If you enjoy this article, please do me a solid and send it along to the veterans you know, and if you don’t know any, to a couple of friends.
When I joined the Air Force, I was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training.
What was boot camp like, aside from the obvious weapons training, long marches, exhausting obstacle courses, and relentless calisthenics?
Here are some examples of the way the military used to go about dehumanizing new recruits before building them up the unquestioning military way.
We would march to the mess hall for every meal and get in line as our drill instructor ordered. We got whatever food they gave us and had to eat it all or be punished, toughest on the finicky eaters. When we had our tray of food, we didn’t choose where we sat. We were ordered to go sit where there was an open seat. The first man to arrive at a table would put his tray down and remain standing with one hand held high over his head, three extended fingers indicating three open seats. The second guy that arrived also stayed standing as the first now held up two fingers, and so on. All remained standing until the last man arrived, then all sat down at once. As incentive not to dawdle over a leisurely meal, the rule was the first three to finish got to walk away and the last to finish had to take all four trays to the kitchen and scrape the dishes.
Squeamish? Skip the next two paragraphs.
Recruits were only allowed to use the toilet when told. When someone had to go desperately, he had to run around the barracks perimeter, twirling his flashlight over his head, whooping siren sounds and shouting “Request permission for an emergency latrine break, sir!” You can easily imagine how this cut down on unscheduled bio-breaks. Arriving back at the barracks (my first experience with an open floor plan) from a march or the gun range or calisthenics, all 80 sweaty, stinky men were required to use the toilets at the same time. There were five commodes in my barracks. They were placed side by side without partitions or doors.
A man sitting on the toilet would have a man a foot away on his right, another a foot away on his left, and a dozen men in line directly in front of him while he performed what had heretofore been a private function. Not much dawdling here either. The idea was to subject us to relentless humiliation and they did, every chance they got.
At our graduation parade, thousands of men marched in and out of the parade grounds.
In between, we were made to stand rigidly at attention for hours. We were drilled ruthlessly until everyone’s columns and rows were lined up precisely while marching, arms swinging the prescribed twelve inches forward and six inches back. Some would faint and we were not permitted to look at them or attend to them as we stared straight ahead into the setting sun.
This marching business sounded funny in Catch-22, but that’s fiction. Stripes, by the way, should have been titled The Three Stooges Join the Army, but that’s the movies.
Airmen Third Class now, thousands of us were put on buses and sent to different training schools across the country.
Along with a couple of hundred others, I rode one of the buses for 20 achy hours to Chanute AFB in scenic Rantoul, Illinois. There they trained me to be an aircraft mechanic, code 43151E, which specified training on planes with four or more jet engines. My first duty station was Kincheloe AFB, five hours north of Detroit.I was assigned to the Strategic Air Command’s 449th Bombardment Wing. They in turn assigned me to the Organizational Maintenance Squadron, who assigned me to one of four teams, each with a crew of a dozen mechanics entrusted with the care of four B-52s. Bomber Four, our group, look care of tail numbers 60-002, 60-032, 60-044, and 61-013. This is my former barracks, now a federal prison.
Ninety-nine percent of our work was outdoors in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
I spent the first of four bitterly cruel winters (I summered in Southeast Asia) there in the middle of nowhere. Our day-to-day responsibilities included inspection, repair, testing, refueling, towing, and emptying the flight crew’s onboard toilets. In the winter, we climbed up on the wings, swept a foot or two of snow off them, and sprayed hot, wet, and sticky de-icing fluid (anti-freeze without the rust inhibitors) on all the control surfaces prior to take-off on daily training missions.
Because I had been a tow truck driver as a civilian, one of my part-time assignments was as the driver of the 54,000 pound four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering MB2 diesel tugs used to tow the 160-foot long, 185-foot wide bombers. B52s weighed nearly half a million pounds when loaded with a mind-blowing 312,000 pounds of jet fuel. Compare this with the 737 airliner’s 172,000-pound takeoff weight.
Pulling them was easy. Pushing them back into position was much trickier with the 43-foot, double-jointed towbar and three steerable axles. Because I was good at it, I became my team’s primary driver.
When I was promoted to sergeant, I became a Crew Chief, the leader of a team of mechanics.
