Adventure-5  



By
Ron Strong




Redeploying back to Offutt came on July 30 on another Young Tiger that was redeploying back home. The route this time was longer and slower. We went to Castle in California, Clinton-Sherman near Burns Flat, Oklahoma, to Oklahoma City in a cab, Omaha by commercial airliner, and finally reached home on the 31st. We had spent well over 24 hours enroute and were very tired, but also very glad to be home again. A week later MSgt. Don Ferraro, one of the flight/ground crew, was killed when the Brannif airliner, a BAC 111, that he was returning to Omaha in flew too close to a thunderstorm and crashed at Falls City, Nebraska. All aboard were killed. He left behind a wife and four young children. This was a tragedy that affected all of us very deeply. We attended Don's funeral as a group. He was buried in the left side of the Offutt AFB cemetery, row 12, spot 11, with full military honors. Airliners now have radar that can detect inflight weather problems and avoid them, but that didn't help Don in 1966.

As the 55th completed its move from Forbes to Offutt, we were reassigned, at least on paper, to reflect the Wing's status. On August 2, 1966 we became part of the 55th Start Recon Wg, and on August 17 we were finally part of our first recon squadron: the 343rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron.

Soon orders came to depart for Shemya and Detachment 1 of the 4157th Strategic Wing at Eielson AFB, Alaska (March 25, 1967, the 6th SW). I drew as much advance Per Diem pay as possible. It was a whopping $105.00: 30 days at $3.50/day! After we were in place for 30 days, we could file for the Family Separation Allowance of $1.00/day! At least, it was retroactive to the departure date. The orders were dated September 14, but we probably didn't get them until a few days later. My promotion to captain was effective September 10. Now all of us had the same rank, but I wondered if I were really ready for the rank because the others had much more seniority and responsibility. An interesting aspect of this project was that all of the officers most closely associated with bringing it into being were only captains. We had very little close adult supervision from any higher headquarters of any command. As our commissioning documents said, we had been given "special trust and confidence."

There were several departure delays enroute to Shemya because of travel accommodations. The first plan was to go to Texas and proceed north from there in Lisa Ann. That changed. After careful packing and planning, and not a few long, tearful farewells, we finally left on Friday, September 23, 1966 at 0855, probably on a SAC courier aircraft from Offutt. Pete was in a military hospital in Texas for tests and to remove a lymph node for biopsy. George's mother had a heart attack the previous weekend and was on the critical list. He would follow us a few days later. Our firstborn, Travis, was only 4 months old. George's wife, Rita, was pregnant.

The first leg ended at March AFB just east of Los Angeles, California. We stayed at a Ramada Inn where I earned a free breakfast by fixing their restaurant's broken coffee maker! Then it was on to Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington on the 25th. This leg was probably by a SAC courier, too. We all made one last stateside base exchange (BX) run. I bought a 10-transistor Elgin AM-FM pocket radio that I still use on a daily basis after nearly 38 years. Now, that's real quality! When I wrote and asked for it, the company even sent me two complete, free sets of schematics and service literature. Try that today!

Lisa Ann preceded us, and we finally arrived at Eielson AFB, some 20-odd miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, early in the afternoon of the 25th . We had planned to go directly to Shemya but couldn't land there because the weather was bad. (No surprise!)Although the month was September, the weather was already starting to get cold, and the skies were overcast. Some snow was trying to cover the ground. From the air, everything on the ground was black, white, or in shades of gray. Eielson is a very spread-out base with longer distances between buildings than would be expected for such a cold climate. A large steam plant provided both heat and power to all the buildings on base. If the steam boilers were ever to fail for more than about a day, the base would have to be evacuated. This was because the steam pipes would freeze, burst, and become useless, even if the boilers could be restarted.

