“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” -- Henry Miller
Growing up in Dallas Texas in the 1950's and 60's, I always thought of Japan as a beautiful, intriguing land that I would really like to visit if I ever had the opportunity. That opportunity materialized in April of 1973.
Since graduating from Tech School at Chanute AFB in November 1971, I had been assigned to the 55th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at McClellan AFB, in Sacramento California, and in the spring of 1973, I volunteered to attend NCO Leadership School. I really wasn't one for volunteering for anything, especially not some resident school for professional military training, complete with uniform inspections and close order drill. My reason for doing so was that testing for a promotion cycle was scheduled for May. It was the first cycle in which I was eligible for promotion to Staff Sergeant, and I wanted to make it on my first try. The key to doing that would be to score really well on the Promotion Fitness Examination. So there I was, early April 1973, TDY at Norton AFB, CA, enrolled in the 22nd Air Force NCO Leadership School. Actually, I enjoyed the classes, and the inspections, drills, etc. were not that bad. Overall, it was a really good school, and I felt as though I was set to ace the PFE, and earn that fourth stripe.
With only a few days remaining till graduation, I received a call from a personnel specialist at 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing HQ at McClellan. He called to inform me that if I was still interested in an assignment to Japan, there was about to be an opening, and that if I would agree to extend my enlistment by seven months in order to have enough retainability for a two year tour, the assignment was mine. Ever since I was in tech school, and learned that in my specialty field one of the five or six places in the world where I could be stationed was Yokota Air Base, Japan, I had been trying to get an assignment there. Now, although I only had about a year and a half left in my four year enlistment, I had the chance to get the assignment that I had been wanting. Without hesitation, I told the HQ fellow to please go ahead and prepare the paperwork, and that I would sign the extension commitment as soon as I had graduated from Leadership School and returned to McClellan.
The next couple of months were rather a blur; I returned to work, took a TDY to Hawaii, went back to California, and took my promotion test (Leadership School was worth the effort -- about a month after I arrived in Japan, the promotion list was published, and I had a line number for SSGT!). For my remaining days at McClellan, it was mostly work as usual. Then, in my last days on duty, I sold my car and turned in my flight gear, sadly giving up the extra $55/month hazardous duty pay that I had been receiving while on non-crew flying status. I then went on a few days leave, traveling to Texas in order to visit family, and prepared to venture into another world. Finally, on June 29, 1973, I was in the passenger terminal of Travis AFB, where I said goodbye to a few of my friends, and boarded a flying cattle car (military contract airliner) headed for Yokota Air Base, Japan.
The flight stopped in Honolulu to take on fuel, and to drop off and take on more passengers. Although US combat operations in Vietnam had ended a couple of months earlier, there were still a lot of US military personnel moving into and out of the Asian theatre, and Hickam AFB/Honolulu International was a hub of connecting military and military contract flights, as there were a lot of troops from all branches of the U.S. military moving in all directions. Waiting for my flight to board, I sat in the airport bar, quietly enjoying a cold beer. A small group of Air Force guys were seated at a nearby table; one of them shouted out to me, "Hey Sergeant!! where are you headed?"
"PCS to Yokota," I said with a big grin.
"YOKOTA!!! JUST STARTIN' YER TOUR????" a heavy-set red haired two-striper in the group bellowed. "You're hurtin'!!! I got three more months and then I go back to the world for good!!! I hope you like fish heads and rice!!!" He and his buddies then simultaneously burst into laughter and yelled, "SHORRRRRRT!" spontaneously forming some kind of a moron chorus.
With great difficulty, I resisted the temptation to demonstrate to them just how well I could combine a few choice expletives into a sentence. Instead, I just quietly finished my beer, and tried not to listen as the knuckleheads went on and on about how much they hated being stationed in Japan. It would have served no purpose for me to tell them that I was looking forward to this assignment, and that I had wanted it so much that I actually extended my enlistment by seven months in order to qualify for it. So, leaving them to affirm each other's affinity for childish behavior and pointless conversation, I went on to wait in the gate area, remembering the words of my friend Joe, who used to say "for a lot of G.I.'s, the only good bases are the one they just came from and the one where they are going next." As usual, Joe had been right on target in his assessment of the human condition.
Finally, it was time for me to board the plane for the last leg of my journey. As I stood in line to board, a lady from Hickam Passenger Services approached me, and asked if I would accompany/assist a dependent family who were in transit to Yokota. I agreed, and was introduced to a dependent wife with a three year old and a baby who was going there to join her husband. She was a nice young woman who seemed to be very shy, and who looked barely old enough to have two kids. I carried a couple of diaper bags and held the three year old's hand as we boarded the plane. After we got settled in, I found a coloring book for the three year old, and made sure that he was strapped in his seat. Aside from saying that she already missed her mom, the young mother didn't talk much; she just mostly looked out the window and cried until she, the toddler, and the baby were all asleep. Being single, I had never really considered how much of a hardship that an overseas assignment could be to a family, especially a young family.
Looking around the cabin, I saw in the faces of those on board that everyone there didn't share my zeal for going overseas. Figuring that I was the only person for whose happiness I was directly responsible, I decided that it was time for a shot of Jack Daniel's to put me into a happier state of mind. From under the seat, I retrieved my brief case, in which I had a few mini-bottles stashed, and silently declared to myself that the bar was open.
