Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rocket's Red Glare

I was nobbut a lad of 22 when I first set foot upon the ancient island of Okinawa. I had been in the Air Force for a bit over 8 and a half months. I knew how to march, fold my underwear and had a head full of theoretical knowledge of the weapon systems of the mighty F-4D Phantom II fighter bomber. Note the use of the word "theoretical."

A month of leave before going overseas caused a lot of that dearly won knowledge to slide right on out of my brain. While I really enjoyed that leave, it might have been smarter to head to the flight line right after tech school, while that training was still fresh.

On the other hand, after setting foot on Okinawa (with a brief interlude of two weeks emergency leave when my grandfather Louis died) I didn't set foot on American soil again for over six years.

I left the U.S. an overgrown boy, single without a care in the world. Six years later I had a wife, a son and another baby on the way. One could make the argument that my time in Asia helped me to grow up. In some ways. (I'm not what you'd call a complete adult. I can be when I force myself. Which I perhaps don't do enough. Oh well.)

While looking for photos of those days so long ago (1976 to 1978 on Okinawa) I was amazed at how much the place has changed. I'm quite sure there's not much left that I'd recognize. The three photos in this post are all from the 60s and 70s and I recognize each place. Not like it was yesterday, but, as Patton wrote, "as through a glass, and darkly." The details fade but the memories linger.

The commissary these days looks nothing like it did in my time. Back then it seemed, I don't know, foreign and somehow quaint. Nowadays you couldn't tell that were you overseas. I suppose things have to change, progress and all dontcha know.

Another thing which struck me is how much the Air Force has changed over the years. We still have some damn fine kids out there serving the nation. But, like with many organizations, we have our share of strap hangars, social justice warriors, diversity bullies and just plain idiots.

In my time of service I knew a handful of senior non-commissioned officers who were any good. Most were political animals once you got past Master Sergeant. I knew one, that's right one good Chief Master Sergeant. He was one of the sergeants who straightened my ass out on Okinawa. Chief Colonna (I don't even remember the correct spelling of his last name, to us he was just "Chief" - said with a great deal of respect and yes, affection) was everywhere on the flight line.

Need a power unit at 0300? Odds are the Chief found you one. Then he'd be at his desk in the hangar most of the day doing his paperwork. I swear, Chief never slept.

But this isn't a tale of the "new" Air Force. You want the straight dope on that, read Tony. I do. When I can stomach it that is.


I lived in the shadow of that radar for the entire two and a half years I was at Kadena. Woke up one morning after a typhoon had brushed the island to see every single shrub on that hill completely stripped of its leaves. Big winds out that way, I can tell you.

This picture seems to be taken from the roof of the chow hall I used to eat at. There are two barracks in the background, up next to the hill. I do believe my first barracks is the one to the left. As I recall our squadron, the 18th Avionics Maintenance Squadron, had two barracks for us single enlisted types.

Eventually they refurbished most of these buildings and we moved to another building just around the corner of the hill to the left. As barracks go, they weren't bad. One man rooms, we had a fridge, a desk and a bed. Which is about all I needed. A place to sit and read. A place to store my comestibles and adult beverages (think beer) and a place to lay my head when the urge for sleep was upon me.

The first barracks was not air conditioned, a fan seemed to do the trick. I seem to recall that after the renovations, my second barracks had central air.

Not a bad existence to tell the truth.

Now the first six months on the Rock we were on 12-hour shifts. Which entailed a lot of sitting around and playing cards, if we could get away with it. Seems there was always some brand new lieutenant waltzing around wanting us to do more martial things. Like read tech orders.

We put paid to that on one memorable Saturday morning at or around 0400.

While we did work 12-hour shifts, we did get a two day break. Just so happened that our pinochle-playing, beer-guzzling social club all had this one weekend off. Friday night we gathered after sleeping the day away (we had gotten off work at 0700 that morning) and purchased adult beverages and headed to one of the guy's rooms for an all night pinochle-playing, beer-guzzling social event.

In the wee hours of the morning they blew the recall siren. All hands on deck, get your ass to work, Maybe it's a drill, maybe it's not. (FYI, in the entire time I was at Kadena there was one recall which was dead solid real. Two Army officers had been butchered in the DMZ by the NORKS. Within 48 hours the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing had two squadrons of Phantoms in country and loaded for bear. But that's the only time it was for real. Scary days those were.)

So this time was another drill. We all rushed back to our barracks, threw our uniforms on and headed down to the shop.

Once there, we were all sitting around rather bleary eyed when in comes the lieutenant.

"You men seem to have been drinking! That's a violation of..."

I don't remember which of us suggested that the lieutenant go somewhere and perform an unnatural act of reproduction with himself. But words to that effect were spoken and the room got real quiet.

