Back to the World graphic.

By James Stanton

“The World.” That’s what they called it at Ramasun, Thailand – as in “One more day and a wake-up, then back to The World.” I had been away from “The World” for twenty-seven months – so far away that I had missed much of what was going on there.

After dropping out of the University of Minnesota, I was quickly sucked into the Army during the Vietnam War. After considering my options, I opted for a four-year enlistment in the Army Security Agency (ASA), trained as a Laotian linguist, and was sent to Thailand.

It’s hard to convey to the “modern Facebook generation” that anyone could be as isolated as we were at Ramasun in those days. There was no such thing as e-mail, we couldn’t just pick up a phone and call home – we couldn’t even pick up a phone and call Bangkok. We had something called the MARS station that could contact a radio operator in the U.S., and have him patch us through by phone to our loved ones – in theory. I tried it a couple of times and never got through. Mail was the only answer. It took a month to get a letter to the States, and whatever they sent you might or might not make it. Some of the postal clerks at the big airbase in Udorn were unable to locate Ramasun Station, even though it was only 10 miles away.

I opted for a four-year enlistment in the Army Security Agency (ASA), trained as a Laotian linguist, and was sent to Thailand.

No such unit

At the time, my father worked for the Kraft Foods Cheese Factory in New Ulm, Minnesota, and he got the bright idea of sending some of my mother’s Christmas cookies in a number 10 tin that they would use for restaurant-size Velveeta. I got a letter in early February 1970 asking how I liked the Christmas cookies.

After my reply that I had not received them he wrote back again in April asking if I had received them yet. The tin finally arrived in August. It had arrived at the airbase on January 12, where it was marked “No Such Unit,” and sent back across the Pacific to the Army Post Office dead-letter department in St. Louis, arriving on February 27.

It languished there, presumably along with other mail to Ramasun, for four months, until someone got around to sending it back to Thailand with a nasty note on it telling them that there was so such a unit as the 7th RRFS at Ramasun Station.

When I opened the package I found it half full of stale powdery crumbs that had once been cookies. At least I could report back to my dad so that he would know, within just eight months, the results of his well-intentioned efforts.

But difficulty in correspondence wasn’t the only thing that isolated us at Ramasun. We had no television, and the magazines in the library were usually two or three months old. No newspapers except for the Army Times. We could listen to the BBC on our shortwave radios at work when things were slow, and could even pull in stateside stations when the atmospheric conditions were right, but somehow that was not the same as being there.

After a year I began to isolate myself. Thailand was the “real world” to me now, and news from “The World” seemed foreign and irrelevant. I was not picking up the whole picture, just bits and pieces that were often confusing. There was something called the E.R.A., but all I could think of was baseball. The great furor over the Kent State shootings seemed minor to me, hardly enough casualties to be worth reporting in Southeast Asia.

Time to go back to The World

Then one day my time was up, and I was the one going “back to The World.” I packed my duffel bag, leaving behind all my uniforms except the one I was wearing, so that I had room for my civilian clothes and the few treasures I had accumulated in Thailand.

I parted from Mali, my “Thai wife” – promising to come back, but wondering if I would ever see her again. It was not only communications, but travel, that was different in 1971. Foreign countries were indeed foreign then, and transoceanic travel by any means was something reserved for the rich or those who had a reason to be travelling – such as diplomats, businessmen, or soldiers.

Could I find a reason to come back to Thailand? I surely didn’t have the money to come back on my own as a tourist. That sounds crazy to anyone jetting around the world today, but that’s the world I lived in in 1971.

Most had boarded alone, and sat alone – no one seemed to have any friends, or to have spied any familiar faces. A few officers got up and talked to the stewardesses and the air crew, trying to find out what was up.

I could have caught a military hop to Bangkok, but elected to take the train. I didn’t want to leave Thailand quickly, I wanted a good long look at the country before I left – it might be the last look I ever got. I checked into a small, cheap hotel near the train station that I had stayed in before, and had an icy liter of Singha beer. For the last time?

At 5 o’clock the next morning a taxi hauled me, along with my gear, to Don Muang Airport. My flight took off at 7 a.m., and it was going via Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. The plane was nearly empty, and the flight took barely an hour. So far so good. We sat on the ground for hours staring out the tiny windows at heat waves rising from the pavement. From where were, there was nothing but concrete. We heard other aircraft, but couldn’t see them. A few passengers trickled in, but the cabin was still three-fourths empty. It began to heat up and get stuffy. There was little conversation. Most had boarded alone, and sat alone – no one seemed to have any friends, or to have spied any familiar faces. A few officers got up and talked to the stewardesses and the air crew, trying to find out what was up.

The real war gets on the plane

Eventually a murmur got back to me and the others in the back of the plane. “Flight delayed, awaiting the arrival of a company of grunts to be airlifted in from the field, already overdue, time of arrival unknown.”

