To Japan and Back Again (Part IV)

Well, it’s day 4 of what was supposed to be a 1-day trip from my last duty station in Yongsan, South Korea to my home in Missouri where I was going to take 5 weeks leave before going to an Army school at Fort Belvoir, VA for 3.5 months. The mechanical problems on the plane that forced it to turn around over the Pacific Ocean and return to Yokota Air Base in Japan has shortened my leave by 3 days so far. Three days aren’t a lot normally, but when you have been separated from your family for a year, it seems like an eternity!

It’s a sunny Sunday morning here in Japan and I am enjoying a cup of coffee with the rest of a cookie I got with my dinner last night. I’m hoping and praying that the new scheduled departure time for today happens without a hitch, so that I can be with my wife by the end of the day (or early Monday). This has certainly been an adventure with one disappointment after another multiplying the frustrations of the passengers who just want to get home.

The airline I’m on is contracted by the U.S. government for these types of flights. It’s the same airline that I flew on going into Iraq during OIF. It’s not a big “brand name” airline but evidently the one who had the lowest bid so won the contract. They have put us in hotels every night and tried to provide meals, though many of the meals have been sub-standard.

The Air Force personnel at Yokota Air Base have been amazing. They are stuck in the middle of this situtation between the airlines (who they have no control over) and the passengers who they are trying to take care of. Their attitudes and helpfulness have remained high over the last few days as they have had to put in long hours and even work on days that they’re normally off, just to take care of us.

Usually the government takes care of all of our connecting flights to get us where we’re going. Since I am going “TDY en-route” to my training location and taking leave in between, I had to take care of my own connecting flight home. I booked through Delta Airlines using my frequent flyer miles (“Skymiles”) that I’ve accumulated on the couple of flights I made back to the States while in Korea for Army training. Normally, changes to these reservations come with a hefty fee, but they have changed my reservation three times without a charge, working with me (and my wife who has had to call the last two times) to make my experience as stress-free as possible. Delta Airlines has won a loyal customer through all of this!

As of early this morning, the Yokota Passenger Terminal is telling us that the plane was fixed late last night and is scheduled to depart early this evening getting us into Seattle Sunday morning. Of course, we’ve been given similar reports every day of this episode, so the news is received with some skeptisim. Only when I’m buckled in and in the air will I believe that we’re finally leaving.

We got back to the terminal about 1130 and checked our bags. I was looking forward to getting something to eat sonce I hadn’t had anything to but thr rest of my cookie from last night. However, there wasn’t an airline rep there to give us meal vouchers. I thought about having a pizza delivered so looked up the number fot the on-post Pizza Hut and called them only to be told that they didn’t bigin delivery until 1545. Oh well. About then, I heard the announcement that they were issuing the meal vouchers so I got one and got a Bacon Cheeseburger and fries. I am so tired of cheap fast food and ready for a home-cooked meal!

Hurry up and wait!

The latest word is that we’ll be called to the secure area at 1330 but as I’m writing this I see it’s almost 1400. They also said that we’d begin boarding at about 1600 for a 1640 departure. We’ll see.

At almost 1430, an hour after we were supposed to progress to the secure area, they announced that the maintenance crew was still performong ops checks on the aircraft. I thought when something is “fixed” then it’s ready to go…

The crew boarding the plane seemed like a good sign.

At about 1500 we begin moving to the secure area. While we’ve been there before, it’s a good sign. RUMINT says departure time is about 1630. Again, we’ll see.

At about 1730 they announced that we would soon start boarding. This was as close as we had gotten to leaving in three days. You could tell people were getting excited by the cheers that were raised with each progressive announcement. At the same time you could sense -and sometimes hear- the skepticism. We had been told before that we would be leaving. It was hard to believe that this time we would.

Within a few minutes we did start boarding and there was a reserved optimism that we were finally on our way. The Air Force personnel had to do another roll call once we were on the plane, delaying our departure a little longer. Evidently the passenger manifest didn’t match the number of passengers. Once that was sorted out we were cleared to go. With every foot the plane rolled away from the gate the greater the expectation that it was for real. Every delay we encountered; every minute we were still on the ground, there was a chance that we would have to turn back, deplane, and resume the endless wait to go home.

One of my last views of Korea

After a year in South Korea, I left Seoul for Osan on  Wednesday morning then caught my flight from Osan on Thursday morning expecting to be with my honey Thursday evening. Instead, I spent the next three nights in Japan and most of four days in the Passenger Terminal at Yokota Air Base, while aching to be home.

Flying into Seattle

Finally at at about 1145, after four long days of traveling and waiting, I returned to American soil, soon to be back in my home with my family and likely not ready to begin another deployment for some time.

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To Japan and Back Again (Part III)

This is my 3rd day in Japan. I was just supposed to be here for a 2-hour layover! You can read about my 1st day in Part I and my 2nd day in Part II. As for my 3rd day, I had noticed last night that there was a McDonald’s across the street from the hotel so I decided that I would add Japan to the list of places that I have eaten at McDonald’s (and, I like their breakfast). So I walked by the hotel-provided breakfast to the door and crossed the street.

