Rodger W Brayden
Name: Rodger W Brayden
Date of Birth: December 8, 1949
Birth Place: Concord, MA
Dates of Service: 1971 – 1995
Branch: US Air Force
Prisoner of War: No
Today is May 9, 2008. This is Fidencio Marbella with the Melrose Park Public Library. Also present is Heidi Beazley, also with the Melrose Park Public Library. Today we will be speaking with Mr. Rodger Brayden. Rodger served in the United States Air Force for twenty-three years. He was born on December 8, 1949 in Concord, MA. The highest rank he achieved was as a major. This interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Let’s go ahead and get started Rodger. Why don’t you tell us when and where you were born and a little about your family growing up?
I was born December 8, 1949 in Concord, MA which is just about five miles from my actual hometown of Maynard, MA. I was the second of four children. I have an older brother who’s passed away now and two younger sisters. I lived in the same room of the same house until I went to college after I graduated from high school in 1967. I went to college at a place called Westfield State College, which is in the western part of Massachusetts.
You decided to join the Air Force. Why was that?
I decided to join the Air Force because I had a low lottery number in the draft. I can’t be anything but honest with you. My original motivations were not completely noble but I wasn’t inclined to flee to Canada or anything like that because I was pretty typical for a graduating college student of the time and not approving of the war in Vietnam, which was going on when I graduated in 1971. I’d also been raised to believe that you don’t make somebody else take your place. So, assuming I would be drafted, which is an open question at this point. I’m not sure how far they got down the numbers in that year. I joined the Air Force in September of 1971.
Where did you go for your initial training with the Air Force?
Well, I passed through the entrance station at Springfield, MA and boot camp for the US Air Force at that time was exclusively conducted at Lackland AFB right outside of San Antonio, TX, so that’s where I went for boot camp.
What was your first impression when you got to Lackland?
Like most everybody else’s, probably, a lot of uncertainty, a dose of abject fear, which of course was promoted. That’s part of what they do for you, do to you at boot camp. They want you to leave behind a lot of what you brought with you, so to speak, as far as your attitudes and that kind of thing. That was the reaction, though I’ve never confirmed this, I really do believe that all of the scheduling, of getting new recruits there was contrived to produce just what it did. We landed at San Antonio at something like ten or ten-thirty at night and we came off the airplane and there was an NCO there to do the reception. The reception consisted of the first dose of yelling and carrying on and they put us on buses and it was about forty-five minutes to an hour to get to Lackland AFB, which is on the southwest side of San Antonio. The airport was north of town a little ways. It’s a good sized city, so it takes a little while and we arrived at something like midnight and basically from memory, the first thing they did was take us to chow hall to eat, of all things, at midnight. I’m not sure exactly, it was just to keep us moving, I think, honestly. So we ate and immediately had to produce a urine specimen for drug testing, right off the top. After that was done, they took us to a place where we were divided into our groups of flights, as they were known. Again, bear in mind that this was in the dead of night and reporting to the entrance station was probably the same time for everybody. Reporting was five in the morning Eastern Time, and now it’s midnight or one or two Central Time. That’s probably what they had in mind, so they divided us up and brought us to the barracks and our training instructor, they were known as, gave us a lot of very important briefings, very little of which I remember at this point, but I do recall one thing very specifically. We had a formatted postcard, I believe it was and everybody had to address a postcard to their family and basically, “Hi, I’m doing fine.” About one line and those were immediately sent. I can see that it was important, especially if a family had never had anyone in the military. You’re sending your son or your daughter thousands of miles away and you have no idea what’s happening to them. So we went through all that and they gave us some basic briefings on how and what we were going to do and we turned in at something like two or two-thirty and we were awakened at five to the sound of a heavy metal trash can being kicked down the aisle between the bunks. So it was kind of a rough go, of course it was all for a purpose and the purpose was to have us leave behind all this individual baggage and get used to the idea that we were going to be in an organization that required us to function as a team and you’re required to put the interests of the group ahead of what your particular interests might be. It’s a little harsh, but when you consider that people were coming from all over the country and had never met one another and were at varying levels of maturity, it was something that they needed to do.
What was training like at Lackland? What kinds of things did they have you do?
A good measure of it was physical. Certainly the Air Force wasn’t demanding physically compared to what you may have been hearing from people who were in other branches of the military. There was a lot of marching, and we had to do some running and we had to do calisthenics and this kind of stuff, all in one really tightly organized situation. They also had what was called a confidence course, in plain English it would be an obstacle course. I guess if you finished successfully, it boosted your confidence. The Air Force likes to, always has to do things a little delicately. So there was a lot of that and there were tasks that you’d otherwise regard as menial. By golly, the floor in the barracks had to be perfectly polished. There were newer barracks, but we were in old, wood-framed barracks that were basically World War II vintage. There were two levels and you had an aisle down the middle and you had two rows of bunk beds down each side. It was old tile that you had to wax and polish, so you had to get that buffed to the highest shine and the smallest little blemish in the shine was cause for great chagrin, first on the part of the training instructor and the secondly, of course, on our part. There were a lot of things; the tasks were what you’d call menial that you had to do. So we were going through that and of course at the same time you’re getting administratively processed into the Air Force. We had dental exams, I remember, we had any number of other things, issuance of uniforms, and various other things that were administrative. Then of course, there was the initial screening to figure out who would be going to what sort of career fields and, in turn, where they would be going when they finished with the boot camp – as far as I know, I didn’t have a bird’s eye view at that time. As far as I know, there may have been tentative, sketchy plans for people but I don’t believe that everything was really ironed out because I took a language aptitude test and some other things and no final decisions were made until people had taken all sorts of tests.
