Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Veteran's Day

"Only the dead have seen the end of war." - Santayana

I was 19. It was 1963. I just wrecked the 6th car that my father bought for me. Somehow I ended up in an orange grove with a bottle of vodka and the '55 Ford station wagon seemed to have done battle with the grove. My father wanted me to join the military.

I go to Jacksonville for induction and testing and get the duty of sheparding 10 recruits to San Antonio. They say something about intelligence tests. We arrive at 1AM and they put on a show with a guy who "talks back". They take him outside and pretend to beat the shit out of him in a noisy fashion. Some 19 year olds will believe anything.

I request some testing and score a 98 percentile on the Air Force Officer's Emotional Stability test. I pretend I am Captain Jack Armstong. I get an assignment to the Air Cadet Program...That would make me a navigator, but the program is killed off after I get my slot.

My Drill Insrtuctor tells me, "Dougherty, You want to be an officer? You wouldn't make a good pimple on an Airman's ass."

I go instead to radio relay school. I spit shine the sole of my boots and a West Point Lieutenant becomes extremely impressed and takes visiting Congressmen to see my boots. I get promoted to being a student leader of a wing of 900 airmem. I don't have to march anymore, I just give commands.

I am in the latrine with a loser lifer four-striper. We discuss cleaning the urinals and I offer an opinion. He points at his stripes and tells me that they don't pay me to think. The next day I get my promotion and watch him burn that I am the same rank after 9 months that he has attained after 20 years.

After 18 months of college on the Air Force's tab to complete my degree I go back to San Antonio for Officer Training School. My 1st wife writes to the four-star general and calls me a communist sex-pervert.

I give my statement to the OSI (Office of Special Investigation) and offer my ex-wife $10,000 to go away.  During the investigation, the Colonel in charge of OTS creates a special rank for me. He makes me an OT General. My insignia is blank shoulder boards. The lower classmen with chickenstripes on their boards think that I am their lowerclassmen, just arrived early. I have to sneak down to the chowhall to eat at odd hours to avoid any misunderstanding. I feel ike Major Major Major in "Catch 22".

Eventually they clear me and give me the choice of pilot training or navigator training. It's 1965 and they only want aircrews. I note the number of F-105s going down in VietNam, so I volunteer for Navigator training. It was a good year. I played poker with my classmates and visit Mrs. Phred in San Francisco. LSD is in. The next three years are spent navigating the Pacific. I Loved Navigator school. Generally I eat braunswagger, mayonaisse, onion and tomato sandwiches and play poker with my classmates. One night I come home from poker at 6AM and find Mrs. Phred in tears. That teaches me something about women or at least about Mrs. Phred. We spend two hours a day on physical training and self defense skills. I still think about smashing nose bones into brain cavities and crushing rib cages with my knees.

In 2003 my Cousin Danny was on vacation and we're going fishing in the morning. We see each other more often now for fly-in family funerals and less often for fun. We sit on the front porch in the warm February evening in our rockers, drinking beer, and talking about the impending Iraq invasion and tomorrow's fishing trip. We swat mosquitoes and trade stories. Danny was a SeaBee. SeaBees are extremely competent military construction specialists.

Danny listens to my Qui Nhon story.

The Qui Nhon airfield is on the coast. It runs north and south with a big mountain on the west side and the South China Sea to the east. We land at twilight during the 2nd Tet offensive to deliver cargo. We were the only airplane on the field. Tracer bullets from .50 calibre machine guns are going over our heads from the east up into the hills. We walk to a command tent in the dark. There are spent bullet cartridges on the ground and runway.

Inside the tent a lot of soldiers are sitting on the dirt floor and listening to rock music on a boom box. We go in to get someone to sign for the helicopters we are dropping off. When we go back to the airplane an Army Major climbs on board with a rifle. He is very excited and he wants us to take all his broken helicopters with us because he thinks they are attracting the wrong kind of attention. That makes me consider the fact that we are in a huge silver airplane sitting there in the moonlight wasting time talking to this fool.

The Major keeps putting the barrel of his rifle in the stomach of the aircraft commander to emphasize his argument, which I think is rude. Eventually the AC gets the Major on the HF radio to Saigon and they convince the Major that we actually have something else to do that is important. The Major gives up and leaves just before we do. We make a night flight out and the night sky is filled with flares and tongues of flame from 'spooky' C-47s.

Danny is really surprised by this:
"Bobby, I was there in Qui Nhon that night. The power and lights went out and a magnesium flare landed on one of our sheds. There was a lot of sniping going on. Bullets were rattling around everywhere. The Lieutenant ordered me up on the roof to put out the fire. I told him to go fuck himself, I'd build him a new shed in the morning if that one burns. We had lots of plywood."