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I went in fully expecting them to accept plastic (doesn’t everybody?) but was surprised to learn that they only accepted cash! Disappointed but not defeated, I went back to the hotel front desk to exchange some U.S. cash for Yen, since I had done that at the hotel I stayed at the night before. To my dismay, they did not exchange currency and directed me to a bank, which there wasn’t one nearby and I doubt it would be open on a Saturday anyway. I asked about an ATM and in their broken English said, “7-11.” Of course. I wasn’t encouraged by that since the last time I was at 7-11 I would have had to withdraw 10,000 Yen which is roughly $100. I wasn’t that hungry! I went anyway thinking maybe this ATM would be different than the last but it wasn’t. I give up (on McDonald’s, not life or anything like that!).

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The front of the hotel.
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The town near Yokota Air Base where the hotel is located is called Fussa.
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The large building where McD’s is on the 1st floor (where I didn’t get to eat!).
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A restaurant near the hotel (across the street from 7-11). It’s an interesting mix of Western and Eastern styles.
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Just a view of the hotel
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Another view near the hotel.
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There are vending machines everywhere!
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You can even buy beer from vending machines, though you need a Japanese id to verify your age.
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The breakfast offered by the hotel. I’m sorry, and no offense intended toward the Japanese people, but nothing here appealed to me. I got coffee. Black.

The buses were scheduled to pick us up from the hotel at 1000 so another day in the room wouldn’t be charged. That got us to the Passenger Terminal before 1100 where we waited in line nearly an hour to re-check our bags.

Yesterday they announced that our show time was 1800 but after a little while in the Passenger Terminal , they announced it would be 2100 then about 5 minutes later changed it tp 2000. I wonder how many more times it will change!

It turned out that they were able to get the parts they needed from Korea so it looks like they’re still trying to fix it instead of sending another plane. I hope they can fix it, otherwise we’ll be waiting even longer for that replacement aircraft.

This is the culprit!
This is the culprit!

I used my voucher and got lunch at the eatery in the Passenger Terminal. Since I didn’t have breakfast I was really hungry so the Classic Bacon Cheeseburger and fries tasted good.

After lunch, more waiting. I’m debating about walking up to the BX Mall but that will mean lugging my backpack in the heat…I went ahead and walked to the BX (Base Exchange instead of Post Exchange like on an Army Post) to get dinner and cough drops; and just to do something. There really wasn’t time or means to go very far. The flight schedule could change at any time.

I got a Philly Cheesesteak from Charlies (Charly’s?) Which was really good. I also looked around a bit and saw a Samurai sword that my daughter asked me to get her when she heard I was in Japan. Unfortunately, you carry a sword on a plane and it was too late to get it into my checked baggage. I guess I’ll need to come back!

While I was out I walked by the Traditional Chapel to get better pictures. Sadly, it was locked so I couldn’t get any of the sanctuary.

There were a couple of small Samurai statues in front of a cafe which were kind of neat. They were across the street from one of the wing headquarters where there were the flags of the U.S. (still at half mast), Japan, and the U.N.

Back at the Passenger Terminal a bit more tired after the walk with a heavy backpack. Back to the waiting (which is the hardest part!).

At 2000, the time we were to show up at the Passenger Terminal for our flight to leave about three hours later, the airline representative announced that the plane still isn’t ready to go so they’re putting us back in hotels to show up again tomorrow (Sunday) at noon. Here we go again!

You can feel the frustration in the room. Even some anger. One Soldier missed his wedding. Another missed her son’s birthday. I really miss my family and want to get home to them! Who knows how many other life events have been missed or are about to be. It’s really nobody’s fault. Things break down. Delays happen. But this is tough on our Service Members. This is hard on their families. This is bad.

The last announcement they made is that they’re going to double up on the hotel rooms. I don’t think so. That is not SOP. That will not work. They also are putting people in rooms in downtown Tokyo which is about 2 hours away. That means by the time they get there and have to get back, they won’t get much sleep!

A few rooms opened up at a lodge on post which I jumped on. It’s an old building but nice. There’s actually a bedroom, living room and kitchen (and bathroom, of course). Military lodging also has free laundry rooms so I am able to get clothes cleaned. I sent most of my civilian clothes home with my un-accompanied baggage and mailed boxes, since I didn’t anticipate this trip taking so long. It will be nice to have clean clothes!

There’s another chaplain on this flight with me, a Catholic Priest. I talked to him this evening about he and I offering services at the Passenger Terminal tomorrow. I think that sharing this common experience has created a sort of “bond” similar to deployments so I believe that worship together could be meaningful. Having a Protestant and a Catholic chaplain, we can have two services to cover most of the bases.

