Letters from the front

  "My trip thorough the Pacific"

by Brad "Mexican Bob" Pilgrim  ©2008  26Jul08, 1239Z



I’m sitting here in the back of my faithful steed, the C-17, bored out of my skull and pondering things like why sheep don’t shrink when it rains and why Noah didn’t just kill the two mosquitoes he had on his ark.   The sun is finally starting to come up and I’m glad.  Other than a Mother in Laws heart, there is nothing as black as the sky over the Pacific Ocean at three in the morning!  When you are four hours from Guam and four hours from Hawaii, you start to hear weird noises.  Every once in a while, a chunk of carbon will break loose from the exhaust pipe and I’ll see it fly by the window in the troop door.   I spend a lot of time staring off into the dark and wondering if some of the strange noises are actually my airplane coming apart and how come the “black box” voice recorder is basically indestructible but they don’t build the entire plane out of the same material.
We’ve been out roaming the Pacific for the last two weeks and are finally heading back home.  My passengers are sleeping all over the floor of the airplane and it looks a little like Jonestown the morning after the cool aid was served.  I hope they all sleep until we descend into Hawaii, so I don’t have to deal with them asking “where are we” and “is that a cloud or is something on fire outside”?  This trip has seen Mama Pilgrim’s little boy in Alaska, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Guam.  Most of the time we had off was short and didn’t allow for much roaming around.  I did end up having a little extra time in Singapore and managed to see a lot of historical stuff I’ve missed on past visits.  Singapore is a beautiful place and nice to visit.  If you ever get to go there, be sure and stay at the Raffles Hotel.  All though I’ve never stayed there myself, it seems to be a pretty high class joint!  In fact, it’s so high class that I got kicked out of the lobby about six or seven years ago for being “intoxicated and under dressed”.  It seems I lost my shirt somewhere between the bar and the front door.  The hotel bar is called “The Long Bar” and it’s open to the unwashed public as well as the anointed few that have the wherewithal to stay at the hotel.  The “Singapore Sling” was invented at this bar and the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot underneath the billiards table.  I’m quite at home at any place that allows indoor hunting!  During WWII, the British surrendered the island to the Japs after they rode in through Malaysia on bicycles.  According to the local story, the guests of the Raffles Hotel were dancing when the first Japs walked through the door in 1942. 
Vietnam ended up being the only other place I really had any time off.  As we flew from Bangkok, Thailand to Hanoi, I rode up on the flight deck.  Forty years ago, many aviators, far braver than my crew, made this same trip to fly recon runs or bombing missions over North Vietnam.  Far too many of them didn’t make it back.  I find myself looking at the mountain ranges and wondering which one might be the famous “Thud Ridge” that I’ve read about.  How many old missile sights have we passed and was that dirt road we flew over part of the “Ho Chi Minh trail”?  As we fly over the Red River I think of the people I’ve been lucky enough to know, that flew combat missions there as young men.   Nothing I’ll ever do in my flying career will compare to what those guys went through.  We flew through a torrential rain storm for about the last six miles prior to the runway.  Just as we touched down, the rain stopped and I was able to see the Mig 21 fighter planes in their shelters off to the side of the runway.  The Russian trucks parked with them sure make it look like not much has changed since 1969.  It started to rain again as we unloaded the airplane but finally stopped as we boarded the bus for our hotel in Hanoi. 
My Daddy is a Marine and spent a fair amount of his time in Vietnam.  All my life I’ve heard about that country and the people in it.  Usually not in flattering terms.  I’ve been there a couple of times but never overnight.  As we drove down the highway, I found myself thinking about the pictures my Daddy has in the photo albums at home in Texas.  Forty years doesn’t make a lot of difference in his pictures and the ones I now have.  Men and Women in their pajamas with their straw, cone shaped hats, walking down the road.  Rice paddies as far as you can see.  Every time I see a farmer squatted down beside the road, I think how my Daddy would think he was planting bombs or digging punji traps.   Occasionally I see a water buffalo with just his nose and horns sticking out of the rice paddy and I remember how Daddy always talked about how much “water boos” hated Marines and how many times he was chased out of the rice paddies by them.
The hotel we stayed in was literally less than one hundred yards away and around the corner from the famous Hoa Lo prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.  I had hoped we would make it to town in time to see inside the prison but we showed up about an hour after they closed for the day.  A few of the people flying with us aren’t normally flyers and had no interest in seeing the prison, or anything else in town besides the hotel bar and casino.  That just amazes me to no end.  To a military aviator, this place is a little like Mecca.  All your survival training is designed to help you avoid ending up somewhere like this.  The vast majority of what we are taught today about surviving in a POW situation and getting through interrogations are based on what was learned during the nearly ten years Americans were held prisoner there.  All through survival school you hear about the experiences of the prisoners that were held there and in addition, I’ve read just about every book ever written about it.  To finally see the place in person was a very moving experience. 
