How an inefficient file clerk saved my life


My first stint on active duty was a three year overseas tour in Germany. (Then West Germany or FRG) I was having a great time in Germany. I loved the people, the scenery, and the beer. During 1988, my Commander realized that I had taken no leave during my overseas tour. I was summarily ordered to go back to the States on leave, preferably during Christmas. Being a good soldier, I argued a little, but gave in to the Commander’s unwavering position.

I turned in my leave documents a few months in advance. When November arrived, I purchased my plane tickets and made the necessary notifications to relatives back home. Mid-November, I went to the admin office to pick up my approved leave forms. Low and behold, the file clerk had no idea what I was talking about. A nasty argument ensued that got the attention of both the 1SG and the Commander. They entered the admin office to see what was wrong.

It would seem that I had turned in my request so early that it was lost in the shuffle and had not been approved. Now, at this late date, all of the available slots for leave during Christmas had already been filled. I was out of luck for a Christmas holiday. I knew my family would be disappointed. I was angry. My rant apparently touched the cold steel heart of my Commander and he offered a solution.

“Look, we can fix this. Just go on leave early. Get back here the weekend of Christmas. Spend Thanksgiving with the family instead. Its the best we can do. I will approve your leave request as soon as it hits my desk. Just figure out when you want to leave.” He offered. I accepted.

I drove the 40 kilometers to the travel office where I purchased my tickets, paid a small penalty for a late change, and was soon in possession of a new itinerary and plane ticket, having moved my flight from 21 December, 1988 to 23 November, 1988. The feud was settled and we all went our separate ways, although I mumbled much under my breath about stupid admin jerks who couldn’t do their job. I packed, caught a ride to Munich, caught a feeder flight to Frankfurt, stopped off in London, saw New York City for the first time in my life, flew to San Francisco, where I was met by my parents, and spent a quiet, but busy time back in California.

Oh, the life saving part? I almost forgot.

That flight I had to change was Pan Am 103. The flight I rescheduled and took was also Pan Am 103, just a few weeks earlier. If my tickets had not been changed, my flight would have been the one that exploded in mid-air over Scotland. The lost leave request actually saved my life.

During my own flight on PA 103, we were treated very strangely. In Frankfurt, as we taxied to the runway, the plane stopped and sat on the tarmac for a long time. Eventually, the pilot announced that there was, “an electrical problem” with the plane and we would have to taxi over to maintenance to get it checked. We drove to a secluded part of the airport, away from the terminals, and sat even longer. We were then forced to de-plane, were bussed to a secure terminal, our luggage was removed and searched again, and we were watched by machinegun toting Polizei who stared at us from the other side of glass walls. Something didn’t add up to an electrical problem in my mind.

I was resting on the couch at my parents’ house in central California when the first news reports of the explosion and crash hit the news stations.

“Didn’t you fly Pan Am, sweetie?” My mother asked.

“Um… yep.”

“Aren’t you flying Pan Am back to Germany?” She added.

“Um… yeah.”

I made it back without incident. But, I never yelled at an admin clerk again. Once I returned to my unit, I was allowed to review all sorts of intel documents on the incident. Most of them pointed a finger at Iran and Syria. I was very surprised many years later when Libya took the blame.

Ross Elder

2 thoughts on “How an inefficient file clerk saved my life

  1. Life take odd turns. In ’72 I was due to hop a MACVSOG C-46 out of Than Son Nhut to Da Nang with stops in the Central Highlands along the way. It left 10 minutes early and i watched it lift off the runway.
    Frustrated and angry, I hopped a USAF C-130 trash hauler up the coast and got back to my unit. When the S-1 saw me he jumped up from his desk, face pale.

    “You’re alive!” he said.

    The C-46, carrying several of my friends, had crashed into a mountain in the clouds. Killed all. Took us 10 days to get into the site and lift the bodies out.

    All the names are together on the Wall at the Vietnam Memorial. Every time I look, I expect to see my name in the mix. Should have been, but wasn’t.

    Maybe, Ross, a Higher Power has something in mind for us and arranged for us to miss the plane on purpose.

    • Wow. It’s amazing what fate can do both for and against you at times. This particular incident was my 2nd major avoidance of my untimely demise. Been a few since as well lol

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