Wednesday, March 20, 2013
My Worst Military Assignment
During my 22 years in the Air Force I've had some great assignments and some real stinkers. I enjoyed serving nearly eight years in Hawaii offset by five years in frigid North Dakota, two tours in South Korea and three tours in Vietnam.
But before I name my worst assignment, a little background is required. By the time I finished Air Force basic training in Texas President Lyndon Johnson had ordered a massive "surge" in troop levels to Vietnam. As a part of that surge was the need to massively re-enforce the number of Combat Security troops deployed to protect air bases in Vietnam. I became part of that contingent. However, pressed for time, half of us were not sent to technical school, but were, instead, assigned directly to our first military base, bare of stripes and "1" skill level. My "technical training" to that point was firing the M-16 rifle in basic training. This is not an ideal situation, either for my gaining unit, or for me.
So, I'm ferried off to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Goldsboro, North Carolina. The base was unique in that it hosted both fighters for the Tactical Fighter Command and B-52 bombers and KC-135 refueling tankers for the Strategic Air Command. I was assigned to SAC.
Now if anyone has seen Jimmy Stewart (Lt Gen, USAF Retired), in "Strategic Air Command" you'll understand how gung-ho SAC was. General Curtis E. LeMay had recently retired but the Command was still run with rigid and highly demanding duty requirements far above that of other Air Force commands. I imagine that was so; I had heard numerous times from the old hands that once you're assigned to a SAC unit, it is hard as hell to ever get out of SAC duty unless you went overseas.
So, I was assigned a room with another fellow in the barracks, was processed in to the base, donned my starched fatigue uniform and spit shined boots and stood at attention at my first "guard mount". I stood attention and watched and listened as one after another snapped to attention, stepped out one pace, recited one of the "duty instructions", then fell back in line. Then another troop would step forward one pace and recite the specs and capabilities of an M-1 or M-16 rifle, or .38 caliber revolver. Once guardmount was over I jumped into a truck and was taken to a KC-135 Tanker alert area. That would be my home until I achieve a 3-level skill status, the training ministered to me by a Buck Sergeant (E-4)
After months of training I would eventually secure 3-level status and could join the "big boys" in guarding the nuclear uploaded B-52's. A B-52 alert area demanded the tightest security one can imagine. One guard was assigned per aircraft, guards assigned to access gates, and backed up by an alert patrol on top of that. When you were assigned point guard for a nuked up B-52 you kept on the move around the red line around that aircraft and no one crossed that line except for maintenance or air crews.
Our SAC duty shifts rotated every 72 hours. We worked three swing shifts, three midnight shifts, followed by three day shifts, then three days off. Your body clock simply cannot adjust to these ever-changing shift assignments. It was tough for an 18 year old but worse for the mid-level supervisors. When they were 30 they looked like 45 after many years in SAC. We worked through rain and snow and temps that ranged from 0 in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.
My three days off in SAC involved lots of sleep recovery, followed by a day of room maintenance. Our rooms had to be inspection ready whenever we weren't in it, and it had to pass a stiff weekly inspection once a week as well.
My SAC assignment was brutal, promotion was slow and I was eager to get out. So I walked my two stripes (E-3) over to the Personnel Office and volunteered for Vietnam. When I finally got to Vietnam it was like a totally new Air Force. My Vietnam unit, the 377th Security Police Squadron had that year received huge accolades and unit awards for holding off a massive enemy ground attack, despite being undermanned and outgunned. I was part of the "surge" that would dramatically expand the size of the unit. From a unit equipped with small arms and M-16's our unit became more like a fully equipped army unit. More machine gunners, more 50-caliber gunners, Heavy Weapons Armored Units, beefed up bunkers and better trained troops.
And I thrived in that environment. Initially assigned to guarding photo recon F-4's and C-130 aircraft, I quickly received assignments to Rocket Tower observation duty responsible for detecting rocket or mortar launches against the base, alerting our Central Security Control for activation of the base sirens, then using mill-scopes and alidates to pin-point launch sites.
A second benefit of the Vietnam duty was the massive turnover in Air Force personnel. There's nothing like a good war to get the old enlisted guys to retire and make way for advancement of the younger guys. I quickly made E-4, Buck Sergeant, then flew higher. I received a promotion line number to E-5, Staff Sergeant with only 2 years and 8 months of military service. I was told that was one of the fastest route to E-5 in Air Force history.
Now, I finally come to "my worst Air Force assignment". After my first year in Vietnam was over I packed my four stripes and prepared to be assigned to (yes, another SAC base) March Air Force Base, California. I had mixed feelings about leaving Vietnam but was looking forward to never again "walking the line" around a B-52 bomber.
So, after a leisurely 30 day leave I arrived at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California in late January, 1970. As I processed into the base and into my new security unit I sensed something was off. I had never seen so much tension and frowning faces. So, I reported to my first guard mount, only to be confronted with the most bizarre experience I have yet encountered. As we stood in formation, a Chief Master Sergeant from the "back office" came out to address the Flight. Before he could get a dozen words out of his mouth he broke down and began to cry. And I paraphrase what he said next.."I may go down but I'm going to take some of you bastards down with me!" I stood slack jawed and after guardmount was over I quickly asked what was going on.
It seems that a few days ago some 15 year old military dependent kid had somehow managed to get through all of the base security, over a fence, into the alert nuke-loaded B-52 area, and into a fully loaded nuked B-52 bomber! As a result, the Wing Commander and the Base Commander had been fired, our Squadron Commander had been fired and the shit was flowing rapidly down hill.
I found out that night that, because of the security breach, airmen would be confined to secondaries on patrol, Staff Sergeants would be "humping" the alert birds, Master Sergeants would be area supervisors.
So there I was, back in SAC, humping a B-52.
The next morning I went back down to the personnel office and volunteered to go back to Vietnam. The clerk said "no way, you just got here". However, fortunately the Air Force had no minimum time on station requirements so he had to take my volunteer statement. I followed that up by returning to my barracks and writing seven letters to various members of Congress, citing the idiocy of sending a family man to Vietnam when a perfectly good single guy was volunteering to take his place.
Ten days later I had my assignment back to Vietnam, and back to my old unit. As I was packing my bags to leave March Air Force Base I heard the base siren activated. Within minutes a SAC Headquarters plane out of Offutt had landed at March to conduct a Organizational Readiness Inspection. An ORI is the most rigid and demanding military inspections known to man. They test operational readiness and security and all facets of emergency, simulated war operations. Months later, back in Vietnam, while experiencing a few rocket and sapper attacks, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief, because I heard SAC was still hammering March Air Force Base and those Staff Sergeants were still "humping" alert B-52's.
My "worst assignment" proved to be so terrifying that it would be two more years for me in Vietnam before I would once again be willing to risk another SAC assignment in good old "stateside"
Note: In preparing for this blog I "googled" the March AFB security breach I referred to. I found only one source after several tries and that was just comments from someone who was there commenting on a personal military forum. Since the news of that day was so widely reported at the time it is quite amazing how the government can quash a story....and suppress it so deeply that seven or eight rounds of googling finds only one minor source. As bizarre as it sounds it happened folks!