How I Spent Christmas of 1967

OR – How a nurse destroyed my beautiful car.

During its long run, the Vietnam war caused all sorts of tragic losses including the most beautiful car I have ever seen. Let me tell you that sad story.

In late 1963, there was some hope the AMEDD would obtain newly developed Caribou fixed wing aircraft to transport patients, so a handful of us were sent through fixed wing and helicopter training. At the time, I was in a holding pattern at Camp Wolters where I had a cushy job working in the Post Headquarters and flying VIPs. That bubble burst when I received a call telling me I was needed at Fort Bragg right away because the 45th Medical Company needed pilots.

My wife was nearly seven months pregnant, so I knew the news of another move would not sit well with her, especially since we had only been at Camp Wolters for five months. In fact, she issued a strong ultimatum. At the time, our car was a 1960 Volkswagen convertible, and, because of her advanced pregnancy, she told me she would not ride across town in that tiny car, much less halfway across the United States to North Carolina.

A day or so later, I drove to nearby Fort Worth to look for another car and as I passed a Ford dealership in the outskirts of town, I saw the most beautiful car I have ever seen. It was a 1962 Ford Thunderbird Landau; one of a few thousand marketed by Ford Motor Company as being designed to honor the wedding of Prince Rainier of Monaco to the American film actress, Grace Kelly.

That model was black with a white, padded roof and was absolutely stunning, so I turned in to take a closer look. While admiring it, a fellow walked up and introduced himself as co-owner of the dealership and asked whether I liked the car. I told him it was beautiful, but well beyond my financial means. He responded by saying, “Now, don’t be too quick, let’s talk about it first.” He then asked what kind of car I was driving, so I pointed to my tiny VW.

At that point, he saw the officer’s sticker on my car and asked whether I was stationed at Camp Wolters. When I said yes, he told me his son had just finished primary helicopter training there and would soon be on his way to Germany. That gave us some common ground, so we spent quite a while talking about the advanced training his son was going through at Fort Rucker and what he would face once he began flying in Europe.

Somewhere along the way, I told him about Barbara’s ultimatum, and he said, “Well, let me try to help.” He said the Thunderbird belonged to a high-level State Department official who grew up in Fort Worth and was visiting relatives there prior to leaving for an assignment in Ecuador. While home, he received a call from the Ambassador who learned he was planning to bring the Thunderbird. The Ambassador told him he could not bring an expensive car like that because it would only perpetuate the “Ugly American” image that was prevalent in Latin America in those days.

The dealer said they had already sold the diplomat a plain sedan and he was at the port in Beaumont that very day having it shipped to Ecuador. They also offered to sell his Thunderbird, so after talking a little longer, the dealer made me an offer I could not pass up. I think the bond established while talking about his son’s flight training caused him to lower the price and he also said he would like to have my cute little VW convertible because his daughter was a high school senior and had been pleading for one. I went home and told Barbara what I had done and her mood improved dramatically.

We arrived at Fort Bragg before Christmas of 1963 and Barbara delivered shortly thereafter. Two weeks after our son’s birth, a small group of us took five helicopters to the Mojave Desert in California and spent three months supporting the largest military training exercise since WWII.

A couple of weeks after returning from the desert, I was sent to Darlington, South Carolina to support another training exercise and had only been there a few days when three of us were summoned back to Fort Bragg. Our grim-faced commander told us we had to be at Fort Sam Houston, Texas in mid-August to join the 82nd Medical Detachment which was deploying to Vietnam.

After finishing my first tour in Vietnam, I went to Fort Sam Houston to attend a shortened version of the officers’ career course designed for Reserve Component officers and was sent to Japan to help organize a helicopter unit whose mission was to ferry casualties arriving at Tachikawa and Yokota Air Force bases to six American military hospitals scattered in a wide arc around the greater Tokyo and Yokohama area.

Prior to leaving Fort Sam Houston, I was at the officer’s club one afternoon talking with a couple of friends and pondering what to do with my beautiful Ford Thunderbird Landau. A flight surgeon at an adjoining table overheard me talking and offered his advice. He said he had just returned from an assignment in Japan and told me a lot of rich Japanese would die for my car. 

Although it does not seem possible in today’s market, the Japanese have not always been known for building quality products. The flight surgeon said American cars were still in high demand and the bigger they were, the better. The only problem was a 100% import tax imposed by the Japanese government, so only the mega-rich could afford to purchase new American cars.

As a member of the military, I could ship my car at no cost and, once there, the flight surgeon said I could sell it to a local Japanese citizen without them having to pay the import tax, so he advised me to take the car and possibly sell it at a considerable profit before leaving. Based on his advice, I took my beautiful car, and it was a big hit everywhere we went, particularly when we visited downtown Tokyo or some of the resort areas where the upscale Japanese went.

All of this background leads to Christmas of 1967. To put things into perspective, the build-up of American troops in Vietnam was continuing at a rapid pace and casualties were streaming into Japan in greater numbers.

On Christmas Eve, several of us flew all day and then I was alerted that two C-141s would be arriving at Yokota shortly after daybreak on Christmas morning with nearly a hundred casualties. Two helicopters would be needed to transport that many patients in a timely fashion, so I asked the only bachelor pilot in our unit to fly a second helicopter and he agreed.

Barbara and I got up about 4 AM on Christmas morning to do the Santa Claus thing and woke the kids so we could spend a short time together opening presents. Then about 6 AM, I hurried to the airfield where the other pilot and two crews had both of our helicopters ready to go.

