The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Three
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Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force.
My assignment was to Clark Air Base in Angeles City on the northern island of Luzon, the largest single island in the archipelago. Angeles is about an hour north of Manila on the one major (read: paved) road between the two. In a hint of irony, Bergstrom Air Force Base was named for an Army Air Forces captain killed in the Japanese attack at Clark Field on 8 December 1941. Same day as the Pearl Harbor attack you remember from that movie that sucked, but on the other side of the International Dateline. He was the first Austinite fatality of WWII. RIP Captain Bergstrom.
There were no RF-4C stationed at Clark AB, at least not when I arrived there in June 1989. And as things happened, there were never to be any stationed there after that either. There were F-4E multi-role (air superiority and ground attack) and F-4G Wild Weasel variants. F-4E was the first (and only) variant that carried an internal gun, the standard 20mm Vulcan cannon. F-4G was… look up YGBSM on your favorite search engine. Weasels fly into missiles designed to target them. It’s a fascinating history. If you think you’re brave eating that slightly dodgy smoked ham cold cut, think of those guys and add another slice. You know you want to anyway.
The G model only had one system in my purview. It carried the standard gun camera most contemporary fighters mounted as standard. The F-4G Wild Weasel platform didn’t sport a gun; the gun camera is just a small 8mm optical device situated to film whatever happens in front of the airplane. Like a police cruiser’s dash camera, but for fighter pilots.
One evening I had dropped a dude off on a gun camera job on a G model. Did I mention I was expediting sometimes by now? I was learning to lead people, and I didn’t even understand that was happening, really. Anyway, the gun camera had somehow gotten shorted with the IFF (Information, Friend or Foe) on that jet such that the aerodrome was alerted to a potential threat to the security of the equipment and of the facility. The jet was “interrogating” as I understand it. Thing is, the weight-on-wheels (WoW) switch was not depressed (this is a “dead-man’s switch” which is depressed when the landing gear are retracted), so the jet shouldn’t have been squawking anything at all.
When I arrived at the parking spot, my guy was stepping off the crew ladder while being questioned quite vigorously by the sky cops, who were confused as hell. We all were. A brief moment of terror. No one got shot, and the rogue jet plotting a coup was subdued. It took a couple days, but we finally figured it out. F-4s are legendary among maintainers for the ghosts in that particular machine. WoW.
The Republic of the Philippines was (and is) a pretty impoverished country. As with every third-world country I ever visited, corruption was a part of everyday life. We rented a house in a neighborhood off base for the first 8 months or so, and we never had a telephone because I was unwilling to pay the local utility official to get a line installed in less than the normal 4 – 8 months (or whatever was deemed proper by the local guys in uniforms). It was a pretty nice stone place, plenty of space and two baths. It also had an 8’ tall cinder block wall surrounding it with broken glass buried in the mortar atop it all around the perimeter to deter boys in shorts and flip flops from breaching and stealing whatever they could find. Not evil people by and large, but very poor. It was a way of life for them, and ‘American’ invariably translates to ‘rich’ in such places. I harbored no particular ill will toward those kids, but I wasn’t going to risk my family on the idea they might just want the television set. Personal firearms were illegal, so only the bad guys had guns. And they didn’t even live next door to Indiana! No idea where they got those guns.
There was a live-fire training range on Luzon called Crow Valley. This was the biggest U.S.-operated live-ordnance-capable aerial bombardment range in the western Pacific, and units from around the Basin flew down to ‘train like we fight.’
One night, a couple of our F-4E went out to Crow Valley on a live-fire training mission. The targets set up out there were mostly made up of steel that had originally had other uses, but had been recycled to facilitate the continued proficiency of our aircrews at breaking people’s things. Installed aboard the F-4E was another of my systems, the Airborne Video Tape Recorder (AVTR). Think of this as a blacked-out, cockpit-mounted version of the machine you watched Top Gun on at home. The format of the media was a bit larger than both VHS and Betamax. Even Air Force people can’t be trusted not to pilfer.
The job of this device was to record the results of ground-attack missions. Sometimes, these AVTRs would get stuck and refuse to release the cassette inside. OK, what usually happened was the WSO (Weapons System Operator, aka the back seater in an F-4E) forgot to eject the media before the engines powered down, so they’d write it up as a malfunction and we’d go put power on the jet and retrieve the tape. This happened a lot.
On the night in question, the crew returned, we recovered the jet, and the WSO had written up the standard ‘blame the machine’ thing for his error. So we dragged the Dash 60, powered the jet up, and retrieved the cassette. Understand: We did all this to correct some young college graduate’s rookie error. The machine was not defective, the operator was. This happened a lot.
The flying squadron guys had gone home for the night, so we took the tape back to the shop and watched it. What was on that tape was one of the funniest things I have ever witnessed outside of some ‘crazy humans doing stupid shit’ thing on television. F-4E used a belly-mounted pod system called PAVE TACK to help acquire and define targets with infrared (IR) and then to paint them with laser light to deliver the ordnance to its doomed receivers. AVTR filmed this IR imagery. When the lead jet was on its target run, two warm bodies suddenly dispersed from beneath a target in the frame. They had been attempting to steal the target in order to re-purpose the steel from which it was made. The back seater (WSO) was heard on the intercom saying ‘Oh shit! Abort!’ The driver, cool as the other side of the pillow, replied: ‘Negative. They knew we were coming.’ Then he pickled his ordnance.
