TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — For many men sent to Vietnam, the runway at Travis was often the first and last glimpse of the United States, like bookends to their tours of duty in that Southeast Asian war.
“There was an air of finality about the way the Boeing 707 lifted off the runway at Travis Air Force Base that warm May night,” wrote Army Lt. Col. John Cook in his memoir, “The Advisor,” where he recounted his passage through Travis to Vietnam in 1968.
“The screaming engines severed ties with the only world most of us had ever known, leaving it back there somewhere in the darkness,” Cook wrote.
Passengers on the aircraft carrying intelligence adviser Stuart Herrington back from Vietnam in 1972 cheered when they saw the lights of Travis Air Force Base, Herrington wrote in a letter to his brother.
Army Lt. Michael Lee Lanning simply noted in his diary – “April 14, 1970, 2345 hours: Arrived Travis Air Force Base, I AM HOME!”
Lanning waited another 18 years to write a more eloquent description in his memoir, “Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal.”
“The screech of tires on the runway and the simultaneous shouts of jubilation jolted me awake,” Lanning wrote. “The midnight darkness shrouded the Travis terminal as the long line of passengers snaked from the plane to the main building. No bands played. No one made speeches. Only one person met the flight.”
Lanning was lucky. That one person was his wife, who coerced a taxi driver to make the 80-mile drive from San Francisco to pick up her husband.
Army surgeon Byron Holly arrived home at Travis in October 1969 in the rain.
“As we stepped down on the tarmac, I found a relatively dry spot between the puddles and dropped down on my hands and knees and kissed the grimy surface,” Holly wrote in his memoir, “Vietnam 1968-1969: A Battalion Surgeon’s Journal.”
“I promised myself I would kiss the good old ground if God would just let me return home,” Holly wrote. “I wasn’t going to let a few rain puddles and airplane grease stop me.”
Lorrie Stirm, daughter of POW Lt. Col. Robert Stirm, recounted in a 2005 Smithsonian magazine article what it was like to wait for her father at Travis after he was released from six years of imprisonment in March 1973.
The then-15-year-old waited in a car while her father stood on the Travis flight line and made a brief statement to a crowd cheering for him and the other ex-POWs.
When the car door opened, she sprinted toward him with open arms, saying in the article, “I just wanted to get to Dad as quick as I could. We did not know if he would ever come home. That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true.”
Twenty-three years later, Army Sgt. 1st Class Claude Rhey experienced the difference between a soldier’s reception after Vietnam and the welcome they got after the Persian Gulf War. He had served in both, flying home through Travis both times.
“This is unbelievable,” Rhey said in a 1992 interview at his second return before hugging his son amid a forest of flags and welcome home banners. “The last time I got spat on.”
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.