I had just settled into my chapel desk at RAF Bentwaters when I realized Air Force life was going to involve more than sipping strong coffee and typing.
It was March 1965. I was 18 and I had been on base for less than two months. I had completed tech school training to be a chaplain services specialist in at Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas. I knew how to set up a Catholic altar for Mass, adjust the bible and candles for Protestant worship and, if need be, arrange the kiddush for Shabbat. I could type 50 words a minute and I could prepare a chapel bulletin or type a chaplain’s sermon with decent speed. I thought the next three years of my tour of duty on the twin bases RAF Bentwaters and Woodbridge in beautiful Suffolk would be pleasant ones. It was every American’s dream to live in swinging England in the sixties.
Soon, however, I learned there would be more to life than assisting chaplains. As a low-ranking GI with a single stripe on my sleeve I would be forced to endure less edifying chores. Once a month I would be assigned KP duty, a grueling 15-hour day of preparing the mess hall for three massive meals, washing enormous pots and pans, and mopping the red tile floors, all under the obscene guidance of sweaty mess sergeants.
And several times a month there would be Augmentee Guard Duty when the Air Force practiced its military readiness by holding surprise alerts to gauge the bases’ response time. The base would be awakened at 3 or 4 in the morning by screeching loudspeakers calling us to war. Pilots would rush to the flightline. Mechanics, under immense time pressure, would upload tactical nuclear weapons to fighter jets. And clerk typists like me would be called to augment the full-time security police whose job it was to protect the bases’ perimeter and aircraft from attack.
We typists were issued fully loaded World War II vintage M1 carbines and we were posted in the cold English fog at wire mesh gates or parked jets. The time we’d spend on guard would be slightly longer than sergeants figured our bladders could hold a full tank and then we would be relieved to refresh ourselves, warm our hands in front of a foul-smelling paraffin heater, and sack-out in the Augmentee Quonset hut until the next posting or until the alert was over.
As time went on and the international situation deteriorated (nearly 2,000 Americans had died in Vietnam by 1965) our base commander decided all of us needed better training in case we ended up in an actual war zone. The colonel, a World War II hero now responsible for the security of the bases, ordered the Security Police squadron to organize training exercises to prepare the most finger-pad calloused of us typists for war.
I’ve written about these exercises before (https://bit.ly/CkeCnDk). Most of the combat training, as a practical matter, consisted of “cover and concealment,” designed to prepare us to stay invisible in any indefensible situation. We were also taught the art of hurling grenades at the enemy, though the sergeants – also as a practical matter – did not allow us to train with actual grenades. Instead, we used full Coke cans and heaved them as far as we could. Strangely the cans, despite the carbonated pressure inside them, rarely exploded on impact.
For the most part combat training in the primeval pines surrounding Bentwaters and Woodbridge made me think of the war games we played as kids in Morrisville, N.Y. Despite the disapproval of my Dad, who had fought in the bloody Buna Chapel campaign in New Guinea and had a horror of playing war, we would gather in the woods with pretend guns and shout out challenges like, “bang, your dead,” followed by defensive ripostes, “No, you are!”
The experience in England was almost as harmless, although we were supervised by a barrel-chested sergeant with a Claude Akins baritone and we were afraid of him. There was a rumor, probably started by the sergeant himself, that he had been a sniper in Korea and never lost the blood lust.
On the second day of training we were sitting in the pines smoking cigarettes when the sergeant’s walkie-talkie crackled.
“Over,” he said in his Claude Akins baritone. We tilted our ears toward the two-way radio to see if we could make out the message.
“Yessir.” It was customary to say, “Yessir,” when we didn’t know who was on the other end.
I thought I heard the distorted voice on the other end say this is lieutenant so-and-so and something about reports of foreign troops walking near the active runway.
“Are you close enough to check it out?”
“Yessir. On our way.
“Russians!” shouted a tall airman from the supply squadron, who had heard almost as much as I did.
“You full of shit, man,” said a typist from the base personnel office, extinguishing his cigarette. “Russians’d send missiles, not people.”
“See?” the tall airman said, “Who’d guess it? It’s a surprise attack.”
“You people shut up and follow me,” rumbled the sergeant in his Claude Akins voice. We stood obediently and followed him into the pines. I noticed his shoulders seemed even wider from the back.
We walked toward the runway, hid in the thicket, and listened. A distant voice was calling a cadence.
“Get down,” said the Claude Akins voice. We dropped to our bellies and covered our heads.
“No, just kneel out of sight and shut up,” he said.
We held our breaths. The sergeant leaned forward and tilted his ear to the sound of the cadence. Gradually we could hear the thick heels of a dozen brogans on the tarmac approaching the runway.