How long were you at Lackland?
Boot camp was six weeks at that time. As probably anyone else would tell you who had been through it, every day seemed like a century, but the whole thing seemed like about ten minutes when you look back. Time perspective. Your world is controlled and so your time perspective becomes sort of warped. You’re up at five and lights out at nine or something like that, so officially anyway, eight hours of sleep were permitted and like it or not you ate three meals and so your whole environment was controlled. It was six weeks.
At the end of six weeks, did you have a specialization yet?
I was assigned one. I was assigned to work in command post. I’m not sure if I’m jumping ahead, so please re-direct me if you need to. The next stop was actually very close. I had the opportunity to take vacation or leave as it was known in the military, for ten days I think it was. I went back to the east coast but as far as actual travel from boot camp to the first place of permanent assignment, I was almost literally across the street because it was at Kelly Air Force Base, also on the southwest side of San Antonio, really only separated from Lackland AFB by a short highway. I was scheduled to do that, but for reasons that I never fully understood, apparently the commander of the unit there, the colonel or general at the time didn’t want any newbies like me. He didn’t know me. It wasn’t like I know that Brayden guy and don’t want him around – he just didn’t want any freshly minted recruits.
The idea in general of newbies.
Exactly. He was insisting on a higher level of experience. Then they had to decide what to do. It was really pointless to fund another move, mine was pretty small just a duffel bag and me on an airplane but they didn’t want to do that. I eventually wound up working in the personnel field and that’s where I started and did a good bit actually much of my career was in personnel related work. That’s where it started, at Kelly AFB.
How long were you at Kelly?
I was at Kelly until June, 1973, so it was a little more than a year and a half. I actually arrived in November, ’71 so it was a little more than a year and a half. I had met and worked with other guys in the personnel office who were a couple of years older than me, a couple of years ahead of me in the Air Force who basically encouraged me to fill out what was called a dream sheet, to list places I’d like to go. Basically, they said they’re going to send you somewhere before too long, you can count on it, so you have a chance if you list your preferences and give them something that they might like the place to send you. So I did that and some guys actually encouraged me to volunteer and go to Taiwan. I seem to remember somebody calling it the best kept secret in the Air Force. It wasn’t Vietnam itself, but in actuality the base that I wound up going to in Taiwan for the American presence was there basically for the purpose of flying supply support into Vietnam. It was an airlift unit that flew cargo airplanes. I went over there in July of 1973.
Was that the first time you had ever been overseas?
I’ve been to Canada but I’d never been over the ocean before.
What was the flight like over there for you?
It was real long! It was an airplane that the military had chartered with what was then known as Northwest Orient, soon to be a part of Delta or something like that, out of Seattle. Again, after that time in Texas I was given the chance to take some vacation so I went back to the east coast and then flew out to Seattle and then from Seattle to Taiwan. I was just trying to remember if we stopped in Alaska or not. I’m having a little trouble bringing that back. We stopped in Japan. We took, what’s the expression, the Great Circle Route? The curvature of the earth has always befuddled me. It’s shorter to go up to Alaska and across it and down than what seems like directly because of the curvature of the earth. I believe we may have stopped in Alaska, but we definitely stopped at Yokuska Air Force Base in Japan outside of Tokyo and finally into Taiwan. Now this was not calculated the same way the boot camp thing was but I remember landing in the dead of night in Taipei. There weren’t screaming NCOs waiting to make my life miserable when I got off that airplane. It was a very different point of view.
What was Taiwan like?
In what sense?
You landed at night, but when you first saw it in daylight, what were your impressions?
Well we’re in Taipei, which is the capital and the largest city so it was very busy and for the first few days everything seemed to be going like on fast forward. There was a lot of traffic, though in those days not quite so much, not so many people had cars in those days but a lot of people had motorcycles, not huge ones but you just felt like there were motorcycles and motor scooters buzzing around like mosquitoes almost. It was a little hard to adjust to at first. I arrived in July, so it was semi-tropical, real warm and real humid, probably, I couldn’t tell you the exact temperature but a reasonable guess would be ninety degrees and humidity of ninety percent. Hot and clammy all the time and that was even after San Antonio which is plenty hot in the summer but not as humid. My actual destination was not, final destination was not Taipei. My final destination was a place called Ching Chaun Kang Air Base which is about two, two and a half hours down the western coast of the island from Taipei, outside of a city called Taichung, which is a good sized city, but not as large as Taipei.
How long were you assigned to that air base in Taiwan?
I was there from July of ’73 until November of 1974, so about a year and a half.
Were you also in Personnel there?
I was in Personnel. Another thing that happened of course was, if you can bear a timeline in mind, shortly before I had gotten there, the peace treaty had been negotiated between the United States and the North Vietnamese and so by the time I arrived the reason for the presence there, of the American Air Force, really was sort of dwindling away. There was a whole exercise, the unit was not disbanded, but its components were sent to other places, some to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, some to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. I wound up staying and spent a little bit more than a year as a consequence. I also got married there.
Did you have much of a chance for taking leave when you were in Taiwan?