Eielson's atmosphere was very depressing, and I began to wonder if I could stand up against the family separation, isolation, bleak environment, and loneliness. The Alaska skies were overcast and gray and, with the cold weather and the six-hour time change jet-lag, they seemed to exacerbate my gray mood. Charlie Levis took me aside and gently, and greatly, encouraged me. He was certainly the leader of our pack. Without Charlie's help Shemya would have been so very much worse for me and everyone else. We couldn't have done the TDY without him. Now, Charlie is gone, and I wish I could have been of some help to him or his family. Perhaps those of us that remain can locate Charlie's wife, LuAnn, and be of assistance to her. So far, all efforts have failed, even going through the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph AFB at San Antonio, Texas. Some day, maybe, our efforts will be bear fruit. Someone must know something about her and her family.

Yes, homesickness is something almost unbelievably real at any age; it is not limited to any particular time or age in chronological years . It constantly gnawed at my internal environment. Every time I am separated from my family I feel like only half a man. When Molly and I were married we became one. When we are apart we feel incomplete. Once we were on Shemya and into a regular, meaningful routine the malady diminished, more or less. Ofttimes, however, in the night, in the darkness of my room, with the strong, chill winds blowing outside, and the emptiness of my bed, the malady would return again and again. It became even worse as the TDY neared its indeterminate end.

The four days spent at Eielson were filled with various briefings, BX and commissary runs, and one flight in Lisa Ann to check the equipment. On September 28, 1966, at 1130 local, we finally arrived at Shemya on the weekly Thursday turn-around ("turn-bird") KC-135A tanker after the usual 3+30 flying time. The front-end crews rotated in and out weekly. Inbound crews frequently brought various things from the Eielson commissary and BX for those stuck on Shemya. I don't remember why we didn't fly in Lisa. Maybe the powers-that-be wanted the Ravens there first to get things ready for operational flying or maybe some maintenance had to be done first. This was a flight time we would come to see again and again before going home the following April.

From the air Shemya looked flat and mostly green from all the vegetation. However, there were already patches of brown beginning to show that winter was approaching. In the winter the island was either snow-covered white or mottled brown and white. Other colors were grays, dark blue ocean, and rusty red from all the discarded WW II debris. As we climbed out of the plane, we realized the full magnitude of the rumor that "there was a woman behind every tree." Shemya has no trees and maybe never did have any. However, there is a report that on April 19, 1963 five living trees were discovered growing in an area where evidence showed that 12 had been planted many years before. That spot must have been sheltered. Shemya is barren except for the dense green tundra. The weather is just too severe for trees. Numerous attempts have been made by many residents and visitors alike to plant trees but to no avail. Shemya is of volcanic origin, rocky, and covered with very gently rolling "hills." Just looking at pictures taken from the air makes Shemya appear to be flat. The Rock's lowest region is the south side and the surface slopes gradually up to the 275-foot high area on the north side. The highest elevation isn't really a "peak" as such, just a higher region near the northwestern shore bluffs.

We had landed just before noon and went on to the mess hall after a brief check-in at the Detachment. We found, surprisingly, that the food was good. Dunc, however, remembers that some of the meat occasionally had a green sheen and sometimes clumps of something came out of the milk dispenser machine. My memories of the food must have been good because some of my letters home really praised it. When I came back in 1981, being isolated and remote from the rest of the world did have an occasional benefit, but not many. Then we had the best food available at all four meals during the day (three regular and midnight) and officer and enlisted were in a common dining area rather than being separated. For special occasions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, the fare was even better! The food was so good that it was the highlight of most days. However, just before the cool-barge, termed "Mona Lisa," came in with the annual stores, the quality dropped a little. I don't remember how much the meals cost, but it wasn't very much.

The 450-seat mess hall was located in the Comp (Composite) Building, or Bldg 600, which was a large, three-story concrete structure with several wings on each side of the main center section. The Comp Building also housed the bulk of the base offices, except for the various maintenance offices such as vehicle and grounds. Included in Bldg 600 were a small, 2-chair barber shop, a mini-BX, personnel, transportation, security police, and finance offices, base headquarters, a large briefing room, living quarters for most of the island's personnel, a six-bed hospital that included a first-aid station and dental facility, post office, laundry, snack bar, library, and other of the usual base offices. On the top floor was an officers' lounge where some of the crew spent a lot of time on the days we weren't flying. I don't remember ever being there, however. The hospital was staffed with a doctor, two dentists, and two dental and 12 medical technicians. There was even an operating room. I'm reasonably sure the operating room was for emergencies only and not for routine procedures.

