“Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, is a federal holiday for remembering people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.” Wikipedia
I originally wrote this back in November 2015. I think it’s worth a repeat, especially today, May 27, 2019…Memorial Day…because there were more who died serving in this country’s armed forces who did not die in battle, but whose names should be remembered. Though I have made some corrections, and an addition to this version, the story remains unchanged:
Friday, November 6, 2015, was an important day for me because I discovered the name of the nineteen-year-old young man who died in my room at Elmendorf Air Force Base hospital from burns over 95% of his body the night of November 27, 1970, the day our plane crashed on take-off from Anchorage International Airport and killed forty-seven people. For some reason, I decided to try to find more information on that ill-fated Capitol International Airways (Capitol Airlines) flight C2C3/26 that took off from McChord AFB, Tacoma, Washington, with scheduled fuel stops in Anchorage, Alaska and Yokota, Japan, before reaching its destination at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. For many, it was their first trip there. I was returning for another tour.
Why is this important to me? It is important to me because within the space of eight hours, that young man’s life and my life touched three times and left an indelible memory. I just couldn’t remember his name for all these years, though I’ve thought of him so often.
How did this begin?
After my mom and dad dropped me off at the McChord AFB terminal in the early afternoon of November 27, 1970, the Friday after Thanksgiving, I walked into the terminal carrying my duffle bag. I never expected that I would see either of them again. I was going back to Vietnam to probably die there. I felt that I had little left to lose at that point in my life. I heard some scuffling, name-calling and taunting to my left after I walked through the double glass doors and saw three guys in fatigues pushing and poking at a larger young man, making fun of his weight and his Number 1 haircut, a buzz-cut. I saw no insignia on his fatigues, so I assumed they were ganging up on a Private. I was correct. One of the bullies took his cap and threw it on the floor and said to him, “What are you gonna do about that, Fat Boy?” He backed up against the wall with his hands in front of him as though he was trying to keep them at arm’s length and said, “C’mon, guys. You don’t have to be this way.” They laughed at him and began to move toward him again.
I walked to their right, dropped my duffle bag against the wall to the young man’s left, turned and slid in front of him. He was at least half a head taller than I, but a large, gentle soul. I stood between him and the three approaching bullies and conversationally said, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size…like me?” And then I smiled at them. They stopped, rather startled. I looked them over, looked directly at the biggest of them, and said, “You first.” He was about the same height as the young man behind me with his back to the wall, but more slender. I said to him, “C’mon. You’re first before I start on the other two. Unless either of you two,” I nodded to them, “want to jump right in.” I was standing with my legs slightly apart and with my arms at my sides. They all took a step back, and the tall one said, “We didn’t mean anything by it. We were just teasing him.” I said, “I’m not teasing you. Now pick up his cap and hand it to me nicely…and apologize to this young man. Now.”
The tall one picked up his cap and handed it to me. “Apologize,” I said staring at him. With mumbled apologies they backed away, picked up their duffle bags and walked away. I turned to the young man, handed him his cap and asked if he was okay. He said he was and said I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I did because no one deserved to be picked on like that. He thanked me. We picked up our duffle bags and began walking to the seating area to await our flight. I asked him his name and he told me, and we talked. He said he was nineteen years-old and was from Houston, Texas. He said that the first time he’d really ever been away from home was when he went to Basic Training, and this was the farthest he’d ever been away from home. He was a nice kid, polite, gentle, and wide-eyed at being somewhere he’d never been before. Though I’d heard the three bullies swearing at this young man and calling him names, he never once swore back or called them names. He had tried to talk his way out of the bullying. That’s when I arrived. We didn’t have long to talk because the PA system crackled to life as we were headed for the seating area and the voice told us to begin boarding. I wished him good luck and promptly forgot his name.
The flight to Anchorage was sort of uneventful, though it took most of the runway at McChord to get that plane off the ground. It was not a confidence-builder. The McChord runway, as I remember it, was about 10,000 feet long. Somewhere close to the 8,000-foot marker was a rise in the runway, a small hill. As we cleared the hill, the plane actually dipped below the top of the hill before we felt it ‘catch’ and begin to gain altitude. The wheels were pulled up almost immediately. I heard someone say that these DC ‘Stretch’ 8s were notoriously underpowered. Yes, a real confidence-builder. Somewhere close to a couple of hours into the flight, the far-left engine (number 1?) began to smoke, and I had thought it was shut down. I could be mistaken, though.
