In the Boeing 707 transport flying to The War in the last hours before landing I began to notice the different demeanors of the young troops around me. Some were asleep. Some looked worried, a few were joking or talking bravely about killing gooks and staying drunk for the duration or about what they were going to do with the USO girls and the Australian strippers they had heard about.
The chatter increased in volume as it sank in to the troops that this was the real thing-we were going to war. The soldiers on the plane were mostly draftees and did not want to be there. The Air Force fellows were all volunteers and seemed to be less nervous, even the ones who enlisted so as not to get drafted by the Army.
I had enlisted in the Air Force after being turned down by the army for being underweight- five feet ten inches tall and a hundred and twenty nine pounds. I went home from the Army recruiter and spent a month stuffing myself with calories and ate bananas on the bus down to Miami for my Air Force induction physical. I passed.
I wanted to go to the war. I was not doing well in college and had not learned to think about future things yet. The war represented adventure and I wanted some of that.
The young men on that plane were already missing their families and girlfriends and some were complaining about the injustice of being grabbed up and sent off to some jungle halfway around the world to get shot at and maybe killed. Some just slept or sat morose. A few of us were excited to be traveling to an exotic land and someone else was paying for it.
The idea of war and danger hit home for most when, after circling the airfield, the 707 went into a steep descent to the runway at Tan Son Nhut, a much steeper approach than going down to LaGuardia. It was to make the plane more difficult to hit by any Viet Cong rockets that might be down there. The descent worried me a bit and the hard bumps when we touched down, but after the bounces the plane rolled to a smooth stop and the steps were pushed to the doors. We clattered to the pavement and were lined up and marched double file into the terminal.
Inside there was a group of thirty or more young ladies on some sort of school trip, all in white school dresses, áo dài, and broad nón lá hats. Some of the troops were already complaining about the heat and humidity and when they saw the girls the reaction was not favorable. "Gawd! I gotta be here for a whole year! I can't wait that long to get back where there are real women! Look at those scrawny things!"
I saw them and and could not look away. I stumbled against the soldier ahead of me because I wasn't looking where I was going. Those lasses in their flowing white áo dài- I already knew that word from "orientation" briefings- I thought I must have died and gone to Heaven because there were angels here, beautiful butterfly angels.
That was my introduction to Paradise. It was Paradise in the midst of the Hurricane of war but for a few moments there were angels.