Circuitous Travel Leave
by Norm Urban
May, 1965 – July, 1966
This is not really a Viet Nam story, but rather a LEAVING Viet Nam story. But it’s fun to tell about, and hopefully, interesting.
In May ’65, I joined HMM-361 as a 2nd Lt helicopter pilot, just as the squadron boarded the USS Iwo Jima at Long Beach, Ca, for the trip to Okinawa, with a stop in Japan to drop off some A-4s. We worked up on Oki for a month or so, then flew via C-130, into Danang, where we set up camp at the southeast end of the main runway. Great flying. Cheated death a few times, like everybody.
A few months later, the Third Marines and the Third MAW landed in force and the squadron was broken up, with our “experienced” personnel joining the incoming squadrons to provide a nucleus of “in-country” familiar crews.
But I lucked out and got sent to HMM-163 back on Okinawa. Made 1stLt and HAC, then Section and Division Leader. We worked up there for a few months, and just before New Year’s day, flew back into ‘Nam, where HMM-163 relieved the squadron at Hue-Phu Bai.
Now, I had heard about a thing called circuitous travel leave. Supposedly, it meant that you could take leave on the way to your next duty station and travel, via government transportation, on a space available basis, to a few other places enroute. Since there was a reasonable chance I wouldn’t survive, I thought I’d try to take advantage of this deal, just in case I did make it through my tour. With my squadron mate, 1stLt Joe Weiss, we got out an atlas, and put in for circuitous travel leave, requesting permission from HQ Marine Corps, to travel to EVERY FREE WORLD country on the map!
Six months later, our orders came through! We were authorized to travel ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, except Communist countries…on government transportation – space available. Our orders were about 3 inches thick, and, I think, totally unique.
In early June, Joe and I left HMM-163, now at Marble Mountain, and flew on an AF Reserve C-97 back to Okinawa, for transportation back to CONUS. We checked in to the travel desk at Naha AFB, where the AF travel NCOIC said, “Sir, I’ve never seen orders like this, and I don’t know what to do with you.” Joe and I explained that it was up to us to find transportation going where we wanted to go, at which time we would inform him, and he could manifest us, stamp our orders, and our leave would begin.
We then left Naha and proceeded to party hearty for about two weeks. Eventually, after having new wardrobes made, buying our stereo gear and cameras, and getting shots and passports, we reported back to Naha to catch the “Embassy Flight” to Bangkok, Thailand. The “Embassy Flight” was (is) a regular USAF flight that circumnavigates the globe. Comfortable in a C-141 Starlifter, we headed back over Viet Nam to Bangkok.
Most of you have probably experienced Bangkok. Joe and I did too. We even looked up and went to the Air America office, saying we wanted a job in the near future. My second most memorable experience in Bangkok was trying to get a visa at the Indian embassy for the Embassy Flight stop in New Delhi. We had to endure a two hour-long harangue from some low level Indian bureaucrat about how the US shouldn’t be in Viet Nam, blah, blah, blah. But, eventually, he stamped our passports, and we got on the Embassy Flight to New Delhi.
New Delhi was really an eye-opener. People were literally starving in the streets, and looked like it. Meanwhile, our taxi, weaving among cyclos, animals, trucks, pedestrians, and other autos, took us to the YWCA, where we spent the night. No special remembrances here.
The next day, it was back on the Starlifter, to Karachi, then Tehran, and eventually Madrid, Spain. Now party time began to take its’ toll. Joe got pretty sick and checked into the base infirmary at Terrejon AFB in Madrid. While he was in the hospital, I stayed in a downtown Madrid hotel, playing tourist and looking for girls. Did the Prado museum every day. Even today, I can still tell a Goya from a Picasso.