B52s were called BUFs. Bowdlerizers said it stood for Big Ugly Fellas, but you must surely know G.I.s used a coarser term that started with an F.
At Kincheloe, half of our B52s were hot-armed with four live nuclear bombs, each with 16 times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped in World War Two. The massive bombers were backed into concrete parking pads in a fiercely guarded area on full Red Alert. It was called the Christmas tree because of its configuration, as you can see.
Flight crews and ground crews needed to be ready to respond instantly to the threat of nuclear war with Russia, and so we lived next to the bombers in the windowless mole hole. Crews ate, slept, and lived there around the clock.
This was excellent duty for enlisted guys because all but one crew member (the tail gunner) on each plane were officers, and they got much better treatment than enlisted men in every way. With too few sergeants to warrant a separate but not equal mess hall, we ate with the officers. In the enlisted men’s mess hall where I ate when not on alert, breakfast was cold toast and watery powdered eggs we scooped out of steam table trays. In the mole hole we felt like we were eating at a posh resort, served made-to-order omelets and hot toast by jealous mess attendants.
Each morning after breakfast, crews would be briefed on the weather to our assigned targets. The best part was those times we would be shown films of Top Secret Soviet military installations, including Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile bases. Taken surreptitiously by spies using concealed miniature cameras, they were grainy black-and-white films. The first spy film I ever saw was so jerky and poorly-focused that as we were watching it, one pilot wisecracked “Nice work for a shoe camera, I’d say.”
Readiness means a lot of practice, so again and again at any time of day or night, red lights would flash and klaxons would bellow the ah-oogah sound movie-watchers associate with submarines crash-diving in emergencies. Crews scrambled, racing to their planes. A typical alert went like this:
When the six flight crew members arrived at the airplane, I had my wired headset (no Bluetooth, kids) plugged in, the large trailered generator fired up, and electrical power supplied to the plane. In winter, I had to remove sixteen engine intake and exhaust plugs and clear them to the side. This nearly doubled the get-ready time.
When the last crew member was aboard, I closed and locked the hatch. Seconds later the pilot would ask for clearance to fire the explosive cartridges and I would give it to him. Take one minute and watch the clouds of smoke during a B52 emergency start here.
Once the pilot had an engine started, its generator would come on line. When enough of the plane’s engines were producing all the onboard power the pilot wanted, he’d tell me “Ground, disconnect external power.” “Roger, disconnecting external power,” I’d say as I pulled the ten-pound plug, heaved the massive extension cord on top of the mobile generator, and closed and latched the access door. At this point the pilot usually comes on the intercom and says, “Ground, disconnect headset.”
One day the pilot didn’t, and with my headset still plugged in, I freaked when he started to taxi without warning and in violation of all checklist protocols. B52s start rolling really slowly, so I was never in real danger of being crushed unless I slipped on the ice. I was still faced with the problem of having to pull my intercom plug and secure the access door, now from the moving airplane I was standing under. In a few seconds, the front gear were past me and it was no longer possible to run to the side as I had been trained, so I dropped to the ground behind the generator cart and was battered by the thrust of eight shrieking 20,000 horsepower engines at full throttle. As soon as the last bomber had taxied away, the big brass who always watched the alerts in person came over, surrounded me and told me to keep quiet about this because we don’t want to ruin a good man’s career. I kept quiet, of course, and no one ever thanked me. Back to what happened every other time:
“Roger, disconnecting headset,” I’d say, pulling the plug, closing and securing the access panel. Coiling my hundred feet of cable as I went, I hustled to my position beyond the wingtip, and raised both arms, the indicator for clear and ready to taxi. When the pilot was ready, he’d flash his blindingly bright landing lights and I’d wave him forward. Once he was rolling, I’d salute him, just like in the movies, and when he was gone, I’d secure the area and go collect the 16 plastic plugs that had been blown to the blast fence by the hurricane-strength jetwash.
Within as little as three minutes from the alert signal, the bombers would taxi, screaming, to the end of the runway, ready to take off and go to war.