Shemya's first-aid station in Bldg 600 was really fairly well equipped for such an isolated, remote location. It had a limited drug dispensary with the various common prescriptions and medications. It even had a large Jacuzzi for water therapy that the base chaplains sometimes used as a baptistry. A TDY flight surgeon was there all the time on a rotational basis.

The BX was quite small and probably no larger than 30 x 40 feet. It had some military and civilian clothes, magazines, books, snack foods of all sorts, toiletries, records, record players, radios, cameras, film, greeting cards that said something like "To My Darling Husband," sodas, juices, beer, some hobby supplies, fishing equipment, toiletries, a check-cashing station, etc. Future generations reading this may well ask "What are records?" Check cashing was necessary because we had to pay for everything just like we were at home. Keeping a single bank account balanced with two people writing checks several thousand miles apart was something of a challenge. At least, the PCS enlisted folks were able to just sign for meals at the mess hall in their dining area separate from the officer area. The BX manager was asked why he had so many 42LL pants in stock. His reply: "If I put out all the 32Rs out I'd be out of stock until the next cool-barge comes in."

Shemya's population was diverse: Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, other government employees, and civilian contractors. The Army and Air Force seemed to be in the majority. As a temporary jail for the occasional drunks and disorderlies an elevator car was used with the mechanism turned off. The elevator did not discriminate among the various services!

Prices on Shemya were higher than at Eielson and even higher than at Offutt and elsewhere, but cheaper than in downtown Fairbanks. The BX was much like any other convenience store. Years later the size was expanded to about four times the original. Various stateside mail-order companies did a big business on items not available on Shemya, and there were many, many such things. The post office had a steady flow of packages. Just about everyone went to the BX after lunch just to see what might be new because a number of military and civilian aircraft ferried in supplies every week. Somewhere near the BX was a small snack bar that was frequented by many.

The Comp Building was a little less than a mile from Hangar 3, a distance that could be walked if need be on a good-weather day. Hangar 2 was about a 10 minute walk from Hangar 3. However, walking could be a bit of a challenge in bad weather because there were no paved roads. Every road was graveled using material from the local rock quarry. The only paved areas at that time were the taxiways between the hangars and the runways. All of the taxiways had many old aircraft parking pads both large and small. There were more than 80 pads indicating that a goodly number of planes could have been accommodated during WW II. Some of these pads were large and would have accommodated bombers while most were smaller and double-ended. Those seemed to be for fighters. Most were in disrepair but some had various bits and pieces of this and that stored on them. One pad near Hangar 4 had the rusting barrel of what looked to be a 155mm shore gun. It was completely exposed to the elements, resting on supports, and had obviously been there for decades. Still, it was an interesting relic of the past.

Less than a week after arriving on Shemya I learned that Jim Walther and his neighbor had been electrocuted while trying to put up a metal flagpole. He left his wife, Lil, and five children, the youngest being only one month old. Molly ministered to her as well as she could and went to the funeral. I wish I could have been there for support, too. The base chapel at Offutt was filled to capacity. Jim was a good man. I still think about him and our B-47 crew.

Settling in didn't take too long. Dunc and I shared a room that we divided in two, using two large, steel clothes lockers placed edge to edge. The lockers were about four feet wide and afforded an eight foot wall and a modicum of privacy. All of the other officers had singles. Dunc took the window end because he was senior in rank having been commissioned almost two years earlier although he was only two months older. Rank always has its privileges. Another large locker, a chair, a 3 x 5 foot table with a lamp, a floor lamp, easy chair, large mirror, and a dresser just about completed the furniture stock for each of us. I'm sure we had a refrigerator between us, too. We were living in a barracks-like situation. Linens were furnished by the Air Force but we had to bring our own towels and such. Some of the NCOs earned extra money by tending to fresh sheets and cleaning every week.

