All For Nothing

(Utapao, Thailand)


The year was 1969; I was a twenty five year old Staff Sergeant in the Air Force, stationed in Utapao , Thailand . Our mission was to support the war going on in Viet Nam . The B-52 bombers were stationed at the Utapao Royal Thai Air Force Base and flew around the clock bombing missions over Viet Nam . They flew directly over our quarters when taking off and were so loud they vibrated our beds. Eventually I got so used to the noise I slept right through it.

Our base was located just a mile or so inland from the ocean. We had access to a beautiful beach, and spent a lot of time there swimming and sunbathing. It was a great place to be stationed.

Thailand is in the tropics and is hot and humid all year long.  When it rains, which is often, it really comes down. There are so many beautiful flowers and other tropical growth... it's a natural paradise. There were banana trees and other tropical fruit trees growing right in our compound. It's a beautiful country and would have been a great place to be if my family had been there with me.

The barracks where we lived were open-air buildings called hooches. We had Thai girls who did all of our laundry, shined our shoes, made our beds and all that kind of stuff. Our main hooch girl was Aroon, she was about twenty-one years old and very pretty... her helper was a cute eighteen-year-old girl named Sompon. They lived a short distance off base in a small two story concrete blockhouse. Compared to what most people lived in it was pretty high class. My friends and I sometimes went to Aroon's house just to hang out. She would fix us exotic Thai food and always made us feel welcome in her home. She was a favorite with the GI's, but never dated any of them while I was there. She did tell me one time that she would like to go to America . I think she was waiting for some young single officer. She was smart as well as beautiful, and had big dreams.

When our workday was over we headed for the beer gardens or went into town just to escape the boredom of sitting around the hooch.  A lot of the GI's had girlfriends they lived with down town... and though I’m no saint I did resist that temptation. It was a great place for the single GI's, they had a ball, but for the married guys it was tough. I had a beautiful wife and two baby boys waiting back home for me, I couldn't wait to get back to the states.

My best friend was Perry, he was African American and was married to a Filipino/Hawaiian. They had a whole bunch of kids, about five or six from what I remember and he was only about my age. Perry didn't really have any interest in setting up house while he was in Thailand either so we hung out a lot together. We lived in the same hooch and soon became close friends. At first we just went to the beer garden on base but that got boring, so we started going into town where there was more excitement. We would go to the tailor shops and music stores and then stop off at one of the many bars in town for a few drinks.

We went running several times a week, to stay in shape, and spent a lot of time talking about our families and what we were going to do when we returned to the states. We had been hanging around together for several months when one night we decided to go into town for a few beers. We happened into a bar we hadn't frequented before and that was when the adventure began. What started out as an ordinary visit to town, turned into a night I would never forget?

The music from the jukebox was blasting out the latest hits from the states, and the strong odor of cheap perfume, cigarette smoke and alcohol floated in the air. Excitement filled the room as the GI's and business girls danced with abandon. We sat down, ordered a couple of beers and began taking in the scenes. I noticed this girl sitting by herself and was impressed with how young she looked. She didn't look like a business girl at all, more like a schoolgirl. We had only been there a short time when she got up, walked over to our table and sat down. She began making small talk but seemed uncomfortable and nervous.

Perry got up and wandered off and I was left there alone with her. I don't know why she picked me out but she began telling me all about how she had been kidnapped from her village near Bangkok and forced into prostitution. This had happened only a few weeks before and she was trying to find a way to escape and make her way back home. Her mother and father had no idea where she was or what had happened to her. Bangkok was about a hundred miles away so she was some distance from her home.

In Thailand the gangsters are called Gigolos. Some of these men are in the business of kidnapping young girls from remote villages and taking them to the larger towns and using them as prostitutes. That is what had happened to this young girl. She was only fourteen years old but looked about twelve. She reminded me of my little sister Martha.

I listened intently as she told me her bizarre story and knew in my heart that without help she would never escape. I felt sorry for her and wanted to help her, but I didn't know if it was wise to get entangled in her problem. Should I mind my own business or get involved, should I help this girl who I didn't even know or play it safe and walk away. What about my family waiting for me back home? I knew I would be taking a big risk, if I got caught it could get real nasty. I had heard about GI's who mysteriously disappeared without a trace... that was not how I wanted to end up.

We talked some more and at some point in our conversation I made my decision, I had to help her, if I didn't who would? I asked her if she could find her way back home if I helped her get out of the bar? She said she could catch a bus back to her village if only she could get away.

I paid for her and we walked out the rear of the building in the direction of her room. The rooms were located in a long building, which were attached to the main building where the bar was located. To get to her room we had to walk along a wooden walkway, which was about three feet off the ground with wooden handrails. As we walked toward her room I noticed a guard up in a watchtower about twenty to thirty feet high and a very high fence surrounding the perimeter of the compound. I also noticed a small building located close to the fence about forty feet away, which looked like a possible place to climb over. The walkway to the rooms was attached to the front of the building in a porch like fashion and the rooms were accessible only from the walkway, which was in full view of the guard in the watchtower. We went to her room and began discussing how we were going to make this happen. I had learned to speak enough Thai to communicate with the natives and she spoke enough English that soon we had a plan worked out.