Yes, we got to. When you marry someone who lives there of course you have the perfect tour guide, but I got to travel fairly extensively around the island, which is not very large, but I’ve heard the dimensions and square mileage compared roughly to the state of New Jersey. But New Jersey’s flat and Taiwan is not! Taiwan is very mountainous. In those days the highway network wasn’t primitive but it wasn’t as nearly well-developed as it is today so travel was slower.
What were some of your responsibilities then in Personnel?
I did a number of different things but as much as anything else I frequently worked with processing people who were leaving there to go somewhere else. We got the assignment instructions for people and it was pretty comprehensive. It said where they were supposed to go, when they needed to report and also there would sometimes be special added instructions. They might need to take some kind of training on the way, en route to someplace else, different things about special equipment they might be required to take with them or whatever it might be. We were also involved with arranging flights for them to leave the island for wherever it was they were going.
Was that for both military and charter flights?
Right. Right now I can’t remember whether there were more charter flights, I think it was mostly still charter flights that were going at the time. Sometimes people would be booked individually on commercial flights but most often it was charter flights.
Would people generally prefer the civilian charter flights over the military ones?
People would angle very hard for them if they could get them! The best way I could describe the military charters would be the way it worked was kind of like Southwest Airlines does. Everything was general admission. You go barreling on the airplane looking for the best seat. I mean they were perfectly good airplanes, they weren’t primitive turbo-props sitting in the back with the baggage. The planes were fine but they were configured, they were set up to move a large number of people as quickly as they could and it wasn’t big on amenities. If people could find a way to get on a commercial flight, oh yes, they were very happy to do that.
After you wrapped up your time in Taiwan, where were you next assigned?
The next stop was MacDill Air Force Base right outside of Tampa, Florida.
Now this time you had a wife to bring with you.
This time I had a wife. She had never been to the United States even before that. Her English was excellent though, it was really excellent when I met her. I’d like at this point to have a recording of how she spoke then to how she speaks now, but actually there’d be some difference, I’m sure, but actually her English was very good. She had been educated at a college in Taiwan that was run by American and Canadian missionaries. They did everything in English, but that’s not the same as saying you know exactly what to expect, obviously. I had a wife in tow, exactly. We didn’t have a whole lot of belongings but we had some and we got a small apartment not too far from the base there. The best news for her was she got a job relatively soon so she wasn’t staring at four walls in a one bedroom apartment, all day every day. I suppose climatically it wasn’t all that bad because the climate in Tampa isn’t the same, but similar.
Warm and humid.
Exactly, that’s what it’s like in most of Taiwan.
What were your responsibilities at MacDill?
A couple of different things, I was still in personnel. Until I say otherwise, I was doing personnel work because that’s what I did. I worked in the records department for a time and we did reviews, scheduled reviews that people had to have of their personnel records where they would come in and everything was rechecked and if they needed to be provided some kind of paper document to support whatever it was, we did that. And it was everything from basic identification information to their history of their assignments to training that they’ve received. People got certificates and it could be an important qualification. So I did that for a period of time and then later I was put on processing the officers for their assignments out. What was there was a flying training unit, mostly. There were a lot of younger officers learning how to fly a specific airplane, a fighter plane that they had there. So there was a cycle. The classes would come and go and there were peaks of activity because a class would be graduating and they’d get their assignments to go elsewhere and they had to be processed.
What were these pilots like? Did you have much contact with them?
I had some. Okay, LOC I hope you’re listening! There’s a sort of scale of insufferability. This is coming from someone who was never a flyer. I think it’s still true and I think there’s some good reason for it, but it’s kind of like a caste system. There’s the pilots and then there’s all the rest of us. It’s not completely unfair because after all they’re the guys who put their tails on the line in combat. They are the combat part of the Air Force. But not like some other lines of work there’s a disposition that’s conducive to it. There’s a sort of way of looking at the world that gets developed in the process of this training. You hear people talk about a gunslinging quarterback in the NFL. Same kind of swagger. Some of them are just great and they need to have it because they need to be self confident. They can’t be shrinking violets doing what they do. Some guys handled it well and could compartmentalize it and put it to work for them when it was really appropriate and other guys didn’t seem to manage.
So they were like that all the time?
Some of them were! Actually, within the world of fliers too, this is informal of course, but there was always a pecking order. Fighter pilots were at the top of the heap and they’d speak with the greatest of disdain for people who flew what they called trash haulers, in other words cargo airplanes. Not high performance, not hotshots. Some were fine, some were not so fine. The training produces what it produces.
How long were you assigned to MacDill?
I was there from the end of November until the summer of 1977. I got chosen to go to work and do personnel work, though not the same exactly because this was at Tactical Air Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, outside of Hampton, Virginia. There, things were a little different. I was paired up with one officer, who was one of the good guy fliers. He was doing different kinds of studies. In essence I was sort of his gofer, his administrative guy. But he was doing, it wasn’t just pre-programmed – send someone here, send someone there. He was doing studies about the impact of experience on training, on the readiness of fighter units and so forth. He was the guy doing the brain work, there’s no way around that, but I assisted it. It was an interesting, different look for me at the way the Air Force operated because before that I was right down at ground level doing nuts and bolts kinds of things. I was only there a year because, the transition I forgot to tell you. I joined because originally it was the draft and I was afraid of getting drafted. Eventually I changed my mind and decided it might be worth staying around. Not to be funny, but I did. So I started applying to go to officer training and in a little less than a year I had been at Langley AFB I got notified that I had been selected to go to officer training. So it shortened the time that I spent there.
