The Memoirs of Sgt. Robert Wheatley, USAF Security Service
My First Overseas Tour ~ Home Never Looked So Good....
It is against this turbulent political backdrop I recall the years I spent overseas and the small part I played in the war. No, I didn't bring back any gripping war stories of mortal combat, at least not from personal experience. For I wasn't a combat soldier, and I never had to face the kind of danger that those who were out there "beating the bush" every day did. Had it been my lot to do so, I would have accepted it. But I was one of the lucky ones. I never stepped on a land mine, or stumbled into a booby trap. I never was shot, and I never took shrapnel from a mortar or grenade or artillery shell. I never was physically wounded in any way, nor did I ever have to kill another of my fellow human beings. Today, I'm truly thankful for all of that.
Still, I guess Iíve always harbored a bit of "survivorís guilt", because I had it relatively easy compared to others. So many suffered and sacrificed so much more in the war than did I. And afterwards, for a very long time, I felt almost as if I had no right to grieve the war, at least not as much right as my brothers-in-arms who had returned with missing or paralyzed limbs or blinded eyes, or those who had tasted that singular moment of pure, distilled, mutual terror, when you look into the eyes of the enemy, and take his life, before he can take yours...... "Why not me?", I ask myself. "Why was I so fortunate, when so many others were not?" I've learned these are questions almost universally asked among survivors of war, especially by those who escaped physically unscathed. But like all wars, that war touched every one of its participants, whether front line or rear echelon, in the most profound ways. The wounds that I and many others like me brought home are simply the ones unseen, the ones for which no Purple Heart is ever awarded.
My aptitude for foreign language had literally forced me into the field of "Voice Intercept Processing Specialist". Contrary to my recruiter's promises, I did not get my choice of occupations. (I'm sure I was not unique in that regard.) Originally, I had been selected as a candidate for Intelligence Analyst, this in spite of my protest that my first choice was a career in meteorology. But during the second or third week of boot camp all new recruits had been required to take a language aptitude test. Learning foreign language had always come easy for me, even in high school, and I scored high on the screening test. My score on that test is finally what decided my line of work for me. Before I had finished basic training, my career field had been changed from Intelligence Analyst, and I was assigned an AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) of 203x1. It would become my job to monitor Chinese air to ground / ground to air voice radio communications and translate them for intelligence. It was certainly a long way from what I'd had in mind when I enlisted. But that is where the Air Forceís need was at the time.
After the Tonkin Gulf Incident in August, 1964, as the US role in the war began to rapidly escalate, there was more than a little concern on the part of our government that the Chinese would themselves become directly involved in the war, just as they had done in the Korean conflict. (Once bitten, twice shy.) There was a shortage of Chinese interpreters in those times, and the commitment of US ground combat forces to Vietnam made it urgent we train more linguists as quickly as possible. For it was absolutely vital we keep tabs on what the Chinese were doing and what their intentions were. Would we end up facing the Red Chinese Army of millions in Vietnam, as we had in Korea? Obviously, the answer to that would greatly influence our strategy in the war.
Indeed, the "Chi-Coms", along with the Soviets, had been aiding the North Vietnamese, just as the US was aiding the South. They were sending not only massive amounts of food and medicine to Hanoi, but also tons of weapons and thousands of troops to train and advise the North Vietnamese. For the fact was, the Chinese were just as concerned about the spread of Capitalism in the region as were we about the spread of Communism. The actual degree to which the Chinese were involved in the Vietnam war never was revealed to the general American public. Aside from the pilots shot down by Russian surface to air missiles, most Americans killed in Vietnam were killed by Chinese supplied weapons, if not by Chinese troops.
