In today’s reader story submission, an eight-year USAF veteran recalls a fellow soldier who was there one minute and gone the next. But was the veteran ever really there at all?
“I still can’t explain it to this day,” begins Thomas W., a United States Air Force officer from 1968 until 1976. “It still gives me chills to think about 47 years later.”
In 1970, Thomas was stationed at U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield on the Gulf Of Siam in Thailand. He lived with over 150 other troops in a three-story barracks.
“The barracks ran in an East and West direction,” he recalls, “with a long hallway running the length of the room. At the west end of the hall was the door to the latrines. At the east end, the exit out of the barracks.”
The walkway splitting the room felt like the length of a football field, and Thomas displays vivid recollections about the constant noise created by hundreds of men living in such tight quarters. The barracks was bustling from sun up to sun down with men religiously coming and going at all hours of the night.
“There were people drinking and playing cards, radios forever blaring, janitors cleaning and locker doors opening and banging shut. Just constant noise. Some of the boys tried to gain some privacy by arranging lockers into two or four-man cubicles. There were no doors to the makeshift chamber, but it gave at least a feeling of privacy to the soldiers.”
On this particular morning, Thomas returned to the barracks from a dentist appointment at about 9 am. His bunk sat at the far west end of the room, and after hoofing it through the room to retrieve his pack, he made it about a third of the way back down towards the exit.
“I glanced into a random cubicle and spotted one of the men from my shop sitting in a chair smoking a cigarette. To call us friends would be a stretch but I saw him around work frequently and occasionally talked with him.”
Thomas recalls the soldier wasn’t dressed in the typical fatigues, but in one of the khaki uniforms, tan short sleeve cotton shirts and trousers referred to as 1505s, commissioned to Air Force soldiers during that period.
“He’s sitting in a chair, wearing his 1505’s and puffing on a fresh cigarette, with a stuffed duffle bag at his feet. I stopped and asked how he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m doing fine now, but they are taking me today.'”
In the middle of the conversation, Thomas picked up on a sound he hadn’t heard in months. It was the unusual sounds of silence. The barracks was dead quiet.
“There were no other soldiers in the bay, zero movement, no talking, no radios, no people at all. It was just the two of us.”
Thomas replied that he didn’t know his co-worker’s tour was up. The soldier replied “Well, it’s not really, I have a few months to go yet. But my time is up.”
Confused, Thomas wished his comrade good luck and retreated toward the exit. As Thomas approached the door, he realized he’d forgotten his restricted area badge back at his locker. He shuffled back past the patiently waiting trooper to get his badge, and on the way back past the chair Thomas realized the airman was gone. Vanished, into thin air.
“He was gone. Him and his bag. Nothing left to show he was even there except for a still burning cigarette in an ashtray resting on the arm of the chair.”
The solider didn’t have time to make it all the way down the hall to exit without Thomas seeing him, and the two would have passed one another had he headed towards the latrines.
“I clearly remember staring at the rising smoke from the butt going straight up, and this sudden chill ran through my body.”
Thomas never saw the soldier again.
“I still can’t find an explanation.”