Sharon is a former flight attendant with Pan American World Airways. She lives in Escondido, California, and writes about growing up in Southern California, as well as her experiences while working with the airline.
THE DOGS ON WAKE ISLAND
It was a hot afternoon early in 1960 when I saw the beautiful dogs under the scrub bushes on Wake Island. Whining and barking, each was eager for exercise, as any healthy young German shepherd would be if cooped up too long. Wanting a closer look, I headed for the nearest cage. When I was ten feet away, the dog became stone still and fixed its eyes on me. At five feet away he hit the side of his cage full force, teeth bared and growling viciously.
My heart and stomach plummeted as I jerked to a stop. “Thank God he is in a cage”, I thought.
A young marine tending another dog looked up and said, "He don't like strangers much."
"No kidding!" I gasped. "Where are they going?"
"Vietnam," he said. "We got advisers there that need ‘em for protection."
"Protection from what?"
"From the commies. They been ambushing the advisers. Soon’s we have the plane ready we'll load ‘em up and be on our way." He spoke to the dog, hooked a chain to its collar and freed it from its cage. As the dog and its handler romped and played, a man approached across the shimmering road.
"Watch," said the marine as the romp continued. When the man was slightly over a chain-length away, a single word uttered by the marine instantly transformed the dog from an overgrown puppy into a trained killer that lunged for the newcomer's throat and came up short at the end of the chain. The man's mouth flew open and his eyes bulged as he stumbled backward. It was a demonstration that, once seen, was impossible for me to forget.
After two nights on Wake Island, I flew on to Manila, the next layover point for me and my Pan Am crew. From Manila, our schedule would take us to Singapore, with a one-hour transit stop in Saigon. We arrived in Saigon an hour ahead of schedule so the airport station manager provided us a car and driver for a trip into the city. I was impressed by its beauty and how, due to its French influence, it was different from other Asian cities. Nowhere did I see a marine or a military dog. Thirty minutes into Saigon and thirty minutes back to the airport was the extent for me of Saigon at ground level.
Flight schedules made transits through Saigon as little as five days or as long as five months apart. But on my next trip through, the station manager's son came aboard to supervise the Vietnamese ground crew workers. Feeling important as an employed twelve-year-old, he was happy to be working and no longer a student.
"There must be an English school here," I said.
"Sure there is," he replied, "but it's closed. The school bus had to go over the same road where a jeep was ambushed last week, so they closed the school. I'd rather work with my dad, anyhow." He assured me he wasn't afraid of any terrorism.
Reading newspapers aboard outbound planes, as well as local English editions, kept me current on world affairs. Although Singapore papers occasionally reported on it briefly, I didn't find news of Vietnam in papers from home, so I forgot about Vietnam between trips.
Sometimes I worked on MATS flights, planes the military contracted to transport personnel. Normally, they were dull flights with the plane crowded to its maximum. But, I picked up one very different series of MATS flights. Bound for an unknown destination somewhere out of Thailand or Clark Field in the Philippines, the men were scared. They knew only that their mission was urgent and secret and many feared they would never see home again. After working three legs of this charter it appeared certain there was a military crisis situation somewhere and, on the basis of gleanings from several trips, I guessed Vietnam. I read every newspaper I could get my hands on, but found nothing unusual in any of them. I couldn't wait to get home and find out what was going on.
"What happened in Vietnam?" I asked my roommates as soon as I walked through the apartment door. A student, a nurse, and a teacher, they prided themselves on keeping current.
"Vietnam?" they responded. "Where is that?"
"It's part of Indochina, south of China, the Malay Peninsula. Saigon is the capital. Does that help?"
"Oh, yes. The French lost part of it around the mid-'50s, didn't they? We haven't heard anything lately, though."
"Nothing in the papers, nothing on TV?"
"Somewhere else out there then?"
"Wow! That's strange. No news out there either."
"Why? What happened?"
"I don't know, but we've been flying military personnel out there for months, and we just took out several planes full of guys that were scared to death. You really don't know anything?"
"We really don't"
When the paper bounced off the door over the next several days I grabbed it and searched for a clue. Just as my roommates had said, nothing! In fact, it was nearly two years before any significant items concerning Americans in Vietnam crept in for public knowledge.
The years have passed and I've learned that the “commies” were actually the Viet Cong, the Cong, or Charlie. It's hard to believe there was a time when I heard someone ask, "Where is Vietnam?" The ultimate hell of Vietnam's escalation from economic aid to military aid and finally to thousands of Americans dying in combat there became threadbare news. At home, civil disobedience grew from teach-ins to demonstrations, to large scale draft resistance, and emigration, making it a war on two fronts.
I tried to console my girlfriend when her fiancé was killed in Vietnam - one of 56,000 Americans to die there. Then, at the end of a fun-filled Disneyland day, I was depressed by the sight of a group of disabled veterans having a "good time". Scarred, blind, double and triple amputees, paraplegics, on crutches, in braces and wheelchairs, they were evidence of the mutilated living victims, 74,000 of whom suffered at least 50 percent disability. In 1972, the United States officially withdrew from the horrible deadlock, yet the request for aid for Indochina continued past the final fall of South Vietnam.
During the Vietnam years, I had two sons of my own. Blond and happy, they were full of the spirit of life. But I worried about their future? Was the stage being readied behind a curtain that would rise on a new theater of war for them when they grew up? Were facts of an imminent new front being omitted from the news or hidden from the public by misleading accounts, as in Vietnam? Should I raise my sons as ‘conscientious objectors’? Maybe I should secure them citizenship in a traditionally neutral country. Or, flee with them to the remotest jungles of the Amazon or the farthest reaches of the Australian outback? Nowhere is there a guarantee of immunity from the horrors of war. Yet when I remembered the dogs on Wake Island, my soul cried for the future of my children.
I’m a grandparent now, and the deadly threats have moved from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. My sons escaped the battlefield, but will my grandson be so lucky? I pray for my country, for if my country doesn’t remember the tragedy of Vietnam, it will cease to be the country it should be, and my family may have to pay the price as have so many others.