The sight of these monsters lumbering down the taxiways led to the procession being called The Elephant Walk. This was the scary moment, because we were never told when the alert was only a test and when it might be real. When the B52s didn’t take off, we towed them back into place, topped off their fuel tanks, and went inside to be graded on our performance. The first time they actually took off, I was terrified, because now we would be packed inside transport planes and flown to secret destinations thousands of miles away to deal with who knows what. It turned out be just a readiness test and the planes soon returned, but watching them take off was terrifying, all of us knowing a nuclear war had just begun.
As a crew chief, I was required to fly a mission every month in helmet, flight suit, and parachute.
The cabin was kept brutally cold because of all the onboard electronics. There was no room to get up and walk around. Flights were 12 hours of petrifying boredom between takeoff and landing interrupted only by an hour of practice bomb runs over remote areas. There were no toilets on board. A tall metal cylinder served as the flight crew’s urinal and excrement was collected in plastic bags and secured with tape for the ground crew to remove upon landing.
Several hours into my first airborne mission and riding in the jump seat, I was called up to sit in the copilot’s place so he could take a break. As I nervously fumbled my way into the armed ejection seat, Colonel Jake Ricketts casually asked me if I had ever flown one of these. How droll. When I said no, he said it’s time I learned and handed me control of this multi-million dollar monster, uttering the protocol “You have the airplane.” Make a gentle turn to port he said, and I turned the yoke. Nothing happened, so I turned it some more. Still nothing, dammit, and I turned it even farther. All at once the “heavy” control systems caught up with my three inputs and we swung wildly to the left. Mortified, I cranked the wheel too far back right, overcorrecting and sending us banking wildly to the right. “Seems like you have a real feel for this,” said Col. Ricketts just as the bombardier called over the intercom, “Who in the hell is flying this thing? We’re all puking back here while you’re all over the sky.” This was big fun for all of them and their way of hazing crew chiefs. The next time a pilot asked me if I ever flew one of these, I said “Yes, sir, I sure have.” (Watch this 1 minute scene aboard a B52 from Dr Strangelove – it’s one of my favorites.)
Older, less sophisticated B52s were deployed to Southeast Asia, where they flew bombing missions over North Vietnam out of bases on Okinawa, Guam, the Philippines, and Thailand. Armed with 70,000 pounds of iron bombs (conventional explosives), their missions lasted up to 13 hours, refueled in-flight by KC135 aerial tankers.
While stationed at Okinawa’s Kadena Air Force Base, I was a crew chief on KC135s.
Their mission was to refuel B52s from faraway bases. In-flight refueling is quite a sight and I’ve had a front-row seat from both planes. As crew chief, I’d fly on refueling missions, lying on my belly in the tail next to the KC135’s Boom Operator as he plugged into a bomber so close you could almost touch it. It’s scarier from the bomber side as the boom connects with a force that shakes the bomber and a metal-on-metal collision so alarmingly loud it sounds like the boom is coming through the roof,
We worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week (Okinawa is where I learned to sleep standing up). One day we parked a KC135 just in from Thailand and a roommate from back in the States stepped off while we prepared to refuel his plane for a quick turnaround. Small world. A month later, a typhoon was headed our way so we packed up our gear, loaded our planes, and flew to Ching Chuan Kang AFB in Taichung, Taiwan. Now on emergency 24-hour typhoon shifts and finally getting to eat at 3AM, I went to the enlisted men’s mess hall and bumped into a friend from high school. Really small world.
The times they were a-changing.
Eager to serve in Vietnam for reasons still unclear to me, I was one of 24 chosen from thousands of volunteer applicants for training as English Language teachers. Training was at the U.S. Department of Defense Language Institute at Lackland AFB, where three years earlier we had been green kids at boot camp. This time around, we were amused by the newly-enlisted kids who would salute us wherever we went.
The first question we asked our instructor was if we had to learn Vietnamese.
No – we would be using a method that never involved translation, forming instead a direct mental connection. To illustrate, he took his watch off his wrist, held it up, and said “Saat.” He wrote it on the chalkboard and repeated it. Then he pointed to his watch, shrugged his shoulders, and pointed to one of the students. Using only hand gestures, he coaxed first one student then another to say the word out loud until each of us had said it. Then, like a conductor, he motioned for us all to say it in unison. Pointing at himself, then pointing to the watch, he said “Bu BENIM saat,” wrote it on the board, and had us do the drill as before. As surely as we knew “saat” meant watch, we knew “benim” meant “my,” no translation necessary. He moved closer to one of the students wearing a watch of his own, pointed first at him and then at the student’s watch, and said “Bu SENIN saat,” which of course meant this is his watch. It was so powerful a lesson that 50 years later, I still remember this little bit of Turkish.