Langley was very nice, a nice area. My only regret was that I really liked the area and I would have liked to have spent a longer time seeing more of the area. It’s just remarkable, with a ton of history. I kind of like history. In essence, I went back to Lackland AFB for officer training which was conducted on another part of the same base. Now that was three month’s worth a little longer.
How do they make you into an officer?
I was talking with somebody about this. You can really see the difference if you went through both its boot camp type of experiences. At officer training, nobody yelled at us, but the really critical differences were in enlisted boot camp, if you didn’t screw up very badly, if you basically kept your head down and your mouth shut and did what they told you to do, you’ll go through. In officer training you were required to get out front and lead. You weren’t required to grab and stage a coup de etat and take over your little unit from everybody else but sort of on a rotational basis everybody had to do leadership functions. They put you out front and they wanted to see how you would do in that situation. That was part of the evaluation. How would you do? Again, there was no yelling but everybody got in their individual unit, we still called them flights, got a bunch of deadlines for things that you were supposed to do. It might be a presentation we had to make. It might be you had to drill your group in marching, and everybody had to do it. You didn’t get to choose whether you had to do it. Everybody had to do it. There were deadlines, one after another after another and the pressure was from the deadlines. The pressure wasn’t from people yelling at you. If you were unsuccessful at meeting the deadlines and forming the tasks, eventually you’d just be pulled relatively quietly; sorry, we can’t have you doing this. You can’t do this and you were sent packing – but no one yelled at you. A lot of pressure, just a totally different type.
So the pressure was just a lot more subtle.
Was there a lot of peer pressure put on you as officers?
There’s peer pressure at the enlisted boot camp too, but sure, there was because there’s always a sorting out in any group of people and that is an intense, high-pressure environment. In three months you had to get yourselves molded into a cohesive unit. Everybody had to work as a team; not just chores, but also if you could, to help someone in your midst who might be having trouble with part of this to do it. You were expected to do that too. You could not be a free agent. Free agents got identified and weeded out quickly. There was a lot of pressure, but it was of a different type in what you were expected to do and what they were looking for as their final product was different.
So after ninety days, you were an officer.
Ninety days. I think my hat’s still up there somewhere I threw it so high.
They had an actual graduation ceremony for you?
What was that like?
Really basically, it was like a formal military parade situation. It’s a little hard to describe but it’s very formatted. Units were of a specific size and there’s a whole sequence: so it happens, presentation of the officers of the different groups, which is a drill. It’s not like, Johnny please come up and be acknowledged. It’s all the Johnnies have to march in a very coordinated way. It was all that kind of stuff. I don’t remember if anybody got, there was some kind of award presented at the reviewing stand. I don’t remember exactly what those were, but then all the units passed in review before the reviewing stand. The context for it was a formal military parade, but your graduation was announced at the end.
Were your families there?
Families were allowed to be there for that. My wife wasn’t able to but families were allowed.
Now that you’re an officer, where did they send you?
They sent me to Omaha, Nebraska. Offut Air Force Base, which turned out actually to be a good experience. I couldn’t have anticipated that. I’d never been there. It was in those days sort of legendary in the Air Force. Every place in any branch of the military has a nickname of some kind, but Offut was referred to as “Awful Offut.” Its location was referred to as “Omigod, Nebraska.” Well, Offut wasn’t awful and Omaha was a nice town. I’m sure it still is a nice town. The duties there, I was recycled back into the personnel business. The organization that I was in was the personnel support for all the Air Force people who were assigned there, but there were a number of different organizations there, notably headquarters for Strategic Air Command, which no longer exists. I’ll have to wear a black armband for that. It was large. There was flying that went on there, headquarters was there. Everybody at some time has heard of or seen a movie about the big underground command post. That was there. There were probably twelve or thirteen thousand or more Air Force people stationed there, so it was a big operation and we were supporting that, again along with the normal personnel functions for the Air Force, overseeing training, people’s assignments, management of their records. Also what was known as the personnel reliability program, which was a special set of standards and security clearances for people whose duties were defined in any way as having to do with nuclear weapons. Everything right down to police who marched around the missiles out in the middle of nowhere out in Montana. It was a very serious set of standards as far as high level security clearance and then people who were on it were monitored because you couldn’t have, you couldn’t perform the duties that were defined if, for example if you were on medication of some kind that could cause you problems with consciousness or alertness or your mental processes. If someone came up with a DUI, that was practically the end of the world. That part was pretty meticulous and could be pretty challenging and pretty stressful. I didn’t have personal exposure to the nuclear weapons, but the personnel function had responsibility for a part of the total and that was my first exposure to that. That was interesting.
That’s got to be pretty pressurized there.
It was at times because you had to watch things. Again, I wasn’t out there with the weapons or control of the weapons, but you were expected to really carefully monitor anything that happened that could affect the ability of someone who was. If a unit had short staffing, they might try to slip something by because Johnny had one extra beer last night, don’t worry about him, but that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be played, you had to watch that. It twisted your outlook a little bit. I can remember seeing on TV a story, a news story about an accident or something. It was mentioned as part of the story that one of the involved parties was in the Air Force and my antenna went up immediately that I had to know who it was to see if this had implications. I was sitting at home watching television and again I didn’t even have access to the weapons or the codes or anything like that but you had to be very aware of that.
If there were problems it would come back to you. Why was that person assigned there?