We waited until sometime around midnight and then I decided it was time to get the hell out of there. I slowly opened the door and looked outside, I could see that the guard in the tower had nodded off. That was the break we needed if we were to have any chance of escaping. It was now or never, I quietly swung over the handrail and landed softly on the ground, she was right behind me. My heart was pounding with excitement as we ran across the compound, "Don't wake up now," I thought to myself. We covered the distance in just a few seconds and then we were safely behind the building and hidden from his sight. We waited there in the dark for a few minutes to collect our thoughts and catch our breath. The next thing we had to do was climb over the fence; we would be right out in the open when we went over the fence. I knew that if we made any noise at this point we could be in big trouble. We were only about thirty feet from where the man was sitting in the tower.

I looked around the corner of the building one last time and saw that the guard was still asleep. So far so good, now if we could make it over the fence without him seeing us we would have it made. I went over first and was surprised that the ground was not flat as I had supposed, but sloped downward. I hit the ground and rolled down the hill a short distance before I could stop. I knew I had made some noise when I hit, I could only hope it wasn't loud enough to wake the guard. I made my way back up the slope and peeked through a crack in the fence, the guard was stirring around a little, but didn't seem alarmed. I whispered to the girl to come on over, but I was wasting my breath, she could smell freedom and was already climbing over the fence. I caught her as she dropped to the ground and without looking back we began moving through the brush toward the nearby streetlights. There was not much going on at this time of night so we nonchalantly walked out onto the street as if we were out for a midnight stroll. It was looking good, the hardest part of the mission was behind us, now all we had to do was get a taxi and find some place where she could stay until morning. I had to be back at the base by seven O'clock to make the morning muster.

The cabs in Thailand are small pickups with a canopy on the back and seats on each side of the bed where the passengers sit. I flagged one down and climbed into the back letting her sit up front in the cab. I noticed that she was having an animated conversation with the driver and wondered what she was talking to him about. I felt a twinge of apprehension, but shrugged it off, thinking that she knew what she was doing.

I could think of only one place to take her and that was to Aroon's house, I gave the driver directions and off we went. I figured she could stay with Aroon until morning and then catch a bus back to her village before anyone discovered she was missing. It only took a few minutes to get to Aroon's place, I paid the driver and he sped off in the dark. We walked up to Aroon's house and knocked on the door, I was afraid she would be asleep, but soon she opened the door and with surprise she said " Robert what are you doing here?" I explained to her what had happened and she became very alarmed, “ Robert you don't realize what you've done, these men are very dangerous, they'll kill you when they find out what you've done." “They won't find out," I replied confidently.  "What about the taxi driver," she said, “Did you tell him anything?" She stared suspiciously at the young girl. I was surprised that Aroon was so upset. I didn't think it would be that much trouble if the girl stayed there until morning. Aroon began talking to the girl in a very excited manner, I couldn't understand a word she was saying but I noticed the girl was acting very defensive. As soon as Aroon was finished the girl began speaking, they went back and forth like this for quite awhile until finally Aroon turned to me and said, “ Robert , she told the taxi driver, he knows everything." Then it hit me, that's what she was doing when I saw her talking so excitedly to the driver, she had told him the entire story. “Why," I asked her, “Why did you tell him?" She didn't say a word; she just hung her head and looked miserable. Now I was starting to get nervous, if the taxi driver knew, he no doubt was at this very moment reporting the whole story to the Gigolos. I was in serious trouble and I knew it, and not only was I in trouble I had placed Aroon and her friends who lived with her in danger also. I didn't have long to worry about it for at that very moment we heard a car pull up in the driveway. We ran to the upstairs window and watched as four men got out of the car. They came up to the house and knocked on the door... luckily Aroon was smart enough not to open the door, but talked to them through the security bars. They told her they had come for the girl and they were going to kill the GI who had taken her. Aroon talked to them for a long time, I couldn't understand what was being said, but soon she came upstairs and told me that I was in big trouble. “ Robert you have no choice, but to give the girl back to them," I didn't reply right away, I was thinking about the girl and what they might do to her, “I can't do it Aroon, I'm afraid of what will happen to her.” “ Robert you don't know how things are done in my country you have gotten yourself into something very dangerous.” She went back downstairs to speak to the men again. In a short while she came back upstairs and began talking to the girl, after about fifteen minutes she had convinced the girl that she had to go back to the bar with the men. She told her that it was her fault and if she had kept her mouth shut in the taxi everything would have worked out all right. I hated to see her go back with them, but I had no other options. They told Aroon they wouldn't hurt the girl if I let her go, but if they had to take her by force they were going to kill me. I hated to admit defeat after all we had gone through to get her out, but I had no other choice... it was over.

After they took her away I was in a state of shock from the anxiety of the situation and I began trembling and was unable to stop for several minutes. I was mad and scared at the same time, how could human beings treat another human like this, especially a poor defenseless child. I knew I had done everything I could but I would never forget how alone and helpless she looked as she walked away.

During the brief, but intense standoff I kept thinking about my wife and two little boys and wondering what in the hell was I doing holed up in a strange house with a strange girl in a foreign country dealing with a societal problem that I knew nothing about and that could cost me my life.

I've thought about this girl many times since then. If only she had kept her mouth shut she would have been on the way back to her village the next morning. If only I had sat in front with the driver and let her ride in back. Hindsight, as we all know is twenty twenty, and loose lips sinks ships. I have no doubt she spent the flower of her youth as a prostitute, and I'm sure she's asked herself many times why she felt compelled to spill her guts to a taxi driver who had no need to know what was going on. We had planned and executed the perfect escape, but in the end it was all for nothing.


Written by:  Robert Tallent McDowell