Using Department of Defense workbooks, we were shown how to lead drills.
It all started with simple common nouns, the instructor holding up a pen, saying “pen,” and writing “pen” on the board. Pencil, book, chair, window; one common noun after another. By repeating “This is a (book/chair/window/etc.)” alone and collectively, students learned verbs and articles without any discussion of parts of speech. Holding one aloft, instructors said “THIS is a pencil.” Pointing to a student’s pencil, instructors said “THAT is a pencil.” Holding up one, said “THIS is a pencil” and then holding up three or four, said “THESE are pencilS,” heavily stressing the S.
We broke into small groups, each working with an instructor and assigned classes to learn all the skills we would need to teach a 16-week class alone and without supervision. My students were uniformed military men from Pakistan, Venezuela, Germany, Japan, and Thailand. Imagine having to learn five languages to teach them via translation and by declining verbs and you can easily see another advantage of teaching a language without translation, the way Berlitz does it.
After training, we were shipped to San Francisco where we paid exorbitant prices at the Condor Club to drink and stare goggle-eyed at the infamous Carol Doda, the world’s first topless dancer.
We flew to Than Son Nhut in Saigon, were issued M-16 rifles, and housed three to a room in the White Hotel in Saigon’s Chinese district, Cholon.
There was no elevator so we clomped up and down ten flights of stairs in our boots twice a day. Water had to be carried up in empty liquor bottles. We had electrical power for a random hour or two a day.
These were really crappy conditions when compared to the made-to-order breakfasts and comfortable surroundings I enjoyed on nuclear alert. Stacked up against the obvious contrast with the lives of hundreds of thousands of solders killing and being killed every day, it was the equivalent of a five-star hotel. Soft duty, we called it.
Nearly three million military personnel served in Vietnam and tragically, more than 300,000 of those brave troops were killed, wounded, or captured and sent to prison camps.
Our pupils were South Vietnamese fighter pilots who spoke no English.
Students were not permitted to speak Vietnamese in classes, especially not to each other. They had a powerful incentive to learn because those who didn’t catch on quickly were transferred to the infantry and sent into combat.
Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we added new vocabulary and different verb tenses as they learned how the language works. Pretty simple, right?
We taught classes six days a week – one set of students for six hours in the morning, and a second set of students for six hours in the afternoon. The curriculum was so effective that in just sixteen weeks (576 classroom hours) students could speak, read, and write with the vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension of American high school students.
There was one unintended consequence no one had imagined.
Students had the same teacher for all sixteen weeks. While they were learning the language, it turned out they had also learned the teacher’s accent and syntax. This was discovered at the close of the first term when officials saw the students could understand each other’s English within their own group but not across all groups. Students with teachers from the Deep South would greet colleagues with a “Hah, hair y’all doin’? Ahm fahn.” Students with teachers from New York and New Jersey would say “Hey! I’m walkin’ heah! Fuggedabout it!” while they all looked dumbfounded at each other. Officials quickly decided the solution was to have students change instructors every two weeks. Now learning from eight different teachers instead of just one, they were able to learn the language as spoken by many different American dialects and accents.
I was shipped back to the States just in time for another Kincheloe winter.
My new assignment was to take charge of two ragtag crews of misfits and malcontents. Enough people called us the Dirty Dozen that we proudly adopted the name. We worked the graveyard shift from midnight to 8am, refueling and towing B52s and KC135s every night, all night long. This schedule meant the only meals available to us before and after our shifts were runny eggs and cold toast. Try that twice a day.
Civilians inevitably ask “Why didn’t you just eat somewhere else?” Clearly they had never lived on a remote nuclear facility with no restaurants, gas stations, or stores of any kind within 20 miles and no on-base food options other than the mess hall that served a fixed menu at a fixed time – not even a snack vending machine. We ate what they served us and only when they told us to.
