Commercial aviation of the 1970’s compared to commercial aviation of the 21st century hasn’t changed much in the way the pilot talks to the passengers. Well, the pre-landing briefing during our final approach into Saigon was a bit different…
“We are on our final approach to Saigon, we are going to douse the interior lights, and our approach will be a bit steeper than your accustomed to, we’ll be on the ground in five minutes. All of you be safe and God bless, and we’ll see you flying back home with us in a year.”
Nowadays, you don’t hear the pilot say God bless and be safe…he’d probably be fired for violating someone’s rights, or offending someone.
Like I said, the cabin was very quiet, no talking, no conversation…not even whispering. From the inside of the DC-8 holding some 200 members of the military, there was nothing to see from the middle seat. There was nothing to see from the window seat. Still dark. The landing was very smooth and we taxied to the darkened terminal. It was about 0530. No jetway, here. A stairway had been pushed up against the DC-8, we would be leaving the DC-8 right onto the oil-stained tarmac adjacent to the terminal. I remember the sky was just starting to lighten but the disc of the sun had not broken the horizon. A C-130 was off to the right, engines revving, a C-123K was resting, a Northwest Orient 707 was resting. In the distance, the roar of a jet fighter, the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter. A lot of smells to process: jet exhaust, reciprocating aircraft engine exhaust, motor scooter exhaust, diesel engine exhaust, a faint smell of…sewage(?). The air was heavy, humid, moist and dead-calm. It had a stickiness to it, you could feel a film building on your skin. Our home for 23 hours, the United Airlines DC-8, the last symbol of the U.S., and the “Freedom Bird” for the members of the military who completed their tours and would be heading home today, was behind us. Looming in front of me was a very large arched concrete structure. The arch came within eight to ten feet from the ground. No doors, no screens – just open to the elements. The interior was lighted by neon tubes hanging from the high ceiling that cast a greenish glow over the interior. There were wooden counters bearing the names of various airlines – Air Vietnam, Pan Am, Air France, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Air Cambodge (Cambodia). There were large piles of luggage, everywhere. On the interior walls were many (perhaps hundreds) of small gray lizards (gekkos) hunting for insects.
There were many military organizers, telling everyone what to do, where the luggage was, where to go after you retrieved your luggage. The Air Force enlisted pukes were directed to a dark green bus, we were told to board the bus after loading our luggage into the back door area. The bus was much like a city transit bus with one strange difference – there was a heavy metal mesh covering all of the open windows…I asked later about that mesh.
We were unloaded at a wooden barracks type structure surrounded by a wall of sandbags. Each of us was given a bunk number, we unloaded our luggage, and we were told to get some sleep, until the next morning, some 24 hours away. We were also told: DO NOT LEAVE THE BASE. WHEN THE SIRENS SOUND HEAD FOR THE BUNKERS. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER IN THE LATRINES.
No sirens during my sleep. I awoke eight hours later – about 3:00 a.m. Chicago time. I had about 20 mosquito bites. A sergeant who was on my United flight was COVERED with mosquito bites – hundreds – he looked more like a measles, or chicken-pox victim. A few of us ventured out onto the base and found the dining hall, open 24 hours. Good food, a shower, shave and we were ready to begin our tour of duty in Vietnam. Oh, on the way back to the transient barracks, we observed this sign. Yes, this is a war zone.