Long Way Home: Part 3

January 23, 2024

Military jet in air

A Warm Welcome

Clark Air Force Base hospital was warm and welcoming. My steak was delicious. The Air Force nurses were attentive, thoughtful and friendly 24 hours a day. No longer exhausted, my sleep was lighter and more restless. I spent more time awake at night wondering about my buddies back in the fighting.

At Clark, the ward was large and the beds were spread out. Unlike the crowded, busy ward of the hospital ship Repose, here at Clark in the Philippines it was quiet and peaceful. My leg was still elevated but it was comfortable and pain free. With no reference to the outside world, day and night blurred together. Even more than before, I lost all track of time.

Military get in air, fusilage, Clark Air Force Base

One morning, after a wonderful breakfast, the nurses bundled me up in a wheelchair. I joined a bunch of other wounded who were moved via ambulances to a massive 4 engine jet transport. The front half of the interior of this huge plane were passenger seats for wives, other dependents and walking wounded. The back half were stretchers stacked two high like bunks.  I was carefully and gently situated into a lower stretcher.

Aerial view of GuamWith the plane nearly full, the huge rear doors were closed and we taxied onto the runway. With a roar, we took off in an easterly direction out across the vast Pacific Ocean. Lulled by the engine noise and vibration of the plane, I dozed. Periodically, an Air Force Flight Nurse checked on me.

A subdued thump announced our landing on a runway on Anderson Air Force Base on the island of Guam. Flight nurses attended to the wounded, massaging lotion onto the backs of some. Self-conscious and feeling quasi guilty, I raised my hand. After laying on a stretcher for hours, the back massage felt incredibly wonderful.

After a couple of hours, during which the plane was refueled, we took off again. Another blur with no reference points.  Another heavy thump, and we landed at Hickam Air Force Base on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.  Another exquisite back rub, another blur, and we landed at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco California.

Gently and efficiently the wounded were off-loaded and I found myself in a large comfortable hospital bed in a medium sized ward. With sheer dumb luck, I hit dinner time and got another welcome-home steak.

Travis Air Force Base collage

Things Get Better and Better

After another great breakfast (I was getting seriously spoiled by Air Force hospital food), I was transported to a smaller plane with a smaller group of wounded and flown south to Long Beach Naval Air Station and transferred to Long Beach Naval hospital. A Navy doctor checked out my leg. After examining me, he asked if I could stand up with the aid of a cane. I could and I slowly hobbled around.
“How would you like to go home?” The doctor asked.

Dumbfounded, I nodded yes.

“You just need time to heal. You can do that just as well at home. I am giving you 30 days free basket leave. See you in a month.” He shook my hand and wished me luck.

I called my wife with the good news. In about an hour and a half, Dee was there at the hospital to pick me up. She looked amazing.

California trafficShe helped into her 1966 Ford Mustang. It was still hard for me to bend my leg much. But we moved the passenger seat all the way back, and with Dee’s help I managed to get reasonably comfortable. It was a stunning fall day. Traffic on the San Diego Freeway was still very light in 1967. After a year of communicating via letters, Dee wrote nearly every single day, it was wonderful and odd to be able to talk so freely and see her response. Her smile was lovely.

As we drove down Pacific Coast Highway and entered Laguna Beach, the downtown traffic and all the signs and storefronts were overwhelming.

We pulled into the garage. With Dee’s help and putting a lot of my weight on the cane, we got inside. I collapsed on the couch in the living room surprisingly tired. As I caught my breath, I asked for a Coke.  

Incredibly Grateful

California beachSipping the bottle of Coke, I marveled that only a couple of days ago I was over 8,000 miles away in a hospital on Clark Air force Base in the Philippine Islands.  Now I could smell the ocean and hear the breaking waves in Laguna Beach California. I silently gave thanks for my incredibly good fortune and my amazing life and wonderful life partner. It did not seem that long ago when I was on the floor of the roaring medevac chopper, cooling wind blasting in the open hatch, my bloody leg stretched out in front of me, feeling overwhelmingly relieved that I had gotten out of Vietnam alive. My mind and my psyche were spinning in a whirlwind of stimulus too massive and overwhelming for me to process it. I felt like I was somewhere midway between the violent battlefield in the jungles of Vietnam and this safe, quiet, peaceful, loving living room in Laguna Beach California.

I had not landed yet, and, as it turned out, it would be a long, tumultuous time before I was anywhere near being on stable ground.

Thank you for listening.

As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.
Joe