September 3, 1969
“S-1,” says the copilot’s voice on interphone. “Rotate.”
The nose lifts, the wheels leave the ground.
The Boeing RC-135M tilts skyward, pressing the twenty of us into our harnesses chestwise, for we have swiveled to face aft while slipping the surly bonds of earth. A Renaissance tune piped by Ed Flaspoehler on his recorder whistles bravely through the bluster of four jet engines and the whoosh of the fuselage as it parts the air.
Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.
Marking time. One more bottomless day.
But coming soon, for me: Liberation from all this glory.
“S-2.” We cross an unseen threshold in the sky, en route to our twelve-hour recon mission. Our faces glint green and orange from the freq scopes and nixie tubes that surround us in the darkness of the cabin. We are airmen of the 6990th Security Squadron, U.S. Air Force, flying out of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The Allied Powers defeated Japan in 1945, my birth year. Innocent of the war just behind me, I was a bright-eyed, precocious little learner—smiling, always merry, long-winded and talkative, yet also shy and timid.
Now it’s 1969. In twenty-four years I have picked up a lot of baggage, have grown a hard shell wrapped in a muffling batt of sullen. Well, you need to get through some way, don’t you?
The Japanese island of Okinawa remains occupied, though Japan is now America’s friend. We use Okinawa as a staging area for our war against a new enemy, North Vietnam.
Today’s mission is part of that war. Our platform—dubbed Combat Apple by some wizard in the Air Force’s Bureau of Baffling Nomenclature—will speed south, swoop round Hainan Island, and fly a long oval above the Gulf of Tonkin at thirty-seven thousand feet, keeping thirty nautical miles shy of Vietnam to the southwest and China to the northeast.
Our cockpit crew, from the 82nd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, are simply bus drivers. They will keep us on course, zooming along the charted racetrack while we back-enders in our windowless box do The Mission: scooping up signals from Vietnam and South China.
After twelve hours and two mid-air refuelings, another aircraft will relieve us on the orbit over the Gulf. We will jet home to Kadena with our take—hundreds of enemy transmissions recorded on reel-to-reel tape and hand-scribbled traffic logs.
Anyway, that’s the plan.
It’s a routine. Each of us endures three to six such flights every month. At first I was airsick every time. Then somebody taught me to chew soda crackers and control my breathing. Now, after forty-two missions, I’m an old-timer.
But this trip, my forty-third, is different, being my last. Tomorrow I will turn in my headphones, brain bucket, and oxygen mask. I will climb aboard the Freedom Bird and fly home.
There, a spot in the junior class at the University of Wisconsin awaits—my earliest opportunity to atone for past failure. There’s also an exhilarating young woman from Chicago, Joelle Nelson. I will leave the military and return to real life.
But not till tomorrow.
Wouldn’t you know my final mission would turn hairy?
There’s a storm—not quite a typhoon, but big enough to fill the Gulf and strong enough to garble electromagnetic signals, even VHF, beyond recognition.
Combat Apple’s main job is to overhear Vietnamese surface-to-air missile controllers. However, the back-end crew of twenty also includes three of us who work what is termed “the Chinese Problem.” We are graduates of Robert Tharp’s uncanny 32-week Mandarin Air Force Aural Comprehension course, on board to give early warning in case the Chinese Communists decide to scramble on our plane. Four ChiCom fighter bases—Haikou, Lingshui, Jialaishi, and Mengzi—lie within a MiG-21’s flight range of our orbit.
The MiGs fly a lot, mostly practicing ground-controlled intercepts and air-to-air gunnery. So far, they have never come out over the water to get us, but there’s a first time for everything. Splashing the Apple would cost them something, a couple of planes and pilots lost at sea by running out of fuel. But if that old man in Beijing, the one with the high forehead, had a sudden craving for a U.S. spy plane, his pilots would have a fair chance of giving him one.
Normally we can hear what they’re up to—vectoring on imaginary intruders for practice, shooting at targets towed behind AN-2 biplanes, or sometimes just flying around, shouting inane slogans: “Long live Chairman Mao! All reactionaries are paper tigers!”
The pilots’ and controllers’ voices blast out in clear speech, in regional accents of Mandarin, the national tongue. We ought to be able, theoretically, to detect hostile intent in time for our plane to beat a swift retreat.
But today weather blitzes the airwaves. I can catch only a few callsigns.
As our confining cabin bucks up and down, tilts left and right at odd moments, sweat bathes my face. I breathe deep and slow to calm my stomach as the bottom drops out repeatedly. Worse, I can’t make out what the MiGs are saying. Is there hostile intent?
Last April a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121M over the Sea of Japan, sending thirty-one souls to watery graves. Men unknown to any of us, but colleagues just the same.
