Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tales From the Line - Who Are Those Guys?

(Photo by Gary Noon Source)
Recently, while perusing one of Shaun's most excellent posts, I was reminded of a story. A couple of stories actually, but one in particular. It happened long, long ago on a cold, blustery day in the Republic of Korea (대한민국, South Korea, ya know, the good guys).

There I was...*

Shortly after the last glaciation period, not long after the last wooly mammoth had plunged into a bog in Siberia (to be preserved therein for centuries), I was an aircraft mechanic, responsible for maintaining the weapons control systems on the mighty F-4D Phantom II aircraft. Affectionately (?) known to her crews as the Rhino (I didn't know this until many moons later) the Phantom was deployed at four bases in the Western Pacific in my day.

Now I know to the youth of today the Phantom has all the relevance of the Sopwith Camel, a great aircraft in its day but long obsolete in these modern times. In my day, she ruled the skies. Osan (in Korea) and Clark (in the Philippines) had the E-model (which had an internal gun), Kunsan (in Korea) and Kadena (Okinawa, part of Japan) had the D-model (no gun). Kadena had the C-model as well, a number of which were Wild Weasels. (Chase that link and learn grasshopper...)

Now during my 8-ish years as a maintainer (six and a half of which were actually around aircraft) I worked on the C and the D-models at Kadena (first) then Kunsan. It is at that latter location where our story unfolds.

It was a brisk day out on the line. Now in Korea we didn't really have a flight line per se. As we were not more than 20 minutes flying time from the evil henchmen of the Kim family, we couldn't just line up the aircraft in neat lines à la Pearl Harbor or Clark Field in 1941. Nope, not a good idea. So our aircraft were dispersed in what we called Whiskey Arches, not sure why, but that's what we called them. The photo below depicts some of those at Hahn AB in Germany, circa 1977.

The layout of the shelters in Korea wasn't quite as compact. The next photo is an overhead view of part of Kunsan, my stomping grounds for nearly four years.

Google Maps
Some of the stuff in the photo wasn't there when I was, times change, new things spring up, but to the right of the shelters you can see a lot of green, those are (for the most part) rice paddies. There were a lot of small farm dwellings out there too.

I remember one little home just on the outside of the perimeter fence. There was an older guy who would stand out front and just stare at you while you were outside the arch, taking a break from all that maintaining. (One of the reasons I took up smoking was all the down time waiting for parts, waiting for someone to come pick you up, etc. At Kadena there was no place to smoke on the flightline, in Korea you just stepped outside the arch, where old Korean guys would stare at you. We were advised not to interact with them. Perhaps they were slightly pissed about having an airbase smack dab in the middle of good crop land. After all, an airbase has to be on a flat surface, Korea is a land of very few flat surfaces. People like to eat, crops are easier to grow on flat surfaces, you do the math.)

As you might could tell from the overhead view of the base, there were some pretty isolated aircraft shelters. Far from the beaten path as it were.

Now by this point your head is probably spinning with this talk of Whiskey Arches and maintenance, rice paddies and disgruntled old farmers and just what the Hell does that picture of a pheasant have to do with the price of tea in China, as "they" like to say. Well, let me enlighten you.

Kunsan the base was quite a ways from Kunsan the city. (Overseas the bases tend to get named for places they are near, in the States they generally get named after famous guys.) It was right on the coast and out in the middle of all those paddy fields. Other than the noise of the aircraft at all hours it apparently was a good place for certain types of wildlife to settle down and raise families. Pheasants were one of those kinds of wildlife. The base was crawling with pheasant. (Okay, yes, I'm exaggerating the pheasant population, but if you didn't notice them it's because you weren't paying attention.) Lovely birds they are, I'm told they're also good to eat.

So there I am, taking a break from cannibalizing parts off of a broken Phantom to install on the bird we had in the Radar Calibration barn (wasn't really a barn, it was actually a hangar, we liked to call it a barn, I don't know why, though I have theories...). Sometimes this was necessary, perhaps the jet out on the line had a busted engine, or fuel pump, or some other  magical framistat and couldn't be flown. Whereas the bird in the barn could be, or could be as soon as we (my mates and I) were done aligning, tweaking, and adjusting its radar set and associated other weapony things. Sometimes we found things that were broken, unadjustable or otherwise recalcitrant items which prevented our progress, keeping Mister Flying War Machine in the barn for longer than normal. (Normal was approximately 48 hours.)

So the folks in Job Control would search out an aircraft in a non-flyable state and send us out to take the part we needed to continue our calibrating activities. That's about the only time you'd find Radar Cal guys and gals (we had a couple) out on the flight line in the cold and gloom. We didn't have our own truck so we had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Actually it was usually other weapons control guys and gals who spent their entire miserable lives out on the flightline in the cold and dark. Jealous? No, I don't think they were jealous. Just spiteful. Or something.