As usual, the Air Force aircraft arrived late. The first touched down about 10 AM and we began distributing its patients. Because the flight times to the outlying hospitals were relatively short, we began loading directly from the rear ramp of the first C-141 and had its casualties delivered before the second aircraft arrived. 

About 3 PM, I delivered my last load of patients to the 106th General Hospital in Yokohama and headed home to Camp Zama, about a 20-minute flight away. While entering the traffic pattern at our airfield, I remembered seeing an advertisement in our base newspaper that the Post Exchange would stay open until 5 PM on Christmas Day, so I decided to stop by to see if I could purchase additional track for my son’s slot car that Santa brought him.

After thanking the crews for working on Christmas Day, I jumped into my beautiful Ford Thunderbird Landau and headed for the PX. Our airfield was located on the only hill for miles around and there was a narrow road leading downhill to the main post area. As I neared the bottom of the hill, there was an embankment on the left side about 10 feet high and a drop off on the right side of perhaps 20 feet.

In Japan, you drive on the opposite side of the road like in England, so I was puttering along about 20 miles an hour in the left-hand lane without a worry in the world. As I neared the main post area, I saw a pickup truck coming around a curve ahead of me. When it was about a quarter mile away, I saw a red sports car speeding around the same curve and then it crossed into my lane in order to pass the truck. Instead of returning to its proper lane, the sports car kept coming straight at me!

I recognized it as being a Datsun Fairlady or a forerunner to what some may remember as the Datsun (now Nissan) 240-Z series that became popular here in the States later on.  Anyhow, it remained on my side of the road, so I quickly began weighing my options.

 I knew I couldn’t climb the embankment on my left side nor did I want to drive off the mini-cliff to my right, so I stopped in my lane and hit the horn button, hoping to attract the other driver’s attention. The truck driver saw the sports car shooting past him, so he slammed on his brakes in order to give the other driver plenty of room to return to the proper lane.

At that point, the sports car was still bearing down on me with no indication of slowing or changing lanes, so I shifted into reverse and began backing up as fast as I could, but to no avail. The sports car hit me squarely in the front bumper and I remember seeing the contents of my radiator spewing skyward like a volcano. I braced just before the impact and did not sustain any injuries despite the fact that my much heavier car was knocked backwards.

As I watched the hood of my car come crumpling back towards me, I saw a mop of hair rise up over the steering wheel of the sports car and then saw its windshield shatter into a million pieces. When the parts finally stopped falling, I jumped out and the truck driver rushed over to help. We could see the driver of the sports car slumped over the steering wheel and became concerned about fire because smoke was boiling up from both engines.

After forcing the door of the sports car open, we pulled the driver out and discovered her to be an Army Nurse Corps captain dressed in a blue, formal uniform. There was a bump on her forehead where she had struck the windshield, but the only blood we could see was coming from a minor laceration on her lip. Somewhere during that timeframe, we noticed a strong smell of alcohol. The driver of the pickup said he had an old Army blanket in his truck, so he ran for it and we stretched the nurse out on the side of the road. About that time, a Military Police car happened to come by and the PFC driving it jumped out to help. Fortunately, he had a radio in his vehicle and called for an ambulance.

By that time, the nurse had begun to stir a little and then sat up on the blanket. The MP began asking her how she was doing, and she responded in a fairly coherent manner. Finally, he asked, “Mam, didn’t you see the Major’s car in front of you?” Her response was, “Nope, the only thing I remember is hearing a horn blowing someplace.” The MP then asked, “Mam, have you been drinking?” After thinking for a moment, she replied, “Yep, I’ve been at a Christmas Party all afternoon and I’ve had a bunch of drinks.”

The MP then received a call on his radio that there was a problem with the ambulance that was supposed to be coming from Zama hospital which was located on another military post about five miles away, so he turned to me and timidly asked, “Sir, what do you want to do in this case?” I thought I could sense some other message in his question, so I said, “Well, it’s obvious that both of our cars are completely destroyed and there’s nothing we can do about that now, but it’s Christmas Day and if you write her up as being drunk, that could cause her serious problems and probably end her career. Can you handle this some other way?”

The MP seemed relieved at my response and said, “Yes Sir, I’ll write it up as an accident and won’t mention anything else.” Then he added, “There seems to be an issue getting the ambulance dispatched, so I will take her to the hospital myself. That way, there will be no Military Police supervisors involved to cause a problem.” Since the nurse did not appear to have any serious injuries, I told him that was okay with me, and the young MP seemed happy that he could do something nice for her on Christmas Day.

In the meantime, the truck driver had gone to the Post Exchange Garage to get a wrecker to move both cars and I stayed behind as a road guard. When the wrecks had been hauled away, he took me home.

Several months later, my wife and I attended a formal dinner party at the Camp Drake hospital and an extraordinarily pretty nurse captain walked up and said, “Sir, do you remember me?” I thought she looked vaguely familiar, but we saw hundreds of nurses at the hospitals, so I finally said I could not place her. Then she blurted out, “Sir, I’m the drunken nurse that destroyed your beautiful car!” She began apologizing profusely and said, “Sir, I want you to know that I learned my lesson and haven’t had a drink since then!” I told her that was taking things a little too far because accidents happen, but she continued apologizing. Finally, my wife spoke up and said, “He’ll get over it” and we all had a good laugh together.

Well, that was how I spent Christmas of 1967 and how our involvement in Vietnam caused the loss of the most beautiful car I have ever seen.

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