Nothing is Too Good for Our Fighting Troops

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In February 1969 my roommate Ron Miller and I were scheduled for our mid-tour R&R from our unit in Nakhon Phnom (NKP) Thailand. We had an option of two types of R&R. One was the traditional type, which included a day in Saigon in a holding area with transportation provided to Hawaii and back. The other was called a “basket leave,” which would allow a couple extra days, but we had to find our own transportation! We agreed that the “basket leave” was the way to go. Getting to Bangkok was no trouble. We both had travel orders, allowing us to go anywhere in Vietnam or Thailand. After that we were on our own! When we got to Bangkok we went over to the Travel Office to find a flight to Hawaii. No flights were available to Hawaii, but a C-141 cargo aircraft was headed back to the states with stops, in Okinawa and Yokota, Japan and then on to Travis AFB near San Francisco. We decided to take the flight. Our plan was to then to find a Military Airlift Command space available flight back to Hawaii and wait for our wives. At that time, the Military Airlift Command had strict orders that no passengers were allowed on any flight, carrying ammunition, blood, or a bunch of other things. This airplane didn’t have any of that stuff, but might pick something up at the stops and we would be bumped off. Ron and I kept a very small profile at the stops, and arrived at Travis without any problems. At Travis, we found out that there were no flights with any room for hitchhikers going to Hawaii. Time to turn to “Plan B!” Plan B was to fly down to Los Angles, commercial, meet our wives, and fly back to Hawaii with them, on their commercial flights. At that time military people on leave could fly for half price and there were fare wars going on. This worked out just as we planned. I met Georgetta, in the TWA terminal at LAX, and we both flew out to Hawaii together.
We had a great time that week. I rented a car and we drove all over Oahu Island. During the time we were there the motion picture ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’ about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was being filmed. We didn’t know anything about it. Driving from Honolulu to Hickam AFB to try to check on my next assignment, I looked up at a flight of airplanes flying low overhead. They were headed for Pearl Harbor and Hickam AFB, and they all had the Japanese ‘meatball’ insignia. All I could think of was, “My God they’re going to do it again!” We arrived at Hickam, it was still there and we found out about the movie.
The visit came to an end too soon. Ron and I put our wives onto planes for home, and we now started a search for a way to get back to NKP. We were in luck; there was a commercial contract flight that had room for us into Clark AFB in the Philippines. From there we figured it wouldn’t be a problem getting back to Thailand and NKP. We arrived at Clark, in the middle of the night. We immediately went to the passenger terminal to get waitlisted on a flight to Bangkok. Great, there was a flight listed on the board for Bangkok at 0900 the next morning! We looked around the terminal; we were the only “standbys” in the terminal. It looked pretty good! We went up to the counter to sign up. The clerk took our names, and said, “You are 231 and 232 on the standby list.” How could this be? We were the only ones in the terminal! We found out. About six in the morning the terminal started to fill up with military personnel and their families. Bangkok was a very popular leave destination for people stationed at Clark, and they would put their families name on the waiting list, and come down and see if they could get on. If not they would go back to work and wait for the next flight. Needless to say a pair of aircrew trying to get back to the war, had no priority at all! The plane came and went without us, and we were back in the search! Our next chance appeared to be an AirEvac C-130 returning to Saigon. This had possibilities; if we could get to Saigon our FAC orders would get us on an airplane back to NKP. Again the bureaucracy foiled us! The immigration counter said, since we were stationed in Thailand, we couldn’t go to Vietnam. We explained that our headquarters was in Vietnam and we did have a hand in fighting the war, it ought to be all right. The bureaucracy was not impressed, so it was now time for “Plan C.”
We didn’t have a Plan C! We had to find something else or we were going to have to pay for a commercial airline flight from Manila to Bangkok, and they weren’t cheap! We wandered down to Base Operations where the regular Air Force crews were filing their flight plans. It didn’t look good since all of the aircraft were carrying prohibited cargo. Finally we talked to a pilot, who was on his last trip before going off to train in C-123s for a tour in Vietnam. He told us to get our gear and wait at the end of the runway. If he didn’t have a flight examiner on board he would slow down and stop before he took the active runway, and we could jump on board. If he had a flight examiner he would just keep on going and we were on our own! We waited and as the C- 141 taxied by, it slowed the door opened and we scampered on board. We then rode to Udorn AB with a load of CBU bombs. It seemed a lot less dangerous than going out and “Dukeing it out” with the North Vietnamese army every night with live ammo. We arrived in Udorn with the same scenario. The plane stopped at the end of the runway, and we jumped ship before it taxied into the terminal. They sent a step van out to pick us up and take us back to base operations. At base ops, we found a U-10 Helio Courier going back to NKP and caught a ride home. There was never a record of us leaving the Philippines, so they may still be looking for two USAF Majors, who never left.
As you can see, traveling by Space Available Military Air can be tiring frustrating and a bit adventuresome. Many military active duty and retirees do it, and have a great time. It is not for the impatient or faint of heart. IF YOU HAVE TIME TO SPARE, GO BY MILITARY AIR!