Note: The ordnance those planes dropped that night were all ‘concrete bombs’ (blue bands). These are training munitions that weigh the same and have the same aerodynamic characteristics as the real thing (yellow bands), but contain no warhead or explosives. But those thieves didn’t know that. We turned the tape in as required when the flying squadron opened next A.M. I don’t know what happened to that tape, but I can guess.
Another time, a USAF unit out of the Republic of Korea had come to use the Crow Valley range. Several units from other places also turned up. It was some sort of competition, I suppose. I wasn’t taking notes. I was keeping the TISEO (a wing-mounted video camera on some F-4E, slaved to the radar to help the driver ID other aircraft) and PAVE TACK working. And this took effort: Remember, this is 1989 and the planes we worked on were last built in 1972 (I think).
During this competition (and all my time in the P.I.), the main group opposing the United States conducting activities designed to save their country was a communist outfit who called themselves the New Peoples Army. NPA was mostly a raggedy gang of punks who had acquired some BDUs and boots back in the day. But they were ruthless. One night as two American GIs stepped out of their hotel to catch a passing jeepney on MacArthur Boulevard (the main drag through the center of the city, as you might imagine), two NPA maniacs stepped up and shot those guys in the backs of their heads. Stars and Stripes published the image of those two victims lying dead on the street on their front page. That caused a ruckus.
This shocking and terrible event prompted the people who make such decisions (among whom I would years later count myself) to designate areas of Angeles City off limits to those under their authority. On the map telling us where we could and could not go, it looked like a fish. ‘Fishville’ is how I referred to it then, and I always will.
The Fishville order was effective immediately and it included all TDY (visiting) personnel who were staying in hotels ‘downtown.’ There were a lot of people sleeping in hastily erected tents on base in areas that were normally clear tarmac, that’s all I’m saying. It was a terrible time all around. Such is life in the military. ‘Improvise, adapt, overcome’ is an excellent way to live, but it ain’t easy.
A fun aspect of life on an archipelago in the south Pacific is the weather. And by “fun,” I mean “interesting” as used in the Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Hurricanes were a fact of life when I was growing up, so I was familiar with Big Water coming at me really fast. In the Philippines, these same types of storms are called typhoons. Like the Eurofighter product, but less fun when you catch a tailwind. There were two or three of those in my 2-year stint on the island, which is about the number of major hurricanes I can remember in my first 22 years on the Gulf Coast. And there were a great many monsoons. A monsoon is like a powerful thunderstorm but more violent. And more frequent. When it was nice, the Philippine weather was really, really nice. When it was not nice, it could be brutal.
Another… interesting thing the archipelago featured was earthquakes. I was accustomed to the planet doing things someone knew was coming. Some hot babe or dodgy old bugger in a suit would tell me to board up my windows or go to Montana, and I reacted accordingly (usually by buying a lot of beer and throwing a hurricane party, but that isn’t the story I’m telling here). Earthquakes just come at you out of nowhere and don’t even give a fella the goddamn common courtesy of a reach around.
I was on my way to work one evening for a mid(night) shift (graveyard shift to some), which in this case was 23:00 – 07:00. As I was approaching my shop, I noticed my bike felt a little squirrelly. ‘Gotta check that back tire when I get there,’ thought I. Bike checked out. I went into the facility and a couple guys from swings (the shift I was replacing) had a laser on the bench. This ‘bench’ was a steel test bench bolted to the floor and not at all movable. One doesn’t test and boresight precision targeting lasers on hammocks. As I walked up to the bench to take turnover, I set my hand on the edge of the thing to lean in and get a better look. At that moment, the nearest fluorescent tube light fixture cage released, hitting its hinges so hard that they let go. The metal-framed corrugated plastic crashed to the floor.
This happened so perfectly in time that the guys at the bench thought for an instant I had somehow caused that light fixture to fall off the ceiling by touching that monolithic table they were working at. Hell, I did too for a second. They were even yelling at me ‘what did you do?!?!?’ It was freaky.
We hadn’t felt the earth move at first. PAVE TACK pods weighed approximately 1,500 pounds each. There were generally two complete pods and loads of parts of others in our building at any one time. This facility was very stout, built on a reinforced concrete slab (probably by General MacArthur himself), and meant to endure both nature and some light love from potential (NPA) fighters who were having a bad day with their AKs. PAVE TACK also wasn’t cheap. And as ever, experienced personnel are the most valuable war fighting asset in any circumstance. It was a solid building.
This was the earthquake whose epicenter had been near Baguio City, a well-known resort town somewhere north of Angeles. If memory serves, it was maybe a couple hours by road from Clark AB. A popular tourist hotel in Baguio was destroyed by that quake. It was high season and a lot of people died. Many others were trapped for weeks in the rubble. Some survived, some perished. It is the nature of these things. RIP and God bless.
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