Flight Back In Time: Passage to Asia

I’m on my 2nd Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve (with a Perrier chaser), thinking business class service is pretty darn fine on this Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to Hong Kong, my first stop before going “in country” a few days from now.

As soon as I finish this post, I’ll turn on the entertainment center and choose from among some three dozen movies available on my personal screen.  Then, before landing, my seat will transform into a cocoon cozy enough for me to catch 40 winks.

CIVILIAN CHOW: Johnnie Walker Gold and cured salmon

We’ve come a long way baby from the flight to Vietnam that I recall in 1970. Then, I left a cold and dismal Ft. Lewis, WA, boarded a charter flight with about 200 other unfortunate souls  sitting three across in uniform, and skied up to the war. That flight stopped in Hawaii, Guam and then terminated in Cam Rahn Bay.  Today’s non-stop polar route to Hong Kong flight is about 16 hours. The passage to Vietnam in 1970 was an eternity.

Sometimes I think I am making this up, because it sounds so weird whenever I recall it. The chartered jet airliner to Vietnam had only one movie: True Grit, starring John Wayne. It’s a fact, though. I watched it all three times it was shown.  I don’t recall a thing about it.  To this day, I studiously avoid it. You’d be surprised how many times Turner Classic Movies retrieves True Grit from the vault.

I’m not a John Wayne or a western fan past or present.  But I did like my Scotch even

NEXT STOP VIETNAM: In uniform, 3 by 3

then. The Vietnam flight came up short there too.  The most potent drink they offered us was milk.  Milk in those waxy containers.  Like we were elementary school children.  I guess they didn’t want a couple of hundred drunk GIs on their hands heading into a war zone.  I think they ran an equal risk that these guys would rebell and force a landing in Tahiti, Mr. Christian style.  But we all behaved.  Maybe there were cookies.  I don’t remember.  I can’t get past the milk.  Now you know why I take my Starbucks black.  No milk—soy, almond, goat, cow or otherwise.

We stopped in Hawaii and Guam, long enough to refuel. We did leave the plane, and I have a recollection of killing time at an outdoor snack bar with some of my travel mates.  Maybe we got a beer. Can’t be sure. What I can still feel, however, is the humidity.  We were still in our US khaki’s—rumpled, sweaty, cranky and scared.  We didn’t know what we were in for.

But what we really didn’t know was that our fate—-whatever it turned out to be in Vietnam—-was a way lot better than that of our brothers who left Tacoma on the flight immediately preceding ours.

Here’s the way deployment worked at Ft. Lewis back then. For about two weeks after reporting in, we were subjected to the usual Army bullshit of processing and “hurry up and wait”.

HURRY UP AND WAIT: The charter flight line forms to the right

Every day, we’d turn out to learn if our name made it to the manifest for a flight out. The list was posted on a wall like college school grades. Meanwhile, we were put to really good use “policing the AO”, military speak for picking up cigarette butts; or pulling guard duty (what were we guarding against in Tacoma, WA? Runaway salmon?), or doing KP. The Army had a way of making life so miserable for thinking, breathing, normal individuals, that we rooted everyday for our time to come—to head for Vietnam!

The day it was my turn for a flight out, I gathering my gear and queued up on the tarmac at the appointed time.  One by one, we ascended the ramp into the belly of a chartered civilian airliner. No boarding passes or seat assignments necessary.  When that plane was full, off it rolled and the serpentine procession shifted to another plane standing by.  Like filling tubes of toothpaste on an assembly line.

I got on the second plane. The first one never made it to Vietnam.  It took a different route, through Alaska. There, it skidded off the runway and 45 soldiers were killed.

We didn’t hear about the crash until we reached Cam Rahn Bay. But it was major headlines back home for the better part of a day and a half as we travelled.  The BW (to be) was frantic.  Friends K&R, who had driven me to the airport 10 days earlier, and knew well my departure date, did their best to distract her from the story. My family was distraught as they scrambled to get more details. I was oblivious, drinking milk through a straw and cursing the visage of John Wayne.

Once we finally landed and learned of the disaster, I was able to get word home that, for me at least, all was well.  I checked my head, my fingers, my nose and my toes.  All intact.  I chalked up my good fortune to a destiny that I believed would hold me safe and secure going forward.  But at the same time, an undeniable chill went through me. I realized that my life was now in danger as never before.

KILLED BEFORE ACTION: 45 soldiers killed in air crash on the way to Vietnam

No such fears on this trip. We’re been planning this adventure for years, plotting, arranging, researching, getting tips and help from all sorts of actual and self-proclaimed experts Vietnam.  There is no war. And having the BW as my companion this go around is an equal comfort.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being nervous, anxious, eager, scared and excited all at the same time.  Ever since we pushed the go button, I have been tumbling through a worm hole of memories and emotions.

Partially this is about going to Asia—pretty far outside my comfort zone for pleasure travel.  Also about being away from it all with Natalie, something we haven’t been able to do in more than five years, ever since her parents got too sick to leave for an extended time. And of course, there is the 800 pound gorilla in the luggage: a return to Vietnam. So, while it may not be the bumpy ride that Bette Davis warned against, I’m keeping my seatbelt fastened nonetheless.  At the very least, it will be an interesting trip.

Now, where is that movie remote?

25 Replies to “Flight Back In Time: Passage to Asia

  1. Beautiful writing as always! My sister has been living in Hong Kong for the last 5 years…let me know if you want a “local” tour guide.

  2. Ripensandoci, questo post mi ho fatto piangere, ma il viaggio che ti aspetta sará meraviglioso. Viaggi felici e sicuri. ♡♡♡

  3. TRANSLATION–My dear sister said: “Looking back, this post made me cry, but the journey that awaits you will be wonderful. Happy and safe travels.”