Danny was a New York union electrician before he joined the SeaBees so his response seems about right. What is strange is that we have seen each other frequently for the last forty years and never discussed the war before the eve of the Iraq invasion.
Danny gives me his impression of Viet Nam:

"It was Murder...Murder...Murder...I saw a cook pull out a .38 and shoot a sergeant in the head after a really stupid argument. I had to stand guard on the cook for twelve hours before they took him away. It happened all the time."

Danny tells me more about bullets whizzing by and rattling around and how that made him feel. Our grandfather was gassed in the 'Great War' and died after a couple of years so we never knew him. We discuss our fathers. Uncle Bruce was in the 101st Airborne and crashed his glider in Normandy on D-Day. One Waco glider is still on display in a museum near Bayeaux in Normandy. My dad drove a half-track in France and Germany. I tell Danny about the bus loads of young French children that still come to place roses on the graves at the Normandy American cemetery each June.

I share more stories with Danny in the moonlight as we rock and drink more beer. Our verb tenses and memories get a little jumbled by time and beer. Then and now get mixed up.

When I graduated from Navigator school, Carol wore white gloves and a pillbox hat for the graduation ceremony like the one Jackie Kennedy had in Dallas. My standing in the class is near the top. The students with the best scores are always sent to the Strategic Air Command. Later I approached the squadron commander in the Officer's Club and asked him if he could arrange to get me into B-52s because I have always been fascinated by large nuclear weapons. My assignment to unarmed C-124 cargo planes came through the following week.

Once I landed in Saigon on a sunny day. The crew left me on the plane alone and they all went to fill out paperwork. Helicopters landed and left bodies on the grass in front of the airplane. The soldiers must have been dead because they were bloody, still and unattended. I went for a walk. There was a warehouse with a tin roof and no walls. It is 100 yards long, 50 feet wide and 10 feet high. The open warehouse is filled with aluminium coffins stacked five high. I thought about the procurement process and the casualty estimates going into this warehouse. There were big profits for a coffin company somewhere back in the mid-west. I estimated that the shed had 6,000 coffins waiting for occupants, about a five month supply at 400 a week.

The bright moon is coming up. We discuss moon phases and guess the Iraq invasion date. We discuss the number of mothers who will receive bad news and a coffin. We're way off on both issues. He asks if we lost any men. I told him about the accidents and how glad I was that the C-141s hauled back all the coffins and the badly wounded because they were jets and could make the 12,000 mile trip to the States in a day instead of a week. Meat in the tropics goes bad quickly, but temperatures drop two degrees per thousand feet so at 35,000 feet the cargo bay temperature of a jet transport can be regulated to prevent further deterioration on the trip home before the coffins are delivered to the family.

The Da Nang accident happened in March, 1967. The C-141 taxied across a runway 18-right and was impacted by a fully loaded fighter-bomber. The fighter pilot ejected and was OK. The C-141 crew all died and burned a big hole in the runway. The control tower tapes were 'being changed' and the tower personnel claimed the taxi instructions were misunderstood and that our crew made a mistake.

The Cam Rahn Bay accident happened a month later. The pilot involved earned a medal for landing a C-124 in Adak. The wing on his C-124 broke off between the 3rd and 4th engine and he brought it in anyway. He was transitioned to C-141s. This time he took off from Cam Rahn Bay and crashed into the bay at the end of the runway. Everyone died except the co-pilot who had no memory. Analysis revealed that the newly deployed C-141 has an 'autoland' system which sensed an airspeed of 120 and reverses the engines and deploys the flaps. This system works great on landings, but you don't want to leave it engaged on take-off just because you are too excited to follow the check-list in a war zone.

Danny asks if I got any R & R in Bangkok. I told him not exactly but gave him one Thai story.

One morning we got a briefing in Da Nang. The intelligence guy shows us where the other guys have located radar controlled anti-aircraft gun in the Laos jungle. We went around the ones they knew about. It's a long flight across Viet Nam to Laos and then though Laos, along the Northern border of Cambodia, then down to the heart of Thailand. Cambodia is unfriendly. Cambodia doesn't want to get involved with our craziness by taking sides for some reason. It's one of those inscrutable oriental things, I guess.

In Thailand we were in the clouds with no visibility at 8,000 feet. As we got within VHF range of Bangkok (about 125 miles) the pilot talks to the approach control guy whose native language is pretty obviously not English. I hear the approach control guy erroneously acknowledge us as being 25 miles out as he gives the pilot instructions to descend to 2,000 feet. The pilot cuts the engines and begins to descend. Being a constantly frightened navigator makes me acutely aware of my surroundings at all times. I check the map and notify the pilot that he will be hitting a pile of rocks that are at 5,000 feet elevation in approximately three minutes. The old grizzled flight engineer across the crew compartment gave me a very toothy smile and the thumbs up sign.