We were rather cramped. The light-green walled room was only 12 feet wide and 20 feet long, but the ceiling was about 12 feet high. I think there were two lights hanging from the ceiling that divided the room into thirds. They may have been bare or perhaps had the old white-on-top, green-on-the-bottom round metal reflectors that were found in many old military situation rooms. On January 25th, when some of the longer term residents departed, we all had singles. I moved four doors down the hall next to the east stairwell and closer to the bathroom and the hall phone. At last! Windows! I had twice as much room as before, including an extra desk, extra bed, extra dresser, extra easy chair, extra floor lamp, and a small 2 x 2 feet table that I used as a tinker's workbench. Instead of being divided as before, all the furniture was along the walls to open up the room and provide more light to all corners. Large steel support beams were part of the east wall as a reminder that I was still living in an aircraft hangar. It was nice to have a pair of windows, and I soon had a piece of a sweet potato rooting and growing a vine in a small pot between them. Eventually the vine grew to be several feet long. I also had some mysteria bulbs growing in a small pot that did well for a while but finally died for some unknown reason. The emergency fire escape was a long, knotted rope that was coiled over what would have been a curved garden hose holder, if I had been home. As I remember the rope was tied to the old, oft-painted cast-iron steam-heat radiator. That wouldn't have come loose in an emergency!

From the window, which faced south toward the runway, I could see the many transient airplanes arrive and depart. They were numerous and varied: army, navy, air force, coast guard, and several commercial varieties. Years later, the lower half of the windows had a curved chute several feet long that pointed down to keep the strong winds from blowing directly in. Some sunsets were absolutely, stunningly, breathtakingly, marvelously, beautiful. Ofttimes there would be golden shafts of sunlight streaming through thick, broken clouds, as if Heaven itself had opened, and the glory of God was streaming forth. I took more than one time-lapse movie of them and the other rapidly changing weather patterns from the window through a small hole in the screen.

All along most of Shemya's shores are large rocks, although the south side of the island was comparatively rock-free. When storms hit, massive waves struck these rocks violently and with tremendous force. Great sheets of spray soaked the beaches and filled the air with immense clouds of mist. Sometimes these storms would last for days. Wave heights of more than 20 feet were not uncommon. Over the seven months on Shemya I took 12 or 15 reels of 8mm movies. I loaned them to someone going, or expecting to go, to Shemya in the late 1970s and, unfortunately, never had them returned. Would that they could be returned even now. I wish I would have had a still-camera there, too. Even my old Brownie Hawkeye 620 would have been acceptable. It had a large negative size that would have made nicely detailed pictures. At least, I did have a small Polaroid "Swinger" camera that took 2.3" x 2.8" pictures. Apparently I didn't take many, at least I can't find them if I did.

Our quarters opened into a long, wide hall that ran the length of the hangar. Two open, segmented, double- wide stairs lead up about 20 feet from the hangar floor to the second level hall. Since the floor was that high the ceilings in the rooms below had to be about 19 feet. Heating such a large area was a challenge. Cooling was never a problem: there wasn't any cooling equipment. With a record high of only 63 the heat was on all the time, "summer" included. Many of the first floor rooms had false ceilings to provide a more liveable environment. More than one room on the second floor used fishing nets that had washed ashore for a false ceiling. Some of the nets still had a few of the glass balls that had been woven into them. With some indirect lighting behind the nets it was a rather liveable environment. At the east end of the hall was a large room that could be used as a briefing room while the west end also had a large room that was part of someone's living quarters. Next to the briefing room were the shower and laundry rooms. Next in toward the center from the west end was the communal latrine with about six sinks and mirrors, and a few toilet stalls. I seem to remember that there were a similar shower and laundry on the east end, also. One Sunday night the clothes dryer nearest to my room quit completely. I had it fixed in about an hour with a little oil on a pulley shaft and a whole lot of work just to get to it. And, the repair provided the welcome diversion of something out of the ordinary to do!

Civilian contractors also lived on the second floor with us on the south side of the hangar. Some had their families in Fairbanks and rotated in and out of Shemya periodically. Others seemed to come directly from Greenville and were there for several months at a time.

