This is my story, my Air Force days from June 1959 to June 1967
Hello my name is Gerry, and this is about my military years after my graduation from Monsignor Prevost High School in Fall River, MA in 1959. In the middle of the cold war and wanting to get away from Fall River to see what the rest of the world was like I felt the U.S. Air Force would give me what I wanted for travel and an education in electronics. Electronics fascinated me ever since my oldest brother Adrien got me interested in building a Knight Kit 10 watt amplifier. It was very popular then to build your own electronics kit and Hi-Fidelity was the rage.
Two weeks after graduation I said good-bye to Fall River and hello to the USAF and flew out of Providence, RI in a Trans World Airlines Constellation (4 engine prop) for my first plane ride. In New York I got on an Eastern Airlines Electra (4 prop turbine engines) which was much quieter than the constellation and headed to Atlanta then Lackland AFB, San Antonio, TX. Basic Training in Texas in July with temperatures hovering at the 100 degree mark with lots of humidity, was I crazy? Evidently yes. Fortunately, on a few occasions when the red flag was raised indicating that the temperature and humidity was at a dangerous level, our Training Instructor took us to the pool; how fortunate we were. Of course the Air Force basic training was only 4 weeks at San Antonio and second phase, consisting of two weeks was held at my next base Lowry AFB, Denver, CO. When I signed up for my four years, they promised me electronics, I found out later that it would be for the Bomb-Navigation Systems for the B-47 Stratojet, a real beauty.
The flight from Texas to Colorado in a chartered flight 4 engine piston aircraft which bounced and swayed with every small air current over the mountains on the way to beautiful, fast growing, clean and crispy air Denver, Colorado. It was along agonizing flight in which several passengers relieved their stomachs into their little white barf bags carefully placed in front of them, while I fought with everything I had to keep my stomach in place. We landed at the Lowry AFB airstrip and were quickly shuttled to our new barracks.
The quarters arrangements didn't seem very well organized and we were quickly moved from one barracks to another almost like they didn't know where to stick us. The barracks were the old WWII open bay two story, coal furnace fired, dry tinder box. We completed the two week phase 2 basic training which consisted of watching movies "The Air Force Story", a multipart history of aviation to present day 1959 including missiles and rockets. I got used to the food and even endured the beef liver which turned green when they baked it in the oven, don't know why. We also got to do our duty on KP, short for Kitchen Patrol running the Clipper, the long unit which washed and rinsed the metal food trays and silverware and steamed the crap out of them and us. Another favorite kitchen duty was Pots and Pans where you got to individually scrub and clean the large multi-gallon pans and vessels used in the food preparation. We all had a lot of practice at this at Lackland AFB. About this time we were promoted to Airman 3rd Class (A3C) and that felt good to have your first stripe on your sleeve.
Basic Electronics school was the first ten weeks of the 33 week school, 6 hours a day schedule and I was fortunate to get "C Shift" school which was from 6 PM to 12 midnight followed with a large breakfast called Midnight Chow where they had the largest selection of breakfast items possible. They must have felt bad for the late niters trying to stay awake during class at that time of night, and it was very tough at times with some airmen having to stand at the back of the class to keep from snoozing away. On a few occasions a few of us went with the instructor to IHOP, International House of Pancakes, an all night place on the famous East Colfax Blvd for breakfast and to socialize with all the girls who would also show up there. It was the in place to be.
The B-47 Bomb-Nav Systems school was the remainder of 33 weeks of "C Shift" school which I didn't mind at all, wake up time was at 1000 hours (10am for you civilians). Instead of attending the daily afternoon squadron duty, a number of us volunteered for furnace firemen. This was better and shorter duty, maybe only a couple times a week you would have to get up at 0300 hours and again at 0500 hours to stoke the furnaces of three or four barracks and replenish and stack the soft, smelly sulfur coal to keep the barracks nice and warm and sometimes downright hot. It was a good duty.