Where the Dirty Dozen had been either bomber specialists or tanker specialists, I took the initiative to cross-train them so everyone was qualified on both B52s and KC135s. The work was distributed more evenly (tankers are easier to tow and refuel than B52s) and the ground crew and the brass were happy, a rare situation, indeed.
One very cold night while both crews were outside refueling bombers, I got a call on my radio telling us to drop everything and come inside immediately because the temperature was 35 below zero, deemed a threat to human life. Pet owners will be glad to know that the security teams’ guard dogs were always taken in whenever the temperature dropped to -20 F. Forty-five minutes later they sent us back outside to resume our normal duties because the temperature was now only 34 degrees below zero. Now I live in Florida and never complain about the heat.
I was Honorably Discharged for my honest and faithful service on March 12, 1972 after giving the United States military four years of my life for about $100 a month.
Discharged too late to begin the spring semester at university, I built stoves on the assembly line at General Electric until I couldn’t take it anymore. Strapped for cash, I took a full-time day job installing whole-house air conditioners and a full-time night job pumping gas until the fall semester began.
Like most veterans who have been around the world during wartime, seeing and doing so much while still just kids, I had little in common with wide-eyed freshmen away from home for the first time. The Dean of Men figured that an older (23!) globe-hopping sergeant who had led teams of men for years was more responsible than most students. When he offered me a job as head dorm counselor, I took it. Another big boost came when I was admitted to the doctoral program at Indiana University and assigned to be a teaching professor’s assistant because of my experience in Vietnam. Under his tutelage, I became the first ever first-year graduate student to carry a full teaching load and I continued to teach Sociology full-time all the way through the program. This valuable experience led to adjunct professor positions at the University of Miami (Research) and the University of the West Indies (Human Behavior), which led to my starting this blog more than four years ago. Ain’t life something?
A few random thoughts.
This week I got a call from former Staff Sergeant Bill Mathe, who I hadn’t talked with for many years.
Best friends at Kincheloe AFB, we spent a delightful hour recalling people and incidents, including the time we got stuck in the boonies in the middle of the night and had to steal a tow truck (we brought it back).
Sad Sack is an American comic strip and comic book character created by Sgt. George Baker during World War II. Set in the United States Army, Sad Sack depicted an otherwise unnamed, lowly private experiencing the absurdities and humiliations of military life. The title was a euphemistic shortening of the military slang “sad sack of shit.”
One winter, a dirt-poor “Sad Sack” Kincheloe roommate and the sweet girl back home got married in the base chapel. She had ridden the bus all alone from Philly (what he called it), clutching her bouquet. She had no girlfriend with her and knew no one at the base but her soon-to-be husband. Her loneliness was so palpable I can still picture the bride-to-be headed for the Great White North on that bus, a frightened high myope all alone, huddled in her best cloth coat and rubbing a greasy, dirty window to watch for two days and nights as the width of Pennsylvania, the corner of Ohio, and the length of Michigan crawled by. I wish I had the wedding photo of her in that simple dress, flanked by three twerps in Air Force blue Class A suits, which we called our bus driver uniforms. The groom had already asked his friend John Raley (a huge Buck Owens fan) to be his Best Man, and they brought me along to hold the bride’s flowers during the brief ceremony. This, I think, made me the de facto Maid of Honor, my second best wedding story.
The shirt on the left is the same one I am wearing in the photo of me on the rooftop of the White Hotel in 1969. Every Veterans Day I wear it, and it still fits if I don’t button it.
The peace movement was at its height in the Sixties and Seventies with college students across the country protesting against the war. Safe at home, students vilified soldiers and sailors whose only crime was to serve their country in a time of war. Vietnam veterans are still the only ones who were at the time condemned for their service, a shameful chapter in American history and incomprehensible today. Please thank a Vietnam veteran this week and welcome him home. To this day, that’s how Vietnam veterans greet each other: Welcome Home.
The Best Years of Our Lives is the movie I watch every year on Veterans Day. It is the story of three World War II veterans from different social strata returning home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed. Casting Harold Russell in the role of Homer Price was genius. In the Army, he lost both hands to an explosion. Russell is the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role. Later in life, he sold his Best Supporting Actor Oscar to pay for his wife’s medical expenses.