It was a hot Sunday at the Hospital Motor Pool set along the highway that ran past the hospital at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa. Army Spec Four James Conway pulled ambulance dispatch duty. He sat in the hot center office working out the following week's schedule of drivers. Two drivers sat in the third area of the Quonset hut playing a game of cards that required a lot of loud talk and laughter. Conway just stood up to begin marking the board with the next week’s schedule, when the phone rang:
“Hospital Motor Pool, Specialist Conway,” he said, wondering what Marine, had done what, on the Island now.
“Where is my bus?” The female voice on the phone demanded.
“Your bus Ma’am?” He stared at the board. “I don’t have a bus scheduled today.”
“Do you know who this is?” The voice demanded.
“No, Ma’am. I don’t know.”
“This is Major Fallwell’s wife, volunteering with the Red Cross. We have an outing planned for this afternoon. Send a bus immediately. We have been waiting.”
There was a long pause before James responded, “Ma’am, I can’t release a bus on your say so. Besides, there is not a bus driver on duty today.” The phone went dead in his hand.
Five minutes later an Army MP pulled up in front of the Motor Pool in a jeep with a middle aged woman in the passenger seat. They both climbed out of the jeep and walked inside.
The two drivers hurriedly put on their fatigue shirts which they did not feel necessary to wear, playing cards, in the heat of the day. They stayed in the section of the building where they had been playing cards.
The woman, shoulders flung back, asked, “Are you going to give me that bus?”
“Ma’am, I can’t release a bus to you on your say so. And I don’t have a licensed bus driver on duty.”
She looked around, walked to the empty office used by the Sergeant in charge of the Motor Pool worked when he came to work. She spotted the phone and picked it up, Reading his name plate on the desk, “Where is Sergeant Hernandez now?”
“Ma’am? It’s Sunday, I don’t know where you could find him.” Though likely, he thought, he was with the Okinawan woman who lived with him.
The Major’s wife dialed the number she had for the hospital, “Give me the Officer of the Day.”
A minute later, Spec Four James Conway, was handed the phone. When it was his turn to speak, he said, “There are no drivers here licensed to drive a bus. It could take some time to find one.”
The MP, the Major’s wife, and the two ambulance drivers heard: “Well, you damn better find one.”
“Can you drive a bus,” she asked James with a tone which made the hair on his neck stand up.
“I am not licensed to drive a bus,” he responded, not answering her question. He was able to drive all the vehicles assigned to the motor pool but refused to pass the bus driving test, as he did not want the responsibility of backing an expensive bus, up to a more expensive plane for fear of damaging one or the other.
When the bus finally arrived at the hospital, the driver was told it arrived too late. The outing had been cancelled.
When Spec Four James Conway reported for duty on Monday morning, a Captain was in Sergeant Hernandez’s office with him. The Sergeant handed James a set of orders. He had been transferred to Ordnance Company on the far side of the Island and was to report by twelve hundred hours to his new duty station. The captain left; once he was gone the Sergeant arranged a driver and took James to the other side of the Island.
James walked into the offices of the new Company and reported to the Master Sergeant who had a scowl on his face. “My ear was bent for half an hour this morning because of you. See, that bucket? It has a toothbrush inside it. Fill it with water; your job today is to scrub the tile in the hallway with that brush. Don’t let me walk into that hallway and not find you there on your knees scrubbing that floor.”
A couple of hours later, an Army MP pulled up in front of the Ordinance Company in a jeep with a middle aged woman in the passenger seat. They both climbed out of the jeep and walked inside. They walked into the First Sergeant’s Office, where he stood and came to attention.
“I am here to see Specialist Conway.”
“You passed him in the hall, Ma’am.” The three walked out and approached Conway, who was taking his sweet time cleaning the same area of the hall since he started.
“You are at attention,” the First Sergeant barked.
Conway stood slowly, his back hurt; his knees hurt; he looked calmly in the Major’s wife’s eyes.
“Do you recognize me?”
“I don’t recognize you as a Major, Ma’am.” He said in a casual tone.
“Where is your Captain?” she had turned, red faced, toward the First Sergeant.
“Right this way, Ma’am, while I tell him you would like to speak to him.”
The MP, let the other two get to the office door. “Man, you are not playing this right,” he told Conway and walked back toward the office.
At zero three hundred hours, having sent word to his wife and his two month old daughter to clean out the Credit Union account and get reservations home with whatever she can carry, he stood on a tarmac for a flight to Da Nang, Vietnam.
Conway sat on his duffel bag in near total darkness waiting. “Only six months, you just have to make it six months. Then you are OUT!” But he knew it was going to be a long six months.
The next afternoon, Conway stood at attention in front of a Captain Miller, who was looking over his record. “Man, who did you piss off?”
Conway felt it was one of those questions, that the one, who asked it, did not expect an answer. It was hot. Hot like Okinawa, a steamy, sticky hot and there was nothing you could do about it.
“Report to Third Company. They are looking for drivers. Ask for Lieutenant Fallwell. That is all.”
Conway found his way to Third Company. He handed his papers to a Sergeant on duty.
“Good, good, you are licensed for Deuce and a Half’s and Five tons.” He sat the papers down. “When is that last time you were on a firing range?” He paused, “I find most new guys feel better here, once they have refamiliarized themselves with their weapon. Get an M-16 issued to you. Then, as they say, don’t leave home without it.” He signed an order. “You start in the morning.”
Months went by. The routine was much the same. Load supplies - form a small convoy and resupply outlying areas. A toxic mixture of boredom and fear prevailed. It was likely true in all Armies that balance between boredom and fear. Most of the men got high when off duty.
Conway had met the Lieutenant. He often drove shotgun in Conway’s truck. Both men appreciated that the other was on the quiet side.
At dusk after unloading supplies, the Lieutenant ordered us back to the trucks, we were going back to our base camp. It would take all night, but lots of supplies needed to be moved. From the sky, we were just a string of lights.
The first bomb hit so close that Conway swerved off the road. Steam rose from the engine. The windshield was shattered. Conway held the Lieutenant and tried to stop the bleeding. He tied a compression bandage on the wound. Once the Lt was taken care of, he tied a tourniquet around his own leg. The convoy was completely destroyed.
The Lt asked Conway to please tell his parents that he was proud to serve his country.
“You tell them yourself. We are OK. We’re OK. Help will be here soon. We’re OK. We’ll get picked up fast. We’re OK.”
An Army surgeon, in Da Nang took Conway’s leg. He was patched up and spent weeks recovering.
A First Sergeant he had not met visited him in the hospital. “I heard you tell the Captain that Lt Fallwell requested you carry a message for him. He was a friend of mine.” He held out a letter. “You can deliver this?” It was both a question and a statement.
“Yes, Sergeant, we became friends also. How do I find them?”
“You are being flown to Okinawa, to the hospital at Kadena Air Force Base. Air Force Major Fallwell is stationed there. His wife volunteers at the hospital there. She won't be hard to find.”