Thursday, 17 November 2011 by Chuck Kelly
When I was first asked to write about my remembrances of military service, I answered "No, I don't think so." My reasoning was Americans are tired of living and reliving the horrors of war.
Then, I began to consider experiences I might never have had if I had not served (honorably, I might add) in the United States Navy. So, here goes:
I joined the Navy near the end of the Korean War. A train ride took me to San Diego, California, where I was initiated into the system during "boot camp". I was appointed platoon leader and made it through without real incident.
I received my orders on completion and was off - to see the world? - no, to Norman, Oklahoma, where I attended two different special training schools.
Then, I received orders to - see the world? - no, to the Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas.
During my stay in Norman and Kingsville, I often drove home to San Antonio to visit with my old friends and the girls left behind. I was often asked: "I thought you joined the Navy! Why aren't you on a ship or something? You're always home."
Almost two years into my enlistment (when I had become accustomed to the unusual situation), I received real orders. My next duty station was on the island of Guam. "Where?" I said. I looked on a wall map and beside a small black dot was the word Guam. "Are you kidding me?" I thought.
Nevertheless, I boarded a troop ship in San Francisco and sailed West under the Golden Gate Bridge. A couple of years later, I returned by plane, flying over that bridge.
Upon arrival on Guam, I was notified that I wouldn't be staying there. I was to go on to the island of Okinawa. "Where?" I looked on the map again and found an even smaller dot, identified as my next "home". Okinawa is, from one end to the other, about as far as from Belton to Austin. (and water, water, all around).
My trip was delayed for a few days because a typhoon had pummeled the tiny island, causing a great deal of damage. As a matter of fact, when I got there I discovered that a large gymnasium had been torn apart and carried by the winds over the top of the barracks that I was to live in for the next year. Old timers told me that typhoons regularly slammed across the island. Very reassuring.
I settled into Navy life then and rolled with the punches.
I was an airplane crew chief and flew often. I recall the first time we came in from a mission and landed in the dark during high winds and rain on the tip of our island. It was a GCA or Ground Controlled Approach by radio. All we could see was darkness. Then, the radio crackled and a voice said "You are over the end of the runway - Good luck!" I later experienced the same helpless feeling when landing in the wind and rain on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier.
I flew by the snow-capped top of Mount Fuji in Japan, I made a "hairy" landing in Hong Kong and rode the ferry to another land mass, where we visited a strange park. The Tiger Balm Garden had gruesome, weird depictions of nightmares suffered by someone. I never wanted to ask "who"?
Aircraft landed at our Naval Air Facility at Naha, riddled with bullets or missing an engine. Many of our planes were painted black and were unmarked (for some reason) and although they "only flew over the sea" they picked up quite a bit of small arms fire on their undersides. Hmmm!
On the way back to the states, via Honolulu and Midway Island, I began to renew my appreciation for my homeland. Just English now. I was amazed at how tall everyone seemed after living among people a foot or two shorter than me for a year.
I took a slow ride back to Texas on a train and began to regain my drawl as I renewed acquaintances.
My favorite story I told my friends was about the time we flew to Formosa for the day. Three of the crew members took civilian clothes and we immediately switched into them when we arrived. The pilots told us to meet back at the airfield at such-and-such a time. We went to eat and "relax" awhile at the Cat Club, a place built by members of General Chenault's Flying Tigers during WWII. During the course of our afternoon, we began to discuss our departure time. We took a vote whether our pilots had meant Okinawa-time or Formosa-time (which was an hour later). Of course, since we were the radioman, crew chief and electrician, we chose the later time (they couldn't leave without us) and then hired three rickshaw drivers finally to race us back to the airfield. As we pulled up to the gate, we noticed our airplane wasn't where we had last seen it. We asked the Marine guards where it was. Their answer: "Up there!'
We looked skyward just in time to see our plane flying out of sight as we sat in our rickshaws, all dressed in civvies, our uniforms and necessary papers all on board the aircraft. We were hundreds of miles from "home" and no orders or uniforms! Orders are needed to fly out.
After an urgent, desperate search, we finally discovered a Military Air Transport pilot who had been an enlisted man earlier and he, with a sly look said, "I can't legally take you but I've already checked the passengers and cargo on the plane and I'll be taking off after a cup of coffee." There would be no further inspection of the aircraft. We quickly stowed away and it was Okinawa, here we come!
The next morning the base commander called us in separately to reprimand us. He told me: "Chuck, you should be careful hanging around with those older sailors. They can get you into trouble." "Aye. Aye, Sir", I answered and quickly got busy at other things.
My favorite decoration during my Navy days? My Good Conduct medal!