I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed language school, and once I was out in the field, the work was intriguing. The job required a Top Secret "Crypto" security clearance, and that kept me out of the "real action". As the grunts would say, we were "in the rear with the gear", REMF's (Rear Echelon Mutha F_ _ _ ers). That was ok. It was the job I had been assigned, and I accepted it without question, without hesitation. As property of the US government (Government Issue - "GI") one did not question orders. One only complied. Yes, my good fortune in drawing such a career field did make my chances of surviving the war and returning home better than for many others. So I had offered myself in service to our nation, rolled the dice and had come out a winner. Should I have been ashamed of that? I had joined to serve my country, but it certainly was not my desire to die. If thatís where they wanted me, I was content to do my part in the war inside a concrete block building, surrounded by chain link fence and barbed wire. There would be danger enough in doing that to satisfy me. At least I was doing my part, not burning our flag and trashing the country that had given me the kind of life available nowhere else in the world!
The first year of my overseas duty had been spent in Okinawa. Okinawa is a semi-tropical island in the Pacific, but I wouldnít have called it paradise by a long shot. It had its share of deprivation. Being on a tiny speck of land in the vastness of the East China Sea meant that the humidity was near 100% most of the time. We were quartered in World War Two vintage housing with plywood partitions, forming 2 man cubicles. Each cubicle measured perhaps 8 x 10 feet and had a thin curtain hung for a door.
There was no such thing as air conditioning there, except for the small window unit in the day room. I remember many, many nights of fitful sleep, with two fans blowing directly on me, to try to stay comfortable. It was like trying to sleep in a steam room. Even with the fans and me in my skivvies, the sheets would be literally soaked with my sweat by morning. There were times when weíd try to escape it by dragging our pillows into the day room. But it wasnít much better there, for the tiny window air conditioner wasnít made to accommodate so many bodies in the small room at one time. We lay all around like so many seals on a beach, feet and legs, arms and elbows in one another's faces. The bottom line was, most of us suffered to some extent from sleep deprivation most of the time.
There were salt pill dispensers beside every water fountain in every building on base, and we were constantly reminded to take our salt pills, lest we become dehydrated. The humidity was so bad, we had to hang bags of fungicidal crystals in our lockers to keep our uniforms from becoming completely covered and consumed by the mold. The acrid stench from the fungicide was overpowering, and we had to hold our breath to avoid choking on it when we opened the locker doors. Then we had to air our clothes out before we could even begin to put them on. It was a nuisance, but it was the only way to keep the aggressive mold from taking over completely.
I spent a full year there, eating powdered eggs and powdered milk and the other stuff they passed off as food in the mess hall. But the mess hall fare wasnít the worst of it. Occasionally, when the typhoons came, and we couldnít get to the mess hall to eat, we were forced to stay in our quarters and survive on old K-rations that had been packed in 1947. They came in army green tins about the size of a can of tuna. With each box of rations was a small can opener, a "P-38". The cans were so old, the printing on the outside had long since faded away. Some of them contained some kind of nondescript ground mystery meat. Others contained cakes of what was supposed to be bread. And there were cans of corn or beans or peas & carrots. You never knew for sure what you were going to find inside. There were Hershey bars too and small sample-size packs of Pall Mall or Lucky Strike cigarettes, four cigarettes to a pack.
I got the opportunity to try the K-rations early on. The second or third day I was there, a "Category V" typhoon struck the island, the worst in twenty years, I was told. The base where I was stationed stood at the top of some low cliffs, overlooking the East China Sea at Onna Point. Even so, I woke that morning and swung my legs out of the bunk to find myself standing ankle deep in water. The 155 MPH wind outside drove the water into every tiny crevice of the building. The wind and rain made it impossible to leave the barracks for work in the radio compound or to get to the mess hall for breakfast. After forcing down a disgusting cold meal of "mystery meat" and beans and canned "bread", I was looking forward with gusto to having one of those luscious, sweet Hershey bars for dessert. But those had not been hermetically sealed. When I opened the package and took the wrapper off, the candy bar crumbled into dust in my hands. What a disappointment! Itís amazing how much a year away from the states under those conditions will make you appreciate the simple comforts and pleasures we all take for granted here.
The base had its own power generators, but power to the barracks had to be turned off, because of the shock hazard with all the water on the floor. We spent most of the day lying in our bunks, reading with flashlights, or just listening to the howling wind and hoping the next meal would bring something more exciting than the one before. But it could have been worse. I was glad that it was not Charlie Flight that had been on duty when the typhoon hit. Those guys in Baker Flight who were on duty in the radio compound had to work more than 24 hours straight without a break.
Even with the heat, humidity, typhoons and the lousy food, we didnít have to suffer anything like the ground troops in ĎNam did. And that realization kept us from complaining too much about the conditions on Okinawa. Besides, it wasnít all unpleasant. I spent some very good times exploring the beaches and finding all manner of curious marine creatures. To this day, I still have the shell of a giant cowry I found there. It sits on my desk in front of me as I write. I turn it over and examine the contours of its smooth, glossy surface, its fluted edges and its mottled markings. As much as everything else has changed since then, myself included, it remains exactly the same as it was the day I retrieved it from the surf more than three decades ago. I figure it was an even trade for my high school ring that I lost one day, swimming in the tide. I assume itís still there, somewhere at the bottom of the East China Sea, probably long since incorporated into the reef.
The worst danger there, aside from the treacherous currents, was the sea snakes that lived in the coral reefs. They had told us there was no anti-venom for their bite, and mortality was virtually 100% for those unfortunate enough to be bitten. One day, I confronted one, a five or six-footer, on its way up from the bottom of a deep pocket in the coral, while I was on my way down. It was only a few feet below when I spotted it, looming large my face mask! I donít know whether it had ill intentions or not, but I wasnít going to wait and find out. I made a quick U-turn, shot back to the surface, and practically ran across the water back to shore! That was my closest brush with danger on Okinawa, one Iíll never forget. Today, I canít remember most of the names of the guys I served with, or even their faces. But the picture of that undulating serpentine form coming for me through the crystal clear water of the reef is burned into my memory. Itís as vivid as if it had happened yesterday.
I have to admit, there was a wealth of natural beauty to be found on Okinawa. Snorkeling in the tide pools and pockets in the reef, I was forever amazed at the variety and beauty of the brilliantly colored tropical fish. Then too, there were those breathtaking sunsets I witnessed from atop the cliffs, overlooking the vast, seemingly endless Pacific. The many shades of green and blue of the coral reef, backed by a pink and orange and purple evening sky, all accompanied by the sound of the evening surf caressing the beach was something to remember. Occasionally, I shared those times with a friend or two, but they were usually quiet, reflective moments spent by myself, with a cold, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, a deep longing for home gripping my heart, and the painful realization of just how far removed I was from that other world.
The days and weeks seemed to pass agonizingly slowly, counting down the days until I would at last be allowed to escape my exile. Those 12 long months on that tiny island were the loneliest, most homesick of times I had ever experienced to that point in my young life. I might as well have been on another planet.
It was about that time the Bobby Vinton song, "Mister Lonely" was popular on Armed Forces Radio. In it, he told the story of a young American GI, far from home, lamenting his loneliness and separation from all that he loved.
Lonely, I'm Mister Lonely
Wish I had someone to call on the phone...
Now I'm a soldier, a lonely soldier,
away from home... through no wish of my own.
That's why I'm lonely. I'm Mister Lonely
I wish that I could go back home...
How well we all could relate to that! Stranded for a year on a tiny speck of land in the vastness of the Pacific, home seemed a million miles away.
That feeling of complete and utter isolation from the rest of the world was made worse by the fact that telephone calls back home were rare or non existent. There was, and still is, no trans Pacific telephone cable. Furthermore, back then, we did not have the telecommunications relay satellites, which we take for granted today to carry high quality, encrypted telephone conversations across that huge expanse of water. The only way to get a phone call back home was by way of a "patch" through a HAM radio operator. The link was of course, by "short wave" radio to the States, where the Stateside HAM operator would relay the call from his radio receiver into telephone land lines there.
It was great that they were willing to do it for us, free of charge, and we DID appreciate it. But the quality of the sound was usually very poor, noisy and fading in and out. And of course, the radio link was "in the clear" and afforded absolutely no privacy. Anyone with a short wave receiver could listen in on your conversation. The link was not always available, and one had to wait for contact to be established with a suitable HAM operator, and then it took more time for him to make the land line connection Stateside. A simple one or two minute call might take twenty or thirty minutes or more to make, IF it was possible at all. Because of the logistics involved in making a call, few of us took advantage of it, except in emergency situations. Lacking the luxury of easy telephone calls, our only reliable link with home was through letters, which took weeks to make the journey back and forth.
