I am one of the FNG’s taking time to write to my family and friends every chance I get. I joined the Army Chaplaincy in 1966 when then-President Johnson was building up the armed forces here in Vietnam. When I finally arrived in January 1970, President Johnson had quit his job as Commander-in-Chief, refusing to run for president for a second term. That should have been a hint to me that this war might not be winnable.

February 23, Late afternoon
Dear Chaplain Miller,

I'm starting off to war in a dream. At least I feel like I'm dreaming. I'm watching Chaplain Fowler as he says good-by to his wife, Gwen. This is not so much of a nightmare, more like floating between sleep and reality. Gwen has left to go home.

The plane is before us on the runway. The bus that took us from Oakland's Space Available Depot to the San Francisco airport drove us to where the plane was waiting. We had no band to send us off, no young women to kiss us good-by. Not even a song like, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Hurrah. Hurrah." No cheerleaders were present waving pom-poms. Only the dark end of the airport waited.

Spotlights gave an eerie glow, shining through the San Francisco fog. I felt as if I was going on some secret clandestine mission. No terminal bright lights and coffee and donuts waited for us when we unloaded our bus. No USO worker could to be found.

The bus came to a stop, and the doors opened with a sliding swish of air that woke up those passengers who were trying to catch a nap. The passengers were strangely quiet as we disembarked into the fog and marched single file across the black top airstrip and up the steps into the plane. I was one of sixty passengers who now joined the other waiting passengers already aboard waiting to be one of President Nixon's and General Westmoreland's FNG’s.

We entered the plane from the ramp, stepping into the long body of a DC-8. We were greeted for the first time by two rather conventional, yet pleasant looking young ladies, dressed in mini-skirted uniforms with Buster Brown hats. Rows of seats, three-deep lined both sides of the aisle, with no first class seats available.

The men began to fill up the open seats slowly, quietly, like pallbearers at a funeral. It was like entering a cathedral, where no one dared to speak above a whisper for fear of breaking the holy moment. I suspect like me, most were praying. Some would not be coming back. I thought to myself, these poor guys. They're just kids really. I asked myself, “Are they ready to become men?” Soon, all too soon, they would have to be men, like it or not.

Time seemed to stand still in flight. I found myself thinking again, this is all a dream. See that fellow over there, he looks like me. His fatigues are starched; his name is in black letters above his shirt pocket. The cross and bars and canvas boots all look like they belong to me, but they must belong to someone else.

"What's that?” a voice said from someplace on the plane.

I'm awakened. Two eager teenager's faces are peering over at me, yet past me, trying to get a look at the land below us. We were getting our first view of Vietnam.

"You fellows anxious to land?” I asked.

"No sir! We almost came this close,” they said holding their fingers an inch apart, “to bailing out when we stopped at Guam."

"Look, Chaplain, those fires, reckon they’re from bombs?” one of the fellows asked.

I know now that they were fires set by the rice farmers who were clearing their fields. But as an FNG, I had no way of knowing that, and like the two fellows looking at Vietnam for the first time, I felt a little apprehension as our plane began its decent.

The wheels hit the runway and the plane sped past stationed planes of various shapes, sizes, war colors and camouflage. My feelings were causing gyrations in my stomach like butterflies with an itch. I had tension and felt anticipation of childish waiting for Christmas and a spanking at the same time. I saw myself fumbling in my dream, wondering, will they rush us off the plane, hand us an M-16 and have us double-time to a safe bunker. What is on the other side of that door?

The pilot announced over the intercom. “Welcome to Vietnam gentleman; please keep you seat belts fastened.”

"I hope I can for the next twelve months,” said a young voice from the rear.

We came to a slow, easy stop. GI's began to chatter nervously. I went off into my thoughts. Who will be the first to fall? When the door opens, what will happen? Dumb, that is what my thoughts were, dumb. Nothing so dramatic was about to happen yet.

I stepped out on the ramp landing. Before me, lay Bienhoa military airport.
Only ten years ago, Bienhoa had been a calm village in the midst of rich rice paddies, according to Stanley Karnow, a historian who visited that city in 1959.

The Americans had only eight advisors stationed there to assist the French in their struggle with the Vietminh. While six of those advisors were watching a movie, "The Tattered Dress" they were attacked by Vietminh guerrillas and slaughtered by automatic weapon fire. They were not the first Americans to lose their lives in Vietnam but became among the early causalities.

Who would have suspected back in 1959 when I was planning to graduate from a small Baptist college that I, as an Army Chaplain, would be stepping off a plane in a changed, strange, Vietnam society in January 1970?

The pretty stewardesses were standing like a minister at the front door of his church after the services, shaking hands with departing parishioners. "Good-bye and good luck," they said to each of the young bewildered faces that passed them by.

The young man in front of me held onto one of the stewardess' hand long and firmly. "I want to remember how a beautiful woman feels,” he said to her with a big grin. A great line, I thought to myself, too bad she is flying back and he's going to war.

This just has to be a dream. Here I am marching off to war. Here I go in a long olive drab green line following the orange markers that guide our path to war. No sound of guns, no boom of cannons, no bunker to run into, only a sheet metal building crowded with empty chairs.

Another long green line of olive drab troops, going toward an awaiting plane, they're part of the 140,000 troops that would be withdrawn in 1970; all of them yelling and cheering. "Short, Short," holding up their fingers in the V sign and shouting "YEHOWEEEEEE!” Pointing over to our line as we come off the plane, they shout out to us, “Welcome FNG’s."

It's funny now; I had no idea what they meant. As I watched these fellows load their “Freedom Bird” for the real world, I thought, thank God, some do get to come home.

Now I find myself in a dream state again, but this is reality, waiting for a bus, standing in formation, only the sergeant shouting at the new arrivals to stay straight, don't break formation. The bus is forty minutes late. My fear turns to frustration; anxiety to anticipation. What in the world, am I doing here? Waiting for a bus to go to war. Lord; please wake me up from this dream.




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