  4. Oh dear. Totally forgot. Here in HK now. If shes not consumed with work, kids, etc, have her get in touch. Here until Friday morning.

  5. FA,
    When you’re again stateside, think about recording your Back to `Nam journal as a serial podcast. The now and then references have cross-generational appeal. Keep up on truckin’, soldier!

  6. Fred- you are an amazing writer and communicator. You made me cry and laugh and then cry again. I can only imagine what it was like when you were heading there….and all the feelings/emotions you had. You shared them and I envisioned them. The milk — the feelings of being back in elementary school…..must have been so true…..why serve grown men milk that way?
    I look forward to your next post and I am sharing this with your crossword puzzle buddy in one minute!

  7. Your story has me riveted to my seat anticipating the next installment.
    I hope you return to this land brings you peace.
    By the way Hong Kong is a blast, enjoy the food.

  8. Fred and Natalie, what a wonderful adventure for the two of you. Having each other as a support system is fab. I guess we forget how frightened we all were. Natalie can now began to fill in the blank spots while relishing all the sights and sounds. Yes, the humidity is a major moment of awareness. I do hope the weight decreases on the gorilla as the adventure continues.
    Although HK has changed over the years, I have been there many times and enjoyed the transitions.
    On to the next stop.

  9. Your story of the first flight across the “pond” brought back my own memories.
    On the flight from NY to San Francisco, I met a few guys also headed into the great unknown. We decided to violate our orders the night in town and report in the morning. What’s the worst they could do to us? Send us to Vietnam? Got pretty drunk that night.
    We flew out of Travis Air Force base mid-March 1969 with stops in Alaska and Japan. Burned into my brain is a clear image of Mt. Fuji from the air. I can’t remember any movies nor milk but I will never forget the consequences of taking those malaria pills someone said I should take. I literally ran up the isle to the bathroom for nearly the entire flight. Never took the full dose again.

  10. love reading this dad! i am thinking of you everyday and hope you are having fun and feeling all the feels there are to feel. i am in sf and totally had to have an out loud conversation with my body that “you don’t live here now, it’s okay you’re just on vacation” so i can imagine you might find something similar. be gentle with yourself! xoxo

  11. Hi Fred, Lee told me you are here and passed along your blog. Sorry to have missed you in Hong Kong! Hope you’ve enjoyed it. Looks like you went to Hutong – one of our favourite spots! Let me know if you need any more recommendations. Sounds like you have a great adventure still ahead in Vietnam. Looking forward to reading the posts.

  12. My bad. Should have given him/you a heads up before I showed up. But if you can shake free for a night cap, we’ll be bidding the Kong farewell tonight 10pm at

    Tai Lung Fung
    The Archive, 5-9 Hing Wan St, Wan Chai, Hong Kong

    Join us!


  13. Fred; I am truly on the edge of my seat awaiting your next post. Let us know if the beach at Chu Lai has gentrified to the point where there are guys with surfcasting rods and Van Staal reels standing in the surf.
    Bob Wilsusen

  14. Good start, Fred. That business class is great. I got an upgrade to that world on a return-leg, Saigon to Tokyo, in 2015. Back on 2/25/71, left from Ft Dix at 10 pm to Alaska, where I did get a beer, then to Yakota AFB in Japan, arrived Saigon at noon 2/27/71. Safe travels.

  15. My dearest darling daughter: there’s so much me in you and you in me. I realized that ever so much more when I reread my letters home to Mom. I’ll take care, you do the same, and together we’ll care for each other. I want to hug you tight tight tight always. ✌️

  16. Anticipating – and then reading – today’s blog installment, has been the highlight of my day (maybe it doesn’t say much about my day!) Seriously though, reading and absorbing the prose of your passage back in time has me reflecting on where I was ‘back in the day’. Though I hope you spend your waking hours eating, drinking and absorbing the experience, I do encourage you to keep pecking out the day’s reflections, for they add enjoyment to my own day. Thanks

  17. Seeing your journey from the eyes of a draftee who would have taken the same trip. As a 71R20 (broadcast specialist) doing double duty on audio feeds to DC radio and assistant editor of the post paper at Ft. Belvoir I showed up on a levy to ‘Nam. My SMaj boss got me out of the stack and I ended up in Frankfurt with AFN as the newsroom NCO. I’ll be watching the blog with interest.

  18. Well Fred, you are a brave soul. To go back again could be daunting to some. My friends brother won’t even utter the word Vietnam. I guess he keeps all that pain deep down for fear that sharing it would be reliving it. I guess I was about 12. They were selling POW bracelets. You would pick a name of someone that you would pray for and be sure that he would not be forgotten. I am amazed by your writing and your feelings. When I read I feel as if I’m there. Waiting for your name to be called has to be torture in itself as I think you just have to gulp and push forward not knowing what to expect except that it would be painful and that part would
    be over. I’m not pretending to know anything about what you went through just trying to show empathy and so much respect for your brave self than and your emotionally brave self now. Enjoy all it has to offer.

  19. Somebody’s really stupid here. Surely me (duh) but I had to comment.

    For those reading this thinking this is over the top insensitive (even rude), I would have to take you back way too many years with lots of explanation. Let’s just leave it at the author and his amazing daughter get it.

    For those that are still upset and don’t/won’t get it, I apologize. Forgive me.

  20. Do you really think anyone else besides me is reading or caring about your comments? But…..I get it. It’s always about you, right? LOL.

  21. Fred, this is a great piece! Thank you for trusting us enough to share. I’m hooked and on this journey with you both!

Leave a Reply