On our off duty time, most of the others in my unit, could think of only one thing; "Shooting to the Vee." That meant going to Ishekawa Village, otherwise known as "Ishey", to get drunk and/or get laid. I have to admit, I did that more than a few times myself over the 12 months I was there. After all, one had to keep up the hard drinking image of the "Charlie Flight Chuggers."
The first night I was there, in spite of my protests, I was coerced into going with the group to "shoot the Vee". I was suffering from "jet lag" and just wanted to flop and get some rest. But I felt I couldn't refuse. It was their way of welcoming me and showing their acceptance of me into the group. It was also a kind of initiation, and they made sure I was "well plastered" before we returned to base. Some nights weíd drink Ďtill dawn. I remember well the benjo ditches that carried the human waste down the streets of Ishekawa. Once the morning sun was up, the stench became unbearable. If you hadnít yet tossed your cookies from the beer and sake, you were sure to when the smell rose up in that heavy, humid air and hit you in the face!
The heavy drinking was one of those macho things. It was expected. Then again, it was a way of coping with our loneliness and homesickness, albeit a poor one. One morning, one of the guys was found dead in his bunk after a night of particularly heavy drinking. I remember wondering at the time how his parents must have felt when they were given the news that their son had died, not in the line of duty, but by choking in his sleep on his own vomit. It could be said, he too was a casualty of that war, just as dead as if heíd been killed in action. But you wonít find his name anywhere on The Wall in Washington D.C.
Aside from the homesickness and the physical discomforts, possibly the worst part of that tour of duty for me was knowing how much the locals hated having us there. They seemed barely able to tolerate us. They were willing enough to take our money, but it was pretty obvious they didnít much like Americans. I guess I couldnít blame them. Most of the interaction between Americans and the Okinawans took place in the bath houses and bars. Iím sure we came across as nothing more than a bunch of rabble and drunks to them, not human at all. In spite of all that, I was able to make real friends of a few of them, but it was hard to overcome the impression left on them by the majority of American troops there.
When I first arrived on Okinawa, I had been told when my tour there was completed, there was a chance Iíd draw Stateside duty as a "clerck-typist" and and be granted an early discharge. The other possibility was to "go 2T", serve two overseas tours, that is. Not to denigrate the clerk-typists, but I just couldnít picture myself as one, even if for only a few months. I had determined, if I had a choice, Iíd opt for the "2T." That wasnít really up to me to decide, however. With ten months of my Okinawa tour under my belt, I received the somewhat disquieting news, I would likely draw a second overseas tour, this time in Vietnam. Below is a portion of the letter I wrote home, breaking the news to my mother....
Today, reading this somewhat poignant letter home gives me insight into the youthful naivetť I had at that point in my life regarding my governmentís interest in my personal safety. Things would happen later in my military career that would make me begin to have doubts about that. I would learn that youthful trust had been somewhat misplaced.
Okinawa had been a safe overseas duty site. The second tour I eventually drew was not in Vietnam, but it was "in theater". It too was a beautiful place, but it was less than perfectly safe. I remember the day I got my orders to go. What I had hoped would not happen would indeed come to pass. My scheduled 13 month tour in Okinawa would be curtailed, ended a month early for reassignment to Southeast Asia. It was someplace in northeastern Thailand -- Ramasun Station, outside of Udorn, a place Iíd never heard of before. I took the news that I would be going with mixed emotions. On the plus side of the ledger, I was excited about getting off the island a month ahead of schedule. And at least the orders were NOT for Vietnam as I had expected!