So we relied upon them to take us to the aircraft to be violated and returned to the warmth and coziness of our shop. Yeah, they thought it was funny to dump us out there and make us wait for what seemed hours and hours. In the cold and gloom.

So on those occasions, we'd have our part(s) ready to go back to the shop and we'd have to wait. So the smokers of our clan would hie to the back of the arch for to have a cigarette and to be glared at by disgruntled old Korean farmers. One day I was out there. It was cold, but it was dry. As I settled in, I lit my cigarette and got comfortable, or as comfortable as one could get leaning against steel-reinforced concrete on a cold Korean afternoon.

As I took my first puff, to what should my wondering eyes should appear was two guys behind the next arch, apparently sneaking up on something. Two guys carrying firearms and wearing caps much like the manikin in the next photo (on the left, don't mind the glare.)
Korean War Uniform (Wolcott photo Source)
If you look real close (or chase the source link) you might note that those are "the bad guys," North Koreans. That winter hat with the ear flaps is something I've always associated with two things: hunting in New England and Communist infantry in the winter. The former I like, the latter, not so much.

So I drop my smoke and crush it beneath my boot heel (no little irony there) and watch these two armed and suspicious individuals creeping up on my position. I am sort of blending in with the aircraft shelter in my olive drab fatigue uniform so they haven't seen me yet. They seem to be focusing on the perimeter fence, which is not that far from me.

Needless to say, I'm a bit concerned. These two fellows are carrying weapons, I have a cigarette lighter and a pencil. No doubt if I were MacGyver I could have quickly built something with which to incapacitate these two nefarious fellows using nothing more than the pencil, the lighter and perhaps some pocket lint. But MacGyver I was not then and am not now. So I used "rabbit technique," that is I froze in position and hoped they wouldn't notice me.

As I sat there, all deer in the headlights-like, I noted that one guy was Caucasian, the other Asian. First thought, "Dammit, one of 'em's a Rooskie! Commie bastards are ganging up on us." Second thought, gee that "Russian" kind of looks familiar...

Then it strikes me, as a pheasant breaks from cover off to my left and I see two shotguns swing in that direction, that's the base commander, er, commanders. The American one and the Korean one. After all, we two staunch allies share the base, the Koreans own it but they let us play there too.

Apparently the two officers shared a love of hunting. Hunting pheasants that is.

Well, long(-ish) story short, they didn't bag the pheasant. What's more, they didn't bag the staff sergeant huddled by the Whiskey Arch using rabbit technique to not get noticed. My rabbit fu was strong that day. The two hunters reversed direction and they never noticed me.

But yeah, when you're way out there on the edge of the empire and you see armed men wearing winter caps with ear flaps, you see Commies, not hunters.

Well, I do, don't know how you might have seen that. Then again, sometimes when I hear hoof beats I think "zebras," not "horses." Yup, over active imagination, that's me. It can be entertaining at times.

Other times? Not so much.



  1. Great Story Sarge!
    About the indigenous population located around Kunsan, we were told that they were Communist Sympathizers who had been relocated to the Kunsan Peninsula to keep a better eye on them. Not sure if it was true or not.

    1. Thanks Juvat.
      I heard that story back in the day. I don't buy it, the South Koreans don't tolerate Reds very well. Not sure they'd let them run around, unless it was on a rifle range.

  2. Wait, they have pheasants in NE Asia? How did they get there? (This is my "knowitallmerikin" face.)

    Great story! I do believe I'd have needed a change of underclothing had I experienced a similar situation.

    Pheasant is delightful eating when deleaded and prepared well. When fried like chicken, however, and when the deleading process is less than comprehensive, it's more an event than a meal. A good accompaniment to lots of post-hunt booze.

    1. Yeah I know! Who'da thunk it?

      Heh, deleaded, I see what you did there.

    2. Ring necked pheasants are from China - not native to North America.

    3. I did not know that! Pretty interesting story.

      Once again, I learn from my readers.

      Thanks WSF!

  3. Whiskey always brings to mind the letter 'W' for some reason.
    Maybe it's because, for three years, the phonetic alphabet was embedded between my ears.

    1. So, when talking or writing about booze, I am specific: Rye, Scotch, Bourbon, single malt, blend, and so on.

    2. Same here on Whiskey. Drives my wife crazy when the kids and I start doing the phonetic alphabet thing. Usually we just use "foxtrot" in sentences, a lot.

      Now she knows...

    3. About the only hard stuff I drink these days is Jameson's. I ask for it by name.

      Even that is a rare occasion.


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