COLFAX — The last time Tom McDonald boarded a plane was in 1969, the year he returned home from the Vietnam War.
Now, almost 50 years later, the 72-year-old veteran will pack his bags and return to the skies, this time heading east to Washington, D.C., to visit historical sites and war memorials as part of the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight’s signature program.
While Tom is enjoying his brief-but-busy stay in the United States capital, his wife, Joan McDonald, will be at their Colfax home, waiting to hear all about it when he returns. Admittedly, she is just happy to see her husband get on a plane again.
“He’s really going to enjoy that plane ride,” Joan said Monday morning, nearly a week before Tom is due for his honorary flight. “I’ve been on planes all the time. I have a daughter that lives in California, so I fly back and forth all the time. I was very happy he got called for it.”
The nonprofit organization has processed a full itinerary for Tom and his fellow servicemen to tour Arlington Cemetery, the World War II Memorial, and just about every other memorial they can visit within the approximately 8-hour time period between flights.
At 5:45 a.m. Oct. 16, Tom will most likely be in the middle of processing and boarding the plane at Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. By approximately 8:30 p.m. he will have returned to the central time zone.
Tom said he is looking forward to riding along in a plane again and visiting numerous historical landmarks, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which he has yet to see in person. He is also excited to share the experience with his fellow veterans, which will all be wearing their red Eastern Iowa Honor Flight T-shirts and white caps.
As the days close in to his honorary flight, Tom remarked upon his service. He had been drafted shortly after marrying his first wife. Tom remembered he did not want to go to Vietnam.
“But when Uncle Sam says you gotta go, you gotta go,” Tom said with a laugh. “My first wife had an awful fit. But I really thank God that I didn’t have to go to the jungle and I didn’t have to kill anybody. I have dreams about all the things that happened to us over there.”
Finishing his service as a Specialist Fourth Class for the U.S. Army, Tom initially began his boot camp training in Fort Bliss, Texas, before transferring to Aberdeen, Md., where he was taught to take care of the guns mounted on helicopters. His official military occupational specialty (MOS) code was 45J20, aircraft armament repair.
Stationed at a U.S.-occupied military base in Chu Lai, Vietnam, the young 20-something served on the Americal Division, also known as the 23rd Infantry Division. After 50 years, Tom said he could not remember his exact company, though he did say it was “almost the same as that one on TV,” referring to the Korean War-based “M*A*S*H*” television series.
Curiously enough, Tom said he did not work his MOS during his stay in Chu Lai. Two days after he arrived, the first sergeant took Tom and about a half-dozen others aside and offered them different jobs.
“We need warm bodies around here,” the first sergeant told Tom and his fellow soldiers. “If you want to work in your MOS, there’s about a 95 percent chance you’ll be up there on one of them hilltop bases.”
The first sergeant, Tom remembered, pointed to the mountains behind the group of men. Those particular bases, he said, had a reputation for becoming targets by enemy militants.
“That’s the first time I ever volunteered in my life,” Tom said. “Every one of us raised up our hands and volunteered to stay there.”
While on the base, Tom jokingly referred to himself as a “wrench turner,” aiding in the mechanical and repair work for helicopters, as much as he could anyway. He remembered an instance when two brand new, bladeless helicopters received heavy damage during an attack on the Chu Lai base.
“They had to take ‘em back out on the ship. They were damaged so bad we couldn’t even take care of them,” Tom said. “It was scary over there.”
That same night was when 40-pound warheads rained down on the base. It happened a half hour before everyone should have woken up from bed. Tom remembered the droning sound of what he thought were “dead airplanes” overhead. He and his bunkmates realized what was going on.
“We got up, run down and got into one of them bunkers,” Tom said.
There they stayed for about an hour or two. Until it stopped. They were afraid another attack could happen any day.
“We were so scared after that we took a blanket and a pillow and we actually laid on the top of that bunker for about two weeks,” he added.
After the war, Tom returned stateside. He adopted a son with his first wife. He remarried. He and Joan had four children together, three daughters and one son. He worked as a truck driver lugging garbage for the City of Des Moines for 17 to 18 years before shifting to street cleaning and then retiring altogether. He developed heart troubles in his 40s, likely a side effect of Agent Orange, which he found out he could receive benefits for only a few years ago. These days he spends a great deal of his time fishing with his wife and family, netting humongous bluegills, bass, catfish and crappies.
He rarely mentions his time in Vietnam. In fact, Joan is surprised to hear him speak of it at all.
“This is the first time he’s really talked about it,” she said. “He doesn’t talk too much about it.”
On his mind now is the plane ride itself. Is he nervous?
“A little bit,” he laughed. “I’m a little antsy about it. I’m excited to get on the plane and riding it and see what it’s like again.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org