Lowry AFB was a nice base to be whether permanent party or for school. It's proximity to Denver was ideal for all sorts of activities. The bus line ran from the base down East Colfax to downtown, and at that time being the religious person I was, on Sunday mornings I would bus it to the cathedral for Catholic mass then walk around Denver in my khaki uniform, have breakfast, lunch, visit the USO a few blocks away. The USO had dances every week and was a good place to meet girls our age. They also had dances and entertainment at the Airman's Club on base. There was also a city park off Colfax where we also spent some time on weekends. One time 'Bongo' Bongiovanni, myself and a couple other Airmen met a group of girls there and Bongo was immediately telling them wild stories, a normal thing for Bongo. He even got me in on it by introducing me as a Russian Exchange student, so I did my best with an accent and they believed the story. Oh well.
A month before we graduated, we were informed that the Bomb-Nav field was overmanned and that we would be cross trained into another career field. There were two options, Auto-Pilot System Technician and Weather Equipment Technician, but we had no choice on which we would get. They split the class in two and half went to Auto-Pilot and fortunately I was in the half that went into Weather Equipment.
We graduated, were promoted to Airman 2nd Class (A2C), and shipped off to Chanute AFB, ILL for cross training to Weather Equipment Repairman school. After all that time at Lowry AFB near Denver, the Chanute AFB in Rantoul, Ill was a few steps down from what we were used to. The four weeks school cross training was excellent and I knew this field had many more opportunities. One was that the electronics equipment did not have black box construction as in Bomb-Nav or Auto-Pilot where you troubleshoot to the box, rather the equipment construction was such that you had to troubleshoot to the smallest component, tube, resistor, capacitor, etc. Two is that in a weather unit you were in a much smaller close knit organization of usually around 25 personnel at a Weather Detachment or a Group Field Maintenance Shop or sometimes a larger squadron unit such as 6th Weather Squadron (Mobile) which exceeded 100 personnel, but worked in small teams on different projects. Three, it was a popular field both in the Air Force and on the outside as I would find out later because it set the course for the rest of my career in weather and air pollution research studies and air pollution as EPA and CT DEP were formed.
Chanute AFB took some getting used to. There was much more 'chicken shit' there than we were used to at Lowry. We were now a class of A2Cs on a base full of A3Cs and Airmen Basics (AB) , so we felt a bit superior to the vast majority and expected a little more respect from the School Squadron than we received. There was this especially troublesome Drill Instructor Sgt Stortz who we thought of as a little Hitler. He would just cut us no slack, including holding a work uniform inspection after we returned from 6 hours at school with scuffed boots and wrinkled uniforms and wrote demerits on everyone. Then we found out that because of this we would not have weekend leave to go off base and we would pull KP (Kitchen Patrol) instead. Can you imagine A2Cs pulling KP while thousands of A3Cs and ABs on the base were available? We had our share at Lowry and Lackland, we deserved better. We held a meeting, formed a committee to represent us and their first stop was the squadron orderly room to find the address of the Inspector General (IG) on base. The civilian secretary was aghast at our course of action "You can't just go see the IG" and our reply was "Yes we can", so she immediately found our squadron commander to temper our actions. We worked a deal with the commander, we wouldn't pull KP and Sgt Stortz would lay off us and we wouldn't have to go to the Inspector General with a complaint. Imagine that, a reasonable commander. He was okay in our book after that. My friend Bongo would agree with that also.
Four weeks later we graduated and received our first permanent station assignments. We were "FIGMO" short for "#__k it, got my orders". My first duty station was (I believe) 4th Weather Group Field Maintenance Shop in the Wood City section of Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio. I remember a few names of people there, MSG Keith McKay, TSG Ritter, A1C Whatley from RI, a great electronics tech and Airmen Truesdale and Good. We had a couple of Chevy vans for transportation to area bases and a C-47 Gooney-Bird for flights down to Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, etc. for field support, service and inspections of weather equipment at AF bases and sites and even an Army fort. We repaired, calibrated and tested spare weather equipment to bring with us on the inspection tours. There was a varied assortment of manual and electronic weather equipment to work on including APQ-13 Weather Radar which came from B-29s so it needed a 400 Hz generator to operate, the large CPS-9 Weather Radar, GMQ-13 Rotating Beam Ceilometer, GMQ-10 Transmissometer, TMQ-11 Temperature & Dew Point and many more.
