I didn't see any lights until the wheels were skimming the surface of the runway and the edge lights began flashing by. Necks craned all around me as we taxied off the runway. We were all looking for the terminal. There wasn't any.
The doors opened as soon as the plane stopped, even before the engines were shut down and ground personnel rushed on board and began directing us to move quickly. There was no milling around in the aisle as you see on most planes when they stop at a terminal. We were instructed to remain in our seats until directed to stand, grab our carryons, and move quickly off the plane. Every door had been opened and stairways had been pushed up to each one.
I couldn't help pausing in the doorway when it was my turn to exit. It was disorienting. I couldn't see anything other than the steps in front of me, dimly illuminated by small lamps on each side. All of the runway and taxiway lights had been extinguished before the airplane even came to a stop.
A sergeant standing to one side urged me to keep moving. Rank meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was to empty the airplane as quickly as possible. I don't think we could have done it any faster had they deployed the inflatable emergency evacuation ramps.
Another sergeant at the bottom of the stairway hurried us on our way towards a line of parked buses visible only by the dim light of their interior dome lights shining through their windows. A quick glance back at the plane showed me that every cargo hatch was open and teams of men had almost emptied it of everything already.
I trotted towards the buses following the line of men ahead of me. Behind me, I could hear the planes engines restarting and it began to taxi back onto the runway when the last men had descended the stairways and they had been pulled just a few feet away from the fuselage. The men pushing the stairways from the front doors of the aircraft had to rush to keep from having them toppled over by the passing wings. It was roaring down the runway and lifting off before we were all on board the buses which departed just as quickly as each was loaded.
They knew we had questions. A sergeant stood at the front of our bus explaining. The airfield we had just landed at was near the town of Bien Hoa. It was little more than an airstrip and a few shacks. The enemy would begin dropping mortar rounds on the airplanes if they remained on the ground long enough for them to set their sights. The planes were flying on to Thailand where their crews would rest before making the return flight with a stop at Ton Sun Hhut Air Force Base in Saigon to pick up passengers returning to the United States.
I looked out the window at the night shrouded countryside when the sergeant paused in his explanation. The windows were covered in heavy wire mesh (to prevent anyone from tossing a grenade inside). The air blowing through the bus from its open windows was warm and heavy with the smell of humidity and rotting vegetation.
Welcome to Vietnam. Welcome to the war.