Memories of going home
Published 3:00 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021
On December 5, 1968, I left my Marine Corps Unit at Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam and got on a C-130 transport to DaNang.
I was lucky to catch a flight the next day from DaNang to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. This is what Vietnam veterans called the “freedom bird.” It was a government contract flight operated by Tiger Airlines. As soon as we left Vietnam air space the pilot spoke on the intercom telling us we had left Vietnam.
A cheer erupted into applause as we left combat behind us after 13 months.
But we were still not home yet. When we arrived at Kadena we spent about three days reclaiming our uniforms from storage and winding down. We only took our utility uniforms and a set of khakis into Vietnam, with our dress uniforms and shoes stored in our seabags. Supply couldn’t find my seabag when I returned, so I received a new complete set of uniforms with my new rank of sergeant and all the emblems, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
It took two days to get my alterations done with my new chevrons. I was so worried that it would take longer. I managed to get that flight home on December 10, 1968. There were around 80 of us leaving on that flight, all of us in our dress uniforms. As we lined up to get onboard, they had us stop; the aircraft had a problem that had to be fixed before we could leave. Our U.S. Air Force mechanics came to our rescue and after a three-hour delay, we were finally onboard.
As we took off from Kadena, heading to Guam to refuel, as soon as the landing gear came up, another cheer went up. We were finally headed home. From Guam, we landed at Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California. I took a taxi to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and flew to San Francisco where I was met by my parents, my wife Barbara, and my 1-year-old son, Ron.
Reflecting back, I went to Vietnam as a Lance Corporal, 20 years old, leaving my wife and two-month-old son behind. I left Vietnam as a sergeant, 21 years old, leaving many of our fallen who never got to come home, including my best friend from high school. When I left in November of 1967, we had over 15,000 boys killed in action.
When I came home in December of 1968, we had over 31,000 boys killed in action. I left as a boy and came back a man. I am proud of my service and all those who fought and died in Vietnam. In places all over the world, we have troops posted who won’t be able to come home for Christmas to celebrate with their families.
Please think of them and tell them how much you appreciate them when they come home. Semper Fidelis my brothers and sisters in arms.
Gene Hays is a retired Marine Master Sergeant who writes a column for The Oxford Eagle.