It was a quiet night in Da Nang, but we could hear H&I rounds being fired from a distant gun battery. The cattle car pulled up at 0400, and we packed into it like sardines . . . some had to stand.
A cattle car was basically a trailer attached to a truck. Sometimes double trailers were used to transport troops, depending on the number of people. These trailers were lined inside with wooden bench seats, set in double rows. The ride was always bumpy as there was little or no suspension. The safety factor in this mode of transportation was marginal at best. I can say, without a doubt, that I never saw an officer ride in one.
Our trip to the air terminal made the long circuit around the runway. There were two curves to negotiate which were slightly problematic (the double trailer had a mind of its own). On the first curve there was a truck coming at us in the other direction, and it sideswiped the back of the second trailer.
Both vehicles stopped, and there was an all-out panic. The truck had spilled a pallet of 155 mm rounds on the road. Both drivers were yelling at each other about the accident.
The road needed to be cleared of these rounds so I picked up one by the eye bolt and moved it to the berm. The rounds were not fused, and there was no danger in moving them to the side of the road. A few Marines started helping when an MP truck drove up. One of the MPs stayed with the drivers, and the other approached me. I told him, “These rounds are safe, but you should call EOD to pick them up.”
After a short delay we were back in the cattle cars and on our way to the flight terminal. The incident lasted maybe 20 minutes, but it probably seemed like a lifetime in the minds of our group. No one was injured.
At the terminal it was the same as every flight, “Hurry up and wait.” The sunrise was beautiful with only a few clouds. We boarded the plane (officers and staff first) and settled into our “Freedom Flight.”
I had a window seat on the right side, and my face was glued to the view. The jet rose at a high inclination, and I saw a huge red dust cloud off to the west. There were two tanks moving along the road near Hill 55. Then we banked left as the South China Sea sparkled out the windows on that side. It was a long slow turn, and the plane leveled off on its flight path toward Okinawa.
As we got off the jet at Kadena Air Base and walked to the terminal, another group of Marines was headed toward our plane to board for their flight home. They were dressed in Class A greens and looked sharp. “PTOMAINE” * someone yelled. It was Tony, our Battalion Supply Sergeant (we had arrived in Vietnam together). There was no time to talk while I scanned the line, looking for any familiar faces. There were none.
We were then transported to a storage warehouse to retrieve our sea bags. It was a highly organized system, and I found my bag easily. There were about 20 bags left in my group. I looked at every tag hoping to find Private Gaskins, ** but no luck. A Staff Sergeant asked me what I was doing and I answered, “Just looking for a friend.” He shook his head and said, “It don’t mean nothin’.”
The rest of the day was filled with orientations regarding our stay in Okinawa. We split into smaller groups and listened to various talks about the facilities on base. One lecture was about the new Gabardine uniform. It was available at the uniform shop, and all tailoring was free. This uniform would be the new standard and required after 1970. It was expensive ($35) but recommended to those with two or more years left to serve. I decided to order one set.
* See previous blog, “My New Nickname” January 14, 1968
** See previous blog, “The Helmet Liner” late December 1967