For servicemen in Vietnam, Thailand was like a little slice of heaven in the middle of hell. During the war, the U.S. military was granted the use of airbases located around Thailand for Air Force operations. Soldiers were garrisoned at these bases in Korat, Udon, Ubon, Nakhon Phanom, Takhli, and U-Tapao, while those on R&R mainly stayed in Bangkok if they didn’t leave for other places like Hawaii, the Philippines, or home. While off-duty, soldiers enjoyed free beer donated to the troops by American beverage manufacturers and their rations of whiskey and cigarettes from the PX. The Thais realized quickly that there was money to be made in providing comfort services for these foreign soldiers. Brothels sprung up near the bases, and in some of the more organized establishments, female companionship was offered on contract by the week.
Milas’s time at the Defence Attaché Office in Saigon did not include a lot of fraternizing. He was comfortable with the fact that he was a bit of a loner and mainly kept to himself; however, this didn’t prevent him from hearing the stories that soldiers returning from Thailand had brought back with them. He’d had his share of sorties into the red-light district of Saigon, but when the tales of Thailand were sung in the barracks, they had an air of seduction he found compellingly more exotic than his admittedly tawdry experiences in Vietnam.
On April 28th, 1975, three A-37 Dragonflies dropped six two hundred and fifty pound Mark 81 bombs on the runway at Tan Son Nhut. The fall of Saigon had begun. The DAO came abuzz and evacuation preparations began. It was a form of organized chaos as sixty C-130s were scheduled to arrive and take an estimated ten thousand people out of Vietnam.
Milas found Colonel Ray amidst the mayhem and was briskly ordered to collect every scrap of data he was working on and sit on it until the colonel came and found him. Milas did as he was told.
At 3:30am, Milas was roused from sleep by the sharp crack of an explosion. He sat up from his bed of tape-reel canisters that held the data of the Phoenix Project. He was dazed and was considering running when Colonel Ray walked in. The colonel gestured at the canisters under Milas’s rear end and said, “Is that all of it?”
“What was that explosion, sir?”
“Rocket attack. Just killed two Marines,” he said. “Is that all of it, Lieutenant Milas?”
“Can you carry it?”
“I said, can you carry those tapes, Lieutenant!”
“Good, because you’re going to haul that pile to somewhere safe. You’re on the first herky bird out of here at oh-four-hundred hours. Now get your ass ready to board that plane. I’ll find you later,” he said and quick-stepped from the room.
Milas had just enough time to find a rucksack that would fit the tapes and gather his few possessions from the barracks before four o’clock. He lugged his load across the DAO and took a jeep to the airfield, where he found the colonel waiting for him.
Colonel Ray had to shout to be heard over the roar of the C-130E Hercules aircraft engines. “That’s your plane!” he yelled, pointing at one of the giants taxiing on the near runway. An instant later the plane’s tail section was engulfed in a ball of fire, having been hit by a North Vietnamese rocket.
The colonel frowned at this, contemplated for a moment, and then shouted, “That’s your plane!” pointing at a second C-130 that was holding on the far runway. “Get in!” he said and got behind the wheel of the jeep. Milas tossed his bag in the back and jumped in. The colonel sped in the direction of the plane as they passed the other that was burning. Milas watched as the crew climbed down a rope ladder from the cockpit window and a fire team raced to control the flames.
Colonel Ray skidded the jeep to a halt at the bottom of the C-130’s ramp and leapt out, approaching one of the ground crew who was looking warily into the sky. He pointed at Milas and then the Hercules. Milas grabbed his bundle and dragged it to the ramp. The colonel met him there and shouted, “This is your lucky day, son! You’re going to Thailand! Don’t you fucking lose those!” He pointed at the at Milas’s rucksack.
“What am I supposed to do with them, sir?” shouted Milas.
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you! Now get your ass in there before they blow the shit out of this one too!”
Milas dropped his bags and gave Colonel Ray a salute. He would never see him again.
The Hercules carrying Milas and one hundred twenty other evacuees, touched down with surprising grace at the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield just before dawn. When the behemoth taxied to a stop and the massive ramp was lowered, Milas felt a wash of sea air fill the cargo hold. It smelled like paradise and jet fuel.
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