Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Cold War Flyers

For me, it began in July, 1956, a typical sultry day in the city by the muddy river. I was seventeen and just a couple of months out of high school.
What was I going to do with my life? I wasn’t sure. Mansfield Jennings, Sr. hired me to work for the Hawkinsville Telephone Company as an assistant to Henry “Buck” Bell climbing on top of houses, underneath the same, pulling wire through corn fields and trying to learn the hardest thing of all. Climbing telephone poles with spikes on my boots! I just couldn’t make it further than a few feet up the poles.
Perhaps what happened next was my unhappiness because of my lack of success as a phone lineman assistant. At any rate, four boys came into Pop Parkerson’s Pool Room in downtown Hawkinsville announcing loudly they had just joined the Navy, and asking me why not come with them? Without a second thought, I said yes! I think I will! Not even a thought of the fact that Mother was going to kill me, I did subsequently find out that she would have to sign paperwork giving me permission to join.
She said, “No! You’re not because I’m not signing for you.”
Having made the very immature decision to join with my buddies, I hit her below the belt. “I will have to spend four whole years if I wait until I turn eighteen. That will be your fault, because I can go in now and get out before I’m twenty-one-years old—only three years and three months. Either way, I’m going in. Do you want to be responsible for making me stay longer than I have to? She reluctantly signed and in a few days I stepped aboard my first airplane which would fly me all the way to San Diego, California.
I could write a book about all the reasons I learned later why I should have listened to my mother, but suffice it to say I got through Boot Camp, six months temporary duty in Pensacola, Florida, three months in Norman, Oklahoma, three months in Brunswick, Georgia, all in the name of educating me to become a radar operator on a flight crew.
Where would I go afterwards? They said they had a dream sheet that we could choose three choices of bases to be stationed. Through the grapevine, I learned that a guy in the class ahead of me put down all three choices for Guam, a small island in the Pacific. They ignored his choices and sent him to Jacksonville, Florida. Smartly, I figured out a way to go to Jacksonville as well. I put down two choices: Guam and Guam, and Jacksonville, just to give them a hint.

Shortly, I shipped out for 18 months on Guam. Did they not understand? Upon my arrival, I learned that Guam was thirty miles long and six miles wide and surrounded by ocean.

After a mandatory three months of mess cooking duty, I was assigned to a crew flying on a Super Constellation Radar Plane. It would become an adventure I will never forget. My responsibility was to operate a radar scope in the middle of the plane where four or five others were doing the same thing. The plane had three tails, two wingtip gas tanks, a round belly radar scope that would a distance of at least 250 miles from where we were flying and show much more detail in a closer proximity.

The connie, as we nicknamed our plane also had a tall height finder radar on top of the plane. At a maximum speed of 250 knots, we were not going to outrun any planes. We were equipped with four propellers on the plane and if needed we could fly for nearly a day, approximately 20 hours.
Our responsibility was to work with the 7th Fleet of ships positioning ourselves between the ships and communist China, not that we were at war, but we were involved in a cold war, and none of our pilots wanted to have us become a statistic. During my year and half on Guam, we deployed to Japan, Okinawa and The Philippine Islands and I logged approximately a thousand hours in the air. Our crew was never in serious trouble, however we came close once when our pilot strayed too close to Red China and our radar informed him that two Migs were closing in on our location. Commander Dickerson got us out of that space in a hurry, if 250 knots could be called a hurry. One crew reportedly had a close call flying in a typhoon, the Far East equivalent to our hurricanes, but they made it safely out of the weather demon.

During Christmas, a connie crashed off the coast of Hawaii and killed all the crew except four who survived in the cold waters. That was a sobering incident to all of us who were frequent flyers on the huge radar plane.
I received my transfer orders to go to Barber’s Pointe, Hawaii to join another crew with different assignments. Every three weeks or so, we would fly to Midway Island where we would join in the task of flying a 24 hour radar barrier from Midway to Alaska, a trip that was seven hours up and seven back without landing. Every three hours a connie took off from Midway to join the barrier. Our mission was to make sure no possible unauthorized plane got past us to get to the American coastline.
The moment of truth happened to me on what was supposed to be my next to last flight when we had an engine die on us after making it to Alaska and heading back toward Midway, an hour down range. Our pilot radioed Alaska to see if we could land at Kodiak, but were told they were socked in with soupy weather. Next he radioed Adak getting the same message. After a harrowing wait, a small civilian airport named Cold Bay said that we could land there, but we had to wait until they chased away a brown bear from the runway.
After three days on the island, we received a replacement engine and after they got it repaired, we headed back to Midway Island. That was the only time I ever felt good about going to Midway.
Upon my arrival, I was shipped back to Hawaii to begin processing out of the Navy, three years, three months and seventeen days after I had enlisted.
Within the last several weeks, I have contacted, through the magic of the Internet, a few of the buddies of whom I served with on Guam and in Hawaii. Many memories of old times in the Navy have been keeping the e-mails hot, along with our current stations in life. That is fifty years later than when we flew the skies during the Cold War as very young men.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another very interesting column, most of which I have never heard.

After those "Connies" were replaced by bigger and better aircraft, Uncle Woody bought a couple of them for his cargo business flying to and from South America.
da crow