Exactly, I was the guy who had to point this stuff out and say such and such a unit, they had what they called suspension, did you suspend Johnny for personnel reliability because this thing happened and they were supposed to answer up to us.
How long were you at Offut?
Just about three years, from November of ’78 until October of ’81. Pretty close to three years.
Still right in the middle of the Cold War.
Yes, absolutely, it still was.
After your time in Omaha, Nebraska, where did they send you?
They sent me to Germany. They sent me to a place called Spangdahlem Air Base, which is, how can I describe it; the map of Germany in my mind is always divided into east and west. I know it’s not, but the old West Germany was almost like a dogleg, the letter “L” shaped and we were sort of, almost to the joint in the letter “L”. Very close to the border of Luxembourg. I could get into Luxembourg by car in twenty minutes or so. The closest point in France wasn’t more than an hour and a half away. Belgium was an hour or so away, so we were at a crossroads location almost. It was in the country, it was not in a city. It was probably thirty or forty minutes away from the nearest city, which was maybe one hundred or two hundred thousand people. It was a country location. They flew fighters there and though the military always said that it won’t confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons, they had them there.
Those would be the tactical nuclear weapons?
Right. Exactly. They flew the F-4 which is well retired now from the inventory. They flew the F-4 and two squadrons there had the nukes and one that was basically to do jamming. They had a name for them, Wild Weasels. They had a Wild Weasel squadron and two squadrons that actually carried the nukes.
So these Wild Weasels would jam the radars of the enemy?
They were supposed to electronically clear the path for the other guys. I don’t think I’d want to fly with them even if I was a flyer. Pretty dangerous stuff. Maybe you do have to have a little swagger if you’re going to do that.
What was it like living in Germany?
It was great. I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t remember if living on the base was available to us or not. I don’t think it was but I was delighted that we lived in a German village. I didn’t learn tons of German but I learned enough to struggle along. It was a really pleasant place and the people were wonderful. We made some friends that we still correspond with, while we were there. It was a great experience. I loved it. My kids went to the German kindergarten in the village, which was actually sort of combines what we would call kindergarten and pre-school because it was for three, four and five year olds. One of the teachers there was bi-lingual but there was no commitment the kids were going to get English, which was fine with me because what was the point? A really great side benefit was, especially for my daughter, who was older, really became fluent in German. She’d have to go back and add water, so to speak now to bring it back. My son understood everything too. He didn’t speak much but he understood everything and they did their business in German. It was a really great experience. The whole business of living out in the German community was a really great experience for all of us.
What were some of the things you did for fun over there?
Well, we traveled as much as we could. If you talked to other people who’ve been in Europe, they probably all will tell you the same thing and in a different way it’s true for everybody. Everything was close. Europe is so geographically compact compared to this country that in short periods of time compared to what you think of here, you can get to a lot of places. As I mentioned before, Luxembourg was only twenty minutes away and you could go out the other side in another thirty minutes, it was so small. It was interesting. Belgium was close by and the Battle of the Bulge actually, from the Second World War had passed very close to where we lived and it passed through Luxembourg and Luxembourg was liberated as a consequence of the Battle of the Bulge, so there were a lot of historical things like that to see and people were very receptive and very friendly for the most part. France, you’ve got Switzerland, the Netherlands, the U.K… I didn’t get to spend a long time in any one of those spots because duty was hectic and kind of stressful because it was the Cold War and you had to joke about playing war about once every two months minimum and everything changed and you had different duties for that period of time and then you had to come back to your regular job and try and catch up when it was over. But when you could get to travel, it was great and we enjoyed it very, very much. Let me mention one other thing too. We went to Luxembourg and in Luxembourg, I forgot the name of the town, they had a Patton Day parade every year because it was General Patton’s Third Army specifically that had liberated Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge. He was iconic in Luxembourg. They asked for Americans to come over and bring a unit, a marching unit to be in the parade, which they did. I wasn’t part of that but the authorities on the base said, go over, wear your uniform, the reception will be warm. So I went over there. I remember going one time with my son. He was probably four, maybe at the time. We went over for the parade and it was a very moving experience because two or three kids, who could not possibly have been alive in 1944 and 1945 because they were about ten, maybe, and this was 1983, wanted my autograph only because I was an American in a military uniform. I wanted to say I didn’t do anything for you but the point was their parents had told them and they knew. That was pretty touching.
I wonder if we’d still get that kind of reception today?
Things change, and I’m not so sure but I do find, with the rarest of exceptions I’ve found that among Europeans anyway even when there’d be serious political disagreements when governments do goofy things that we don’t like people were never, it never carried over to person to person relationships. Maybe I wouldn’t be asked for my autograph, I don’t know about that, but I don’t expect that I’d be treated badly on a one to one basis. Even with the French, who can be pretty prickly, it’s the same. People are nice to you as long as you’re decent to them, people will be very nice despite whatever political disagreements there might be.
So they differentiate between the government and the American people.
Very easily, although in the case I just cited there they didn’t want to and they were very happy about what other representatives of my government had done at a previous time.
What was your rank by this time?
I was a captain.
After you were done with Germany, where did you head off to next?
Next I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York to teach ROTC, three or four years.
How did you enjoy teaching ROTC?
