Written by Pete Steciow
Leaving my brothers to continue the search and destroy grind while I was off seeking out a new experience seemed unfair. I had earned this leave, having survived my share of many serious encounters with the enemy.
My flight out of Vietnam seemed foreign, exciting, and liberating. Landing in Tokyo to begin my R & R, all the bright lights, noise, music, and masses of people were unnerving. I was not sure how I should respond to my new freedom. At the firebase, there was no unnecessary noise or lights. The focus was on the barbed wire fencing and any enemy movement outside the berm. Our location so near to the Ho Chi Minh trail, made an encounter with a significant incursion of the enemy a real possibility.
Trying to make the most of my limited amount of time, I signed up for several tours. One tour was of Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area. Mt. Fuji is twelve thousand feet tall making, it the seventh-largest volcano in Asia. While I was there, the mountain was snow-capped. The sight was beautiful and looked just like all the advertisements I had seen. It is easily visible from all the steam baths that are extremely popular with the Japanese and foreign tourists en route to Mt. Fuji.
Another trip was to the geisha houses, where I enjoyed the beautiful costumes and elaborate shows. I appreciated this excursion much more after I returned from Vietnam and read the book Memoirs of a Geisha. Much work goes into being a geisha, and these women devote their whole life to self-sacrifice and pleasing the customer.
Being a tourist from Ohio resulted in some interesting conversations. Everyone would politely ask me where I was from, and I would reply OHIO. The name Ohio sounds like o-ha-yo, which means Good Morning in Japanese. Usually, my response to their questions netted puzzled looks and a repeat of their query. After three rounds of this puzzlement, they would smile politely and move on, likely thinking I was crazy.
I could not visit Japan without indulging in some shopping for electronics. Japan, who had put their focus on quality, became world leaders in sound and photographic equipment. Just like New York’s Times Square, Tokyo had huge, illuminated neon signs advertising Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Toshiba. Prices were expensive, and there was no bargaining for these highly sought after branded products. I purchased a Nikon portrait box camera, which back then required film.
My trip also included a visit to one of the many custom tailors who specialized in selling to tourists. These tailors would carefully measure combat soldiers who were bean-pole lean, craft them a beautiful suit that was typically sent back home to the United States. When those skinny soldiers returned to Mom’s home cooking, suddenly those beautiful suits were a bit snug.
I left Tokyo as the proud owner of not one, not two, but three custom-tailored suits. The tailors would skillfully craft each suit of the highest quality material. They were of such high quality that I wore those suits throughout my college days. Everyone commented on them, including the one made from sharkskin.
While I was in Japan, my brother, who was on the USS Ranger CA-61 aircraft carrier was going to be in port at Sasebo. Although I was not sure if I would be able to see my brother, I made plans to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Sasebo and the naval port where the Ranger was to dock. The train was aptly named a bullet train because it traveled at one hundred and fifty miles per hour. In 1969 that was quite an accomplishment. The speed and quiet of the train were incredible.
When it was time to sleep, the conductor came through and in Japanese announced it was now time to go to bed. All around me, people poured from suites, changed clothes in the aisles, and climbed into berths. I was left standing in the corridor, still in my street clothes with everyone peering at me from behind their berth drapes. My embarrassment was intense. I quickly changed into my pajamas, and as I climbed into my berth, I vowed this would not happen on the return trip.
Long before today’s instant communication and cell phones, people reached out to each other via a letter or a phone call made from a land-line telephone. Fortunately, I was able to find a phone and to reach my brother. We spent one memorable weekend together before the Ranger deployed to the Gulf of Tokin in Vietnam and the South China Sea.
My brother and I had a good time being with each other. Neither of us talked much about our recent experiences, but we were mindful of the moment. Although my brother was not much for pictures, I was able to manage to get a few of him. I sent these to our mother with hopes they would allay her fears if only for a few moments. A special moment that weekend was when my brother and I managed to call home to Mom and Dad. Although the call was just five minutes, that link to home was worth the money. Despite the expense, there always seemed to be another soldier waiting to use the payphone.
The time had come for me to say goodbye to my brother. My leave was over, and I had to catch the flight out of Tokyo back to Vietnam. Before I knew it, I was on an Eagle flight leading my men on another search and destroy mission. It was as if my recent R&R had never happened.
I would never again spend as much time with my brother as I did on R&R in Japan in 1969. I lost him in 2014. But memories of that leave and our weekend together live on forever.