Whenever we get to Bangkok the enlisted men find a way to disable the plane for a week or so. Some of them are very creative. I enjoyed the company of the young enlisted loadmasters and the old flight engineer master sergeants more than the old pilot officers. Once, I'm counselled about 'fraternization', which seems to be typical old officer 'chickenshit', worth ignoring.

In Bangkok an old woman on the canal threw me a mild narcotic, Betel nut. Her teeth were orange and her smile is genuine. Later I bought a fishhead dinner for the equivalent of five cents from a man in a canoe on the canal. He had one plate and he washed it in the canal between customers.

I met a man in a bar very late at night who I suspect is an agent for someone. He pumps me for information. I tell him, What I am transporting is very secret, so don't tell anyone but, we are stockpiling hundreds of 24-megaton hydrogen bombs for use in the next Tet offensive as a big surprise.I sometimes wonder if he filed a report about that and where he filed it. Moscow? Whitehall? Langley? Sydney?

Danny tells me a murder story about a 'fragged' officer in Qui Nhon. We discuss draft dodgers and privileged sons that are elected President and then order invasions and cruise missile strikes. I tell him the story about 'Thuds'.

The F-105 'Thud' is a huge, obsolete fighter-bomber that we appear to be trying to use up in raids on North Viet Nam. The in-joke is that 'thud' is the sound that the F-105 makes when it is shot down and hits the ground. Nearly 400 of the 700 built are shot down. They were built as nuclear bombers and lack self-sealing fuel tanks so even small ground fire causes a leak and a fire. The dual hydraulic lines are close together so a single hit takes out both lines and the elevators lock in the up position causing them to dive into the ground. They are no match for the old nimble MiGs and can only escape by dumping bombs and external tanks and going supersonic on the deck, leaving behind a trail of half-burned kerosene.

We land on a metal strip runway in U Dorn in northern Thailand to deliver cargo. I pop my head out of the C-124 top hatch to wave at a line of ten F-105s leaving for a raid on North Viet Nam. The first nine pilots wave back, but the last one gives me the finger. Most of my graduating class in Officer Training School became F-105 pilots. I saw navigator school as a better long-term career choice.

Danny takes another sip and is silent so I launch into my China story.
The approach to the capital of Taiwan is down a very narrow canyon. The old Major in the left seat has been flying a desk for a long time. He tries to handle the approach down the canyon. He keeps throttling back and the airplane starts to shudder in an impending stall. The stall warning horn goes off. The Aircraft Commander, flying right seat, keeps yelling MAX power!!! The old major throttles up for a minute and then backs off again into another stall configuration. We are about 200 feet off the ground. This happens about ten times.

When we got off the airplane an older navigator on board tells me, We cheated death again. This make me feel my nervousness and fears were warranted. We cross the runway to the crew bus and duck as a flight of vampire bats swoop close by. When we get ready to leave, a Chinese Nationalist Army guy aims his huge M-1 Garand rifle at the flight engineer in the top hatch as a clear sign that he wants us to stop on the Taxiway. The flight engineer drops like a rock out of the open top hatch to get his head out of sight. These wonderful and friendly Chinese are our friends. We leave and enter the South China Sea again. We hear the 'real' Chinese HF radio service talking in English, sort of. They repeat the phrase yellow running capitalist lackey imperialist dog bandits at least once in every sentence. They have a script of approved sentences. Each sentence contains this phrase at least once.

We make the short flight from Taipei to Okinawa and arrive at Kadena AFB at dawn. A startling futuristic airplane painted black lands and taxis to a hangar. They close the hangar doors very quickly.What was that?, I ask.What was what?, is the answer. You didn't see anything, I'm told.The SR-71 airplane I didn't see has been taking pictures in wonder the Chinese are obsessed about dogs.

Danny asks if I was afraid since I had a safe job shuttling cargo back and forth. I tell him a few more stories that stay in my head and come back often.

We take off from Guam heading 1800 miles west to Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. We are doing 200 nautical miles an hour (a nautical mile is about 1.15 real miles). It's another nice day to cross the Philippines Sea. I hum and update my fuel consumption chart. I'm dead reckoning but I can get a sun line every 45 minutes. As the day passes the sun line changes from a speed line to a course line. There is a wall of black clouds ahead. I turn the weather radar up to its maximum range of 100 miles. I see a solid wall 75 miles ahead. The pilot asks if we have enough gas to go back. I tell him no. He wants to know if we can divert North to Taipei. I tell him no way we have enough gas. We are at 8,000 feet. Nobody predicted a typhoon. We press ahead. Night is falling.