Regardless, we arrived safely in Anchorage and deplaned while it was being fueled and one of the engines was inspected after the cowling was removed. I suspected it was that far left engine. It was cold and ice covered the runway. I thought I heard we had taken on 69,000 lbs of fuel, but later found out we took on over 117,000 lbs of fuel. When we boarded, once again I boarded late and noticed there were women and children…dependents…on board, possibly going to Yokota, Japan to be with their husbands and fathers. I found a seat in the tail section of the plane, about three or four rows from the back, on the starboard side by the aisle. I noticed that the young soldier I’d met in the McChord terminal was seated in the same row, but across the aisle in the center seat. We nodded a greeting to each other as I took my seat. Though we left the terminal and sped down the runway, the plane never left the ground.
Minutes later, after the plane had skidded 3,400 feet past the end of the runway and was in flames with the tail section torn off, we crossed paths once again. After we were either ejected from the plane or crawled out of the wreckage, several of us were on the ‘wrong’ side of the plane, near the still-intact right wing with fire burning all around it. Someone on the other side of the wreckage shouted, “Hey! Over here! This way!” I could see him between the tail section and main fuselage of the plane. They were thirty or so feet apart and a fire had bridged the gap. I could hear him yelling and waving his arms, so I turned around and spotted about five or six others milling around in a daze, so I yelled at them to follow me. I made sure I had their attention before I turned, ran toward the gap and dove through the flames to the other side. I rolled to my feet and began to yell, “Come on! This way! Run!” and they did.
Two or three made it through the flames unscathed, but the next one didn’t. As he ran through the fire, he burst into flames and kept running. Several of us chased him down, tackled him and smothered the fire with our bodies. The remaining soldiers made it through the fire. We were the fortunate ones. We helped him up, and I was appalled because he was totally blackened from head to foot. It was that Private that I’d stepped in front of at the McChord AFB terminal. Behind us, across the (estimated) twelve-foot-deep by about twenty-five-foot-wide drainage ditch, trucks, cars, buses and ambulances began to arrive. Just then, I heard a loud “whump” behind us and turned to see a geyser of flame erupt from the right wing, over 100 feet high, close to where we were milling around just minutes before. We turned and made our way into the ditch and across it to the transportation. I made sure he got into a vehicle and then got into a pickup that had just pulled up. I realized my feet were cold because I wasn’t wearing my shoes and socks. Most of the plane was now fully engulfed in flames.
Many of us ended up at one of the airport fire stations before we were loaded onto hospital buses to be taken to the hospital. By that time, I knew my hair had been burned off, my face had been beaten to a pulp, I had been ripped out of my shoes and socks by the impact when my seat tore out of the floor of the plane, three toes on my right foot and two toes on my left foot were frostbitten, and both of my hands were burned bad enough to have shreds of skin hanging off them. I was also soaked to the skin in jet fuel. It was about an hour later that I was on a gurney in one of the corridors of Community Hospital. My uniform was cut off me, I was completely washed down with saline solution, given a shot of morphine and dressed in a hospital gown. I lay there for about half an hour before I was loaded onto a stretcher, strapped down, and loaded onto a hospital bus with others to be taken to Elmendorf AFB hospital.
I eventually ended up in a room with three or four others, was drugged again, the excess skin cut off my raw and burned hands, my hands were bandaged, and I was given an IV drip. Across the room, perpendicular to my bed, was a bed with a person with the most severe third degree burns I’d ever seen. His face, his neck, his arms, torso and legs were blackened. In my drug-induced stupor, I could still see it was that young Private. He was soon surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses and they tried to work on him. I could hear them talking, saying that his jungle fatigues had caught fire, melted, and stuck to his body and fused to his skin. They removed his boots and his belt by cutting them off and began to peel the melted clothing from him. He began to gasp and they tried to give him an emergency tracheotomy so they could force oxygen into his lungs. They worked frantically on him until I heard one person say, “He’s gone.” They took off their masks, and slowly began to put their instruments in a pan on a side table. Just then, someone came to my bed and gave me another shot. Everything dimmed to nothing.