Here are some pictures of my room at Kanto Lodge on Yokota Air Base, Japan:

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Well, it’s late and this day is about complete. It’s been another long day with no progress on getting home. Hopefully tomorrow will be better and I’ll be on my way.

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To Japan and Back Again (Part II)

Day two in Japan. (You can read about my 1st day in Part I).  After a decent night at a very nice hotel I was shuttled back to the AMC Passenger Terminal and the airline provided breakfast at the eatery in the terminal. Not very good on a normal day, but preparing food for all the passengers of a delayed airplane put “mass production” to the test. In a “carryout” styrofoam container I was given two pieces of toast (cold), a square scrambled egg (not very warm), a piece of sausage (not very warm) and tater tots (their version of hash browns). The taste was OK, but as mentioned, it wasn’t fresh or hot and just barely hit the spot. At least I wasn’t sitting and waiting on an empty stomach!

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The Red Cross showed up with comfort items and snacks which was nice. Of course, it just confirmed the “disaster” we were experiencing!

The theme of the day was “wait”! Since I was stuck in the Passenger Terminal anyway, I took the time to take pictures of displays around the terminal:

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The “Missing Man” table in honor of those Service Members KIA and MIA.
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Japanese windsocks hanging from the ceiling of the terminal.
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Samurai warrior armor and weapons
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Samurai warrior armor and weapons
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Samurai warrior armor and weapons

After several hours in the main terminal with occasional announcements about our pending departure, they ran us through security into the “secure” waiting area where he had even less freedom or access to conveniences. Since I was through security I was able to get a Japanese Coke can from the vending machine, to add to my collection but that’s the highlight of the day.

Following two or three announcements of further delays with minimal explanation, the eatery from the passenger terminal bought “lunch” for the stuck passengers. Some got chicken sandwiches, some deli-style sandwiches, some chicken “nuggets” and all with french fries. I’m in the habit of being at the end of the line (I think it’s a chaplain/pastor thing, waiting until everyone else is fed to be sure there’s enough). By the time I was there my choice was chicken nuggets (which at least were fresh and hot) and cold french fries. Yum.

About that time, the pilot of the plane made an appearance with an explanation about what had happened and what the plan was. He admitted that the toilets could not be fixed here and had to be sent back (without passengers) to the U.S. for repair. There were psrts ordered from another airline they were expecting but that airline decided they needed them for one of their aircraft. He announced that they were trying to get another plane here to get us home but wasn’t sure how long that would take.

When he was through, I took the opportunity to talk to him privately. I told him I understand the repair issues and the necessary wait but told him about the meals not being adequate and asked if he had any contact with his company. I told him again, I’m not complaining about the delay, it happens, but with the delay they need to take care of their customers. He did thank me and said he’d see what he could do and later said he talked to the lady on the ground who was in charge and thanked me again for letting him know. I wasn’t complaining for myself, I could just buy better food on my own (when not in the secure area) but a lot of those traveling were families and junior enlisted who would have more difficulty bearing the cost on their own.

Not long after “lunch” they released us from the secure area to the main terminal and announced that they were off-loading our checked baggage for us to retrieve, and working on arrangements for the night. The airline gave us another meal voucher, though it was only good at AAFES (on post) dining facilities. As they were making the room assignments, they said we would get breakfast at the hotel and they would give us meal vouchers (again, for on post) the next day.

I tried my wait-until-the-end-of-the-line plan again, hoping for the nice hotel but it didn’t work this time. I guess they had enough rooms in the cheaper hotels they didn’t use the better ones.

The hotel I was given wasn’t awful. I was just spoiled after the night before. I would equate it to a clean Motel 6 (from how I remember them from about 20 years ago). Here are some pictures of it:

 

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Not a bad hotel but after the last night it seemed tiny and lacking.
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Tiny TV which didn’t even have the English CNN channel (like the other hotel)
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More tea for Holly!
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The whole bathroom was like a self-contained pod…and small.
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This hotel also had slippers but not to keep (the sign did say they’re washed every day)
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A variety of devotional reading in addition to the Gideon New Testament and “The Teaching of Buddha.”
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The view from my room
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The train station was right below my window which concerned me but it turned out I could barely hear anything from it.
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The lights from outside also concerned me but the blackout curtains did their job.

I needed an adapter to plug in my laptop and wanted to see what there was to see anyway, so decided to go for a walk. I found another 7-11, which wasn’t hard and got what I needed plus a couple other goodies. Night time pictures aren’t the easiest but I got a couple then went back to my room.

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A shot down one of the streets at night.
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McDonald’s nightlife
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More yummy stuff to take home

I set my alarm for 0700, which was like sleeping in, and began to prepare myself for another day of waiting or travel or both. The bed was hard and the pillows were weird but I finally got to sleep though didn’t sleep well on a new bed (again). 

I was up and ready to go for a walk in the light before heading back to the passenger terminal. More on that and the events of my third day of a one day trip at To Japan and Back Again (Part III).

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