Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 28

CLARK FIELD, Philippines Islands — In the late 1940s and early 1950s, life was good for a U.S. military officer stationed in Southeast Asia. The dollar was more valuable in Far East countries recently under the heel of the Japanese military boot than it was back in the States.

My brothers Jules (on left bike), Jeff (standing,
center) and me at Clark Field in 1950. The boy on
left is unknown. Jules and I were 7 years old.
Rosie, 18, our housemaid and adopted big sister, had a bedroom and bath in the house. She spent much of her time with my twin brother Jules, my younger brother Jeff and me. She would read to us from Filipino comic books.

We loved Rosie, who was our constant companion. When we ran through the house, Rosie would accuse us of running around like goats. At age 6 we weren't sure what she meant; we had never seen a goat.

My mother adopted Rosie into the family. She became a lifelong friend.

Our house had a large, L-shaped porch enclosed by screening. It was where Jules and I played when there were typhoon warnings. When typhoons approached, we would stay on the porch until the rain came down so hard it forced us to go inside the house.

The floor of the porch was covered with a shiny, red wax that had to be buffed regularly. Rosie was in charge. She would cut a coconut in half, and then tie each half of the husk to her feet with the fibers pointing down. Rosie then would skate back and forth until the floor shined like a mirror.

Our family vacation bungalow in Baguio.
My father, a major who was making the transition from the Army Air Force to the newly created U.S. Air Force, flew as a navigator throughout Asia from Clark Field. The furnishings in our home reflected the purchases he made on these trips. We had rattan furniture in the living room and bedrooms; tables came from Japan and India, vases and platters from Korea and China, and carvings from Bali and the Philippines.

My father ran the motor pool at Clark Field, so he had access to any vehicle he chose to drive home. I particularly was fond of a troop carrier that would seat 16 people.

My first girlfriend was a Filipina who attended second grade with me at the Clark Field American Dependent Elementary School. She was the daughter of a cinnamon plantation owner. Each morning, she brought me a platter-size piece of cinnamon bark, which I would gnaw on in class. By lunchtime, I had eaten it all.

After living in the Philippines for 2 years, we returned to the United States, settling at Barksdale Air Force Base at Shreveport, Louisiana.

In 1954, we moved to England when my father was stationed at South Ruislip outside of London. Our first home was in a large mansion in Stanmore. My parents and our 2 younger brothers had a suite with a private bath.

Jules and I had our own room on the very top floor. One other person, a retired British Army colonel in his mid-80s, lived on the top floor. Jules and I got to know the colonel, who would invite us into his room for tea and stories about his military service in India and World War I.

It was the old colonel who introduced us to the exploits of Flying Officer Jerry Biggles of the Royal Flying Corps. Jules still has the copy of the Biggles Omnibus given to us as a gift.

The large house at Stanmore had some interesting residents, mostly retired senior Army and Royal Air Force officers. All sat ramrod straight, had thin mustaches, and brooked no insolence from young boys.

During breakfast, one of them would eat his cornflakes with a fork. I made the mistake of staring, until he responded with a withering stare of his own.

Another had a precise time each morning when he shaved; if you were in the WC at that time, he would bang loudly on the door until you left. One morning, my 6-year-old brother Jeff put a small, stickleback fish in the bathroom sink while he cleaned the jar being used as an aquarium. The colonel marched into the room, right on time, looked into the sink, and pulled the plug. The fish disappeared down the drain and the retired officer shooed us from the bathroom.

It was at the Stanmore house, with rolling lawn, hedges and gardens that we were introduced to English gooseberries the size of golf balls. To this day, gooseberry pie is my favorite dessert.

After several months at Stanmore, we moved to a 2-story home in North Wembley, a bit closer to downtown London.

With the London Underground — or Tube — and double-decker buses, we could roam freely throughout the city and suburbs. A world of castles, museums and theaters opened to us just as we became teen-agers. Traveling on public transportation was easy and safe, though we were wary of Teddy Boys, older teens in Edwardian-style jackets.

Our parents, Marge and Jack Swickard,
in London during the mid-1950s.
Great Britain recently had emerged from World War II. The economy was still recovering from 6 years of fighting. As a result, the U.S. dollar went far in the UK.

As in the Philippines years earlier, my mother hired a maid to help with the housework. Betty had worked in royal service before marrying and would enthrall us with her stories. When the J. Arthur Rank film company would host a party in London, Betty was always hired to help serve the food. The next day, she would give us a rundown on what happened.

I remember one day she was particularly angered by a famous film actress who had dusted ashes from her cigarette into a gravy tureen Betty was carrying to a table.

After living in London 4 years, our family moved to the Midwest, where my father was assigned to the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at Ohio State University in Columbus. We lived in Worthington, just north of Columbus, until Jules and I graduated from high school 3 years later.

I studied at Ohio State University for a year, and then transferred to the Indiana University campus in Indianapolis. I worked various part-time jobs while attending the university, but none clicked until I took a position as clerk at The Indianapolis Times. I threw myself into the work, volunteering to write articles for the entertainment editor and the real estate section.

Within a year, I was writing obituaries for The Times. It was the first step in reporting. Six months later a position opened for a reporter on the police beat. I filled it with gusto, spending most of my waking hours chasing stories and writing articles on deadline. It was hard for me to believe I could have so much fun working.

Life changed in August 1966 when the Scripps Howard newspaper chain announced it was closing The Times. Though the newspaper had a circulation of 97,000, the parent company concluded it would be less costly to fold the newspaper than to invest in new equipment.

