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My First Trip to Vietnam

Eddie A. Lomeli, Msgt. USAF, Retired

After reporting to my Air Force Reserve Unit, I was given a class date of April 1969. I was to attend C-141 Loadmaster School for three weeks. Before going on a real trip, I had to complete this course; I was now formally, a "Student Loadmaster". There were a tremendous amount of new regulations and procedures to learn. I was to work under the supervision of an instructor in order to learn the job and build the experience and knowledge required to do the job. I was effectively coached and gradually took on more of the duties each and every time I flew. I was determined to learn so that I could fly by myself. I was delighted when I finally got my recommendation. You always look forward to the day when you get your "Recommendation", it's a badge of honor. I worked hard for mine and it was far from easy, but well worth it.

My first trip was to Germany in mid-April of 1969 and it went fairly well. As soon as I got back to Norton,my Home base, I was scheduled to go on a westbound trip to Vietnam. My instructor on this trip was Master Sergeant Jim Loftis; he was assigned to the 14th MAS (military airlift squadron). He was a burly man, of average height, weighing around 200 pounds, with a pleasant personality. He was a twenty-year plus veteran, very knowledgeable and eager to help. I was about as excited as a teenager on his first date, I didn't know what to expect on the trip and the anticipation was unbelievable. It was exciting! At the time, I was living in Vista, a town 75 miles south and 1 1/2 hours away in North San Diego County. To avoid the possibility of being late, I drove up two hours early. When the call came, I was already in the building. I was ready to go!

We made our way to the aircraft, performed our pre-flight duties, and made an on-time departure. Our routing took us to Travis AFB, in Northern California and then on to Hickam AFB, just outside Honolulu, Hawaii, where we were scheduled to spend the night. The next day we reported to our aircraft. We were scheduled to stop at Wake Island, then continue on to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa for crew rest. While I was attempting to help with the pre-flight duties a Lieutenant Colonel came aboard. When he saw that my flight suit was devoid of any unit patches, he gave me hell. My instructor interceded and informed him that I was a reservist, on my first trip, newly assigned to the unit, and that my unit patches were on order. He relented. Day two was going to hell in a hurry and it would only get worse. I knew that this man would be one to avoid in the future; I would find out more about him before my day was done. It was getting ugly in a hurry.

We took the maximum fuel load, 152,000 pounds, enough for a twelve-hour flight. The flight plan called for about 8 1/2 hours flight time. However, when we reached cruising altitude, we encountered extremely strong head winds, (around 390 knots.) Our ground speed at times was as low as 180 knots, or slightly over 200 miles an hour. On the leg from Wake Island, to Kadena, the winds got much worse, so we had to divert into Guam. Because of the headwinds, we landed with slightly less than 10,000 pounds of fuel, and well into the emergency fuel, or critical range,

While the aircraft was being serviced we all went into the terminal and bought our "Guam suit-case", a term used for a gallon of locally purchased duty-free liquor. We took off, intending to continue our scheduled flight to Kadena and the rest of our trip. However, this was not to be. As soon as the gear came up, there was an engine overheat signal for number two engine. The pilot and crew did what they were supposed to do, but the problem continued and we had to return to the base.

We got back to the same spot where we had just been and were met by the maintenance team. The Lt. Colonel we picked up at Hickam came out, and proceeded to chew out the maintenance crew. I couldn't believe all that I was hearing... how could someone be so insensitive? I was embarrassed to be in the same aircraft with him.

While the maintenance crew went to work, I went in with the rest of the enlisted crew members, had a soda and looked around for a little while. After an hour or so it was decided that we would try again. Immediately after take-off, the same engine warning light came on, only this time it wasn't just an overheat condition; it was a fire warning. We dumped fuel, shut down the engine, as required by safety regulations, and returned to Guam.

As soon as we stopped, the Lt Colonel pilot flight examiner who joined us at Hickam was at the crew entrance door again, screaming obscenities at the maintenance team. That's when the maintenance chief, who was present this time, decided to pull his people from the aircraft. He then called his boss, the Wing Commander. The Wing Commander, a full colonel, came out to deal with the upset Lt. Colonel.

