FINDING WAKE ISLAND
During a shopping trip today, an older man was talking with the clerk about refilling a printer cartridge. She explained that this store didn’t offer the service and made some suggestions as to where he could go.
I watched, thinking he might like to do a little research instead of driving all over town and maybe not finding what he needed. As he said “thank you” and turned away, I offered to look up on my phone where he could find what he needed.
“I don’t know how to use those,” he said as I typed up a search. “My wife is really good with computers and the internet. I let her do it.” He laughed a bit and then his face got sad.
“I learned on the internet that a friend died yesterday. He had dimensia.”
“There are a lot of us dying,” he said. “There is a general here in town that I am watching, waiting to hear. I want to attend his funeral.” I asked him how he had served, and he told me he served in Korea and Viet Nam. My questions seemed to open up memories for him.
He had served in the Army, including two tours in Viet Nam. He talked about stopping for fuel at Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik, Iceland on his way to England. He was going there to marry his wife and bring her home to the states.
He talked about taking off three times from an airport in a Boeing 707 that had repeated equipment failures – the first time the pilot lost an engine at 12,000 feet. The second time the cabin lost pressure at 10,000 feet. The third time was the charm, despite the presentiment of disaster expressed by the Lieutenant Colonel sitting next to him.
Then he talked about being called up as a military advisor to be sent to Viet Nam on an emergency basis in 1965. He and 1,000 other commissioned and non-commissioned officers stood in a field and were told by a three-star general that they were going to Viet Nam by ship. There was an uproar – these men did not want to spend the time it would take to travel by ship.
The three-star called a two-star in Washington and discussed the absurdity of calling in advisors on an emergency basis and then sending them to Viet Nam by ship. Aircraft were found in short order.
The next thing he knew he was on a World Airways L-1011 with over 200 other men and cargo. They crossed the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii to refuel. Somewhere after Hawaii, the pilot lost the electronics in the cockpit and was unable to navigate electronically. He made an announcement to his passengers, reassuring them that he still had visual navigation, and that they were looking for Wake Island where they could get the electronics problem fixed.
Wake Island is an atoll west of Hawaii and north of the Marshall Islands. The majority of the land above sea level was dedicated to a runway. The amount of runway needed for an L-1011 to take off, depending on the model, was anywhere from 8,000 feet to 11,000 feet. The runway on Wake Island was 9,000 feet long. And then ocean.
The electronics were quickly repaired and they made ready to leave. Rolling waves were coming in 10, 15, 20 feet high, he said, surging as they hit the reef around the atoll. The cabin was dead quiet as the plane increased speed, the passengers looking out the window at the rapidly disappearing tarmac and the rapidly nearing surf.
As the plane left the ground, a wave appeared to wash into the engine. “Of course, it didn’t” he said chuckling. “It just looked like it did. It was that close.”
Hours later, they landed in Saigon and started a different adventure.