Our next leg took us from Tokyo to Anchorage Alaska, a 14-hour flight. We arrived in Anchorage at 7:30AM on December 20th. We arrived in Anchorage 5½ hours before we left Korea. The International Date Line came into play of course. Ironically, we boarded another aircraft in Anchorage at 1:15PM on December 20th. I can claim to have taken off from two different airports, thousands of miles apart, at the same time, day and year.
The flight took us to Seattle, a four-hour flight if memory serves properly. But before leaving Anchorage we got to see the sun rise at about 11AM and set just before we took off. From Seattle Tacoma International airport I had to catch a cab to Fort Lewis when I would be usher out of the army. In 1969, December 20th fell on a Saturday which meant the personnel office at Fort Lewis was minimally manned. All I wanted to do was to get my final separation orders, my pay, and an airline ticket home. The personnel people were in no particular rush for me, I was alone, and so I had to cajole them into getting the job done and not make me wait until the next day or Monday. They came through.
I then caught another cab back to Seattle Tacoma airport. I was in my dress uniform, a requirement for members of the military back then when traveling on military orders. As I was about to enter the airport I saw a girl sitting next to the door in hippie style dress. She took one look at me, spit at me and said, “baby killer.” In just a year things had changed so much. I left one war zone and returned to another. The military was not very highly though of by many in the civilian populace and I had just gotten a taste of it.
But I was tired, really tired. I had not been able to sleep much on the airplane from Japan to Alaska even though it was mostly empty and I could sprawl across the three seats where I was situated. And the flight from Alaska offered no respite either. By this time, it must have been about 10PM because I remember having to rush to the United Airlines ticket counter to get checked in. Once I arrived there, however, I was informed there we no more seats available. I must have looked pretty bedraggled and crushed because the woman behind the counter asked, “are you returning from overseas?” Of course, I answered yes even though I knew she thought I was coming from Vietnam. She handed me a first-class ticket and told me to rush to the gate. She gave me an extremely nice “welcome home” before I left.
By the time I got back to North Andover, Massachusetts, it was late morning December 21, 1969, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Sleep eluded me, however. I was probably over-tired. I did sleep a little but nothing close to 8 hours. Still, home never looked so good.
Just a little over a month later, on January 24, 1970, my father died from his 3rd heart attack. My mother told me, “he was waiting for you to come home.” I was crushed, to say the least.
I had enrolled at Merrimack College, just a mile from home. But my heart was not in it. And towards the end of the semester everyone was going on strike. Merrimack called off its commencement because of the student strike. Similar things were happening all over the country. In July I headed out to Oklahoma to learn to fly. I was days away from getting my license when I was in a horrible accident. Aside from a few stiches in my head and an empty wallet, I was all right. But my mother had called me out there asking why the army was looking for me. You see, as someone who had only spent two years on active duty, I was supposed to attended army reserve meeting monthly for two years. I never went to a single one. I knew why they were calling and so I went to the recruiter in Lawrence Massachusetts and re-enlisted.
When I arrived at Fort Dix New Jersey, I was put in one of two barracks which were full of other soldiers, airmen, and sailors who had also not met their obligation. While there, however, I ran into a high school classmate, Doug Middleton. Doug was returning from Vietnam and heading out for Germany. I was heading for Italy. By 1976, Doug had driven to a remote spot in Maine and ate his gun. Vietnam claimed another. Ten years later, another classmate, Jimmy Cippola, was found dead from a heart attack. He had told me how while in Vietnam he had endured countless agent orange sprayings. Jimmy returned from Vietnam full of demons, horrible nightmares. And so Vietnam claimed yet another.
It was the early 1990s before the American public began to thank veterans for their service. Towns organized parades to honor Vietnam vets. Even though I was just a Vietnam era vet, I was asked to March in uniform in a parade in Andover Massachusetts, which I did. Finally someone said thank you.