In late May of 1972, I was assigned to Delta Co 1/12, and we were located in Pleiku providing security for all of the units that were standing down in that area. Our battalion reenlistment NCO got his hooks in me, and I took another burst of three. Just what was I thinking? Little did I know that this one decision would play a huge role in what happened next.
Of course, I got the promised thirty-day reenlistment leave and I flew home to Phoenix, AZ. I had a wonderful leave and dreaded going back. But, on July 2nd I boarded a flight back to my past life. The Pan Am 747 took off from San Francisco was completely full of both military personnel and civilians. We were headed West with our next stop Honolulu. When we arrived, we were allowed to roam around the gate area but nowhere else. After the appropriate servicing of the aircraft, we were on our way. Next stop Guam.
Several hours later we landed in Guam but were not permitted to exit the aircraft. Damn I need to stretch. Several passengers disembarked leaving more empty seats. After a short layover we were again on our way to Manila in the Philippines. By this time the plane was only about 60% full. As I was on the port side in the last compartment in the rear of the aircraft, we only had around 12-15 people I could physically see. Hours went by and we were flying very low in a cloudless yet very turbulent sky. I got up to go to the head but was stopped by aircrew asking me where I was going. I had been headed to the lavatory in the rear of the plane but redirected to a forward lavatory. As this was happening, I noticed that a Vietnamese man was sitting in the very last row on the same side of the plane as my seat. He also has a stewardess sitting with him. Lucky bastard was what came to mind. I went forward and upon my return I noticed that the Vietnamese woman who ‘had’ been sitting in the row behind me was now sitting in my row. She and the ’round eyed’ woman in the row in front of me were the only other people in my entire section of seats…. except the Vietnamese man and stew in the last row behind us. Hmm.
I returned to my seat but because of the turbulence my new seatmate began to get seriously airsick. I didn’t want her to feel bad and because she had acquired the only barf bag in our row, I showed just how sympathetic I could be and began blowing chunks as well. As you might imagine with both of us sitting there covered with vomit I reached up and pressed the Call Button. I waited but no one came. Again damn! Now what do I do? It wasn’t too long, actually it seemed like forever, when the pilot came on the intercom, and as a matter of fact, stated that we didn’t have enough fuel to reach ‘the destination’. Now everything made sense and we were in serious trouble.
We continued flying with not a sound in the aircraft other than the engines moaning out their one lone song. After what seemed like an eternity, I saw green beneath us. LAND! Then I noticed all of the holes everywhere and they were filled with water. Shell holes I determined, and we kept flying. Then I noticed what appeared to be an airport with the silhouettes of American aircraft. We were over Saigon and going to land at Tahn San Knut (I misspelled this sorry). Then the fun began.
We had barely touched down when the bulkhead curtains blocking my view to the front of the aircraft flew open on the starboard side and what seemed like a company of troops came running into and towards that last row. Almost immediately I hear someone shout, “Kill him!” A shot then, ‘Kill the SOB!” Another shot and then another. I recall hearing a total of six shots. However, after that first shot the same aisle that moments ago was filled with men running to get this guy was now filled with bodies low crawling trying to get the hell outta Dodge! What a mess!
While this was going on the aircrew began prepping the aircraft for evacuation. All the exits were opened, and the emergency slides deployed. When the shots started my first thought was get the hell down no collateral damage today for me. Those of us still in this part of the plane were making our way to the closest emergency exit which was just one row ahead of my current location. I crawled to the exit and waited for the round-eyed woman and the Vietnamese woman who had been seated next to me to exit. Before I knew what was happening someone pushed me down the slide and I was then able to make it safely to the edge of the runway. As I did, I turned around to take in this very strange event unfolding before my very eyes. It was then I saw the round-eyed woman on the tarmac face down being blown along the tarmac by the blast of the engines. Yes, they were still running, and we exited the very last ramp on the port side of the aircraft. I got her to the edge of the runway where we were intercepted by a very large contingent of security forces inquiring about our status. My God I have never had so many guns pointed at me. We were way out on a faraway runway, so they transported us to Camp Alpha with military personnel in one bus civilians in another. I had to chuckle about this then as it seemed silly to put us in different vehicles then take us to the same building.
Once at Camp Alpha Pan Am was very accommodating offering to pay for our phone calls to loved ones informing them, we were safe. As I was with the Cav at Bien Hoa’s rear area this little inconvenience caused me to miss the only shuttle from Saigon to Bien Hoa. The next day I reported to the orderly room of the newly formed Task Force Gary Owen. While I was home on leave the Cav stood down and I now had orders taking me to Fort Hood. FTR, my dreams of becoming a Cav sandwich were dashed at Ft Hood as they assigned me to the 2nd AD.
I was then back to Saigon and ultimately CONUS. So, after only being gone for five days I was back in San Francisco where I called my mother. As we all know phone calls home from ‘Nam were possible but not something that happened often. So, when my mother heard from me just five days after having left, she wanted to know where the hell I was right now. When I replied San Francisco she blurted out, “You were on THAT plane weren’t you?’ I confirmed and told her I was now home for good and being reassigned to Ft Hood.
In closing the hijacker was a Vietnamese man who had what I was told were two oranges wrapped in aluminum foil he claimed was a bomb. He had taken a stewardess hostage and his intended destination was Hanoi. We had an air marshal on board who was armed. When the passengers stormed the hijacker/hostage he was held spread eagle in the aisle as he was shot, and hit, five of the six times the gun was discharged. It was reported that after the plane was evacuated the pilot, from Scottsdale a suburb of Phoenix, went to the hijacker’s body grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and threw his lifeless body out the very exit I used to leave that aircraft. It is my understanding there were 137 passengers and crew aboard that day. There were no fatalities other than the hijacker.
About 1 1/2 years ago I submitted an “In Search Of” request with DAV magazine and got what I thought was three responses but was actually four. One was from an Air Force guy stationed on Guam. He wasn’t on that plane but was delayed because he was going on leave and had a ticket on that planes return to the states. Another was from another Air Force guy stationed in Thailand. He was also scheduled to fly on that plane to the states but was delayed too. The third was a private investigator wanting to know if I needed help locating anyone else on that plane. I was young, dumb, and foolish and couldn’t remember flight details ect. So, I didn’t require his services. The fourth I had forgotten as it came many months after my submission.
When this guy called the conversation was strange as he really didn’t seem interested in the hijack story and he wasn’t involved in it in any way. What was the purpose of the call? He asked if I had any memorabilia from my service as he ‘collected’ patches, hats, uniforms, unit crests anything worn by service members in Vietnam. As the conversation progressed, he specifically wanted combat used items as I had offered to send him some extra unit crests from my stint with the 3rd AD. That is when he told me he had severe PTSD and by wearing these items/garments he could relive those experiences and it helped him.
It means a lot to us at MOA that you allowed us to share your story with our Community of Veterans… The whole team was touched by your story. You are an inspiration to not just us, but so many others. Thank you so much for your service.