When we landed on Wake Island, I got a taste of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean very different than the one I got flying high above empty water for hours. Wake Island is a two square mile dot in the ocean 2,300 miles west of Honolulu and 2,000 miles east of Tokyo. Here during World War Two, the Americans fought the Japanese for control of the airstrip at the lower left, below. The highest point on this nearly submerged volcanic crater is only 21 feet above sea level. Like all the other Wake first timers, I stood on the “hill” and turned slowly in a full circle, seeing nothing but water to the horizon in every direction. The sensation was of being on a mountain top looking off into endless nothingness.
By the time I was 21, I was an old hand who had crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean dozens of times, stopping to load and unload cargo and personnel as I passed in and out of American air bases at Anchorage, Alaska, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oahu, Okinawa, Philippines, Guam, Midway, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and Wake Island.
Okinawa was my first Pacific duty station
Okinawa was the first place I had ever stood on ground where World War Two had been fought. It was a strange sensation to be where 100,000 Japanese and U.S. soldiers had died only 25 years before. I had the same feeling on Guam, the Philippines and every place Americans died fighting World War Two. History beneath my feet.
My assignment was as a crew chief on KC-135 cargo planes
At the height of the war, hundreds of cargo planes, bombers, fighters and a few SR-71 spy planes flew in and out around the clock. For 12 hours every day I loaded and unloaded cargo and personnel from one transient KC-135 after another. We would refuel it, load more people and cargo back on board, and sent it on its way. As soon as one plane was gone, another taxied into the open parking spot and we did the same thing all over again, like a huge, endless assembly line.
When a KC-135 was parked, I’d push the loading platform up to the plane and open the top-hinged cargo door
One afternoon, a barracks roommate from back in the states stepped off the KC-135 that had just pulled up. He was on his way back to the States after six months of crewing B-52s in Thailand. He was excited to be going home. The day he landed at Kincheloe AFB, he was sent right back to Thailand, this time permanently. His name was Bill and he was the Sad Sack I wrote about in last year’s Veterans Day story.
A few weeks after Bill flew back home, a dangerous typhoon brewed up in the Philippine Sea. A full evacuation was ordered, so we stuffed every plane we had with everything we had and flew to Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, 400 miles west of Okinawa and halfway to Hong Kong. Exhausted and staggering after two days without rest, we made it through the rain to the mess hall just outside of Taichung at 3 am.
The first person I saw was a good friend from high school
Paul was an Air Force air traffic controller I would meet again a year later at another base halfway around the world. After the war he was one of 11,000 civilian air traffic controllers fired from their FAA jobs by President Reagan for ignoring a court order to return to work. The strike was deemed a “peril to national safety” and Reagan banned the strikers from federal service for life.
After the war
The fall semester wouldn’t start for another six months, so I took a factory job. Every night from 4pm until midnight, hundreds of electric stoves came down the assembly line. As each one arrived I plugged a two-pronged electric heating coil into a socket and secured it with two screws: bzzt bzzt with an airgun, like a Nascar tire changer but slower. Four coils per range, eight screws: bzzt bzzt…bzzt bzzt…bzzt bzzt…bzzt bzzt. And then another Hotpoint crawled through my 4 foot wide universe, an endless moving wall of blindingly white enamel for eight soul- and mind- crushing hours.
After the factory, I was a full-time student who held several jobs with the college, including FM radio disc jockey and Program Director (That’s me teaching a new DJ). My other campus jobs were as a resident dorm counselor, photographer, general factotum and the guy who picks up VIPs from the airport. One night I drove the campus VW bus to pick up the guy who was to speak at the college that evening. A gracious man, he invited me to have dinner with him. I was stunned that such a great man would be so kind to a dumb college kid like me. We swapped stories.
Halberstam was one of the few reporters who saw through the bilge dished out by military and governmental officials claiming this unwinnable war was being won. Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his coverage of the Vietnam War as a New York Times staff reporter. By the time I met him, he had written The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era and The Best and the Brightest, the defining history of how we got involved in Vietnam.
The college that brought Halberstam in to speak was affiliated with the Southern Baptists
This is a group of more than 10 million people officially opposed to alcohol and dancing (Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up? Someone might think they’re dancing). Halberstam ordered us a couple of fine bourbons before dinner, raised his glass to mine and said “Welcome home, David. Isn’t it grand of those teetotalers to buy us a couple of really good Kentucky bourbon whiskeys to celebrate the occasion?”
I drove him to his speaking engagement and then back to his hotel. Years later he died in a car crash while another student at another school was driving him to the airport.
Veterans Day is Thursday, Nov 11th this year
Please thank the veterans you know for their service. Their lives were tougher than most of ours and they sacrificed a lot for us. You’ll find me watching The Best Years of Our Lives, the story of three World War Two soldiers – one with no hands – and what they came home to.
Somewhere in the Pacific in the late 1960s: