icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


A Flight for Life

Air travel is always an adventure - flight delays, cancelled flights, long lay-overs, endless security and customs lines, uncomfortable seats with minimal room, and a host of other unpleasant surprises. Think about travelling from one place to another without any plan, no reservations for your flights or overnight stays. Think about most of your trip being paid for by the U.S. Government and how you got from one place to another being left up to your own persistence and sometimes chance. That was my plight during my time in the Navy in 1957 when I was transferred from Okinawa to Naples, Italy. I was trying to get home for St. Patrick’s Day, the subject of my March 13th blog.
The story, “A Flight for Life,” appears this month in the Crypotolog (Vol.36 No.2, Spring 2015) the magazine of the U.S. Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association.

A Flight for Life

Reading Mike Luepkes moving story about his unexpected flight with a cargo of caskets bringing home those who had made the ultimate sacrifice (My Most Memorable Flight in Vietnam in the Winter 2015 issue of the Cryptolog) brings to mind an unplanned military flight you could describe as a flight for life.
In March 1957, following a tour of duty on Guam and Okinawa I had orders for Naples, Italy. While I was looking forward to Bella Napoli, my principal goal was to get back home to New York City for St. Patrick’s Day.
Leaving Okinawa, I was at the mercy of the Air Force. After a two-day wait, I caught a flight to Tachikawa AFB, a few miles west of Tokyo. At the operations building, I presented my orders and inquired about the next flight going stateside. A sympathetic sergeant informed me that there were available flights, but I would have to receive Navy authorization. I could only get that at the Receiving Station at the Navy base in Yokuska. Fortunately, there was a bus leaving for Toyko that made the rounds of the various military facilities before it dropped me off at Yokuska later that day.
Yokuska is a huge base sprawled along the waterfront. The transit barracks, being right at the main gate, I figured I could walk in, present my orders, have them stamped, draw pay, and wait on transport back to Tachikawa – not exactly.
“What’s the rush?” a Chief Gunners Mate said after he overheard my pleas to a Second Class Yeoman.
“I just want to get home.”
“So do the 200 other guys in transit.”
“How long will it be, Chief?”
“Could be as long as a week – it all depends how useful you make yourself.”
I closed my eyes in thought. “How can I be useful?”
“Stow your gear, and report back here in 30 minutes.”
Forty-five minutes later I was sitting in the front seat of a gray jeep wearing my pea coat, packing an unloaded-45 caliber pistol, and wearing a shore patrol arm band. For three nights I visited more bars than I ever have in my life without having a drink. On day four, about 50 of us left in two buses for Tachikawa for a flight to Hickam Field in Hawaii with a brief refueling stop on Midway Island, where the Gooney birds entertained us. At Hickam, it was back to square one. I had to get Navy authorization. A few hours later I found myself in a transit tent at Naval Air Station Barbers Point. There was little hope that I would make it back to New York for St. Patrick’s Day, but I decided to take a chance and visit the Operations Building before evening chow. I entered the Quonset hut and approached the Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate drinking coffee near the counter.
“Chief, I’ve been in transit a little over a week now. I really want to keep moving.”
“Don’t you want to enjoy paradise for a few days?” he said smiling.
“I just left paradise,” I said.
“How bad do you want to go?”
“Real bad.”
“Can you leave now?”
I had just changed into dungarees. “I can get my dress blues on in a few minutes.”
“Not necessary.” Pointing to a Marine Sergeant sitting at a desk behind a glass partition, he said, “Tell him you want to get on the El Toro flight leaving in about an hour.”
I approached the Marine Sergeant, who assured me there was a seat available. “The plane’s rigged for hospital transport. You sure you want to go?”
“Yes, I do. Do I have to wear blues?”
“You’re fine. Get your gear and be back here in 20 minutes.”
I ran back to my tent, grabbed my sea bag as the guys were leaving for chow, and lugged it to the operations building where I encountered more pregnant women in one place than I had ever seen before or have since then. They were the wives of the members of a Marine Air Squadron that was being transferred back to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro south of Los Angeles.
I boarded the flight after all of the women and the accompanying children. They were strapped into stretchers stacked along the R5D’s bulkhead and on the deck. I immediately made it clear to the three Navy nurses staffing the flight that I was not a Hospital Corpsman. They laughed when I explained my plight and took me to a canvas bulkhead bucket-seat in the forward part of the plane. Not only was I fed a tasty meal of boxed fried chicken, but one of the nurses found me a spare stretcher on the bulkhead where I enjoyed some much-needed sleep.
Upon landing at El Toro, I was informed that the Marines could not stamp my orders or issue me pay. When I changed into my dress blues, I was directed to the bus station at the main gate, where I caught a Greyhound to San Diego, and a taxi to the Naval Station. Finally, a quick turnaround – my orders were stamped and I drew enough pay for a plane ticket and leave expenses. Two hours later, I was on a plane to Los Angeles, and at 10 p.m. on a TWA red-eye for La Guardia Airport. After refueling at Willow Run in Detroit, I arrived in New York at 9:30 a.m. on March 17th.
Thanks to a cohort of Marine wives going home to give birth, it turned out to be a great day for this young Irishman.

Be the first to comment