When they finally got on the plane, it was obvious that these guys had come directly from the field, and they looked ghastly. Eyes glazed – and barely seeing – they stumbled up the aisle, and flopped exhausted into the first open seat.

When they finally got on the plane, it was obvious that these guys had come directly from the field, and they looked ghastly. Eyes glazed – and barely seeing – they stumbled up the aisle, and flopped exhausted into the first open seat. Their half-rotted fatigues were drenched with sweat and splattered with blood. Eventually, bits and pieces of their nightmare spilled out: A final farewell formation with an awards ceremony had been interrupted by an NVA mortar barrage. The NVA gunners were as accurate in Vietnam as they had been in Laos, and within seconds a dozen soldiers lay dead, and as many more wounded. These were the survivors, of a year in combat and one last farewell gone tragically wrong.

Delays and more delays

The cabin was now full, every seat taken, everyone looking forward to takeoff, but takeoff didn’t come. An engine failed to start, and mechanics were summoned. The pilot announced that we would take off as soon as the engine was fixed, and was greeted with loud, angry questions from passengers. He ducked back into his cabin without answering them. The air became almost too thick to barely breathe. Half the passengers were smoking, and the ventilation system was either not working or overwhelmed. The toilets were soon overwhelmed, too, and the stench of excrement blended with the other foul smells. Even the stewardesses were hiding from irate questioners now. I had lost track of time. It seemed like it should be getting dark, but the sun blazed on, hotter than ever. Finally the engine was fixed, and we were off. As we rose sluggishly above the hazy, chaotic city of Saigon, and banked gently over the shell-pocked fields of the countryside, I could see that the sun was hanging just above the horizon. Now I knew that we had spent the last ten or eleven hours on the ground.

The joy of takeoff, the agony of flight

The joy of takeoff was quickly replaced by the agony of flight. How easy it would be these days for some ranking officer to stand up and announce that smoking was banned for the duration of the flight, but something like that would not even have been considered in 1971. The air got more and more foul, but somehow it did not cool off. My eyes were burning, and I was gasping for breath, breathing through my mouth to avoid the sickening stench. It was dark now, and we flew on endlessly into the night. No one knew where we were bound other than “somewhere in Japan.”

Stopping again and getting off at nowhere

But “nowhere in Japan” would have been more accurate. When we arrived at this forlorn “nowhere,” dawn was just breaking. I still don’t know where it was, some mothballed base on the island of Hokkaido would have been my best guess. There was grass growing through the cracks in the runway, and not another aircraft in sight. A stubby control tower that showed no signs of life flanked a squat terminal building that looked like an abandoned gas station. The air crew didn’t want to let us off, but they were quickly routed when passengers spotted two men trundling a rickety exit ramp across the bumpy field. Once the ramp was set up, there was a rush to escape from the toxic sludge of the cabin. But relief was short-lived, as the atmosphere, while now clean, was damp and cold with a biting wind whipping dust across the large, vacant expanse of cracked cement. Almost everyone was in fatigues or khakis. I was in a Class A uniform, the only thing I had left that wasn’t about to fall off my back after twenty-seven months in the tropics. It had been stifling on the plane, but now the uniform was too thin to fight the cold – and I was one of the lucky ones. We gazed hopefully toward the darkened terminal building, and soon set off in its direction without orders or discussion. Upon arrival we found it securely locked, with no one around to open it. We tried to use it as a windbreak, but the wind seemed to be coming from all quarters at once.

Once the ramp was set up, there was a rush to escape from the toxic sludge of the cabin. But relief was short-lived, as the atmosphere, while now clean, was damp and cold with a biting wind whipping dust across the large, vacant expanse of cracked cement.

Finally a sleepy-looking corporal arrived in a Jeep, and let us in with the ill grace of a man unexpectedly pulled out of his warm bed at an ungodly hour. Any questions directed at him were greeted with shrugs and grunts. Either he didn’t know anything, or he was too pissed to tell us. A vending machine was quickly attacked, but yielded only a half-dozen candy bars so ancient they were hard as rocks. It seemed like we had stumbled into a military version of King Tut’s tomb.

It was as chilly inside the terminal as it was outside, and whatever relief was available from blocking the wind was made up for from the cold that welled up from the cement floor. A dozen dusty chairs were claimed in order of rank, leaving the other two hundred of us the choice of standing or sitting on cold concrete. I hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours, but my stomach and bowels were so tied in knots that I wasn’t hungry.

We quickly found that the restrooms were not functional, so we had to relieve ourselves outside on the tarmac. In spite of all this, a semblance of military order was maintained. The bright red socks I was wearing with my uniform were duly noticed by a major who helpfully told me that I was “out of uniform.” I told him to go to hell. It was the first and last time I had ever told an officer of any rank to go to hell, and it felt good, especially under the circumstances.