Three days later, Joe was released and we headed for base ops to see where we could go. We noticed a Marine VIP C-47 on the base tarmac. There aren’t too many Marines in Europe, so this had to be unusual. When we got to Operations, the C-47 flight crew explained that the aircraft belonged to a Marine General Officer assigned to NATO, and they were heading back to London. When we asked for a ride, they, of course said, “Ask the General.” So we did.
When the General arrived, we did our most military salutes, and requested, if space was available, that we be allowed to tag along to London. The General (I wish I could remember his name) said “Sure! As a matter of fact, I’m taking over the Marine Air Wing in Danang in a few weeks, and I’ve some questions I’d like to ask you guys.” We spent the entire flight telling the General how the war should be fought…from the point of view of two 1stLt H-34 drivers. When we landed at a military field outside of London, the General said to his crew, “Take these officers anywhere they’d like to go.” Joe and I both said, “Paris!” Two hours later, we were deposited at a military field just outside Paris. We checked into the B.O.Q.
The next morning, there was a flight leaving for Germany. Joe was engaged to a Lufthansa flight attendant and wanted to visit her parents, so Paris is where we parted company. We made plans to contact each other later in our leave, but it never happened.
Never having been in Europe before, I kinda had to feel my way. I made friends with a U.S. Army Huey driver and talked him into flying me into the city. I flew left seat and we landed right next to the Arc de’ Triumph, where I stepped out in civvies, with a B-4 bag in each hand. I had heard about a small, family operated hotel (pension) on the left bank, which catered to military personnel. I took a cab there and checked in.
I had also heard about an Officer’s Club in a downtown building, near the U.S. Embassy. I cleaned up and made my way there. Sitting at the bar, I got into a conversation with a civilian guy who worked at the embassy, but he wouldn’t tell me what he did there. When I explained my situation, he suggested that I hook up with the USMC Embassy Guard. I explained that officers weren’t really supposed to fraternize with enlisted, but he pooh-poohed the whole concept, and insisted that these guys were special and that he take me to their quarters. We got into his car and in a few minutes pulled up in front of a rather non-descript warehouse. After climbing about eight flights of stairs, we entered the top floor quarters of the Paris USMC Embassy Guard. It was like a rather nice motel…German cook 24/7, rec room, etc. He introduced me to the NCOIC, a Gunny, who after hearing my tale, said, “Sir, we are going to show you Paris.” I don’t remember too much about the next week or so.
The Embassy Guard tour of duty is an eight-hour shift, three per day of course. So one third of the guys are coming off duty, ready to party, every eight hours. The handed me off, one shift to the next. They took me to the Moulin Rouge and the Crazy Horse Saloon, where they knew and hung out with all the girls. They took me to private parties all over Paris. They put me to bed. They washed and ironed my civvies. They shined my shoes. A few hours later, they said once again, “Come on, Lieutenant, we’ve got a party to get to.” After coming half way around the world, and after a week (I think) of this, I was a goner.
I spent the last three days of my Paris leave flat on my back in my pension hotel room. Sleeping. And not much else. I think I ate a meal or two. Eventually, I headed for the airport to catch the Embassy Flight to McGuire AFB in N.J.
In uniform (you had to be in uniform on the flight), I was walking slowly down a side street behind a museum, on the left bank, with a suitcase in each hand. Coming toward me was a gnarled, stooped, old Frenchman, hobbling with a cane. As he approached me, he moved in front of me, and I halted. I noticed a ribbon on his lapel. He started speaking to me, very emotionally, in French. As he did, tears began to stream down his cheeks. Eventually, he reached up, (I’m 6’1”, he, probably 5’) and gave me a kiss on each cheek. I was, and still am, dumfounded, since, not speaking French, I had no idea what he was saying. I can only assume that he was a French veteran who worked with Marines in the Pacific in WW2, or Europe in WW1. Either way, he was saluting my uniform as a U.S. Marine.
The rest is uneventful. Except that I arrived back in the States on Fourth of July weekend…and every time a firecracker went off, I hit the deck. Welcome back to the world, Norm