Along the hall were three doors each opening onto a small landing far above the hangar floor. The end doors had long stairs down to the hangar floor. The center door's landing had a ladder that went on up to the higher reaches of the hangar and another that went down to the hangar floor. The opposite side had five doors but they all opened to a catwalk three or four feet wide that ran the length of the hangar and overlooked the cavernous hangar interior. The catwalk and landings were high enough so that a person could see the entire top of the aircraft fuselage and wings. From the middle of the catwalk there was a ladder that also provided access to the upper reaches of the hangar and the roof. In the middle of the catwalk was a great long stairs that went down to the hangar floor. There must have been at least 30 steps. A section in the middle of the catwalk railing opened, so that a forklift could hoist large shipping crates of personal effects to the second floor. The layout in Hangar 2 was just the opposite, with the catwalk on the south side. On top of Hangar 2 near the raised west end was a small cupola about five feet on a side. On top of the cupola was the rotating light beacon for the runway.

Steam heat for the hangars came from individual, oil-fired heating plants in smaller two-story outbuildings that were just to the north of each hangar. In the west end of Hangar 2's boiler plant was a storage room that may have held the only boat on the island: an aluminum canoe. If an airplane were to crash just offshore there would have been absolutely no way to rescue any survivors because there were just no rescue boats or equipment on Shemya. Something may have been added later but when I came back in 1981 as an EWO Operations Officer there still wasn't anything available.

Processing into the Shemya operation and the 5073rd Air Base Group didn't take very much effort because we were just there TDY and didn't have all our records with us. As I remember, we did have to get our government driver's license validated for Shemya. All it took was an annotation on the license.

Hangar 2 had an area in the operations offices that served as the Detachment's post office. Each PCS person had a pigeon hole, and the TDY folks had a larger, catch-all bin. The base post office sorted the mail for the Det, but someone from the Det had to go to the post office at the Comp Building to get it. The person collecting it, and usually some interested helper (and everyone was interested in mail), then sorted it at the Det and put it into the respective pigeon holes. Since mail arrived only twice a week, it was a major event to see if anything came in. Writing home twice a week really wasn't much of a problem. Weather delayed mail by a day or so not a few times. It also precluded launching sorties many more than just once.

Two other recon planes were on Shemya while we were there. Wanda Belle, the RC-135S, was the original Shemya bird. It was kept in Hangar 2. I was able to fly on it twice. One with Pete was a remain-over-night (RON) to Eielson. When Wanda Belle had to go to the factory for maintenance, a 55th plane took its place. This was an older airplane, an EB-47E-TT, the Tell Two aircraft, that took up the telemetry but not the optical tasking requirements. It wasn't very successful because it was more susceptible to crosswinds than the RCs. After an unusually hard landing it was sent back to the 55th, but before the S model came back.

Wanda Belle had five large, special glass windows and five quartz windows all about 27 inches in diameter in a row on its right side. The top of its right wing and the inboard sides of the right engines were painted flat black to prevent glare or reflections from the sun during a data run. The right side had three long "towel bar" telemetry antennas, and the left side had just one on the cargo door. Its engines were J-57-P-59Ws and did not have nearly the power (about 71% without water injection) or thrust-reversers that Lisa Ann's TF-33-P-5s had. The J-57's thrust was 12,845 pounds compared to the P-5's 16,050. Some sources, even "official" Air Force web sites, list the thrust as 18,000, but the Air Force Flight Manual has 16,050. What the manual actually says is that the thrust is 18,000 when the engine is on a test stand and not installed on an airplane. The lack of thrust-reversers was a contributing factor to the S model not being able to stop on a slushy surface and running off of the north side of the west end of the Shemya runway in January 1969. The fuselage broke in two just forward of the wing. Both left engines, the inboard on the right, the extended nose radome, and the landing gear were torn off. Fortunately, no one was killed or even seriously injured, but the plane was well beyond repair. The day after the accident two Soviet bombers flew low and fast over Shemya to visually verify the wreckage. Our airspace was violated, but who was to do anything about it. Many pieces of the broken airplane were still in the dump when I went back in 1981.

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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