Long Way Home

If someone had told me what Robert Ortiz had done I would have said, “Impossible, it never could be done!”  Indeed, the impossible seemed impossible, what more could one say?  Now this was not some great feat of physical strength or endurance, not some medal of honor bravery, nor even winning a Nobel Prize.  No, nothing super human or record breaking, plane and simple.  Rather it’s that inner journey or something close to it.  Really, it’s hard to explain in exact terms, one has almost to live the experience to understand.  Rather like war where there are a dozen armchair johnnies with their war stories, all fake, of course, and the one guy in the corner who can’t speak of his experiences because you had to be there to know what he was talking about.  All he can say it that it was rough.  Well, not much John Wayne war hero in that, is there?

Robert Ortiz enlisted in the Air Force.  To him it seemed a safe bet.  You know, no rifle to carry, no slogging through rice paddies, no getting shot at by the VC or NVA.  Just something nice and safe to keep him out of the draft and out of harm’s way.  Just out of high school and no deferment from the draft, what’s a kid to think.  Got a very low number and he knew that before the end of June he would be in some basic training camp getting muddy and run ragged.  So why not enlist in a sure thing?  The Air Force was a nine to five outfit, at least that is what the recruiters told him.  Yeah, easy duty and rapid promotion and next thing you know your life is a breeze for the next twenty or thirty years.  Yeah, they all say that, bunch of liars. Okay, so it’s not like being a ground pounder, I’ll give them that.

So Robert enlisted and found himself on a jet headed for San Antonio.  It was 1966 and the barracks were left over from world war two.  Unfortunately he picked the hottest months for his basic training.  When the temperatures reached 90 degrees the yellow flag was flown and drill was limited.  When the red flag was hoisted it was ninety five degrees or higher and all activity was suspended.  The only marching that was done was to the mess hall for meals and back again.  Well, that was a rude awakening for former civilians, to say the least.  Well, time to pick a speciality.  That entrance test limits what he could do and he found that one of his options was for loadmaster.  Hey, a little flying and loading of aircraft, seems safe enough.  So he went to the technical school so as to learn how to load aircraft.  They just didn’t tell him how much physical strength in might take pushing pallets on board and into position.  And yes, need to know how to tie it all down cause shifting cargo can kill loadmasters.

Of course the final irony to Robert’s dream of safety was duty in Vietnam immediately after tech school.  I mean, he had one strip and not making much money and then off to the land of firestorms.  Of course air crew got flight pay and combat pay, so he could save a few dimes for his old age.  But the work was anything but nine to five.  Assigned to a C-130 crew flying supply missions to hot fire zones was not exactly a comfortable life.  No one told him that large aircraft often attracted small arms fire and that sometimes one of the loadmasters were hit by such fire and often killed.  Maybe being a ground pounder might have been the better choice.  That thin aluminum skin between you and the bullet wasn’t much comfort, worse yet, you never heard it coming.

But after eleven months of a flying targets for the unfortunate enemy ground troops, Robert felt he was in the clear.  Not even thirty days to go and he would be back statesides and out of the danger zone.  That was every short timer’s dream.  Just a few more days and I’ll be safe, out of harms way and back to being a civilian, or close enough.  One could go to the Airman’s Club and hear the shout of “Short!”, challenged by the shouts of “How short?”.  Well if one was under a month then one would answer with the number of days and the crowd would respond, “That’s short!”.  If your answer was over a month then the derision was, “You ain’t short!  I’m shorter than that!”  Nothing like a little beer and alcohol to work up the courage to mark off another day on your tour calendar.  We all had them, it was almost a requirement.  We weren’t keeping track of the days in country but the days left for our servitude.  And Robert was feeling very short that night when he had only twenty more days left to mark off on his calendar.

Well, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.  The warm grey dawn saw Robert, now with a second stripe on his sleeve, loading pallets on the deck of his C-130.  Destination was the edge of Laos where an Army Ranger unit needed supplies desperately.  He had to rig parachutes to the pallets so that they could be dropped about 100 feet or less off the ground.  the plane commander, Captain Richards hadn’t bothered to tell his crew that the ranger unit was almost over run and they would be under heavy fire.  But Captain richards was a gung ho type who wanted to make major in the worst way.  He had been passed over once and was determined that it would not happen again.  For officers, two strikes and your’re out was a fact of life.  He was already close to the end of his second enlistment and lord help the captain who doesn’t make major before then.  Robert thought it was going to be a milk run cause the loadmaster sergeant had said as much.  So off they took, climbing to only five thousand feet and heading west towards the boarder.  I’ll let Robert tell the story from here.

