The Grateful Dead celebrates 50 years since the band's start this year.
By J. Richard Watkins
J. Richard Watkins earned more than a dozen medals for his service during the Vietnam War. He was a radio operator calling in artillery support for his unit, which is known as The Wolfhounds. In 1970, he came home to Brockton, Massachusetts and got a job and left the war behind. But decades later, he started to write his war experiences down for his family and turned it into a book that’s out now. It’s called, “Vietnam: No Regrets. One Soldier’s Tour Of Duty,” excerpted below.
It was a cold and foggy Northern California evening, and I was waiting to board my flight to South Vietnam. I was part of a group of GIs heading off to the war zone. We didn’t know one another, but we were about to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience together. We’d had our training for war, and we were ready to go—not eager, mind you, but ready nevertheless. As our plane got ready to load up, I glanced over to a bank of phones where soldiers were making their last calls home and I thought about making one last call myself. But it was after two o’clock in the morning back in Brockton, Massachusetts, and my parents would have to be up early for work, so I let it go and got in line to board the plane for Vietnam. It had come as a surprise to me that it was a United Airlines flight; I had expected a military plane. But no, there it was right in front of me: a big United Airlines 707 Jetliner bound for Vietnam. I would be making the trip with approximately a hundred and sixty other soldiers of all ranks, but not knowing anyone on board, I felt quite alone.
The flight to Vietnam takes approximately twenty-two hours, with stops in Hawaii and Guam along the way. It was one hell of a long flight, and we were glad to see the coast of Vietnam appear on the horizon. We arrived in the Republic of South Vietnam on a bright sunny morning made much brighter by the fact that we had left the States at night and had not been off the plane for quite a while. On our final approach for landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, we came in very low and very slow. From the windows of the plane we could see all the shell holes around the airport; they looked like craters on the moon, except they were on a very bright green wet surface. Flying in, we could also see the small shacks that the local people called home, alongside the gun emplacements of our troops. GIs waved to us or gave us the finger as our plane flew over their positions. Our final approach was so low and slow that all that was going through my mind was Let’s get this plane on the ground before we get shot out of the sky. Thankfully, we landed soon enough.
As the back door of the plane opened and the outside air penetrated the interior of the plane, we immediately felt the heat and the humidity and the smell of Vietnam. As I looked at all the sober faces of the men aboard our flight just in from the States and then looked at the stewardesses saying goodbye to us, I knew that these girls might be the last American girls I ever saw.
It struck me how surreal this experience had become; the stewardesses knew we weren’t going on any vacation, and we knew we weren’t either. So what were all the smiles for? Some of the guys they were saying goodbye to would never board a plane again—alive, that is. As I look back on it now, I guess these girls were just doing a very tough job the best way they knew how. It couldn’t have been an easy flight for them to make either. The flight over, that is: the trip back must have been great. But it took me a while to realize that, for my flight home would be a long time in coming, and I would change tremendously before my tour would end and I too would be taking this freedom bird home.
We disembarked and started down the stairs. Off to our right, waiting to board the same plane, was a line of soldiers with clean, new uniforms on, just like us. But they were not like us at all; if you really gave them a closer inspection, they looked older than we did, even though you knew they weren’t. What was it, then? I guess they had that shallow-eyed look, the look you get when you work for days and days without enough sleep, that faraway look, that nothing-seems-to-matter, I-don’t-give-a-shit look. But this look was even more so. They had a blank stare that was to become all too familiar to me in the coming months. These men just stared at us, not saying a word, even though we passed within a few yards of one another. A few smiled, and a few shook their heads, but not one word was exchanged between us. I found this strange, very strange indeed. In the coming year I would come to find out why this was so—the hard way.
These soldiers were waiting impatiently to board this very special plane that had just brought us in from the world, a world they had dreamed of for the past year and had missed very, very much. I envied them their return flight back to the world, but for Christ’s sake, who was I to envy them anything? Hell, I’d just arrived. I would have to earn my flight back to the world that these men had missed so very much, a world I too would come to miss in the coming year. These guys had earned their flight home. Some had earned it more than others, for the Vietnam experience was not equal in respect to what each and every one of us had to endure in order to earn his flight home.
I was glad for them nevertheless. These guys had beaten the odds, they had served their country, and now they were going home to their families and loved ones, and I for one was very happy for them.
Excerpted from “Vietnam: No Regrets. One Soldier’s Tour Of Duty.” © Copyright 2005, J. Richard Watkins.
We now have a digital bookshelf! Explore all our books coverage or browse by genre.