As we enter the wall we hit a severe updraft. The altimeter looks like a clock gone crazy. We are climbing thousands of feet a minute. We pass 16,000 feet and put on our oxygen masks. It's really turbulent. The pilot noses us over into a dive. The airspeed goes from 200 to 450 and hangs there. We're diving and still going up. Blood boils above 30,000 feet without a pressure suit...we hit 22,000 feet, still diving, still going up. It's pitch black except for red instrument lights.

The pilots talk to each other. Holy shit these controls are stiff, one says. Then comes the first downdraft. The combined effects of the downdraft and dive are spectacular. The pilots stop worrying about boiling blood and start to worry about hitting the ocean. They put the plane into a climb. The flight engineer kicks in the superchargers. We go to MAX power. The engines start to overheat and are approaching red lines for heat and RPM. The airspeed drops to 130 and the stall warning klaxon sounds continuously. Still we plummet. We pass 3,000 feet.

This aircraft was old. The wings fall off sometimes in just moderate turbulence. The airplane is climbing and falling and bouncing and shuddering on the thin edge of stalling. The stall warning horn keeps droning. The pilots talk again on the intercom. One says, Don't lose it. The other grunts. Oh. Here's another updraft in the nick of time. The cycle repeats again and again.

Eventually we make it to Clark AFB. We go to the officers club and listen to the 1940s style Phillipino big band. We go home to our crew trailer. We look at the sky for vampire bats. The trailer entrance smells intensely of very rancid sweat. Cousin Rex, was at Clark AFB for medical treatment. He had just been wounded for the third time, shot though both lungs. I didn't get to see him.

What happened to Rex?, I ask Danny

"I see him now and then, he's a truck driver", is Danny's response. I tell him the gooney bird story.

Midway Island is about half way between Japan and Hawaii. The birds of Midway have evolved on the island with no fear of predators. Gooney Birds are fun to watch. They are great fliers but have mid-air collisions. The also have to run to take off and often stumble and crash on both take-off and landing. During mating season they dance for days with heads thrown back, chests out, bills clacking and singing. Later the baby birds are huge balls of fluff. If you approach the nests they get excited and throw up on your shoes. They fly away for years and come back to nest in exactly the same spot. This can be inconvenient if a runway has been constructed since they then nest on the runway. They're also known as albatross.

We take off from Midway at 0400 local time. The Aircraft Commander has ordered the empty airplane loaded with fuel at 10% over the maximum allowable gross take-off weight because he wants to make Washington State in one giant 2,800 mile flight. He's got a new Toyota in the back and wants to miss Hawaii Customs. Our airplane lumbers down the runway and shudders up to an altitude of about 5 feet at the end of the runway. It hangs there for an small eternity kicking up prop-wash in the Pacific. I'm hoping we don't turn and put a wing in the water or lose an engine. I'm reminded of Earhart's last take-off from Lae City, overloaded with gas. An overcast Pacific is very dark at 0400. Eventually, we burn off fuel and begin to slowly climb out to 8,000 feet for the long trip home.

The return trip is 14 hours. We're in the clouds all the way with nothing except dead reckoning. As we approach the Pacific coast and pick up TACAN signals it becomes obvious that I missed my estimate of crossing the the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) by ten minutes rather than the allowable five minutes. My 'check ride' navigator begins to scream at me, turns red and blows spittle in my direction. I find this behaviour curious considering the available navigation aids and stared at him without response. Then he makes some notes and tells me I passed my 'stress test'.

I'm sure by now that Danny feels like I do about the war, so I tell him about my rubber stamp.

I had a rubber stamp made at a Tacoma office supply store. It said Kill a Commie for Christ. I kept the stamp and an ink pad in one pocket of my flight suit along with a .38 calibre revolver. I began to use the stamp on the walls of officer club rest-rooms throughout the Pacific. It was my sneaky way of protesting the war.

Danny asks, Do you still have the stamp?

I find it and show it to him. The ink pad is dry. It's in the box with my tarnished wings and unheroic medals and ribbons.

"When did you get out?", he asks.

About when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. Remember the inner city riots? Hundreds were killed, mostly black people shot by police with shotguns. The cities burned. I was briefed on a massive plan to transport troops to trouble spots to maintain order at the point of machine guns. We were ready.

I got out after five years. After the 3,000 mile drive back to Tampa I watched Bobby Kennedy being shot on live television.

Danny yawns again after all these old stories...and the beer is gone. We dump the bottles and go to bed.

The next day we catch and cook grey snapper and grouper. A man on the boat tells us a story about catching 2,000-pound halibut in Alaska and I file it for future reference. I think of reeling up soft gray Volkswagens. Danny decides to stay another day and we do it again. Danny's middle son, Bruce, left last week for Iraq as an young Army officer. I hope Danny has talked to him about leading and protecting his men.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - Santayana

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