I moved to New Mexico and went to work for another Scripps Howard newspaper, The Albuquerque Tribune. By the time I began work in October 1966, I had lost my student deferment and the draft board was nipping at my heels.

My twin brother Jules (left) and me.
I didn’t want to be drafted and my withdrawal from college meant I was not going to earn a military officer’s commission through ROTC, as I had planned. One morning, while making my reporting rounds in downtown Albuquerque, I passed the Army recruiting office. In the window was a sign promoting helicopter flight training. I went inside and inquired.

After a day of testing and a physical examination, I was sworn in as a recruit. The Army was eager to enlist student helicopter pilots, so I knew I would be heading for flight school after I completed basic training.

Standing beside me while I was sworn-in was James “Jim” Mason, an Albuquerque civilian pilot. Jim would go through basic training and flight school with me, then would be assigned to a base not far from mine in South Vietnam. During the next 45 years, we would remain in touch, off and on.

Now I belonged to the U.S. Army, I didn’t have to worry about meals or a place to stay. Jim and I were told to report to the recruiting station the following morning for breakfast and a bus ride to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

When the bus turned into the basic training Reception Area, we learned what was in store for us. A corporal was on board as soon as the bus braked to a halt. “Fall out and stand at attention beside the bus, NOW!” he shouted.

Standing in a meandering row somewhat at attention, the enlistees were certain to draw the wrath of a drill sergeant. It didn’t take long. A staff sergeant in a Smokey Bear hat strutted out of a single-story, wooden building, stopped momentarily to take in the sloppy formation, and then laid into us.

“You girls must be from California!” he shouted. “Are you from California, Soldier?”

The private he was addressing, quietly replied, “No, Sir.” It was not a good way to start and brought an instant: “I can’t hear you!”

“NO, SIR!” the private yelled back loudly. He obviously had seen movies about the military.

“Don’t call me, ‘Sir!’ You address officers as ‘Sir.’ I’m a sergeant; you address me as ‘Drill Sergeant!’ Is that clear?”

“YES, SIR!” shouted the recruit.

“Drop and give me 10,” the drill sergeant replied. “NOW!” The recruit obliged with 10 pushups.

The rest of the day we scurried through the Reception Area, picking up a piece of uniform, then a hat, shoes, a belt and buckle, which we stuffed in a duffel bag. Then we went back through the same buildings and picked up GI underwear, khaki pants, and a fatigue cap.

We were shown to the barracks where we would live for several more days, until we were assigned to our basic training companies.

After a quick dinner, it was time to buff the floor with red wax. It was called a GI Party. Around midnight, the party ended and we could catch some sleep. Ironically, our party was held on New Year’s Eve.

The holiday weekend did not end until January 3, 1966. It was a relief when Monday arrived. We finished gathering the remainder of our uniforms and were told we would be bused to our basic training companies.

About half the members of my basic training company was on orders for the Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters, Texas. Jim Mason, who had enlisted with me in Albuquerque, became the student commander of our basic training company; I was one of the student platoon leaders.

A high point of basic training occurred when an OH-23 “Raven” observation helicopter landed near one of our training areas. Several of us were told to report to the warrant officer pilot for an orientation ride. One by one, we were strapped into the right seat of the 2-seat helicopter, under a bubble canopy. It was my first ride in a helicopter and I had a sensation of floating through the air. Thinking back about that first ride, I didn’t remember hearing the noise of the engine and transmission.

In March 1966, I graduated from basic training and was granted two weeks’ leave before reporting to Fort Wolters for flight school.

After our leave was over, Jim and I boarded a Greyhound bus in Albuquerque. Rain started pouring as our bus rolled through the Texas Hill Country on its way to Mineral Wells, the civilian community adjacent to Fort Wolters.

Jim and I had scheduled our arrival for Saturday night so we could relax before signing in at Fort Wolters on Sunday.

Fort Wolters would be our home for the next 5 months, if we did not wash out. The program was set up to eliminate student pilots for failures in the cockpit or in the classroom, busting a flight physical, failing an eye or hearing examination, not showing military leadership ability, being a lone wolf, or just being weird. We had heard 40 percent of warrant officer candidates, referred to as WOCs, would not graduate from flight school.

On our arrival at the Mineral Wells bus station, Jim and I sat on the bus, waiting for the rain to abate. It didn’t. The driver had a schedule to keep, so he got off the bus in the rain and opened the luggage compartment.

Jim and I took the cue and ran outside to claim our duffel bags, which the driver had pulled to the ground. There was no place to shelter from the rain, so Jim and I carried our duffel bags through downtown Mineral Wells toward a neon sign that said: “Crazy Water Hotel.”

We were drenched when we entered the hotel. I noticed the desk clerk gave us an odd look when we asked for a room. Because we were only drawing $97.50 monthly pay, Jim and I decided to share the room.

The next morning, we headed for breakfast. It was Sunday and we had until mid-afternoon to sign in at Fort Wolters. Leaving our room, a nurse walked past, pushing an older man in a wheelchair. In the dining room, it was clear Jim and I were the only diners below the age of 70.

Later that day, when we checked out of the hotel, we learned we had spent the night in a nursing home. Apparently the desk clerk had felt sorry for us when arrived wet, so he let us check in for the night.

We discovered there was not much to do in Mineral Wells on a Sunday, so Jim and I decided to sign in early at Fort Wolters. A taxi took us to the WOC company named in our orders. “Good luck, fellows,” the driver said when we paid him.

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