About three quarters of the old prison has been torn down in the last five years to make room for the Hanoi Towers that now stand in its place. The front gate of the prison is still there and looks just like it always did in the film clips and pictures from the war.  The barbed wire and broken glass cemented on top off the wall still stand on top of what I believe is the greatest example of cruelty in modern warfare.  Nothing that goes on down in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will ever compare to the torture that has been dealt out behind the clean yellow walls of the Hanoi Hilton.  
If you’ve ever kicked a fire ant bed, then you have seen traffic in down town Hanoi!  There has to be at least 1,000 scooters, 800 bicycles, 200 buses, many taxis and pedestrians for each square foot.  Traffic lights are nearly non existent and those that are there are purely suggestions.  You just wait for a semi-break in traffic, pray for salvation, hold your breath and walk out into the madness.  You don’t dare stop or slow down and you sure don’t turn around in the middle of the road.  A family of five will all ride past you on the same scooter.  Occasionally, one of the kids will have a chicken under each arm.  Livestock strapped to the back seat isn’t uncommon at all.  If you stop to stare or take a picture, from anywhere but the comparative safety of the curb, you will be ran over or at least bumped into!  I’ve been all over the world and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.
Hanoi has been called the Paris of the Orient.  It does look a lot like it, with the wide, tree lined streets and all the French architecture.  The aroma of roasting dog, the mama-san squatted down washing dishes in the gutter and the never ending line of poor people trying to get you to buy things, just add to the experience.  The shopping opportunities can only be described as…interesting.  I can understand why people like my Daddy are reluctant to visit Vietnam, but I think most people would enjoy it.
The next morning, the bus to the airport takes us past many of the other historical sights in Hanoi.  The lake where the wreckage of the B-52 still sticks out from where it was shot down in 1972, the lake where John McCain was pulled out after he was shot down, the statue of Lenin and the mausoleum where a mummified Ho Chi Minh is laid out for all to see.  Against his expressed wishes I might add.  As we go through customs at the airport, I stare at the uniformed agents.  I’m not sure what their position in the government is, but they are wearing the same military uniforms that the North Vietnamese had during the war.  As I look at them, I find my self wondering how these calm looking and physically insignificant people can be the same blood thirsty, murdering savages that they were.  I guess it all boils down to the “fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight.” 
While I’m standing there waiting for my passport, an individual that I assume was the supervisor walks up to the agents.  He is wearing the same uniform but has a certain look to him and an expression on his face that makes me very uneasy.  His demeanor is much different than the other Vietnamese and he just seems to be all business.  He yells a few things in Vietnamese at his charges and stares all of us down.  I’ve never been a person to be scared of people but this guy gave me cold chills.  I could very easily see him sitting at a table and saying something like “You will sign this piece of paper and acknowledge the humane and lenient treatment of the peace loving peoples of Vietnam!”  I looked back at him as I walked past the customs counter and I swear it had to be people like him that ran the “Hanoi Hilton”.
My Daddy went over to Vietnam in 1965 and came home from his last tour in 1969.  In 1968, when he and my Mamma got married, some friends of theirs gave him a small Bible to take back to Vietnam with him.  To show what a small world this is, the son of those friends later wound up being one of my pilots in the Air Force.  The morning I left for basic training, Daddy gave that Bible to me.  On the inside, he wrote in part “….I always carried this with me and read it especially when times got tough….”    As a testament to some of those times, there are still muddy and bloody fingerprints on some of the pages.  During his war, Daddy wrote the places he was at on the inside cover.  I’ve carried on that tradition.  That Bible is probably my most valued possession and hopefully someday my daughter Jordan will be as proud to have it as I am.  As for now, I carry it with me every time I fly. 

As we took off past the Mig fighters and headed for Guam, the same route the B-52s took after bombing Hanoi, I looked out at the bridges over the Red River that some of my friends had flown over, Haiphong Harbor where my uncle dropped mines from his A-3 Skywarrior, towards the jungles in South Vietnam where my Daddy fought his war and the South China Sea that he flew over to go home to his family.  The Gulf of Tonkin where it all first started for the US, the never ending rice paddies with their ever present water boo and farmers in pajamas that I heard of as a kid and finally towards the city of Hanoi and the famous prison I’ve waited all my life to see.  I think of all the brave men and women that have flown over that country and fought on the ground in the past, the ones that came home and the ones that never did.  I take my Daddy’s Bible out of my flight suit pocket and turn past the many verses that he underlined so long ago, to one I’ve always remembered:
Psalm 55:6 “And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest.”

Faithfully Submitted,
26Jul08, 1239Z

Brad Pilgrim