The Freedom Bird
By Jorge A. Maspons
I remember the day when my turn came to board "The Freedom Bird." As the time came close the excitement built within me and those boarding the "Airlift International," destination Travis Air Force Base, California with stops in Yokota Air base, Japan and Anchorage, Alaska. The trip home would take twenty two long hours from Bien-Hoa, South Vietnam.
One of the unique things about the Vietnam War was the troop rotating system. As you watch old World War II films, you can notice that soldiers were shipped overseas together and likewise, troops came back together and were welcomed with parades and great joy. But not so in Vietnam. We were placed in an individual rotating system, the "DEROS," (Military term referring to the date of return to the United States.) and everyone had a different date; soldiers were sent to Vietnam in most cases without a unit assignment and after arriving, the individual was called to a unit. From that point on, everyone began thinking about "The Freedom Bird." That is, the airplane that would take him back to the United States after 13 months of overseas duty.
I have been asked about Vietnam many times. I have seen, finally, after all these years some genuine appreciation for the Vietnam veterans. I have been asked "What makes this war different from others?" I would like to answer this question or at least try to.
In simple words, what makes this war different are the conditions under which we had to live and fight. First, there was the actual physical condition of the country, unknown and dangerous and the elements of rain, insects and diseases. The living conditions were the worst and I can only compare them to the conditions of our troops in guerrilla warfare in the Philippines during World War II fighting the Japanese. But perhaps most important were the conditions imposed upon us, the armed forces, by our own government. We were, as former President Bush correctly stated, "fighting with one hand tied behind our backs." For example, a U.S. Air Force pilot had to obey "the rules of engagement" when sighting an enemy SAM (Surface-to-Air-Missile) site and was not allowed to attack it until he was first fired upon his aircraft. This was the cause of many of our dawned airplanes.
Unlike other wars, (and the Korean Conflict as well) our government did not have a clear, firm decision to win the war. Personally, I was in favor of fighting and defeating the Communists, however, I was not in favor of the tactics used by our government in Washington. I believe that President Harry Truman set a terrible precedent by allowing our troops to fight under the United Nations flag; this horrible decision was later duplicated in South Vietnam by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. The last "true" constitutional war was the Second World War, when after December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt called the Congress to an extraordinary session and asked for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.(1)
General Douglas MacArthur once said, "Once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War's very objective is victory -not prolonged indecision. In war, indeed, there can be no substitute for victory."(2) In other words, once we are engaged in combat there must be a firm resolution to win and bring the conflict to an end. There were no such plans in Vietnam and the war went on for many years and the result was more than 58,000 soldiers killed and a legacy that lingers up to this date.
As we are preparing to go to war again, this time in the Middle East, I hope that our leaders in Washington do remember this Vietnam lesson. I am a soldier and I am for freedom, but I am not prepared to enter another no-win war.
Ah! I do remember another freedom bird, a very special one. It was the Pan-American charter flight that brought me to this blessed land we call "America" from Cuba 38 years ago. Sad to say, many Americans take their liberties for granted and never stop to think for a moment about the price paid by our founding patriots in the creation of this great nation. I will never forget where I came from, just as I will always defend my new and free country.
(1) Only the Congress can declare war. Please see and read Article I, Section 8, United States Constitution.
(2) From "Old Soldiers Never Die." Joint meeting of the two Houses of Congress, April 19, 1951. Washington, D.C. Selected speeches of Douglas MacArthur, Pages 14-20, Published by the Library of Congress, Legislative Reference Service, Washington, D.C.