I squinted through my GI-issue spectacles. There was a small group of men marching in the distance, all of them in a brownish green uniform that was distinctly not American.
“Russians!” hissed the tall typist, trying in vain to stifle himself.
“Shut up,” said the Claude Akins voice, strangely calm.
We sat motionless in the pine needles. The sergeant watched the approaching uniforms for several moments and nodded to himself before picking up his walkie-talkie.
“A small British army company on the tarmac near the south gate,” he radioed.
The response was garbled but I’m sure I heard a profane version of “what are they doing there?”
“Well, I don’t actually know,” the sergeant said, using the patient tone non-coms reserve for new lieutenants.
“Check it out please and we’ll be right there.”
The sergeant glanced back at us. “Wait until they get closer,” he said. “Then follow on my order.”
We waited tensely. It did not appear to me that the uniformed group was carrying rifles. That was okay. Neither were we.
I thought the sergeant might have a slight adenoid condition as he breathed steadily, crouched in anticipation. The uniformed group was getting closer. I noticed that one of the men, who seemed to be their leader, was wearing epaulets and a red beret.
As they came close enough for me to see the laces in their boots, the sergeant stood and said, “Now.”
Together, in rout formation, a dozen of us suddenly materialized out of the dense woods and strode aggressively toward the Brits.
“Halt!” the sergeant shouted.
The British officer was so startled he nearly lost his balance. Several in the formation stopped so suddenly they tripped over each other’s feet. The officer stared at our sergeant with his mouth agape as the other marchers regained their balance.
“Erm, halt,” the British officer said finally, but at this point no one was moving. The British officer and the marchers stared dumbfoundedly at the sergeant and the fearsome American warriors behind him.
Our sergeant and the British officer stood silently at first, making wary eye contact. The silence seemed eerie to me. Even the birds were quiet.
Our sergeant spoke first.
“You are trespassing on an American military installation,” said the Claude Akins voice.
The officer’s lips moved silently at first.
“Oh, I do apologize,” he said in what I took to be an aristocratic accent. “Trespassing? Oh, my.”
The officer turned toward a man with three stripes on his sleeve. “How on earth did we get so far afield?” he asked the three-striped man, who flushed an angry red.
“Well, I do beg your pardon,” the officer told the sergeant. “You must excuse us.”
He looked around and shrugged nervously.
“Thank you. We shall be going now.”
But as the officer was speaking an Air Force security police truck with flashing blue lights screeched onto the tarmac, followed by a large blue Air Force bus. A second lieutenant wearing a white covered service cap jumped out of the truck. He was followed by three white-capped security police airmen brandishing M-16 automatic rifles.
The young lieutenant approached the British officer.
“Are you in command?”
The Brit snapped to attention and saluted the callow lieutenant. The lieutenant saluted back.
“You have violated the security of an American Air Force Base and I must ask all of you to come with me.”
“I have already apologized to the sergeant here,” the officer said.
“My commander wants to talk with you,” the lieutenant said. “Please have your men get on the bus and come with me.”
“Oh, I do hope that won’t be necessary…”
“On the bus. Now.” The lieutenant sounded as if his voice had just changed the week before. The other security police airmen raised their M-16’s threateningly.
The British officer turned to his men. “Do as he asks,” he said. The three-striped man looked as if he wanted to throttle the officer, but he led the other Brits onto the bus.
The lieutenant turned to the officer and opened the door of the truck. “In here with me,” he said. The officer shrugged and got in.
The lieutenant walked over to our sergeant, who saluted him sharply.
“Well done, Sergeant,” the lieutenant said, returning the salute. Her got into the truck and drove away.
When the truck and bus were out of sight, the sergeant bent at his waste and erupted in laughter.
“That dumb ass must have passed a dozen no trespassing signs to get here,” he said in the voice Claude Akins would use if Claude Akins ever laughed.
Thew sergeant turned to us and assured us we had done a good job using the words he knew we’d appreciate most:
“You people light ‘em up,” he said.
We knew it was okay to laugh, too.
“Don’t worry, Sarge,” said the tall skinny typist. “If they had given us any trouble we’da thrown a Coke can at them.”
It was days before we heard what happened to the Brits after they had been taken away on a bus. There was a rumor they had been involved in some top-secret exercise to test American security. And perhaps that was the case.
But after a while someone said they had overheard the young lieutenant tell the story at the O Club. He said the British officer had gotten drunk in Ipswich the night before the incident and had bet a fellow Sandhurst graduate he could march his company right up to the American tower and the Yanks would never notice.
That seemed to me like strange behavior for Sandhurst graduates.
But if the story was true, I’d say he lost the bet.
And to this day, the only combat training I ever received was cover and concealment, and how to throw a Coke can 50 paces.