Ten months later, there was a notice that 6th Weather Squadron (Mobile) at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma was looking for technicians who liked to travel (a mobile unit of course) for transfer to their unit and that it included Upper Air Weather Sounding and Tracking equipment for different teams that could go anywhere depending on the task. That sounded ripe for me, I volunteered and it was approved shortly after.
After a short leave in Massachusetts I rode the bus to Oklahoma City by way of Chicago. I remember it was a long, long trip but looking forward to a new adventure, and 6th Mob was the place for that. We received OJT (on the Job Training) for the GMD-1 Rawin Unit (the important part that tracks the sonde attached to the weather balloon), the TMQ-5 Recorder (which recorded the data signal from the sonde consisting of pressure, temperature and humidity), and the Control Recorder that recorded the angles to compute the winds. I also worked with a Wiresonde which had temperature and humidity transmitter attached to a tethered, reinforced balloon and the altitude was controlled by the winch type reel on the ground.
My first assignment at the 6th was to maintain one of 5 Sferics stations, this one at Greenville AFB, Mississippi. Tony Landa and I were the two technicians assigned here and our job was mainly to calibrate the frequencies and oven temperature and select the operating frequency every hour. All sites were directly connected to the central site at the Severe Storms Center in Kansas City, Missouri where signals from all sites were instantly displayed on a large Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) with an overlay of the United States. This would be done once an hour and sometimes more depending on storm activity. Our directional antenna would pick up the azimuth of any lightning strike and instantly transmit it to KC over dedicated phone lines where it would intersect with the other four site signals on the CRT and pinpoint the occurrence of the lightning strike and the storm cell. This was the forerunner of lightning tracker but was experimental at that time. Electronics were not as stable then and because of the constant drifting, I heard the lightning tracking was later scrapped.
Shortly after this assignment and return to Tinker AFB, I was assigned to the Sferics station in Denver, CO for a few weeks substituting for Bongo Bongiovanni while he recuperated at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. I flew out with CWO Bill Stricker, SMS John Schumacher and the pilot on a U-3 the Blue Canoe, also known as a Cessna 310, a 2 engine 4 passenger + pilot, light aircraft and I was allowed at the controls for a while on our way to Denver. We visited with Bongo and I ran the Sferics station but I can't remember with who? One night we took an AF blue raincoat with us to the hospital and snuck Bongo out of the hospital with only his pajamas with the medical insignia which he used to his advantage, telling the girls at the car hop place we visited that he was a top surgeon at the hospital.
Another trip to Chanute for a 2 week GMD-2 school was in store for me that Fall of '61 followed by my marriage to Betty Jean Ferland on December 2nd at the Tinker AFB Chapel. Things sure happened fast this year.
The honeymoon was quickly over when I shipped out February 15th, part of a large contingent of Task Force 8.4 to the South Pacific for Operation Dominic, where we provided upper air weather support for nuclear testing at Christmas and Johnston Islands. The flight from Tinker AFB to Travis AFB was on a military aircraft then a bus ride to San Francisco International Airport for a Pan American DC-8 flight to Honolulu, Hawaii. Debarking from the plane we were all greeted by Hawaiian girls and adorned with flower leis.
Looking forward to seeing Hawaii, we found out that unfortunately we were not staying more than a few hours on Hawaiian soil. We boarded an Air Force blue bus and were whisked off to Pearl Harbor and immediately loaded onto LST-1076, the USS Page County which would be our home for the next 12 days as we lumbered south through the Pacific. It was sort of a treat being on-board ship for awhile and made me realize that the Air Force was the right choice for me.