When the Base Commander arrived, he went straight over to him, took him outside, put him in a brace and proceeded to chew him out something fierce! It made me feel good to see him finally getting some of his own medicine; it was about time! This was still day two; this was going to be with me for a long time.

Since we had been on duty for well over sixteen hours, it was decided that we should go into crew rest and continue the next day. We went to Billeting, and checked in, we were assigned one large single room with five bunk beds for five of us enlisted. After getting cleaned up, we decided to go to the NCO Club for dinner. Since it was happy hour, we decided to have a drink before dinner. I bought the first two rounds, since it was my first time out of the country. I still remember that a seven-up was the most expensive drink at 15 cents. The two rounds cost me well under a dollar. That was quite what a bargain!

When we got back to the room, and got ready for bed I took my wallet and put it on the end table. The flight engineer, whose bed was next to mine, told me that I should put it under my pillow, or some other safe place. He said that there was a lot of thievery in that part of the world. I told him that I didn't think it would be a problem, since I am a light sleeper. But, maybe I should've put it in my briefs, because next morning during climb-out, on our way to Kadena; I had this weird feeling and decided to check my finances. I thought I was going to have a heart attack; my wallet was completely empty, over $80.00 gone! There was one single penny in the corner of my flight suit pocket. Nothing else! This was going to be a trip to remember and this was just the beginning. I had to borrow $20.00 from the pilot, in order to be able to continue the trip. This was only day three &hellip and things were not getting any better.

We called back by radio, and made all the necessary reports in-flight. With more follow up reports, and phone calls made upon arrival at Kadena. Our stay at Kadena was pretty uneventful and routine.

Day four, started with our mission being scheduled for Da-Nang AB, in South Vietnam, return to Kadena, and back to the US. However, on our way out of Da-Nang, my instructor spotted a rat in the cargo compartment.

According to FAA and Safety regulations, we were diverted to Clark AB, in the Philippines, the nearest full-maintenance facility. The rodent had to be caught, before the aircraft could proceed with the mission. We were sent into crew-rest, while they attempted to capture the rodent. Twelve hours later, when we talked to Command Post, it had not been caught; our crew-rest was extended for another twelve hours. Day four was no picnic either, and it was about to get considerably worse. One good thing happened here though: We parted company with my favorite Lt. Colonel (and good riddance)!

The enlisted crew decided to show me the sights, and we took a jeepney from the main gate to the bar section. A jeepney is a regular jeep that has been customized with lots of chrome, custom paint jobs, and in many cases even murals.

A (maybe) slightly overdone jeepney.

This is a unique, and very popular method of transportation in this part of the world. Most of them have multicolored awnings for protection from the elements, with fringes and tassels all around. There were hundreds of them, packing the road all the way into town; giving the term, "bumper-to-bumper traffic" a new meaning. They might be going 25-30 miles an hour, and not be more than five feet away from the vehicle in front, no white lines here, and no pavement either. These roads were primitive at best. We decided to have dinner and a couple of drinks, before heading back to the base. I took my camera, in case I might want to get some pictures. The driver went with us into the little restaurant and sat next to us on the patio. He was what I would describe as an average Filipino, small built, dark-complected and wearing rubber sandals, like just about everybody else around there. He kept admiring my camera, he asked how much it cost, how much I paid for it and where I got it. I felt very uncomfortable.

He had some girls from I don't know where, come and join us. I knew we were in trouble, I could smell it. I kept saying to the others, "Let's go back to the base guys, we can go to the NCO club. We can be safe there." I don't feel safe here." Nobody was listening, so I didn't drink anything; I was worried that they might put something in my drink. I wanted to be completely sober, if something were to happen. After about an hour of this, it was decided that we would go back to the base. However, when we went to leave there was an additional jeepney, that wasn't there before. My instructor and two others got in the first one; they made a right hand turn, and headed in the direction of the base.

The other flight engineer and I climbed into the second jeepney, for what I thought was a ride back to the base. Then the driver made a left turn, away from the direction of the base and gunned the engine, I thought my goose was cooked; a thousand thoughts raced through my mind and they were all ominous! At the next block we pulled into a service station, there the driver jumped off, popped the hood and looked at the engine. I relaxed a little bit. However, he immediately slammed the hood and got back behind the wheel; the little hairs behind my neck stood up again. Here we go again! I thought. At the corner, he made the turn toward the base; I felt better then.