I see myself donning brain bucket and mask, buckling my straps, standing up and waddling under sixty pounds of parachute and survival gear, through smoke and flames, hoping for a clean drop through the slim emergency hatch as the Boeing cartwheels in flaming loops toward the sea. To bail out at thirty-five thousand—even if the conditions were ideal, which they never will be—is something near a death sentence.
I have come this far—have survived college disgrace, military exile, and forty-two of these disorienting, sinus-busting, strep-throat-inducing joyrides—and stand now on the brink of a new opportunity to prove myself worthy of adult life, maybe even with a delightful bride at my side. Only—could this be the day the MiGs have us in their sights?
To get blown out of the sky and miss my chance to show what I can really do in life would be par for the course—just one parting humiliation.
Tech Sergeant Cooper is with us today as a performance evaluator. I call him over to my console. “Plug in here. See what you make of it.”
Cooper, standing, jacks into my panel, sways as the airplane lifts and drops. He listens. “Got some call signs. Seven-eight-ex.”
“Out of Jialaishi. I think. Can you tell what they’re doing?”
Cooper frowns. “Could be a practice GCI. Or maybe the real thing. Too barfy to tell.”
Cooper is one of three Chinese ops conceded by all to have golden ears. If Cooper can’t pull anything out of this traffic, neither will I.
I swipe the back of a hand across my damp forehead.
Cooper listens, stares through the rolling tape recorder on the bulkhead. He holds his hands over the earcups, brows beetling.
He takes off the headset. “Let’s abort,” he says.
I exhale. My heart slows to normal. I slump in my seat, feeling for all the world like a mound of SOS plopped on a tin mess tray.
Cooper scoots down the aisle to the airborne mission supervisor and speaks in his ear. The AMS nods. He calls the pilot, Major Martin, on private interphone. The plane banks away, out of its assigned orbit.
I’m glad Martin is our bus driver. He’s one of the good ones. You know the landing at Kadena will be smooth, even if there’s a crosswind.
Over Ie Shima, Major Martin stands on the dive brake, and our aircraft drops like a rock. Civilian airliners make gentle descents, but military pilots like Martin prefer to stay high as long as possible and then make a steep dive for the runway. It’s accepted practice.
There’s a fifteen-knot wind across the runway. Martin sets the heavy plane down softly but glues it to the tarmac. No three-bounce landings for him.
We roll to a stop on the apron. We walk down the portable steps with helmet bags slung over our shoulders, board our Air Force blue school bus, go to the ops building for debriefing, get back on the bus, and ride to our barracks.
I drop the helmet off in the barracks room I share with Tom Stehura, who is out somewhere. As usual after a nineteen-hour flight, I’m dog-tired but can’t sleep. I stagger like a drunken seaman two blocks to the base bowling alley, where there is a little snack bar with a juke box and formica tables. I order my usual—peach pie à la mode and root beer—pick up the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes, and sit down at a vacant table.
I glance around me, checking the room. The horizontal line of the panel wainscoting bobs up and down, tilts left and right in irregular rhythm. I focus on my newspaper and pie.
“HO IS ‘SERIOUSLY ILL’,” screams the 54-point banner atop the first page, summing up a rumor-based UPI story out of Paris. Maybe he is, but it’s not that big a deal. Don’t they realize Ho Chi Minh could drop dead this morning, and General Giap would keep fighting the war as if nothing happened?
Another front-page headline reports progress in the Paris peace talks. I’ll believe that when I see it. Why we’re talking with the Vietnamese Reds at the same time we’re bombing them to smithereens is a bit hard to dope out. Must be part of Nixon’s secret plan to end the war.
There’s an article on page two titled “The Killing Pace of College.” Guess I’ll find out soon enough. The peach pie is tasty and comforting, as always. One of the best things Okinawa has to offer.
Page thirteen has a profile piece on three black musicians—Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Very nice.
The pie is all gone. I sip at the root beer and look up at the room. It holds pretty steady now. I get up and walk back to the barracks, not swaying much at all.
The next day is spent out-processing. I sign a form stating that I will be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law if I ever breathe a word about anything I did, saw, heard, learned, produced, or processed as a member of the United States Air Force. I turn in my green Top Secret Cryptographic access badge.
I turn in my white, spherical brain bucket with oxygen mask and hose.I turn in the rugged, olive drab field jacket that has been with me since Basic Training. I can keep all my uniforms, summer and winter flight suits, duffel bag and B-4 bag, flight jacket and parka, flight boots and aviator sunglasses. But my field jacket—the one item that might be of use in civilian life—that’s an accountable item I have to give back so it can be issued to some newly-minted zoomie at Lackland Air Force Base. That and the switchblade jackknife with the special sharp hook in case you have to cut tangled parachute lines. I don’t suppose I’ll have much need for that in Wisconsin.
The foregoing narrative is true and accurate as best I can recall it over the intervening space of almost fifty-three years. It was written to be part of a more general personal memoir, only I don’t know which part.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer