Chapter 10 – Go Ask Alice

Leaving Saigon in the Broad Daylight

I arrived back in the world at San Francisco on a cold November day. I headed straight for the bar. It was the week of Thanksgiving. Sitting in the bar I missed the call for my flight to New York City. It left without me. I could not get another flight to NYC but I was able to get a flight to Boston. I had left my car with my Uncle John in New Hampshire while I was overseas, so the Boston flight was a godsend. I called long-distance from a phone booth and reversed he charges. Uncle John accepted. Fourteen hours later, at an inconvenient early time, he and my cousin picked me up at Logan Airport. I was in uniform. Uncle John, a retired air force colonel clapped me on the shoulder and vigorously shook my hand. My cousin, a nineteen year-old co-ed at Tufts College looked at me and blanched. I had not slept in a couple of days and was not talkative but polite as I recall.

“What took you so long? How did you miss a flight from San Francisco?”

“I had a bit of trouble getting the flight from Saigon to SFO.”

The air force sergeant at the departure desk took one look at my blanket travel orders issued by Ft. Monmouth months before and said,

“No deal. I’ve seen this ruse before. You’re not going anywhere.”

I took a scrap of paper from the counter and wrote Col. Suel’s phone number on it. I handed it to the sergeant.

“What’s this?” he demanded.

“Call this number. It’ll save you a lot of trouble.”

“Don’t waste my time with this bullshit, trooper.”

About this time big, black, starched-and-pressed Sgt. 1st class Pigeon walked up to investigate the delay. He was under orders from Col Suel to have me on the next plane for SFO. He was not about to fail. He looked at the desk sergeant, then at me, then at the paper the sergeant held.

“Call that number!” he ordered in his best command voice.

Inter service rivalry evaporated under Pigeon’s no-nonsense persona. The sergeant did as he was ordered. After all Pigeon outranked him and was clearly not bluffing.

Colonel Suel’s secretary answered. “MACV, Col. Suel’s office.” The sergeant explained that he had me there asking for passage out of the country on bogus travel orders. I could hear her say, “Just a moment.”

“OK but I haven’t got all day. This is the departure desk at Tan San Nuit and the line’s backing up.”

Thirty seconds or so passed. The sergeant nervously drummed the tip of his pencil on the counter. Pigeon stared at him.

Then I heard the colonel’s familiar voice booming into the receiver. “This is Colonel Suel. You’ve got Specialist Allen there?”

“Yessir,” said the sergeant, the blood draining from his face.

“He’s got lawful blanket travel orders signed by General Horn and they don’t expire. Did you see that?

“Yessir”

Do you like your job?”

“Yessir.”

“If he misses that plane you’ll have a new one. Put Sgt. Pigeon on the line.”

I didn’t hear what the colonel said to Pigeon but he smiled broadly and handed the receiver back to the desk sergeant.

“Give me your paperwork,” said he sergeant resignedly.

“Make it snappy, we haven’t got all day,” barked Pigeon.

I tore off a copy of my travel orders, the sergeant stamped it and handed me a boarding pass. “Sorry for the delay,” he murmured.

Pigeon clapped me on the back and said, “Come on son, you’re on your way home. Say Hi to Sgt. Davis when you get there.”

“You know Davis?!” I shouted over the din of the concourse.

I sure do. Give him my best. It’s been nice working with you. And try to stay out of trouble. Dave would never have forgiven me if I’d let anything happen to you.” He turned and walked off. I never saw him again but I still have his picture.

That night Uncle John opened a bottle of his favorite scotch and invited me into his office. It was a debriefing that lasted into the wee hours. The history of the war and his participation in it began to come into focus. He roared with laughter when I told him I’d given the air force sergeant Suel’s number when he refused my travel orders to leave Saigon on a civilian flight.
.
“He’s a tough old bastard. I’d love to have seen that airman’s face when Suel came on the phone.”

“You know him?!” I asked astonished.

“Sure. Worked with him at the Pentagon just before I retired. He went to Nam to see for himself what a mess of things we’d made by assassinating Diem. Both of us advised against it and against escalating the war and both of us were passed over for brigadier because of that. I retired. He took a a trip to Viet Nam. I still hear from him every so often.”

“Wow! Did you know that I reported to him?”

“I made sure of it. When you told me where you were going and what you’d be doing I was appalled at the risky situation Ft. Monmouth put you guys in. I was about to call Gen. Horn at the Signal School but I called Suel instead. He’s smarter and I knew he could keep it from being more of an adventure than you could handle.”

John many intriguing stories to tell; many about how the Vietnamese economy worked. He had been stationed in Hawaii with his family from 1960 to’63 and flew frequently to Saigon. He jokingly said he piloted the plane to keep his flight pay current. His real reason, he said, was to check up on the Diem regime. His next duty station was the Pentagon. He transferred there a week after a monk set himself afire in the busiest intersection in Saigon. That was only a few months before Diem was assassinated

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