We made a stop at Palmyra Island, a beautiful and spectacular uninhabited atoll 4 degrees north of Christmas Island, with shimmering jewel like green palm trees in the morning sun, a mirrored lagoon and rustic pier where the ship tied up. Clear blue waters filled with schools of bright yellow, blue, red and silver tropical fish. We stayed at Palmyra overnight, unloaded some beer and supplies, caught some fish in the lagoon and had an all night beach party with a bonfire, cold beer, and barbequed fish... delicious! There was a pet cocoanut crab on a leash with claws you wouldn't want to tangle with, especially after you learned that it can tear through cocoanut husks to get to the sweet white meat and juice. It was easy to imagine the life as a pirate as in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" or maybe it just felt so good to be a landlubber again after days on board a constantly rolling (even in calm seas) flat bottomed ship. It didn't help that the diesel engines were exhausted at the sides of the ship adjacent to the sleeping quarter's hatches which were always open for ventilation and sucked in some of those diesel fumes on a regular basis. To this day, a passing diesel truck or generator brings instant memory of the LST adventure. The next morning, wasting no time, we continued south for Malden Island, our home for the next six months.
Crossing the Equator would not normally be a big deal, but on a Navy ship there are certain protocols which must be addressed. It's called initiation (Air Force term) or rites of passage from a lowly Pollywog to a Shellback in the Domain of Neptunus Rex. It's mandatory for Navy personnel crossing the Equator for the first time and they invited us Air Force guys to partake in this lowly ritual al well. Bored as we were, watching the ocean pass by day after day, we volunteered for the initiation and joined our Navy counterparts for what was an lenghtly ceremony of being paddled on our rear, hosed down and among other rituals, crawling to the Royal Baby and kissing his stomach covered with a conglomeration of just about every type liquid and paste on board ship. It was a great time on deck of this LST while we crossed the Equator and were received as Shellbacks in the Domain of Neptunus Rex. Everyone received a nice card confirming this and I have it somewhere in my collection of papers, etc. The nights on the Pacific were dramatic with a view of the galaxies and billions of stars I've never seen in New England with air and light pollution; so many that the sky had creamy white areas intense with shining stars. The Southern Cross, only seen in the southern hemisphere was very visible and looking down at the ocean, it also glowed with the white phosphorescence of the tiny plankton being disturbed by the bow of the ship.
Days passed sitting in a jeep on the deck of the LST under the hot tropical sun. Early afternoon brought us just offshore of Malden Island and expecting to again see the beautiful cool green of the palm trees we saw at Palmyra, we found it hard to see our island when they said it was close and at ten o'clock. We then found out it was because there were no trees. It was a triangular, flat, uninhabited, coral island about 15 miles around with a large salty enclosed lagoon in the center with 5 feral pigs, many large and small sea birds, abundance of geckos and hermit crabs. It's highest point was about 30 feet above sea level, good thing there was no tsunami while we were there. The British used this island in 1958 for their nuclear tests just off this island, and some steel structures used in their testing still stood eerily abandoned.
We did have the best cook and best food of all the weather sites out here. Pilots flying supply planes on a round-robin tour of the islands made sure they were at Malden at meal time. Our meals included two delicious steaks with French fries three night a week with a variety of other delicious recipes filling in the rest of the week. We lived in large tents draped over a 2X4 frame with a poured concrete floor. The water tower was constructed of wood beams and the best time for a shower was in the afternoon after the sun warmed the water sitting on the top of the tower. A large generator shack was built to house the water desalinization plant for our drinking water, and three large electric generators which provided the power for lighting, refrigeration, water pumps, communications and our weather equipment operation. We checked our shoes in the morning for scorpions since some were spotted under boxes on the beach. An abandoned shack overlooking the beach became our recreation hall with ping pong tournaments and 16mm movies at night and this also served as our beer hall.
