Trying to Leave RVN, My Last Battle
(in Civvies), and the Freedom Bird(s)
By Ross Sigmon

I found Charles G. White's "The Doctor Hawkeye Pierce of Christmas of 1968" story interesting, humorous and poignant and some of the similarities to my own homecoming seem now even more real. Whereas he had problems getting out of Fort Lewis, I had problems just getting out of South Vietnam.

I processed out at Battalion at Dong Ha and found my way down to Da Nang and then to Cam Ranh right at the end of October '70. I through some more processing there and got ready to get on a plane the next morning (I think it was Oct. 30). We were all in civvies at the time and enjoying the feeling of not wearing fatigues, being almost clean, and getting ready to return to the world - - - until - - - this little tropical disturbance off the coast turned into a full-fledged typhoon. Our flight was still on schedule to land, but the powers to be decided that, by the time it landed, loaded the cargo and us and took off, the typhoon would be too close. They aborted the landing and sent the plane to Ben Hoa to pick up some other guys.

They had stored all of our gear and personal items under a shelter that provided a little bit of security from pilfering by being wire/chain link-enclosed but was otherwise open to the elements. Guys who had gone on R&R to Hong Kong or Thailand had silk suits and other expensive stuff - some of us had camera and stereo gear too. I'd sent most of mine directly to the world; all I had was an over-stuffed duffel bag. The wind (I later heard it peaked at 83 knots) and rain continued through most of the evening and night, our group was barely safe and partially dry but it ruined almost all of their good stuff - there were some royally pissed off troops at that point.

The next morning we were wandering around, grumbling and trying to find anybody who knew when the next plane was coming in. We were finally told that, due to scheduling "procedures", we couldn't bump the next group down the line - "they" would have to re-schedule a "new" flight. How long?, when? - "they" didn't know. To make matters worse, because of the water damage and the report of survey (hey, this wasn't government property!!!) "procedures" (AGAIN), we couldn't get to our stuff - our Class 'A's, our personal items - and nobody was carrying much "money". They scrounged up some basics for us from the PX and told us they would try to get us another plane the next day or the day after.

That pacified us a tiny bit, so we got ready to put up with another night of this insanity - - - until - - - our friendly, neighborhood, NVA/VC contingent decided to probe our part of the perimeter! Cam Ranh was a huge place and we were over by the airfield portion; so I guess they were attracted to the F4's & A6's near where we were outprocessing. By FSB standards, it wasn't much of an attempt at incursion, but there also wasn't much in the way of Base resistance/perimeter guard strength to counter it. Almost every one of us had been from I Corps and had been in combat, plus we were all experiencing short-timers' syndrome; so while everybody was running around like a Chinese Fire Drill, we were looking for weapons. We literally encircled a Captain or young Major and told him to get us something to fight with or there'd be two attacks going on; another one inside the wire - to match the one outside the wire. Being a reasonable and pragmatic individual, he decided it was in his personal best interest (and that of the perimeter) to make use of us "volunteers" (about the ONLY time any of us had volunteered for anything - we were used to just doing what needed to be done).

They started handing out M16's, ammo bandoliers, helmets and flak jackets and we sort of got organized (nobody cared who was an officer, NCO, enlisted or whatever) and hauled butt out to the perimeter positions (remember, we were still in civvies - it must have looked kinda humorous). I don't now how many of us there actually were in that particular bunch, 30-40-maybe 50 that were split into about 2 or 3 groups, but when we got to our positions things were beginning to heat up a bit. The gooks were beginning to shoot more on automatic, there were some 60mm falling a ways away from us over towards the aircraft and I remember hearing what sounded like a couple of B40's or RPG's. I guess they were doing their usual game of probing for where the least resistance was; but that was a bad mistake. It was nearing dusk and visibility wasn't great but we could make out some kind of movement out past the wire. All at once, all this additional rifleman firepower opens up and everybody burned a clip or two. We locked and loaded again and started looking for more targets. Things all of a sudden had gotten real quiet; we could hear a few sporadic single shots or short bursts and that was it. We went back to our transient quarters and somewhat reluctantly gave back our weapons. The rest of our short stay was quiet.

