Holiday at Cam Ranh Bay
Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Holiday at Cam Ranh Bay
It wasn’t often that the Footloose Forester chose to pick up his suitcase* and walk from the air terminal to his destination, especially when he was in Viet Nam during the height of a war. But it was early enough in the afternoon, the sun was shining, and his destination was the PA&E worksite and office only a couple of miles away. Besides, they didn’t have civilian taxis at the sprawling Cam Ranh Air Base and nobody at the worksite knew that he was coming. He felt safe at Cam Ranh like no other place because it was practically colonized by US military forces: the US Air Force at the northern end of the peninsula, the US Navy at the southern end and the first battalion or so of US Army troops that were just beginning to build their cantonment in the middle.
Just before he was to turn from the coastal road toward the hill that led up the back of a huge old sand dune where PA&E chose to locate their facilities, along comes a jeep with three sailors in it. Truth is stranger than fiction… the driver was a young Navy Lieutenant (j.g.) who might have passed for Mr. Roberts, according to his blasé attitude. He was driving because he wanted to. He was also the one who asked the Footloose Forester where he was going, suitcase in hand. When the answer was just beyond the approaching sand dune, the Lieutenant interjected with a proposition. “How about you come and join us for a barbeque at our hooch, and we will drop you off later on?” “We have steaks, an outdoor grill, and cold beer, so come and join us.”
That sunny day was memorable because the jolly Lieutenant and his guys did have their grill ready to be fired up just as soon as he gunned the jeep up the sandy hill that led to their command headquarters. It was only one hooch, but his unit was a detachment operation whose main headquarters was somewhere else. For them it was like a holiday getting away from their other place, wherever that was. The Footloose Forester didn’t ask questions. It must have been a temporary place because they brought all their provisions. But true to his word, his boys broke out the beer, fired up the grill and started grilling the steaks. And they were all in a good mood, as we drank beer and gazed out from the top of their sand dune toward the center of Cam Ranh Bay. He doesn’t remember much about the steak except to note it was a T-bone. Of course, one of the sailors drove him back to PA&E, behind the other sand dune before the sun set. A very satisfying day.
There were lots of other memories about Cam Ranh because it was the largest project that Footloose Forester had in his portfolio and before he left the country, he had visited there 26 times, on various work assignments.
One other incident that sticks in his memory was taking an hour of so during an outgoing flight delay to walk to the opposite side of the twin 11,000-foot runways at the Air Force Base and watch as F4 Phantom fighter bombers took off and landed, side by side, going to and coming from bombing runs. Taking off, wing-tip to wing-tip, does not constitute a logistical problem, one peeling off to the right and the other peeling off to the left. But landing, more or less wing-tip to wing-tip at the same time takes in-flight coordination that was not expected in a war zone. After witnessing 3-4 sorties of such formation flying, the Footloose Forester was convinced that the demonstration of synchronized landings was part of their flight plans.
F4 Phantom used in Viet Nam War
Over the years, the modest naval port at Cam Ranh has witnessed occupation by Japanese, French, American and Russian troops and their ships. It is anybody’s guess how much and how long it took for the Vietnamese to regain their full sovereignty.
Update: Isn't it curious how you link one thought with another, and are eager to go back and add to a story from the past? In this case, the added thought was about the suitcase that he carried. It was a gray 22" Samsonite that he plunked down $100 for at the PX in Bien Hoa. He remembers it because, as a Samsonite, it had a key that fit every other Samsonite, in those days. On another trip to Cam Ranh, when he went to the modest baggage claim area to recover his suitcase, he discovered that his slighlty scratched suitcase wasn't there. He immediately set about checking the luggage of others (mostly military people) before they could exit the area. He caught up with an Army captain named Miller who was waiting for a ride to his destination and announced that the good captain had the wrong suitcase. The first response was, how did I know his name? The Footloose Forester looked him in the eye and said that he looked into his locked suitcase and saw his name on a set of travel orders. Of course, that Samsonite key made that possible. We exchanged nearly identical gray 22" Samsonite suitcases and we were both soon on our separate ways.
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