The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Drive-in movies without the drive in

U.S. Navy P-3A Orion Anti-submarine Patrol Plane

Part of Granddaughter Kass’s assignment for her World War Two class was I had to write a short memoir about an experience from my Navy career. (Remind me sometime to explain how MY assignment for HER class …)

It is sometimes difficult to sort the dissonance of which my Navy career memories are woven – separating the fun I had traveling the world from the events that made such travels possible. Without war, I likely would not have seen Hong Kong or Japan or the beaches of Nice and Torremolinos … or Bangkok or U-Tapao, Thailand.

A few weeks after our future children’s mother said she would be waiting when I returned from deployment, I was on a plane headed for the Philippines. I was a crewman on a P-3 Orion patrol plane, a four-engine turboprop capable of flying more than twice the time of a normal 8-hour workday. Although officially based in Sangley Point, Philippines, our squadron split its time, with some planes flying out of U-Tapao, Thailand and some out of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. My crew was assigned to the former group.

Our patrols left U-Tapao Air Force Base (as it was known then), flew over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, then descended to wave-top level to seek out enemy patrol and supply vessels. We were armed only with a searchlight, so if we identified a “bad guy,” we called in attack jets from a nearby aircraft carrier.

The U-Tapao runway was two miles long, built to serve B-52 bombers – huge aircraft capable of carrying enough bombs to erase most of the county I now call home. The big bomber needed the exceptionally long runway to get enough speed to fly, and even then, it was so heavy it could not take off with a full bomb load AND full fuel tanks. When it left U-Tapao, the bombers had enough fuel to make it to the target, but not enough to return to base.

Several tanker planes – similar to Boeing 707 passenger jets, but loaded with jet fuel instead of people – would take off almost over our heads, one roaring aircraft after another, their mission to carry fuel close to where the B-52s would drop their 30 tons of bombs. When the tankers were in the air, the B-52 s would lumber toward their targets, running out of runway more than actually taking off into the sky, like a car in “Fast and Furious” racing past the edge of a cliff.

Every night, as we sat on the beach at the sit-in movie – like a drive-in, without the cars, or girlfriends (back in the day, women were not allowed in combat units) the movie would be interrupted by the roar of bombers and tankers headed for the battlefields.

The movie would restart, and while we were watching “the flick,” the bombers and tankers would meet somewhere high above Vietnam. The B-52s would take on fuel from their flying gas stations, which then would come “home.” If the movie was a double feature, it would stop while the tankers landed. A few hours later, the bombers would return.

When my crew was not flying patrols, we made training hops to Hong Kong, where I rode a terrifically long and steep tram up a mountainside, visited a “garden” populated with painted statues and shot pictures of slums clinging to the hillside at the edge of the otherwise prosperous city. I gained a friend in Bangkok who, when we took our plane to be washed, treated me to tours of the city and tastes of Thai cuisine, dishes the names of which I have long since forgotten.

Without war, I likely would have stayed home.


  1. You should write more of such stories and memories. It is not only healing for your own spirit, but by sharing can be healing for others as well. It is understandable to not want to speak of war once that time has passed, but not speaking of it and giving it voice impedes healing and learning of lessons that are more important than what we realize at a given moment. It takes courage to reflect and share.

    • John

      April 8, 2015 at 10:37

      I don’t know about courage, but it’s certainly true the meaning changed with time.

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