That's when one of the sergeants came over, took the lieutenant by the elbow and into a back room where the young lad was told the error of his ways.

The powers that be moved the lieutenant to day shift. Probably better for him, definitely better for us.


In those days we worked hard and oh my Lord did we party hard.

Now one day, when we had moved to our second barracks (which might actually be the one in the photo above, I'm not sure) our other squadron mates were in visual range. Across a street and then a parking lot. Which is important to the tale which follows.

Now it might have been around the Fourth of July, it might not have been. Heck, maybe Russ might remember, I'm not sure if he was still there, Like I said, it was a long time ago.

But it was a pleasant evening. A bunch of us WCS gorillas were in the parking lot and hanging out on those stairs you can see above. Imbibing adult beverages (as was our wont) and taking the air on a pleasant Okinawan evening. The sun was going, the breeze off the East China Sea was pleasing and we were in our element. Young Americans a long ways from home, making ourselves at home.

Across the way, at our sister barracks, we could see some of the fellows up on the roof of the barracks (why they gave us access to the roof, I'll never know). They were doing much like we were, having a few brews and a few laughs. But there was something much more purposeful about their movements.

Moments later we watched, with joy and amazement, as a bottle rocket lifted off from the roof and up into the gloaming. Boom. Sparkly stuff drifting to earth. Then whoosh, a volley of five rockets lifted heavenward.

Oohs and aahs emanated from our side of the street. It was entertained we were.

Then after a few more volleys, the kettenhunde* showed up in a couple of cars. They were ordering our squadron mates to cease and desist. Furthermore they were commanded to come down off of that roof and turn in their bottle rockets forthwith.

Perhaps our lads were confused as to the order of events they were supposed to execute. Seems they decided to turn over the rockets first. A few at a time and in order to facilitate delivery to the security cops, they lit the rockets off and let them fly down.

The kettenhunde were astonished, confused and concerned. They were being defied. No, they were being mocked as well. A number of the local barracks dwellers gathered round to watch the security types huddling behind their vehicles as they were showered with rockets.

One or two of them even rushed the building to discover that all doors had been secured to keep out intruders.

'Tis frustrated they were. Thank God they kept their wits about them. I mean after all, these guys were all actually armed with pistols and no doubt there may have been an M-16 or shotgun in one or both of their cars.

Eventually our lads ran out of ammunition and some of our senior squadron types showed up. The security types were sent off with promises of dire consequences for the rocketeers.

I don't remember what the aftermath was. In those days it was more than likely that the perpetrators got their asses chewed by the squadron commander (who we respected) and by the First Sergeant (who we did not). An ass chewing by the old man could be epic. Not that I had any (ahem) personal knowledge of that.

Nowadays I'm sure they'd all be dishonorably discharged or something equally foul.

Those were kinder, gentler, more logical times.

Ah, what a night...

The rocket's red glare,

The bombs bursting in air.

On that note, I think I'll lift a glass to the old days.

Better times.

* See here as well.


  1. Neat story, and kindlier more gentle days they were--or at least more sane

    "Patton wrote, "as through a glass, and darkly."

    Saint Paul wrote it first ;-)

    1. I did not know that Cap'n. Looked it up, sure enough, 1 Corinthians 13:12:

      For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

      Had to go old school though, King James Version. (We use the NIV in my church. There is a certain majesty in the King James Version. Some passages just have to be read in the KJV.)

  2. Wow, brings back memories. I was there just a few years before you, 18 month tour in '73-'74. Good times though I enjoyed Guam more. Working out in the bomb dump in the jungle kept us away from most of the CS. Still much bombing going on though the public was not aware of it for some time. We kept the B-52's and F-4's full of all the ordy they wanted even when it took multiple, seemingly never ending 18 hour days. The magic of being a 21 year old in Oki doing the job I was doing with great friends and a sense that I was performing a task that my country needed me to do still sticks with me. As does the Dear John letter I got two months before my tour ended. Uncle Sam declined to let me go home early. Priorities and all plus it probably would have been for naught. Many a day we would sit on the hill overlooking the Habu flightline and just watch them in amazement -never got hassled by security that I can remember. Actually, that was pretty much true of all my time on the flightline, especially at night. Good memories.

    1. For some reasons the security folks when I was at Kadena seemed to enjoy messing with the flight line people. Especially during the day when the big shots were out and about.

      At night they stayed away from the flight line. Not sure why. I didn't mind.

      Ah the early 70s, there was much the public wasn't aware of. Thank God guys like you did your jobs, with little fanfare and very little appreciation I might add.

      Good times Ron. In many ways.

    2. AHHHH, the night. Most of my missions were as a fledgling "night owl". Carried over into the rest of my life. Night flying, night driving, night adventures. Can't beat it. The PTBs are NEVER around (the APs too, apparently).

    3. Loved the night shift. Watching the sun come up. Watching the early tanker take off.

  3. What excitement. In the boring old Army, we had three members of our unit roughed up by bouncers in a Hanau bar. Three nights later, a contingent visited said bar destroying it and the bouncers. Probably wouldn't have attracted too much attention except for unfortunate timing. It occurred on the first day of German-American Friendship week.

    1. Well, that's certainly one way to kick off the festivities isn't it?

    2. What's more friendly than a good ol' knockdown dragout?

    3. Builds morale and esprit de corps. Am I right?

    4. We were subjected to an epic rant by our 1st Sgt that would make R. Lee Ermey proud. Somehow I think it was for the benefit of the onlookers. Overall, it improved unit cohesiveness. Certainly, there was a significant change of attitude by the operators of bars catering to soldiers. Good times, other than the extra mile added to our morning run.

    5. A good rant by a top NCO can make all the difference.

      Now I understand what "going the extra mile" means.


  4. Thanks Sarge, you plastered a big smile on my face with this. Made me think of a number of delightful barracks episodes I witnessed and/or participated in. We actually had beer machines in our barracks until the mid- to late- 80's. Not a thing wrong with that. Treat us with respect and as grownups and you get the kind of fellows who can and will do anything -- anything -- to accomplish the mission.

    As a bonus, the rockets and door locking really raised my overall estimation of the Air Force. I'll never again be able to say Chair Force with the same naval sneer. Those were my kind of fellows. Like the cut of their jib and all that. Coulda been sailors with a little training and exposure to sodium chloride... :)'

    1. We too had beer machines on the Rock, IIRC.

      We used to call Okinawa our unsinkable aircraft carrier. Nicest thing about it? No pitching, no rolling, no yaw. Any of that we might have experienced was self-induced, if you get my drift.

      NaCl - good stuff.

  5. I don't remember any fireworks after we moved to the renovated barracks, I was probably gone by then. I do remember
    my first 4th of July at Kadena where we all went downtown and bought a couple of vehicle loads of fireworks and had
    an epic battle between our AMS barracks and the FMS barracks next door. After a two or three hour battle the security
    police came and confiscated the remainder of the fireworks but it was great while it lasted. The Security Police had
    absolutely NO sense of humor. (see tale below)

    One night Greg Sager, Steve Jascowicz, Terry Zaner and I were crossing the main drag in front of the club (there was a
    lot of alcohol involved in this tale) when we saw a car approaching and someone thought it was our duty to collectively
    moon the vehicle. After dropping trou, we discovered that it was the security police and they took a very dim view of so
    many vertical smiles being presented. The squadron commander had to rescue us and even though he was quite pissed
    at getting out of bed at 1:00 in the morning he was a pretty good sport and didn't resort to any disciplinary action.

    Yeah, those were pretty good times!!

    1. Such fine upstanding airmen you mention, and you a fine staff sergeant, I cannot believe that you would do such a thing.

      Actually, I wonder why I wasn't there. I must have been at the barracks, studying or something.

      Yeah, right...

  6. I honestly don't remember the Kadena Commissary whatsoever. I remember going down to Camp Butler to use theirs. I don't know whether Kadena's had closed or what, but Butler had a very nice one. Still had reconstituted milk though, blech!

    We used to have epic bottle rocket wars in the dorm hallways in College. We'd buy a bunch of those golf club tubes and turn them into Bazookas, complete with the pat on the shoulder when the weapon was loaded. I got to be pretty accurate with them.

    1. Camp Butler was good. I house sat for a month down that way. Lived like a king I did. Well, when I wasn't at work.

      Bottle rockets. Lovely things aren't they?

  7. "One man rooms, we had a fridge, a desk and a bed."

    I'd have settled for a real bed.
    Good tale, as usual.

    1. Oh, they pampered us. Especially when compared to a sailor's "accommodations" while at sea!

      Thanks Skip. Welcome home by the way.

  8. Considering the term "bottle rocket". A study should be made about the bottle. Equipment so taken for granted. In my day (the sixties, YIKES!) we had pretty much eliminated any American or European beer bottles as serious players. The answer was the large (and I mean large) Asahi or Kirin bottle.
    In the place I lived in at Itazuke, we had daily deliveries of the wondrous containers (full, needing to be emptied, of course) and probably similar ties to a fireworks vendor. I think bottle rockets and beer contributed more to Espirit de corps than any other known entities in military history of 1962-1969. I have pictures of the rockets being utilized for various purposes by many of my cohorts and commanders.

    1. Hhmm. We did neglect the bottles. Seems an area for further study!

  9. Can I put this here?

    Lemme know, and I'll delete it.

    1. Why yes, yes you can put it here.

      Good stuff.


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