Editor’s Comment: What you are about to read may be a bit disturbing, but it was a part of my life. This was before Martin Luther King and any civil rights laws. I would especially appreciate any comment, good or bad, about what I’ve chronicled in this part of MY Life. It is what it is.
Parks AFB – Basic Training
One day, (Late December 1954), I read an article in the newspaper that the Korean War G.I. Bill was going to end January 30th, 1955. I knew that would be my only chance for college so I went to the Air Force recruiting office and inquired about joining. I really wanted to have a reason to leave the produce career I had.
I have no idea how I talked my mother into signing the permission paper so I could join the Air Force, but she did. I was 17 years, 5 months old when I went to the recruiting office that first week of January 1955 and I was given the option to join on the 11th or wait till I graduated at the end of January. I chose the 11th because I couldn’t stand to go to work another day in produce.
What a day it was for me to go to the store and tell them I was gone the following week. That being done I missed my graduation, but I had enough credits to graduate. I missed the Senior Prom and Grad Night. In fact on graduation night I was standing guard out in the middle of nowhere crying my ass off, hey! I was seventeen, but I was still a Delphinian of the class of Winter 1955.
After being sworn in we met at Union Station in L.A. for the trip to Park’s Air Force Base about an hour outside of San Francisco. That morning about 50 kids got on that train, all from the L.A. area, and headed for basic training. We were Flight 37 the all L.A. flight.
When you’re on the train you are still in your civilian clothes and you learn your first military word. We were “Rainbow’s,” because of all our different colored clothing.
On the train one of the kids had the misfortune of having a cold and his nose turned very red. He was a Jewish kid and wore thick glasses. Having the cold and red nose he automatically got the first nickname, Germ. I really feel bad about what happened to Germ.
Teenage men can be pretty cruel and Germ got the worst treatment of any of the guys in our flight. Mostly at the hand of a big dude who I can’t remember his name anymore so I’ll call him Hulk. Hulk tried to establish himself as the boss and I went along with it for a while until he started on me. I have no idea what I said to him but he didn’t mess with the Mexican from South Central. (I wasn’t politically inspired to take issue with that designation).
Germ was meek and very kind. He was a little slow on the get go and caused the entire flight a lot of extra pushups, laps and other duty while he sat and watched. It’s a typical group strategy the military uses to get everyone on one side of an issue. When someone screws up you punish everyone else. I actually agree with the mentality but in this case the results were really bad for Germ.
Besides the normal blanket parties and short sheeting, all kinds of mischievous crap was pulled on Germ. Always at the hand of Hulk, but one day Hulk crossed the line. Hulk had warned Germ the Captain was coming to inspect us and he was going to help Germ so he could pass the inspection. He had Germ stand to attention as he circled Germ yelling out various orders.
Hulk : “Germ you are a piece of shit!”
Germ: “Yes sir!”
Hulk, still circling: “Germ! I said stand at attention! The Captain is going see if you can F up and cause us all more duty Do you understand?”
Germ: “Yes sir!”
At this point Hulk pulled out a lighter and started burning Germ’s fingers a little at a time. All the guys were laughing at first because he wasn’t really burning Germ, but then it started getting ugly. As Germ would flinch, Hulk would leave the lighter on his fingers longer. All the guys stopped laughing and Hulk wouldn’t stop.
Someone had to do something so I stood up and told Hulk to stop. He didn’t and wouldn’t. I did the only thing I could do, I walked over and hit Hulk in the face two or three times. Something my step dad had taught me, never hit once and never wait for your opponent to hit back. When he started to react, I backed in to the john. He smacked me once or twice and I was starting to lose the battle, but before you knew it all the other guys jumped on Hulk. At first I thought I was screwed, but the troops beat him down.
Hulk’s days of dominance were over and Germ slowly went nuts and was sent home with a Section 8 Discharge. I always wondered what his mother must have thought when he got home all screwed up. I felt sorry for her and Germ, but I think he was destined for a mental breakup.
On the night my high school graduation (end of January) was happening, I was standing guard on some hill in the middle of the night. I knew where my girlfriend was that night because I had paid for her to join some of her friends to celebrate their graduation.
I was on some hill in the pitch black crying my eyes out. Yelling at myself, why did I join, why did I leave so soon, why, why, why? I was seventeen and it was my first time away from home. And I was in basic training. Air Force basic may not be like the Marines, but it was still tough enough.
One thing I do remember was when we went on our first bivouac. Parks AFB was just outside Pleasanton CA and the landscape around the base was rolling hills. On the first night after about a twenty mile march I was trying to sleep in a pup tent and it was colder than any time I could imagine. I was literally freezing.
The next day I spent all the time I could digging a hole about 8 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep. I covered about 5 feet of it with branches, leaves and dirt and that night I made my bed in the hole and lit a small campfire at the open end.
