It is August 1965 and I’m flying to Vietnam, a two-day journey with the First Cavalry Division’s advance party aboard an Air Force C-130. Twenty of us boarded the plane at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. We found the middle of the bird jammed with two jeeps, as many trailers, and a dozen pallets bulging with small-arms ammo, C rations, medical supplies, diesel generators, commo wire, rolls of barbed wire—and everything else required to build a base camp in the Vietnam jungle.
The front half of the cargo space is too warm. The back is too cold. Our veteran travelers grab seats in the jeeps. The rest of us slump on benches down each side of the fuselage. They are like lawn chairs, woven from some kind of plastic, and comfort is not their purpose.
There is a deep metal pan on one side, about three feet above the deck. A tube leads from its bottom through the wall and some valves and out into the slipstream. That’s the only place to urinate. Need to go number two? There’s a bucket half filled with sand. You use it, you clean it.
We cruise at 220 knots—roughly 250 miles per hour. Our plane is near the head of a sky train of 52 aircraft spaced out at 20-minute intervals—altogether we span more than 4,000 miles of the globe. It’s eight hours from Georgia to Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco. Another eight to Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, then, another eight to Wake Island.
At each stop, we’re on the ground just long enough to refuel. There’s time for the latrine and a gobbled-down burger or some such.
Somewhere beyond Wake I finally manage to fall asleep. It’s another 10 hours to Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, and we’ve been promised several hours there before going on to our final destination, Nha Trang, Vietnam.
I awaken with a start: The engines sing a different tune and the deck is not quite level. Then a wing dips and we bank, descending through the inky night.
I am elated—I’ve managed to sleep for eight hours, the whole distance to Kadena. A single point of light appears in my porthole; behind it is an irregular shape infinitely darker than the night around it. I ask myself why Okinawa is blacked out.
Hydraulics screech, flaps and gear are lowered, our descent slows until the engines growl and the props change pitch and we’re on the ground, taxiing. We stop in the darkness; as the engines whine into silence, our senior officer, a colonel, calls out, “Leave everything except headgear and weapons.”
Something is very wrong.
We jump down to a pitch-black runway. Instead of a bus to take us to the terminal, we march single file toward a distant light until we come to a hangar, atop which burns the lonely bulb that I’d seen from the air. A sign below it reads:
Welcome to Iwo Jima International Airfield.
Elevation: Dry season: +1 Rainy season: -1
We form a semicircle and the colonel explains that an engine caught fire and was shut down. A C-130 can fly on three engines, if necessary, but we were loaded to the maximum; extended flight would push them to their limits, inviting another fire or failure. We were more than 850 miles from Okinawa—farther than Los Angeles is from Portland, Oregon—so we landed here.
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Iwo Jima airfield’s sole purpose is to provide for emergency landings in the Pacific vastness. The 50 airmen manning this remote base are overjoyed to see us. Again and again they ask if there are any women passengers—WACs, nurses, or?
As it happens, a woman is behind every tree on Iwo Jima.
Alas, there are no trees. Not one. None at all.
Months had passed since the last emergency landing, months since the airmen had reason to believe they served any purpose on this lonesome speck of volcanic rock.
Our hosts give us their own bunks for naps, serve us cold chicken, hamburgers, cold cuts, and anything else they had, from milk and coffee to beer, Scotch, vodka, bourbon, or gin—and refused to take our money.
Then they show us two films: Combat footage shot by John Ford’s Navy cinematographers of the actual conquest of Iwo Jima, and the John Wayne movie Sands of Iwo Jima (which is mostly about the conquest of Tarawa).
The Ford footage was grim: Seven thousand American Marines died taking this volcanic island; 22,000 Japanese gave their lives trying to stop them. The American forces wanted Iwo Jima for emergency landings by shot-up B-29s returning from bombing missions over Japan. By V-J Day some hundreds of aircrews had landed safely here; many if not most would have died had it not been for those 7,000 Marines.
And now Iwo Jima has saved another plane and more Americans. I feel humbled. What would we have done in that empty sky over thousands of square miles of water with no place to land? How many of us would have survived a night water landing? Or the shark-filled waters?
At midmorning I visit the repair hangar to view our C-130. A scorched nacelle and sooty wing marked the burned engine. Mechanics scurry about installing a new one.
Later, as we line up to board, I stopped our crew chief, a technical sergeant of about 35. “Tell me the truth, Sarge,” I said. “How much danger were we actually in? Could we have made Okinawa?”
He shrugged. “We’ll never know,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this: If there was no Iwo Jima airfield I’d have been on my knees praying the whole way. And if the skipper had tried for Okinawa on three engines, I, for one, would never fly with him again.”
All the way to Okinawa I kept thinking about Iwo Jima’s Marines. I tried to imagine what it was like in a wave-tossed landing craft, shells bursting all around, slowly approaching an entrenched and fanatical enemy. Were those young men seasick? Fearful? What were their thoughts on that long, scary ride to the beach? Did they know they might die?
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Seven thousand dead. Seven thousand mourning mothers. Seven thousand grieving fathers. Legions of orphaned children, shattered wives and sweethearts.
I was barely out of diapers when Iwo Jima fell to American forces on March 26, 1945. Yet surely, I, too, owe them my life. They fought and died to protect me as much as anyone who ever made a forced landing on that island of blood and valor.