No one tells you anything

Another comforting part of Army routine is that no one ever tells you anything, and that was the case here. No one even told the officers anything. We were left alone for hours. Even when we heard a plane land on the runway no one announced its arrival. We hoped it had come to pick us up, but there was no confirmation. More hours passed, and we were beginning to think the aircraft was not for us when the unfriendly corporal reappeared, opened the door, and wordlessly jerked his head. We tottered toward the plane on numb, cold-stiffened legs, and it was all we could do to hoist ourselves up the wavering ramp.

Once inside the warm cabin the air was clear, though it didn’t stay that way for long. We took off without fanfare or announcement. Customer service was not a high priority on this flight. Thick clouds hung low, it was impossible to tell what time of day it was. I figured a good seven or eight hours on the ground, and estimated that it had been at least twenty-four hours since I had left Bangkok, and we still had the vast Pacific to cross.

The next twelve hours were uneventful. The haze of cigarette smoke gradually built to eye-burning, chest-clogging levels, but the temperature was in the range of human comfort, and the stench of the restrooms didn’t attain the level experienced on the first leg of the flight.

The infamous Oakland Army Base

It was dark when we reached San Francisco. I was hoping for a nice soft bed, if only for a few hours, but I didn’t get that, neither did most of the others on board. We were herded onto a bus, and driven through empty darkened streets to the Oakland Army Base. There we were herded once again, this time into a building that was vast and shapeless in the murk. Herded was the right word, as at this point we had no more brainpower than a bunch of cattle.

We were herded onto a bus, and driven through empty darkened streets to the Oakland Army Base.

We stumbled along, one following the other. The shadowy figures herding us told us no more than a cowherd would tell his cows, but at least those cows had some sense of where they were going and why. We didn’t know either one, and by now we were so numb, both physically and mentally, that we didn’t care. It could have been the gas chambers of Auschwitz for all we knew.

Once inside, the little “starch” remaining in our systems evaporated, and we leaned against any available wall like cattle asleep on their feet. Some collapsed onto the cement floor as they had at our last stop. Nothing happened for hours. It was a well-recognized rule of army life, at least in the conscript army, that the people running the show were never ready to do what they were supposed to do when the troops arrived. There was always an obligatory wait of hours before anything happened. At some point the ragged line began to shamble forward. Word of what it was shambling toward had not yet reached us, and wouldn’t for some hours yet.

Getting the hell out – at last

Finally, a door loomed ahead of me, and I passed through it into a smaller room with an unpainted plywood counter along one side of it. Behind the counter stood a dozen men in khaki uniforms, all of them appeared to be second lieutenants. The line lurched ahead, and I was face to face with one of them. He asked for a copy of my orders, which I located after some fumbling. A few minutes later I was handed ten copies of a form which I later found was a DD214, a voucher for an airline ticket to Minneapolis, and a folded pay packet containing a dozen fifty-dollar bills. I don’t remember that the young lieutenant said anything – maybe he did – but I was too far gone to hear.

As I stumbled out the door, I was blinded by morning sunlight. It was only then that it dawned on me that I was out the Army, after four years, and back in the States after twenty-seven months. What now? I had no idea, and my mind was too fogged to summon one up.

One of the grunts brought in from the field brushed past me. He dropped his duffle bag on the sidewalk in a pile of other abandoned bags as he passed by, headed toward the front gate where anti-war protesters eagerly awaited him – chanting, “Baby killer! Murderer!”

One of the grunts brought in from the field brushed past me. He dropped his duffle bag on the sidewalk in a pile of other abandoned bags as he passed by, headed toward the front gate where anti-war protesters eagerly awaited him – chanting, “Baby killer! Murderer!” All I could see of him now was a sun-browned back through the hole in his olive-drab tee shirt and the flopping soles of his clapped-out jungle boots. He shouldered the demonstrators roughly aside – as some MPs looked on warily – and climbed into a taxi, waving a fistful of fifties.

The Oakland Army Base Motel

My exit was not so dramatic. My brain had cleared enough to realize that my stomach was knotted, and my bowels were about to explode.

I spent the first twenty-four hours of my civilian freedom in the Oakland Army Base Motel, mostly in the bathroom, where I painfully shitted out all the accumulated Asia inside me. After that I was so weak I wasn’t able to make if off the base without a trip to the mess hall. Some freedom!

For years I was too embarrassed to admit my wimpy exit to other veterans. I even adopted the story of the shirtless grunt as my own. Only now, with age and infirmity, am I willing to fess up.

When I finally did leave that place, it was without drama. There weren’t any protesters to see me off. It was noon, and perhaps they had broken for lunch. Not a single “Baby killer!” to cheer me on my way, nor a single “Job well done!” either. About average for most Vietnam veterans, I would guess.

 

James Stanton.After four years with the Army Security Agency (ASA), James Stanton worked as a house painter, and later as a self-taught programmer and systems analyst. He divides his time between a rustic cabin on a lake in Minnesota and Nonglak, Thailand.