It was another freezing night but I was plenty warm in my hole.
Another unplanned benefit of the hole that night was our camp site had a surprise gas attack and while everyone else was running around trying to find his gas mask, the gas would float right over the opening of my hole. I didn’t have to move an inch.
I especially remember getting sick on one of the long marches or something, but I did make it back to the barracks. I had a high temperature as I was on fire with chills while I was laying on my bunk. I remember they sounded mess call and I tried to get up. As I stood up it seemed like a hammer went off inside my head and knocked me out. The next thing I remembered was I was in the base hospital.
I was in the hospital for a little less than two weeks and as a result I was set back to Flight 53 and then Flight 65. The second set back was a result of the same sickness re-occurring. It did bum me out
In Flight 65 there were three guys I used to hang with, one of them was a black kid, and I can’t remember any names. We all went to San Francisco when we got a weekend or overnight pass and generally hung with each other during our training. Having gone to Fremont I knew some of the black kids so I was fine with having him as my buddy. I say that because of the six black guys who terrorized me before I got my car at sixteen. More about this later.
For the most part of basic training it was just like what you see in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” The DI was a prick and we all hated him. That is until graduation day when he takes off his DI personality and turns in to a human being. Then we all loved him.
Keesler Field MS – Tech School
I had joined the Air Force to fly in something hopefully ending up as a fighter pilot. I knew that would be a long road.
Before I joined I was aware of an Air Force interceptor called The Black Widow, it was a P-61. It was a night interceptor and had a radar operator on it so it was logical for me to request radar operator training when I graduated from basic. I thought I was really lucky when I got my choice, but I didn’t know the Air Force was no longer flying the P-61.
My black buddy did the same and we received our orders to go to Keesler Field in Mississippi. Keesler was the radar maintenance and operation school training base. But first we got a two week leave so it was back home.
The leave was nice and I got to spend a lot of time with my girlfriend,
The day I left for Keesler I boarded a Delta Airlines DC-6B four engine propeller civilian airliner. Jets hadn’t come along yet. I was dressed in full Class A khaki’s, a proud airman with one stripe. The only problem was it was my first time in the air and about an hour into the flight to New Orleans I got deathly air sick. I was in the Air Force and I got air sick.
After landing in New Orleans I took a cab to the Greyhound bus depot. The section for the black people was where I got my first glimpse of what it was like for black people in the South. It didn’t look good.
As I walked through the bus station I didn’t notice anything that would make it any different than any other bus station. It had leather seating, a small sandwich stand, a magazine and a souvenir shop. It was spotless and looked modern for 1955.
While I waited for my bus, I walked out to the street and turned left towards a corner of the building. As I walked I noticed another part of the bus station. I say part because it was in the same building but it was separate. There was one door that opened to a room the depth of the bus station but it was only about eight feet wide. It had one bench and one light bulb and it looked dark and dingy with one small window for its customers. It was the black customer’s waiting room.
I walked back to the “white “ waiting room and this time I noticed the leather lounge seating, the candy and newspaper shops, the hustle and bustle of all the “white” customers and felt a hole in my stomach. As the hole got bigger I walked back to the “black” waiting slum to take another look.
I felt a shame come about me much in the same way when pride hits you. When it’s pride it’s a feeling deep down inside that lifts you in a very emotional way. When it’s shame it does just the opposite. I knew I had to accept it, except, but that was just the first day down south.
Next I took the bus to Biloxi MS and a short cab ride to the base. Keesler Field seemed to have been in a strange location in relation to Biloxi. The main gate was at the end of a residential street. Looking out the window of the cab you’re looking at homes and then it ends and there’s the main gate.
When you get to a training base like Keesler, they first place you get assigned to is a transient squadron awaiting school assignment. I was in transient status for about three weeks. I rejoined my black buddy from Flight 65 and got to know some other guys. One in particular.
He was a gang leader from New York who had been given the opportunity to either go to jail or join the military. He chose the Air Force and ended up in the bunk next to mine with his NY accent and tough guy persona. (I’ll call him NY)
While he had a tough guy persona, it wasn’t fake, he was a tough guy but he was keeping his toughness in check. NY would tell me about how to plan a war with an opposing gang down to the military strategy of the guys with rocks, the guys with bats and whatever else. (No guns back then) He was like a general that got busted. But this tough guy gang general had a surprise for me.
After he got to trust me he asked me what it was like in California. In a hushed voice he asked if I had ever seen an orange tree. I said of course. That just blew him away. He asked how the oranges hung on the tree and I responded they just hang on the branch. That blew him away again, he just couldn’t imagine an orange hanging on a tree limb. Then he took me into his strictest confidence and told me he was going to try to get an assignment in California just so he could see an orange tree first hand. He was like a kid.