I spent the last few weeks of my stay there, as others did whose tours were soon to end, constantly startling everyone with sudden, unexpected outbursts of "SHORT!!" at random intervals. Only those who were returning to the states for discharge could top that with exclamations of "SHORT IN THE WAR!!" It was our way of letting the newcomers to the island know that we had paid our dues, and it was almost over for us. Yes, it was kind of rubbing it in, but it was also a way of helping the new guys see that no matter how long that that 13 month sentence seemed at first, there would finally be an end to it. I remember though, when I was one of the "fng's" (f_ _ _ _ing new guys), I didn't see it that way. The simple fact is, when the thought of going home came to mind, we just were unable to contain our exuberance! We had to let it out, lest we burst with our enthusiasm!
The excitement I felt at the prospect of leaving Okinawa was tempered by the knowledge that I would be going from "the frying pan to the fire", so to speak. But to be honest about it, I felt kind of uncomfortable with the thought that I might sit out the war in near complete safety, while others were daily risking their lives in Southeast Asia. I was no better than the thousands of others who had already been sent, and it was my duty to go wherever I was assigned. I prepared my mind for what was to come and resolved, "So be it. Iíll get through it O.K.!" I guess that must have been the way most others who went had to handle it. The reality was that many of us did not get through it O.K.
In my next assignment, I was to be a shift supervisor, a "leader of men." Rather than promoting such candidates to Staff Sergeant, the Air Force had made the decision to upgrade the E-4 pay grade, formerly known as "Airman, 1st Class" to the rank of "Buck Sergeant", a change in name which officially made us "NCOís." The pay would be the same, only the responsibility would be greater. Prior to departing for my next duty station, I had to first return Stateside to Goodfellow AFB in Texas, a.k.a "Goodbuddy", for non-commissioned officer training. There, we were issued our jungle fatigues and jungle boots, and we were given a new round of immunizations for diseases specific to the region to which we were going. In addition to the training that would prepare us to fill our new leadership roles as non-comís, we were trained in the use and care of the M-16 assault rifles which we would be issued when we got to our next duty stations.
When I had gone through basic training in Ď64, we had trained with the old M-1 carbines. The new M-16 was the full automatic version of the modern civilian semi-automatic AR-15, manufactured by Colt Firearms Co. It sure made the .30 caliber M-1 carbine, which by then had been in use by the Air Force for decades, look like an antique! But then, I never had to use the M-16 in the heat of a battle. Flat shooting, and accurate as they were, I had heard the early versions of the weapon were notorious for jamming at critical times in a firefight. It was only later revealed, in an effort to save money, powers that be in the Department of Defense had purposely chosen not to have the interior of the chambers and receivers of the M-16 chrome plated. As a result, they quickly became fouled in the harsh environment of the jungles of Southeast Asia, and they easily jammed. I have to wonder how many young lives were lost as a result of this betrayal. There is no way to know, I guess. It was only after the American public was made aware that their sons and husbands and fathers were dying as a result of the governmentís cost saving measure that the problem was finally remedied.
The requirement for M-16 training and the issuing of "jungle fatigues" before my PCS (permanent change of station) only served to add to my anxiety about being sent to the theater of war. I therefore took the weapons training very seriously, and I managed to score high enough on the firing range to qualify as an "Expert Marksman." I have to give credit for my ability with a rifle to my fatherís tutledge of me when I was a boy. He was the one who first taught me to shoot, and I had passed many an hour as a young lad, hunting squirrel in the woods near my home with my trusty single shot "twenty-two" caliber rifle. That training given by my father in my early years and the training I was receiving here might well pay off by saving my life sometime, I figured.
It felt absolutely wonderful to be back Stateside, even if it was only for a short time. As trivial as it may sound, one of the things I appreciated most about being back in the States was the food! It seemed like such a luxury to have real eggs and milk again...Oooh!, and ice-cream too! I probably put on 10 pounds while I was there. It felt good too to be back amongst a friendly population. The people of San Angelo, where Goodfellow Air Base was located were very friendly, and I really enjoyed those few weeks I spent there.