When we got near the main gate, the jeepney stopped. As soon as it stopped, I jumped out while I had the chance. I felt safer now. I asked the driver how much we owed him for the ride and all he would say was, "forty pesos, forty pesos!"

I asked him, "How much is that in dollars?" But he wouldn't tell me, all he'd say was, "Forty pesos, forty pesos!" I figured I'd give him a dollar and we would go on our way. When I opened my wallet to pay him, he stuck his hand right into my wallet, and the only ten-dollar bill that I had, was gone. Poof!

However, I was not to be outdone, I reached in with my left hand, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him right out of the vehicle. Just like you see in the cartoons. As soon as I did this, his assistant slid over behind the wheel, drove off at a high rate of speed and disappeared into the side streets.

Now I had a dilemma, I had a man attached to my left hand by his neck, and on my right hand an expensive camera. What to do? I wanted to hit him, or at least recover my money. The crew member with me just stood there, not doing or saying anything. I didn't really want to hit the crook, because I thought the camera might slip out of the strap, in that case I would lose that much more. My so-called friend could've said, "Let me hold your camera", or, "I'll watch your back", or … anything! But no, he didn't say a word! I finally got eight pesos from the driver, which amounted to roughly two dollars, but my ten-dollar bill disappeared into thin air. I never knew how, and I still can't figure it out to this day! I finally let him go. I didn't want to wind up in jail for such a measly sum; it wasn't worth it.

I was to find out later, that the others on the other jeepney were experiencing the same kind of problems not more than a block away. They fared better than we did, since there were three of them, and they worked together. Also the local merchants jumped in and chased the crooks away. I wasn't that lucky.

The engineer with me decided to go with the girl over to her place. I started to go toward the NCO club. However, I saw one of the guys who had been hanging around us and he appeared to be following the couple. I thought my friend might be in danger, so I followed at a distance.

It was fairly late in the afternoon and I knew it would be getting dark before too long. When I made the last turn, I saw them go into an old house in the middle of the block. At the same time, on the opposite corner, I saw the first driver standing there, like he was there to block our escape. I looked around and spotted some rocks. I wanted to have an idea of what I could use for a weapon if I had to. I went into the house and asked for my friend, making sure they knew that I was worried for his safety; I wasn't leaving without him. If there was going to be trouble, then by golly, I was going to make a mess of things!

When he came out about half an hour later I got him out of there and we headed toward the base. On the way back, he discovered that he had been ripped-off; they had taken his money too, at least that's what he said. We made our way back to our quarters, and found out that we would be leaving first thing in the morning, heading home. It was none too soon for me.

In the morning, day five, everything was routine; finally a good omen! The tide was turning. When we got to Kadena a few hours later, Command Post assigned us a position in the rotation. We went directly into crew-rest

Twelve hours later we were on our way home. Day six was finally coming to a close. The winds were still very strong, and since they were behind us we made it across the Pacific in record time. We flew straight to Norton AFB, in San Bernardino, in slightly under eight hours flying time. Normally it takes over eight hours just to fly from Kadena to Hawaii, and another five hours to the West Coast. We were going at ground speeds greater than 720 knots per hour, the equivalent of over 800 miles per hour. I would never again fly that fast for the remainder of my career. Of course, when we were going out the other way we were only doing 180 knots and at times even slower. Any slower and we might just as well be flying backwards.

I was glad to get this trip over with. It's hard to imagine all of this things happening to anybody. I learned a couple of things on this trip, don't be too trusting and know where you are and how to get out of trouble if you have to. I think that the crew member in the bed next to mine, the one who cautioned me about my wallet, the same one in the jeepney with me .... I believe he was partying with my money. The day after I rescued him and they had supposedly "cleaned him out" he gave me five dollars so I could continue the trip. He said, "Nobody should have such a run of bad luck like you've had." Where did he get the money? I never felt comfortable being around him; there was something about him. Fortunately, we never flew together again, and a few months later he was transferred.

The rest of my career was pretty uneventful… and rather enjoyable. When I got home I called my homeowner's insurance and reported the theft. Two weeks later, I got a check in the mail. I was reimbursed for my losses, but the lessons learned were invaluable.

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