Chapter Fifteen: Operation Homecoming
Monday, February 12, 1973
The following is an excerpt from The Bouchard Legacy, a novel of how one family changed and survived the years 1968-1979.
Paul spent the last few months of his army tour at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. As the American presence in Vietnam dropped, Clark started becoming less a staging area and more a quiet backwater—until that is, Operation Linebacker II kicked into high gear. A new vigor shook up the flight line.
Bright brawny B-52s, air-tankers, and various other military aircraft flew in large numbers.
Tents sprung up on the athletic fields and the flight crews ran around the jogging trails and stood in formations under the mimosa trees. They drilled up and down the tarmac and stood stiffly in formation under the wings of their planes.
All through January, these big metal birds rolled down the runways, lifting off, punching big holes up into the sky. Operation Linebacker II was on task, doing its part to assist in the peace negotiations then taking place in Paris. While the North Vietnamese squabbled over the shape of the negotiations table, the B-52s made bombing runs over North Vietnam.
Incredible amounts of ordinance were loaded onto those bombers. Paul saw it. Day after day, the process repeated tirelessly.
At mess the night of February 11, Paul’s friend, Staff Sergeant Vincent Morrison, asked “Do you have anything going on tonight?”
“No,” Paul said. “I work day shift, counting boots, helmets and cases of 30.06.”
“Well,” SSgt. Morrie said “I know you take an interest in radio communications from your days in the field. If you’re up for it, maybe you can help keep me awake. Operations at the radio shack tonight could be instructive for you.”
Lt. Paul laughed, remembering the lifeline the radio had been in Vietnam. “What are you not telling me?”
“You’ve got to be there if you want to know,” SSgt. Morrie said with a wink.
So Paul went. No sooner did he step into the radio shack than he sensed it: something big was happening. The electricity, the briskness, the energy.
Several operators were on duty with SSgt. Morrie. “We’re patching calls Stateside,” he explained. “They’re coming from one of the three C-141 Starlifters in flight from North Vietnam.”
“Did you say North Vietnam?” Lt. Paul asked.
“Oh yeah. The American prisoners of war are coming home.”
The signal corpsmen were taking phone numbers from the repatriated prisoners even while they were in flight from Hanoi to the Philippines on leg one of the trip back home to the United States of America.
After witnessing a few calls, Paul began to dial and make the Stateside connections himself.
Every call was charged with emotion. If the returning POWs or the call recipients Stateside became speechless, doing little more than breathe, cry, or mutter “Oh” and the like, the radio operator had to ad-lib. “Your family is looking forward to your coming home, Lt. Owen. Mrs. Owen, you will receive further information as Lt. Owen clears quarantine. If you have any questions…”
“Yes, thank you, Sergeant.”
A few calls uncovered soldiers given up for dead—others where spouses had remarried. Even in such cases, a connection could be sensed. Other callers showed quiet strength in a trying time. “Son! You call me just as soon as you get an ETA Motown. Man! We’ll have a dinner waiting for you here that will not stop. God bless ’em all! You made it. Ben, you’re coming home. Amen.”
Time and again, all through the call list, Paul saw countless examples of how the closed culture of the military normalized demanding situations.
“What do you think?” SSgt. Morrie asked after the last call was placed.
“I’d say there are a few hundred very happy soldiers going home,” Paul said. “Thank you for suggesting I sit in with you.”
“Now you know there’s more to it than that,” SSgt. Morrie said. “Sure, you could sit out the remaining three months of your duty counting Ka-Bar knives or whatever you do for entertainment over there at Commisary, but if I was you, I’d walk over to Major Dawes right now, tell him you assisted with the Stateside patch detail, and request service as an escort for one of the returnees. Get real specific, if you like. Major, who do you have on the list for my hometown, Saint Louis?”
Another night, another skimpy catnap before dawn, and Lt. Paul waited. He was out with the crowd of GIs, dependents, and civilian workers on the Clark Air Base tarmac, waiting and watching for the three C-141 Starlifters and the lone C-9a that were bringing the POW returnees home.
Over the shoulder of volcanic Mt. Arayat, swooping down to glide over the cogon grass and touch down on American pavement, the planes carrying the soldiers coming home came in.
This day, February 12, 1972, Lincoln’s birthday, marked for Lt. Paul the day the American war in Vietnam ended.
The Starlifters rolled to a stop, the brass band struck up a medley of “Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy“ and the army and marine anthems. The boarding stairs rolled into place, the plane hatch opened, and the returnees deplaned. The crowd applauded and cheered as the men descended, dressed in navy slacks and long-sleeved blue dress shirts that their North Vietnamese captors had issued to them on their release.
Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and other TV news correspondents were there, adding a “day at the fair” commentary to the occasion.
The man Lt. Paul would escort back to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, SSgt. Sidney Wentworth, came in the last plane, a C9A, from South Vietnam. He and those with him still wore orange prisoner pajamas, unwashed, emaciated, bruised but unbroken. SSgt. Wentworth stunk, his eyes were sunken back in their sockets, and he came down from the plane on a litter. But once the welcome ceremonies were over, he grabbed Lt. Paul’s arm. “Get me a wheelchair. Please, no ambulance. I have got to clamp these tired jaws of mine around the fattest, juiciest, bloodiest hamburger this base ever pulled off the grill.”
Paul couldn’t find a wheelchair, but SSgt. Sidney looked vigorous enough to stand up to a short jeep ride, so that’s what Lt. Paul grabbed. He reasoned if SSgt. Sidney wanted a hamburger, then by God, he’d jump by the CABOOM and grab the man a burger. He knew how to reply a soldier who had endured what SSgt. Sidney endured: “You got it, soldier,”
Once they arrived at Clark Air Base Officers’ Open Mess, the chef himself personally came out to serve SSgt. Sidney a chocolate malt, a hamburger, and French fries while he sat in the jeep under the shade of the mimosa tree in the dooryard.
Most everyone inside also came out. “Welcome home, SSgt. Sidney. How do you like that hamburger?”
Several soldiers shook SSgt. Sidney’s hand and asked him the name of his hometown.
“Cape Girardeau, Mo,” he said.
“How glad are you to be goin’ home?” one gushed.
Another said, “It’s going to take more than one of Arnie’s hamburgers to put some meat back on your bones.”
SSgt. Sidney asked for all the fixin’s, including pepperoncini, but after each bite, fewer fixin’s remained on the burger until, after about the sixth bite, Paul put a wrap on it. “Maybe we’d better let you digest what you’ve et so far,” he said.
The Sergeant nodded. he could hold no more. “Man,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “That was good. If I ever see another fish head on a bed of rice with maggots, I swear to God, I will puke.”
The guys all put hands on Sidney’s shoulders. “It’s all over now, babe, you going home!”
Lt Paul said “That’s right, it would be good for SSgt. Sidney to break away from here now, guys.”
The chief cook said “Cape Gireadeau, huh? You ever get yourself to Paducah, you see my brother. His place is at Kentucky and 8th. Now he’ll fix you a burger you can really rap your jaws around.”
Lt Paul fired the jeep up and pulled away. “This man’s got a med-check…and he’s going home.”