New Year’s Eve redux, Vietnam vets day happening on Alameda’s Hornet
By Lou Fancher
The last weekend in March will have folks at Alameda’s USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum swinging into celebratory gear. Although we recently jumped forward to comply with Daylight Savings Time, visitors to the ship can spin the clock backwards big time at two special events.
On Saturday, the Hornet’s “Spring into the New Year! NYE Gala Do Over!” is a clever revise to the museum’s annual fundraising tradition that has taken place ever since the ship opened as a museum in 1998. The COVID-19 pandemic’s omicron surge caused a cancellation as the world entered 2022, but there’s no shortage of hoopla planned for this weekend’s evening do-over.
Marketing & Outreach Manager Russell Moore says it’s the Hornet’s give-back to a community that has undergone significant stress during the past two years. Highlights will include entertainment from the 16-piece classic big band 3 O’Clock Jump, a cabaret setting, three dance floors, a silent auction, cash bars, food concessions and free parking.
People who choose to party on — or young guests not included in the second take of the New Year Eve’s gala — might attend the National Vietnam War Veterans Day festivities this Sunday. The lineup will feature presentations by Vietnam War veteran Bill Green and Marilyn Breen, one of 13 Flying Tigers Attendants participating as special guests. The Flying Tigers Attendants worked as noncombatants serving America on the Flying Tiger Line, America’s first major cargo line founded in 1945 that transported freight on Canadian turbo prop planes. During the Vietnam War, the airline converted to a hybrid: still contracted to fly cargo but also transporting U.S. troops to and from Vietnam.
“On my very first flight in 1964, we were flying CL-44s, turbo props with a swing tail,” recalls Breen, 82, of San Francisco. “It was noisy, and we had to stuff paper towels in the door to keep the screeches down. I went to Honolulu and back. It was before Vietnam, so we were just flying regular military. My first flight into Vietnam landed in Saigon before the war started. We were flying ‘advisors’ in, but I think they were actually combatants sent in to train the South Vietnamese military.”
Breen was 24 when she joined the Flying Tigers and soon found herself shepherding young men still in or barely out of their teens.
“We began flying out of Tacoma and into De Nang. When I saw the fear on those kids’ faces and I had to sign off on body bags being put in the belly of the plane, I started to know this war wasn’t any good. It wasn’t about fighting communism, as I had thought — and it wasn’t going to be won. It was evident, but we just kept building up the troops.”
Breen says every time the plane landed in Vietnam and the soldiers exited, thanking the attendants for their service, she hid in the cockpit.
“All I could think was that these kids might not be coming back. I’d tell the navigator or a flight engineer to go out to say goodbye. I shed many tears when that cabin door opened and the entire space went humid and hot in 20 seconds. Those kids had no idea where they were going or what they’d be doing.”
Breen, who flew for the airline for 30 years, says sharing Flying Tigers’ and the attendants’ complete history — not just the grim parts — is crucial.
“It’s a glamorous, funny history of an airline and how they scraped and scratched and found a lucrative customer in the military. You can’t paint it as all dismal. We traveled, had great benefits. Everyone who sought the job was an adventure seeker. We explored Alaska, Japan and the Philippines.”
Most important of all, she says is continuing to honor Vietnam veterans and their families.
“We’ve not forgotten those kids who were in Vietnam and the protest groups that greeted them when they returned home. There’s service to humanity when you fight to keep freedom going for your country. We must honor them.”
Chuck Meyers, 84, of Alameda, is a Navy veteran whose five-and-a-half years in the military left him with a desire to continue serving his country as a docent on the Hornet. In an interview, he mentions Ukraine and regrets that his age prevents him from signing up and activity participating in the efforts to maintain the country’s fragile democracy. Even so, he says, “I can be a better docent to help people to understand war.”
Meyers has led tours and served as the volunteers’ representative to the Hornet’s Board of Trustees for 12 years. A long career in IT following his Navy stint leaves him most fond of the “wow” factor in the ship’s combat information center.
“When you turn off the overhead lights, the blue lighting of the displays pops up.”
The 1970s radar display panels required soldiers to stand behind the screens and write information backwards with a yellow grease pencil.
“Another place you see that ‘wow’ reaction is looking down the escape hatches that come out of the engineering spaces,” he says. “If a steam belt popped, the soldiers scrambled up a vertical ladder. When you’re looking down, people see the steep, three-story drop.”
Meyers says older visitors often realize the importance of sharing Hornet history and sometimes interest in military service is sparked in a young person when in a visitors’ video, a young boy asks his father, “What is Pearl Harbor?” When asked about the Hornet’s significance, Moore adds that although new ships are more technically sophisticated, the experiences of the average sailor or aviator on board an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War compared to now are not all that different.
When learning about the role the Hornet played in recovering the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts, he says, “You can see that a Navy ship is much more than just a military weapon. It’s a technological marvel that often has humanitarian and scientific missions.”