I’m not certain how long I was unconscious, but when I awoke the young Private was gone. His bed was unoccupied and freshly made. Someone, a nurse or a medic perhaps, showed up with a drink of water, another syringe full of something more to knock me out, and a phone. Since my hands were now bandaged, I had to dictate my parents’ phone number to him. He punched in the numbers and laid the phone on my shoulder and began to prep me for another shot. It rang once and my dad picked up the phone. I told him I was alive and in the hospital. I could hear him tell mom it was me and I was alive. I felt the shot in my arm and the room started to spin again. I was trying to tell them I was okay, but I began slurring my words and the nurse took the phone and I could hear her telling them I was going to be air-evacuated to the Brook Army Medical Center burn ward at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas before everything faded out again.
When I awoke, I was aboard a hospital C-141 on the way to the burn ward at Brook Army Medical Center. I spent four months there before I was healed enough to be discharged from the hospital, and from the Army. I spent the next thirty years wondering why he died from the effects of that crash and I didn’t until one Sunday, after listening to a sermon at church, I suddenly understood. It was so simple. It had to be the only answer. What was it? Only God knows the number of a man’s days. It just wasn’t my time. It was his time instead. But it bothered me that I still couldn’t remember his name.
It took three weeks short of forty-five years later, and after much internet research, I found his name on the list of casualties released by the Alaskan Air Command. His was the only name from Houston, Texas, and he was a U.S. Army Private. His name was Charles Echols…Army Private Charles Echols from Houston, Texas. Your family members and friends aren’t the only ones who remembered you. Finally, after all these years I can say, Rest in Peace, Charles Echols. Though your parents may have passed away by now, your name will live through me until my time comes.
I had been home for about two weeks following my discharge from the hospital and the Army when the phone rang. I answered it and a woman’s soft, quavering voice asked to speak with Robert W. Ellison. I said that I was him. She asked if I was the Specialist Fourth Class Robert W. Ellison who survived the plane crash in Anchorage just after Thanksgiving. I said that I was. To the best of my memory, this is what she said in her quiet, quavering voice: “Did you know a Robert W. Dooley from Seattle?” When I answered that I was sorry but I didn’t, she continued, “He was my son. He died in that crash and I miss him so much. I just wanted to call you and tell you I’m so glad that you survived and your parents don’t have to go through what I am.”
That dropped me to my knees, and I began to cry. I sobbed. I told how sorry I was that she lost her son, and she cried with me. She thanked me for talking with her and thanked God that I survived. All I could do was tell her thank you and God bless you, and we hung up. And yes, after all these years, that selfless act of her calling me and thanking God I was alive in the midst of her loss still brings me to tears. I will never forget her either.
An Acquaintance, A Friend
Reid Ernest Grayson, Jr. He was a casualty of the Vietnam War on December 28, 1968. He is honored and remembered by the people of Montana, and by me.
ORIGINS and HISTORY
Reid Ernest Grayson Jr was born on May 5, 1948. According to our records Montana was his home or enlistment state. Furthermore, we have Scobey listed as the city and Daniels County included within the archival record.
He was drafted into the Army. Entered via Selective Service. Served during the Vietnam War. He began his tour on December 13, 1968. He had the rank of Private First Class. Occupation or specialty was Radio Teletypewriter Operator. Service number was 56639052. Served with 25th Infantry Division, 50th Infantry LRRP, Company F.
Grayson experienced a traumatic event which resulted in loss of life on December 28, 1968. Recorded circumstances attributed to: “Died through hostile action, small arms fire”. Incident location: South Vietnam, Binh Duong province.
REMEMBERED and MEMORIALS
Reid is honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC. Name inscribed at VVM Wall, Panel 36w, Line 84.
AWARDS and COMMENDATIONS
Listed below are some of the awards, medals and commendations that Reid Ernest Grayson Jr either received or may have been qualified for.
★ Purple Heart
★ Combat Infantryman Badge
★ National Defense Service Medal
★ Vietnam Campaign Medal
★ Vietnam Service Medal
★ Distinguished Unit Citation
★ Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation
★ Good Conduct Medal
I am honored to have known him as a friend when we met in Radio Teletype School at The United States Army Southeastern Signal School (USASESS) at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, in August of 1968. We used to run around together in his old 1958 Chevy with bad wipers. We talked, we traded stories about our childhood, we laughed a lot, we graduated together, and we had many beers together. After graduation, he received orders for Vietnam, and I remained at Ft. Gordon, first as an instructor at the Signal School, then as an Operations Sergeant at our old training company.
We lost touch, and I was not aware that he had been killed just after Christmas of 1968, when I was home celebrating Christmas with my family. I was also not aware that he was a member of the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi, Republic of Vietnam where, two years later, I was assigned.
Rest in Peace, Reid. I will never forget.