“We were making our first run.  the captain said we were to push out the load in three packages due to the compact perimeter the Rangers held.  Well, the ship took a number of small fire arms hits.  I mean the bullets were zinging past us as we pushed the first two pallets out.  I don’t think we were more than fifty feet off the deck at that time.  The we rolled around for the second run and we really caught a lot of fire.  Tech Sergeant Prohaski was hit twice and bleeding pretty good.  Then Airman First Class Addams dropped like a rock, dead when he hit the floor, at least he looked dead.  That only left me to push the second load out and I fear I was a little late, looked like we missed the drop zone.  Meanwhile one of the engines caught fire and we had lost power.  Well, Captain richards was determined to drop the last load on target and sent the navigator to help me.  Sure enough, we hit the bulls eye and I could see from the ramp that our boys were getting to the pallets.  Then a burst of machine guns hit the navigator.  I can’t remember his name, a new guy, been in country only two weeks.  Fancy that, two weeks and you get it.  shipped home in a body bag.  Except that we didn’t gain altitude.  Another burst of machine gun fire and we lost all power, half the right wing fell off and we hit the ground sliding through the trees.  That landing really bounced me around and out the back of the ramp.  I must have rolled and tumbled at least fifty yards.  Then the c-130 burst into flames as it came to a stop.  Never say anyone get out, but I was a couple of hundred yards from the crash.  All I remember is that a bunch of men were running towards the plane.  My instinct was to become invisible, try not to let anyone ever notice me.  So I just hugged the ground until they all passed and then started to crawl towards some trees for cover.  My body hurt like hell, all bruised, a couple of bones felt like they were broken.  The foliage next to the trees offered good cover.  Tiredness forced me to dropped off to sleep.”

“Later that night the throbbing pain woke me and I could see the smouldering ruins of my ship.  There were some camp fires close to that burned out hulk and you could see people in uniform walking around.  There was a trail about twenty feet to my left so the only thing left to do was to start walking away from the area and hope no one was on the trail.  My chest and back hurt and walking was difficult, my step was halting because one leg was very sore and getting hard to move.  The trail led through the trees in a winding southeast direction and the moon provided some light for the next few hours.  Towards the early morning I became very tired and searched for a place of concealment for sleep.  The heat of the day made any rest very difficult and I was getting very hungry as it had been twentyfour hours since my last meal.  Several times during the day I moved location and hoped I could find something to eat like fruit, but I didn’t see anything.  About two days later I came upon a cache of food that must have been stored by the NVA or the VC, can’t really say but it kept me alive and going.  Later that day there was increased activity along the trail, maybe they were looking for the thief who stole their food.  Ten days later I stumbled upon a Marine firebase and tried to come in.  The bastards fired and hit me, left a slug in my leg.  Luckily their recon team finally came out and found me.  What’s that they used to say in the westerns, ‘Shoot first and ask questions later.’  Of course I would have been airlifted to Da Nang and maybe medivaced to the states but luck was against me.  The fire base came under attack for several days.  Finally I was on my way to Da Nang by way of several smaller bases.  By the time I got to Da Nang if was over two weeks since the crash.  The doctors operated immediately and I was stuck in the post op ward for a week and then moved to the recovery ward for a month.  I couldn’t believe it, my year had been up almost a month ago and I was still here.  Then I had to answer questions about Captain Richards and the mission.  Well, I told them what I knew and the board of inquiry seemed pleased with my answers.”

“So the flew me to Travis where I was attached to the hospital for rehabilitation.  Some Colonel presented me with  the Airman’s Medal, seems I didn’t rate a Bronze Star or even a Purple Heart (being wounded by friendly fire doesn’t count, I guess).  Later the word got out that Captain Richards was awarded a Silver Star and an Air Medal.  They had a nice little ceremony and presented the two medals to his wife and her two children.  I hope he had insurance, they looked like they could have used it.”

Like a thousand other stories where some luck, some good fortune, and a simple willingness to live bring a man home.  No John Wayne heroics, no Bridge On The River Kwai, no Errol Flynn dash and swashbuckle, just the simple will to exist.  War is like that.

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