Yokota Air Base flightline, looking toward the terminal on an overcast drizzling day, early 1970's, you can see a line of C141's and a C5A.
It was the last day of June, 1973. I never saw any landmarks as we flew over the Kanto region of the island of Honshu. Mt. Fuji was down there someplace, but this was monsoon season, and visibility was zero since the sky was a watery soup of drizzling clouds. I helped the young mother pack up the kids and all their paraphernalia, and walked with them in a line of passengers from the plane to the Yokota passenger terminal. I sweated in the heat and humidity as we walked, straining to see anything of the skyline beyond the base, but to no avail. The sky was too overcast. We reached the terminal, and parted ways. I don't know what happened to them after that; I never saw them again.
As a testament to the military mantra of "hurry up and wait", it seemed to take forever to process through the terminal. A customs agent went through every item of clothing in my duffel bag, meticulously inspecting each pocket, cuff, and lining. I really wanted to say something like, "give it up will ya pal, I smoked all my dope before leaving California". Figuring that this guy probably didn't share my sense of humor, and not wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon urinating into a beaker and being interrogated by the OSI, I kept quiet until I was instructed to pack up my gear and clear out. I just wanted to get out of my 1505's, take a shower, and get some sleep.
55th WRS NCO of the Quarter
That was a surprise to everyone, especially to me.
Exiting into the terminal, I was greeted by my shop chief who had been there patiently waiting while I got through the all the bullshit. We hopped into a flightline truck and headed down a long line of hangars. It was a busy flightline. Forklifts and pallet carriers buzzed back and forth from the freight terminal to a tarmac full of C-141's and C-5's. This was another transportation hub of the Military Airlift Command, and the main tenant organization at Yokota of that era was the 610th Military Airlift Support Squadron, a unit of the Military Airlift Command that was responsible for keeping the en-route transport planes, cargo, and passengers moving through the region safely and on schedule. I'd never seen so many C141's in one place before; on the taxiways, they were lined up to either take off or taxi in. The hazy sky beyond the runway revealed the glow of landing lights every few minutes as another plane came in on approach.
My previous assignment had been with the 55th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at McClellan AFB, CA. There had been a similar squadron, the 56th WRS, at Yokota AB, but it had recently been deactivated, and the maintenance personnel were integrated into the 610 MASS. An operational detachment of 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing remained on base with 3 WB-57F aircraft along with the aircrews and basic operations staff. The WC-135's formerly assigned here had either been sent to McClellan or sent to the C-135 depot in Oklahoma to be reconfigured for other types of missions. Since the maintenance people supporting these planes had been integrated into the 610 MASS, I was now assigned there as well. A lot of the missions that the 56th had performed were still operating out of Yokota, therefore the 55th always had at least one WC-135 deployed there.
De-classified Air Force film (circa 1970) describing the mission of Air Weather Service aerial sampling and weather reconnaissance.
My part in all this was the maintenance of the weather and air sampling systems on the weather aircraft. I was an Airborne Meteorological/Atmospheric Research Equipment or MET/ARE Tech. There were never many people in the MET/ARE specialty field (AFSC 302X1), but by 1973, there were probably less than 150 of us Air Force wide, and therefore most people who were not a part of the Aerial Weather Reconnaissance missions were completely unaware of what we did. That mission is best explained in the video posted on the left, which is a de-classified Air Force film, circa 1970, documenting the aerial sampling and reconnaissance mission.
The weather aircraft of that era consisted of WC-130's, WC-135's, and WB-57F's. These aircraft were utilized to fly a variety of weather missions as well as special missions. The primary special mission for which they were tasked was sampling the emissions from nuclear weapons detonation tests performed mainly by our cold war adversaries, the USSR and China. These missions were run by AFTAC (Air Force Technical Applications Center), using Air Weather Service aircraft. Essentially the aircrews would fly into areas where it was predicted that the airborne debris from these tests would be in the airstream. A special equipment operator would detect radioactivity in the airstream through which the plane passed and gather whole air samples, which were pumped into pressurized steel spheres, and particulate samples on filter paper mounted in screen assemblies in pods called U-1 Foils. When the aircraft returned to station, the MET/ARE guys not only checked out the equipment, but also were responsible for downloading the samples, and getting them to the lab. Back then, the Soviet Union conducted underground tests, therefore the emissions and debris were relatively low level. China, on the other hand, conducted mostly atmospheric tests, therefore the planes and the samples often contained dangerously high level radioactive material. Handling that stuff always scared the crap out of me.
My 1973 official USAF mugshot
As we drove down the flightline and on to the enlisted transient quarters, Howard, my new boss, told me that they had been short handed while waiting for me and another guy to get on station, and that they were still running the last few missions in a series of "specials" due to a recent Soviet test. He was in a bit of a rush since a 135 was due back in about half an hour. By that time, with the travel, the time change, and the whiskey that I had consumed a few hours earlier, my body and brain didn't know what they were doing, so I told Howard to give me a minute to change into fatigues and I would help with the recovery.
So, there I was in Japan, or at least on a U.S. Air Force base in Japan. A base is a base, except on this one, we drove on the left side of the road, and there were a lot of signs for the Japanese civilian workers in a language that I couldn't read. I knew that eventually, I would get outside the gates to see where I was, but first and foremost I had to earn my keep by doing the job that I was sent to Japan to do.