The next morning, we were able to get our "luggage" back and check it out. Everybody was drying and salvaging what they could and trying to get our uniforms back into some sort of shape since, eventually, we were going to be flying military stand-by to get to our real homes. Word came down that another flight had been laid on and we would be leaving the next day; everybody started getting excited again!

The next day dawned, the converted Flying Tiger Airlines DC8 freight-hauler actually landed, and we got on the plane. There was a lot of low talking and mumbling going on about "we were really going back to the world" and then the plane started its take-off roll. On the plane, there was this good-ole-boy Captain from Alabama who had been in an armored unit somewhere around the Ah Shau. When the plane started moving, he started bellowing something that sounded like the beginning of the "Roll Tide" cheer, but he was saying "Goooooooooooooooooo". Everybody began to pick up on it and got louder and louder; when the plane rotated at the end of the runway and the wheels came off the ground, 100+ voices bellowed PLANE and, I swear, the thing shuddered. It still brings chills when I think about it - we were airborne and FREE!

During the long flight back - Yokota, Japan to Ft. Richardson, Alaska to SEATAC - I thought a lot about you guys that were still there. When I left SEATAC going east, there was a little more unknown trouble awaiting. Charles White's "timely" arrival was credited to a Doctor, mine was to an excellent, now existent-in-name-only, regional airline, Piedmont Airlines, and a pilot with a what-the-hell/can-do attitude. I had made my way across country - Seattle to St. Louis and when I finally got to Atlanta, a huge mass of unstable weather to the North had all the other airlines delaying or canceling flights. I went to the Delta counter - no we're not flying north; I went to the Eastern counter - no we're not flying north; I went to one or two others and then, finally, way at the end, to the little Piedmont counter. "Sure we're still flying to Smith-Reynolds (Winston-Salem, NC). We've got a flight on an F27 (Fairchild turbo-prop, twin engine) leaving in about 1/2 hour you can fly standby on. It may take a little longer than normal, we may have to fly way around those thunderstorms, but we'll get you there!."

We did fly all over hell's-half-acre, through and around some of the damndest thunderstorms I've ever flown in and it was flashy and loud and bumpy; we landed at two stops on the way and at one of them sat on the ground until the worst had temporarily passed, but then finally were "on final" into Winston-Salem. The pilot came on the speakers and informed us that the weather was "deteriorating" (UH, you think?) and he was going to land as soon as he could. He asked us to hold on and he'd get us down and to the terminal. I was sitting in a window seat next to a young Ensign who was in Naval Flight school at Pensacola. We touched down in a moderate crosswind and torrential rain and the pilot reversed pitch and stood on the brakes.

The run-out got longer and longer and I looked over at the wheels (the F27 was a high-wing) and the damn water was going over them the wrong way - we were hydroplaning! I nudged the Ensign and his eyes got pretty big. Piedmont's pilots were a rare breed to themselves; the pilot was calmly talking during all this as were running out of runway and finally he said "everyone please hold on, I'm going to make a left hand turn up here so we can taxi back to the terminal". He revved the engines a little differently, lifted the outboard wing until the wheels on that side were clear of the runway by a few feet and, I swear, "flew" the plane in a crabbing motion around the turn-in!! We settled down and started the long taxi back to the terminal. As we were disembarking, I smiled at him, shook his hand and said I had just gotten back from Vietnam and that Forrest Shelton (who all of my family knew and who was Piedmont's chief check pilot) would be proud of his landing. He just grinned and started laughing - he knew that we knew what he'd done!

We lived nearby in Burlington and my Mom and Dad had driven over to pick me up after I had called them earlier. It was pouring down rain when we landed but it sure didn't keep me from kissing that North Carolina runway; there was laughing and crying and crying and laughing and I WAS HOME!

Ross Sigmon
C & H Batteries, 10/69-11/70