I enjoyed it immensely. The first comment I really need to clarify carefully is I could never have been on the faculty at that school otherwise. They do things I don’t understand there. But you were actually acknowledged if you were an instructor in one of the ROTC units. The Army and the Air Force and the Navy and the Marines as a subdivision all had ROTC units and you were acknowledged as a junior faculty member and so you got privileges on campus and that kind of stuff. I was really impressed with the young people that we worked with. Rensselaer is an engineering and science school which I think I’m still right to say is roughly in the second rank, just below the MITs and the Cal-Polys and those kinds of places. They were highly intelligent and for the most part they were highly motivated about the military. To be candid, it was expensive and the scholarship counted for a lot and if you could get a scholarship it gave you a way to go to a school that you couldn’t remotely afford otherwise. They were real intelligent and they were real motivated. They didn’t necessarily know a lot about the military which is really where we came in, with a few exceptions. Some were the children of military people and knew something at least about the military, but many were not. They were fresh out of high school so they were eager, they were motivated, they looked up to us, which if you’re not careful would inflate your ego, but it also gives you obligations to make sure you’re the sort of example you would like someone else to look up to. That’s okay. It’s something I was willing to try and do and it was very good experience. They also sent all of us for two summers, the summer after our first and second years as instructors. We went to what was for our ROTC cadets their boot camp. They did two years and after their sophomore year they had to go through, it’s a rite of passage, it doesn’t matter, that was not the way I got my commission. But when you were going by that method you had to go to a boot camp-like experience after your sophomore year, sometime in that summer. It was basically a month long, so all of us, one way or another went to be instructors for that. So I did that between two summers. The first time I went to Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle of Florida and the second time I actually just went up the road about three hours to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in upstate New York. It’s closed down now, I’m almost certain. They had a section where they were able to do the summer encampment for the cadets which was another sort of subset, really great experience. The first year I was a little concerned making sure that I succeeded now being the evaluator. By the second time I was much more at ease with how to do that. The really good part about that was you didn’t work with your own cadets from the school you taught at during the academic year. Similar to all the other boot camp experiences they brought people in from all over the place and partly to make sure that you couldn’t find your way onto active duty only having gone through, not a clique exactly, but where nothing was unfamiliar. So the students, cadets, that I met, they came from lots of different kinds of places and after the first time I went back, I think all of us did to the place where we taught and said, you know, you need to pay attention to some of these others who were going to these boot camps because some of them, they’re not getting any money. They just want to be in the Air Force, real bad! Those young people were tremendously motivated. We did it a couple of times. We said you’d better straighten up, the Air Force is giving you fifteen thousand dollars a year to go here and that’s your motivation? How about that guy you met down there in Florida who doesn’t get a penny and he’d just run you over to get a chance to be in the Air Force. There were degrees and different angles of motivation that you ran into among the cadets. Good experience! These were, by and large, really top-notch young people.
What were some of the classes that you taught at Rensselaer?
You basically had four sequences of military studies. There’s military history, there’s stuff about particular etiquette and courtesies of the military. There was also leadership and management. The cadet units were expected, with oversight, to administer their own unit. They were supposed to function like they were an experimental military unit. Everybody had a rank within that scheme and everybody had responsibilities within that scheme and they had to administer themselves under our oversight. We had to make sure they met the objectives, that they could pass the various tests, the physical stuff as well. The third year that I was there I was given the job of what they called Commandant of Cadets, which was much more working directly with the leadership structure among the cadets and making sure that they ran things the way they were supposed to be run. Occasionally I had to do these open rack inspections and catch somebody who had a horrible rope hanging off their button uniform, when it was just a little thread, which is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to be aware of it. The leadership, within the cadet organization, the leadership changed every semester, so in a four year career in school you would have had eight different positions as a cadet of one kind or another, whether you went all the way to top and being commander of your wing or you had positions that were at a lower level. We were doing what I reported was done to us when I went to officer training which was you put the cadets in their positions and they had to show you that they’re willing and able to lead successfully.
When you’re done with Rensselaer where did you head off to next?
The next stop was the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Lowry Air Force Base right outside of Denver, that’s closed now too, or mostly closed. I think they closed the base but may have kept that function there. In those days the air reserve personnel center shared the building with the Air Force accounting and finance center. That may still be true, although the finance functions for all the military have sort of been consolidated under one big umbrella. That organization oversaw personnel administration for all the Air Force reservists, wherever they were. Records were maintained, policies were set, and calculations for people who accumulated credit toward retirement when they were in the reserves. Not on the same day for day basis when you were on active duty, it’s actually a fairly complex system. All that had to be administered so people would be properly credited with their retirement if they stayed long enough. There were policy interactions with the Air National Guard and also with the reserve components of the other branches of the military.
How long were you in Colorado?
After your assignment to Colorado, where were you sent next?
Off to Italy. I was in Naples, right outside of Naples. The job there was, the title, was Commander of Detachment 4, 1141st US Air Force Special Activities Squadron. My goodness, that’s a long title.