I remember one afternoon, stopping in front of a shop in town to look over a window display. I was in uniform, and a civilian, perhaps twenty or thirty years my senior, was there looking at the same display. Striking up a casual conversation, he asked if I was stationed there at the air base. Now, as members of the Air Force Security Service with Top Secret security clearance, weíd had it hammered into our heads not to speak openly with strangers about our duty assignments - period! We were taught to be suspicious of everyone and ANY such inquiry from anyone we didnít know well. We spoke of such things only amongst ourselves, and then only in a limited way. It was the very reason we in the intelligence community were known by those in other service units as "spooks." We were trained to trust NO ONE!!
If I had followed the most basic tenets of my training, I would have told the man I just was not allowed to discuss it. But it had been my experience, such friendly familiarity was common amongst the people of San Angelo. Besides, he seemed sincere enough, I doubted he was a Communist spy, and I didnít wish to be impolite. So, not giving any specifics, I simply responded that I was only passing through the base for training in preparation for a tour in Southeast Asia. (Even that was more than I should have revealed.) I was surprised when he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed it gently, and thanked me for serving and wished me well. As far as I can recall, he was the only person who had ever spoken those words to me during my four year Air Force career. Though I didnít know it then, it would be many, many years before I would hear any words like that again from a stranger.
Knowing what I might be facing on my next overseas tour made me appreciate the time back stateside even more. That time in San Angelo was probably as close to a normal life as Iíd had since I finished language school at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey in California. I even took some off duty time to go bass fishing in the local reservoir. The reservoir was affectionately known by the troops stationed there as "Lake Nastywater." No, there wasnít really anything wrong with the water. Itís just that the real name lent itself to the bastardization. Come to think of it, now I donít even remember what the real name was.
In fact, the lake had a reputation as a bass fishermanís paradise. I still remember with fond nostalgia, one long lazy afternoon spent in the warm Texas sun with a buddy of mine, rowing from place to place, casting our lures into every likely nook and cranny, searching for that record lunker bass. Strange, I guess, what seemingly inconsequential little things you remember over the course of a lifetime. I think the biggest thing we caught that day was perhaps two pounds. Though the results of our great bass fishing expedition were less than spectacular, for some reason, that peaceful, carefree afternoon drifting about the lake is something that sticks in my mind all these years later. It felt almost as if we were civilians once again, perhaps on vacation. The cares and the apprehension of what lay ahead for us just kind of melted away for the day. As corny as it might sound to some, I guess that day, to us, represented the very essence of the freedom we hold dear and the sweet goodness of the life we live here in the US. Someone once said, "The taste of freedom is neíer so sweet as to those who have fought to defend it." We held that freedom close, cradled it in our hearts and fully cherished it.
After finishing my training in Texas, I headed home for a 30 day leave before going back overseas. I savored each day I spent with my family, as I had that day on the lake in San Angelo. I wished that I could remain Stateside, so I could see them more often. I spent a lot of time playing with my baby sister, on whom I doted as though she were a daughter. I took my little brother, twelve years younger than I, on fishing and hunting and camping trips. I strove to maximize the good times with my loved ones, before leaving for what was at the time in my mind, a "fate unknown."
I know my dear mother must have been worried about my next assignment, though I donít believe either of us talked about it. My father, though Iím sure he appreciated the danger, was made proud that I was following in his footsteps. It made me proud that he was proud of me. My step-father was proud of me too, I think. But he wasnít one to express such feelings outwardly, at least not in words. To my surprise, heíd bought me a used car, a Ď54 Olds. He had a new paint job put on it, had it checked out by a mechanic, licensed it, and had it ready for me to use by the time I came home on leave. It was a really nice old car. I donít recall now whether I really thanked him appropriately for such a nice gesture. I hope I did. I wish I still had that car. Aside from the sentimental value, it would be worth some real cash now.
The timing of my leave was such that I got to spend Thanksgiving at home that year. I stuffed myself with momís good home cooking - turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered dinner rolls, and all the other trimmings! I knew it would be quite some time before I would enjoy such a good home cooked meal again. For as I had the year before, the year of 1967 I would once again spend Christmas in a strange foreign place, some 12,000 miles away on the opposite side of the globe - as far from home as you can possibly get and still be on the earth. Leaving as a still idealistic young man, I would return ten months later disillusioned, a good deal more mature, and much more jaded than when I had left.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
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