My first night at Keesler was a memorable one. I was quartered in a transient barracks waiting for orders for my tech-school date. The barracks was not air conditioned and it was hotter than hell with mosquito’s the size of, well they were big. The next morning I counted about fifty mosquito bites from my waist up. It was hell.
One window in the barracks had a fan about three feet in diameter that would suck air into the barracks at night at about forty miles an hour. I put two and two together and drug my bunk bed so it was positioned right in front of the fan. The wind blowing over me, as I slept, stopped any more mosquito bites.
One of the first things they did after arriving was call us to an auditorium to welcome all the new arrivals to Keesler and share info with us about the base, its history, rules, where the Airman’s Club was, the bank, base theater and all the other stuff.
I especially remember when the major, who was giving us the welcome, told us he had to tell us about the local customs of Biloxi and Mississippi. I was sitting next to my black friend during the session and it got pretty uncomfortable. You have to realize this was 1955, way before Martin Luther King and things were a lot different then. The major told us about Biloxi the town, the drinking laws and other stuff and then came the bomb.
“While we all consider ourselves Airman in the Air Force and especially equal Airmen and men, we must adapt ourselves to the local customs and regulations. Any of the white airmen may not walk with a Negro airman while off base. If you do, you will be arrested. If you are a black airman you will not look at any white woman or attempt to talk to any white woman while off base. While walking down the street you will keep your eye’s looking forward paying attention to this rule. There are separate white and Negro water fountains, bathrooms and other facilities and you will observe and respect all local customs. Thank you very much and welcome to Keesler Field.”
As odd as it may sound to the new agers, today, back in 1955 an American of Mexican descent was considered white not a person of color. As I heard the Major, I felt that hole in my stomach again and I saw the tears of my black friend sitting next to me. As far as I was concerned there were times when I fought with black kids and times when they were my friend, but being treated the way they were in Biloxi was just wrong.
As much as I hated the reg’s, we all followed them.
When I finally received my class orders I was assigned to a new complex of barracks that were air conditioned and life was good. I was learning how to be a “scope dope.” That was slang for a RADAR Operator. It was only a six or eight week class and I found it easy to get through.
Because of my love for flying I had selected RADAR Operator because I thought it was an aircrew job, to my chagrin, it wasn’t. It was interesting and I learned it quickly. I was always looking for opportunities to fly and finally got an OK to get a ride in an Air Force aircraft. It was a small twin engine, twin tail plane designated C-45. It was a twin Beech.
The flight was a local flight that lasted about an hour or two, but I was in the Air Force in an Air Force plane, pure seventeen year old heaven. That was it for flying while at Keesler.
The most memorable thing I remember was being introduced to BBQ beef sandwiches that were sold by roach coaches that came on base. It was BBQ’d beef, but as a member of a working class family, I had never had one in my life. What a wonder.
After graduating RADAR OPS, I received my orders to Great Falls AFB, (now Malstrom) in Montana. They loaded a bunch of us on a C-47 at Keesler for the flight to GF AFB. As I was boarding the C-47 I thought, Wow I’m really in the Air Force now, I’m getting in a famous WW II aircraft. It must have really been a WW II aircraft because during the flight an engine caught fire and we had to land at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma.
As they were finding out what was wrong and trying to fix the plane we just loitered around and I noticed how flat Oklahoma was. I mean FLAT! There wasn’t a hill in sight, 360 degrees. They fixed what was wrong and we took off with one stop late that night at Sheridan Wyoming for fuel. We took off and landed at GF AFB early the next morning.
I was only there about a week before I received orders to Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota, but my stay In Great Falls was memorable. The story was that women out numbered men like 10 or 20 to one in Montana and I liked that.
My first day in town I had a twenty dollar bill in my pocket. When I got to town I walked into a store and bought a pack of cigarettes that cost twenty five cents. I gave the clerk my twenty and he gave me my change. He gave me a quarter, a fifty cent piece and nineteen silver dollars. That’s all he had, silver dollars. So I put them in my pocket and went jingling down the street.
It was a Saturday and I was just hanging out at a corner looking at the town when a car full of six Montana beauties slow down and give me a look. They all smiled and I kind of waved back to them and they took off.
About five minutes later here they come again and one of them said, “Hi Airman.” I said ‘Hi” back and with that they took off again. Five minutes later here they come again. This time they asked me if I wanted to go hang out. I said “Yes” got in the car and thought, the story is true, I just got picked up by six girls. We went to a house party somewhere in town and before I got back to the base I had had my fill of having a great time.
The day I left for South Dakota, they gave me my travel money and I got paid. So with that I boarded a train to Billings Montana.
When I arrived at Billings I took a bus to Rapid City via Newcastle WY.
My bus trip to Rapid City was uneventful and I arrived at about 2:30 AM. I especially remember that night because the bars had just closed and the streets were full of drunks. I didn’t like Rapid City that night.
Next: 1955 – 1958 Ellsworth AFB and UFO’s