Reality was somewhat less, but it was important, I don’t want to convey the wrong idea that I was some kind of highfalutin guy. Really what it all amounted to was Naples had and still has a regional, sub-headquarters for NATO and at that place there were not only American military people from all four branches, not in large numbers, but all four branches were represented, there were also people from all the NATO nations. Their military was assigned there though the largest numbers were people whose countries were in that region. So the Italians were there. The Greeks were there. The Turks were there, they were the most heavily represented. But there needed to be an administrative umbrella for the Air Force people who were assigned to various jobs that may not be related to each other functionally. When I was in Florida, when I was in these various other places, there was a more direct relationship. People came under a commander who controlled the function and then under that commander also came support functions like personnel that I did. There, it wasn’t the same unifying element of a functionally organized unit. There’d be a few people in one office for NATO, a few people in another. In total, perhaps four-hundred, give or take. You’re either in the NATO headquarters or in other units in the area that typically had some kind of relationship with the NATO organization. I provided their administrative support with a staff of about a half dozen other people, their support for pay. We were like a liaison to the personnel functions that were elsewhere in the Air Force, making sure people got paid, again relating to people who did that. I was also sort of the disciplinarian for the enlisted people. If they got in trouble up to a certain point I had authority under what they called Article 58 Uniform Code of Military Justice to administer punishment. The person had to agree to be dealt with that way. They could demand a trial, but mostly the things were pretty picayune. Not picayune, but they weren’t insignificant but you could not handle very serious offenses this way. But if the offense was at a relatively low level and the person agreed for it to be handled that way, then the whole proceeding was done in front of me. That was a part of things and then we also provided a liaison to the basic support functions which were all run by the Navy: the hospital, the medical support was navy; all the shopping facilities that were provided when you’re overseas were provided by them. My official boss commanded the entire 1141st. His office was in Stuttgart, Germany and he had several others like me in different places, mostly related to NATO organizations. On a day to day basis, while not formally working for them, I really worked for these two Air Force general officers who were there at Naples. Believe me, I wouldn’t have survived very long if the general’s office called and said we need you to do something and I said, sorry, you need to clear that with my boss, who’s a colonel in Germany! Everybody understood that and obviously my boss in Germany understood that and he was all about keeping things smooth, sort of on a larger scale than I was expected to do on my own relatively small scale. I learned a lot about life. I wasn’t a kid by the time I got there and what I mean is I had not had a job that involved me so intimately with people, really day to day. When you’re overseas, the American community tightens up, people are closer to each other, mostly in a good way and know more about each other and if somebody does something bad, it impacts more people and more people will know about it and a small crisis is a large crisis, or can be anyway. That’s why I say I learned quite a bit about life because I had done personnel work but I had never had a job like that. There’s no other way to say it, one night I chased around all over town looking for a guy’s wife who was allegedly suicidal. We found her in the o-club playing slot machines. That may be slow motion financial suicide, but she was quite happy actually. We didn’t know better, we thought we had a very serious crisis on our hands and there were a couple of things that were crises in nature that you just had to deal with. We dealt with the families also; again this is a different situation from here in the United States. If someone got sent overseas and the military sponsored them, meaning that the names are on the official orders and they received not a typical tourist passport, but a passport that got them in and out of the country where they were assigned. There was a relationship there that was different and had official implications that it doesn’t have if I’m here in Chicago and I work at the recruiting station downtown and my wife and I lived in Aurora, it’s just not the same. There are some official and legal implications, there are agreements that govern the relationship between the military members and their families and the local government, certain authority to do certain things is all defined. So there it could be pressure-packed and sometimes it involved the families specifically. For example, I can recall we had a man who had gone back to the United States for training courses of some kind and his wife had, I’m not real clear if she actually swallowed some pills or threatened to swallow some pills, and she was hospitalized. The doctors told me that this lady really doesn’t need to leave the hospital. So my job was to persuade her not to leave the hospital because they were convinced, they weren’t sure that she would commit suicide. They were worried about the mental state that she was in. Despite that tighter relationship that I described, I didn’t have the right to order that lady to do anything. What I had to do was approach her and word things in such a manner that I stopped just short of telling her that I was ordering her to stay in the hospital and I think I recall telling her that if she chose to leave I’d be forced to contact the local authorities and have her picked up because she could be a threat to herself and all that kind of stuff. Basically, what I banked on was the fact that this was someone who was in a military family, especially not a younger person, had a frame of mind that they would give you authority in their minds that perhaps you didn’t legally possess. The good news is that I don’t think I was an especially persuasive person but I showed up in essence and played the role that the doctors asked me to play and she stayed in the hospital, thank goodness. So you got into those kinds of things that wasn’t the sort of experience or exposure that I’d ever had before. I didn’t learn anymore about the Air Force, but I learned a lot about life and about people. A lot of it was fun. I make it sound like it was dark and disastrous but we had a great time there too. Southern Italy was much different from Germany where we had been before, not nearly as efficient, services and so forth could be very questionable. For about one year we really hated it but for the last two we really loved it and it almost was as though after about a year, as a family we decided it’s all happened to us, we’ve lost the electricity unpredictably and frequently, we went to see our friends in Germany over Christmas and came back to find our house had been broken onto and we’d basically taken all the bruises that everybody said you could absorb if you lived there and we started to see what was good and we had a great time and we made very nice Italian friends there too, with whom we still correspond. It was a great experience, although I thought it was going to kill me for a while.
How long were you in Naples?
About three years.
After that was your last assignment?
Where was that?
That was right here, Great Lakes. As I think I started to say before we got the recording going, I was assigned to what they call Headquarters, US Military Entrance Processing Command and that’s the headquarters that overseas a number of different processing stations around the country where people who are applying to enlist in the military go to have physical exams, aptitude tests, mental exams and so forth. Our office had someone, minus the Coast Guard; our office had someone from every branch of the military. By this time I was pretty used to working with people from the other branches because in Italy the people that provided most of the support were Navy and I had counterparts in the Army and Navy for the job that I did and had a lot of interaction with them, so I’d seen people wearing Navy, Army or Marine Corps uniforms so it was not a revelation to me by then.