The supply planes made their rounds every week (hopefully) with lots of food, steaks, beer, mail and movies landing on the very short coral runway in the northwest corner of the island. Sunday afternoons were reserved for the big event of the week, the softball game played by everyone on Malden. A swimming hole was discovered where safe swimming was possible, it was a large fissure where the water filtered in through the small crevices in the coral island. The beautiful beaches surrounding the island were unsafe for swimming because they were inhabited with a variety of sharks and other dangerous sea life with which we did not want a chance meeting. A weekly spraying of all the tents with DDT was conducted to eliminate the mosquitoes and flies and was accomplished by feeding the DDT into the Jeep's carburetor and directing the exhaust to the tents and whoever was in them. The jeep was a well used Marine jeep and was our main transportation other than walking. We also had a Navy dump truck which was our supplies transportation vehicle when the plane landed with food and drink and work supplies. helium cylinders and all the other good stuff. A graveyard was found dating back to the mid 1800s when guano was mined by a small population of Polynesians. Knowing what I know now about the island's history, I would have made a greater effort to research it's past ands maybe searched a little more. We were also on the lookout for Japanese fishing balls which were large, thick glass balls with heavy netting surrounding them. (See more about Malden Island)
Soon it would be the end of July and it would be time for me to pack up and return to Tinker AFB in ample time to be there when my first child, a girl would be born in September. But until then, the goal was to keep the Rawinsonde Unit GMD-1A, the unit that tracked the sonde carried aloft by the large weather balloons and recorded the weather data, working properly and providing the data required for the winds aloft. This was accomplished with the expert equipment maintenance of "Big Jim" Fraser, my NCOIC and myself. The end of my tour quickly came and I had to say "Farewell" to Malden Island, my little island in the middle of the Pacific. Leaving Malden was not mysterious as it was when we arrived and looking at the island over the railing of the groaning LST with the unknown to soon be discovered. I left by a large, reliable, awkward looking plane, a C-124, our standard supply plane, and lugging my gear and hanging on to my Japanese fishing ball, my green eyed treasure. It hangs still today on my screened in porch, my companion of 47 years.
In mid-March '63 I would be setting off on a research project conducted by the MITRE Corporation, the contractor for the project chosen by AFSC (Air Force Systems Command) with the tests to be run at Newcombe Hollow Beach, in Wellfleet, MA. Flight G supported this project with Sgt Callicut, NCOIC, four other airmen and I. I received training in driving the M-63, a 5-ton van (aka 6-By) a couple days before leaving for Cape Cod, nothing like rushing it. It had 13 forward speeds and I was quickly issued a drivers license so there could be two drivers for this van. I say drive, but it was more like aiming it in the right direction and in the days before the Interstate highways, most roads were two and four lane highways and I remember the Oklahoma roads being narrow with a lip on the side. We departed Tinker AFB 14 March '63, me driving the van with a GMD trailer on the rear and a 3/4 ton International Travelette Pickup leading the way. Two days later the van sounded noisier to me and had a slight vibration which suddenly started as we made our way through northern Indiana on the Turnpike. I stopped and mentioned this to the other crew and Sgt West took over the driving and said my ears must have popped. It wasn't my ears that popped but soon after the engine threw a rod making an approximately one foot square hole in the engine block with the shaft, piston rods and bearings just hanging there covered with hot oil. We were only a few miles from the Angola truck stop and the Angola turn-off. We stayed at the truck stop a couple days waiting for the 2-1/2 ton International with a jamesway to be dispatched to Angola. Scott AFB in Terre Haute sent a standard tow truck to tow the 5 ton but the tow truck couldn't budge it, and when it tried the front of the tow truck jumped about four feet in the air and crashed down against the 5 ton breaking the tow's bumper. They had to hire a private tow truck for trailer trucks to get it to Scott.
We finally arrived at Wellfleet on Cape Cod and set up our equipment in an abandoned Army camp about one mile south of the original Marconi site. We provided the meteorological data for the tests which had to do with radar propagation over water under different moisture conditions. The weather support included two rawinsonde runs per day, hourly surface obs and ocean temp twice daily. We also recorded temperature - humidity readings at a stationary low level using a tethered balloon and instrument knows as a wiresonde. The plane would fly in from the ocean right over us on the beach using a red smoke flare for spotting. We were provided meals at North Truro Air Force Station and we also frequented the local restaurants in Wellfleet, among other things. This was a short project, the exact length I forget but about two weeks. It was a nice reprieve and I got to see the Cape once again. At that time "Old Cape Cod" had the lure of romance as sung by Patti Page in 1957.
(To be continued)
This site was last updated 10/23/14