Sunday, September 28, 2014

An Airman"s Story

Part I
After four years of easy courses, little or no study, football, school plays and fun I graduated from high school in 1951. Without a plan or ambition I just knew that I did not want to stay on the farm with my brothers and parents. To many sons and too little land when combined with ten years of milking cows twice a day, 365 days a year were factors leading to an aversion to farm life.
Looking around at my buddies that spring I realized that they had plans such as going to college or joining the service. Since the idea of a military life didn’t appeal to me and with the Korean conflict increasing the chances of being drafted, marriage or college were the only options. With little preparation or forethought I choose the college route. My teachers had often reminded me that I was capable of much better academically than my grades indicated. and with this rationale I thought all I had to do was start studying to be a successful college student.
That fall Woody Hayes and I started our tenures at OSU. I moved into the stadium dorms and began a new phase of my life. Many of my open bay dorm mates were old men of 20 to 25 years old and attending college on the GI bill.
I learned a lot that year. The veterans taught me to play poker, to their benefit and not mine. I learned to drink pitchers of draft beer while taking part in pseudo-intellectual conversations in the High St. bars. Most importantly I learned that without a math background and with poor study habits, college was not going to be an extension of high school. Lacking the basic math skills required for chemistry classes I was unable to grasp even the basics of the gas laws I decided to cut class and learn tennis from friends. College was not a total loss because I absorbed some intellectual insights from my exposure to the serious students and the general academic atmosphere of a university. The lessons learned outside of the classroom have served me well in my life.
I did succeed in the mandatory ROTC program. I didn’t choose the Air Force branch the Air Force got me by default. On our first day of class the instructor had us line up in front of him in our Army uniforms. He then shouted that all men on his left were in the Army ROTC and all on his right were Air Force.
Woody lost his first game to lowly Indiana and I joined the chorus singing “Goodbye Woody, Goodbye Woody, we hate to see you go”. We predicted that Mr. Hayes would not last more than one season at the “grave yard of coaches.” I barely survived my first year earning a stellar 1.75 GPA
I headed back to the farm for the summer with no idea of what I would do. After unsuccessfully applying for summer jobs my welcome at home was wearing thin. In those days young men were expected to leave home seek his own life or accept a subordinate position in the family business of farming. I received notice that OSU had placed me on academic probation. That information when coupled with increasing family tensions at home drove me to find a way out.
One afternoon in mid July of 1952 I hitch hiked the 18 miles to the Army recruiting station in Springfield. Sgt Klontz, the recruiter asked me what branch of service I preferred. Because my main reason for enlisting was to get away from home. I answered that it made no difference. Luckily he choose the Air Force for me.
When I informed my parents of my impending departure for the Air Force I noticed a barely suppressed smile on my father’s face. On the first day of August of 1952 my Dad dropped me off at the recruiting station where we said our goodbyes
Myself and several other recruits took a bus to the Ft. Hayes induction center in Columbus. We were given physicals, aptitude tests, sworn in. We were then bused over to the train station and given a train ticket to Syracuse in upstate New York.
At the end of my first ever train ride we were met by a blue Air Force bus and hauled of to Sampson AFB, across Lake Seneca from Geneva, N. Y. Sampson, like Parks AFB in California was a WWII Navy base that had been reactivated by the newly formed Air Force to accommodate the huge influx of new recruits for the cold war build up of forces. Sampson, Lackland and Parks in California were all basic training bases without planes or runways.
Getting off the bus at Sampson we newly minted Airman Basics were greeted by the ubiquitous shouting drill instructors, some still dressed in Army uniforms. We were issued our winter blue and summer khaki uniforms along with one-piece, olive drab fatigue coveralls. Thus began the time honored military tradition of breaking down individual personalities and instilling fear of, and subordination to, authority.
I realized that I would have to bury my anti-authority attitude if I was going to succeed in this program. I considered it my last chance to do something with my life.
Near the end of the eight weeks of training we were asked to list our preferences for an Air Force career field. My first choice was gunnery school and the second was a six months long aircraft and engine (A&E) maintenance school at Shepard AFB at Wichita Falls, Texas.
Against all odds I completed basic training and received my first promotion from Airman Basic to Airman 3rd class and was assigned to A&E school.
A chartered DC-3 carried a planeload of us potential aircraft mechanics from Syracuse Airport to Shepard AFB. When we deplaned in the middle of the night the first thing I noticed was the pungent odor of the Burkburnett oil refineries in the air. Now, whenever I detect that aroma, I am transported back to that October night in 1952.
The Korean conflict was at its peak in 1952 and the newly formed Air Force was in a major buildup phase to recover from the post WWII draw down. Sheppard’s sole mission then was to train aircraft mechanics for all the aircraft in the AF inventory, mostly WWII vintage planes.
The school operated in three shifts, 24 hours a day. My student squadron and flight were assigned to “C” shift from 16:00 to 24:00 hrs. We were required to march to and from school each day, passing in review and paced by a stationary military band. The academic courses were divided into phases such as engines, electric, hydraulics etc.
At the completion of each phase the flight was given a day off. The squadron, however used these “phase days” to assign the students to extra duty, mostly as KP slaves. We would report to the mess hall at 05:00 and work until 20:00, cleaning tables, scrubbing pots and pans etc. We worked under the supervision of sadistic of full time mess hall personnel. The work was hard and degrading.
We were allowed to go to down on weekends on day passes and wear civilian clothes. In those low paying times the civilian clothing consisted of khaki uniform pants rolled up at the cuff, black low quarters, a civilian belt and some form of aloha shirt. The civilian items were passed back and forth as the need arose.
The residents of the then small town of Wichita Falls were less than welcoming to military people. “Lock up your daughters”. The Yankees are coming.
I spent most of my off duty time on base. I did send home for some of my college clothes including pegged pants and white bucks. I had to have the clothes altered to compensate for the 40 pounds I has lost since enlisting. Many of us went to the on base movies when not in school or on extra duty. The three theaters were open 24 hours a day to accommodate the three shifts of school. The movies were first run, uncut versions of the latest from Hollywood.

The petty graft that I had first encountered in Basic continued at Sheppard. Each payday we were required to contribute to the “red cross fund” in order to receive our pay. I later learned that my squadron commander, a non-rated Captain, faced a court marital and was found guilty of fraud and extortion.
(To be continued) 

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