What year was this that you were in Great Lakes?
I arrived there in ’92. June or July? It was June, that’s right. We flew back to the east coast and my wife and kids went to Canada to visit family and I drove straight out here and took some vacation time, but I came out in June.
At that point, you’d decided to retire from the Air Force?
It wasn’t absolute but I was thinking that way. Basically, at the time that I got serious about retiring, my kids were both in high school and the reason I was still around the area, more than anything else, was inertia, positive inertia though because they were in high school and they didn’t want to go anywhere but of course that has a limited term to it and that reason disappeared after a couple of years but at the same time that’s a pretty horrible time to yank the kids out of school and put them somewhere else. We discovered something that everybody discovers who spends a long time moving around, whether it’s the corporate world or the military. Every time when your kids are older it gets a little harder. They were not real interested in moving at that point and there wasn’t a compelling reason to do it really either. It’s not like I owned property anywhere else or had a job waiting for me somewhere else or anything like that, so we decided to stay here when I decided to retire.
When was it that you actually retired from the Air Force?
My retirement was official in February of ’95.
Did you have any kind of ceremony?
There was a ceremony. The boss there wouldn’t let anybody go without a ceremony and I wouldn’t have resisted. You want to mark the end of an experience like that. It wasn’t a big parade like when I got commissioned or anything, but they had a small auditorium there and my family came and the people who were there came and I got a decoration at the end and the official certificate was read. It was very nice, long enough to mark the event, not so long as to be frightfully boring. I was nervous, but not scared to death.
After you left the Air Force, did you have much of an adjustment period to being a civilian or did you just hop right into it?
There were some adjustments. I think anybody who stays in for an extended period does face some adjustments. Of course I had to figure out what I was going to do and I made a halting first attempt at life insurance sales, halting and brief. The product was reputable, this was Northwestern Mutual Life Company, it was a very reputable company. I just found it wasn’t really for me. Very interestingly, I wandered into the library where I live, in Gurnee and not with this purpose actually, but they had job postings up, not for there, it’s all on the Web now, but at the time there was some kind of a printed product at the library system up there about the job openings and there was a job opening at Waukegan and I went over and applied. I didn’t get the job that was advertised, but I got another job and wound up staying around for a little while. I agreed to work on an MLS [Masters in Library Science], which I did through U of I [University of Illinois], their LEEP program, well I started out in LEEP, but most of it was done in person, so basically I got sucked into the library world. I’m not sorry about that, not sorry a bit. There are adjustments. I’m sorry, I don’t know if you want to hear anymore. I still have this happen to me, I have shed the idea that people will jump to attention when I go into a room. I’ve never really had it since I’ve been working, there were never any serious thoughts about that. There are some differences, some of them are for the positive, but some I’ll admit I would like to see things a bit more the way they were when I was in the military. I think the two things that I still have some trouble with are that after twenty-three years in a situation where you are absolutely, positively drilled with the idea that you are on a team and that the team always comes first, I don’t always see that out here. It’s the only way I can say it. I work with a, in any organization, military or civilian, not everyone is of equal quality, obviously. I worked with some wonderful people, even when I was in Waukegan too. There are many individuals just as good as people who I worked with in the military. The only thing that’s missing is that the underlying teamwork ethic doesn’t seem to be exactly the same. I worked with some people in the military who I didn’t like a bit who were not team sort of people, but they were going against the ethic and unless they were exceptionally smart or conniving or whatever, they got weeded out. Here in the big civilian world it’s more every person for themselves. I don’t know how you get there without changing the other things that are good that I wouldn’t want to go back to about the military. I miss that. I miss that attitude. I also, people will tell you, I’m reflexively still, first contact, someone addresses me, yes sir, yes ma’am. There’s an underlying, underpinning sort of basic etiquette, respect that isn’t always present out here either. I’ve certainly gotten through and I’ve had to learn to distinguish between people who are really respectful toward you and who aren’t. It’s just a little harder because the obvious signs are not there. I have to learn to do that. I’ve learned how to do that reasonably well but I sometimes wish, part of it may be generational too because at this point in my life I’m substantially older than a lot of people I work with and so that way of addressing people was more common when I was a younger person. Not always yes sir, no sir. I once had, when I was going to library school, I addressed someone that way, it was a lady and I forgot who she was. She looked at me and said, okay which was it, Southerner or military? I’m innocent of the Southerner charge and guilty of the military charge. It is identifiable. I still do it and I don’t think it’s something I should really get rid of. Some people may need to adjust to it if they’re not used to hearing it but how can you go wrong being polite to people? That’s the way I look at it. If they were to interpret that as that’s what it is then I don’t think over the long haul it’s a problem with people who aren’t used to it.
Well, that’s who you are.
Yeah, it really is. The other thing that’s interesting and a little harder sometimes, but not wrong, is when you’re in the military, you’re captive to a great degree, and if you have no other motivation it’s the kind of trouble you can get into by screwing up can be a lot more serious than in the civilian world. For the most part, unless you commit a felony, if you screw up in your job, you might get fired. You screw up badly in the military, you might be in jail, and it could be for almost the same thing. Out here in the civilian world, you really need to find a way to make people want to do their jobs because it’s a good idea to do their jobs, not because you have a big stick. That can be harder, but when you manage it, it’s pretty satisfying.
Thank you very much for sharing your memories with us today.