Author: Frank Maio
Returning to Italy after nearly a month in Turkey was great. The only work to be done at this
point was picking up the pieces. At the end of the day, it was off to the old “watering holes” and good food. One had to be careful, of course. The Red Brigade was very much in evidence at that time and there was a very active Communist Party.
The Italian Communist Party in the mountain region used to meet in a Bar and Restaurant called Moretti’s in Udine, an ancient town in northeastern Italy. I recall being on town patrol one night and getting a call that a drunk airman had wandered into the bar was causing mayhem where one such meeting was taking place and. Jack, an Apache Indian, had been in the Air Force for a few years when he got to our base but he had NO stripes, so when payday came he would get into a few crap games win a good bit of money and hit the town. By
the time we got to Moretti’s in our Jeep, the restaurant’s front window had been broken out and locals were lying all over the place, Jack coming out the door with the Hammer and sickle in his hands.
Northern Italy was as close as you would get in that area to Communism, and Boris was our enemy at that time; Hungary a few hundred miles to the Northwest and Yugoslavia about 65 miles to the Northwest and the locals, so it was interesting at times.
You never could tell what might happen in Udine. For example, a movie company showed up in Udine. It seemed that Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones, Vittorio De Sica, Kurt Kaszner came to make “A Farewell to Arms”, Hemingway’s epic. A friend of mine, Roger Dabbert and I went up to the set one day to see what was going on. While walking around the movie trailers out came Rock Hudson and we introduced ourselves. He was surprised that there were Americans locally. We explained how we got there and he invited us into his trailer for a box lunch. During the conversation he asked if we had a BX and of course we did, he was dying for some good old American Peanut Butter. We delivered same and got front row seating during most of the filming when we could be there.
New orders arrived and we were off for the 633rd AC&W at Wheelus Field, Libya. Back in 1954 the United States and Libya had signed an agreement that the U.S. could use Wheelus and its gunnery range. During the Cold War, there were thousands of Americans there and the U.S. Ambassador to Libya once called Wheelus “a Little America…on the sparkling shores of the Mediterranean,” although temperatures at the base frequently reached 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (43 to 50 degrees Celsius).
Our plane landed and we were quickly ushered into the base theater. Once again, I found myself in a clime totally unsuited for man nor beast. Although dressed in khakis the heat inside the un-air conditioned theater was unbearable. After a few short welcoming remarks from a few officers, a Sergeant takes the stage and in a booming voice begins telling us how horrible conditions were and the rules regarding them. Rules such as, never go to town (Tripoli) alone, never go the “Old Section”, ever. If you do go to town always travel in large numbers and if by chance you get drunk and break a local law, do not expect the State Department to assist you in getting out. In most cases you would be accorded the same punishment that was for all. If you steal, the hand that stole would be cut off, peeking into windows would have your eye or eyes poked out. Sitting in this HOT theater hearing all of this “it really is not a bad place, but…”, kind of made you wonder why anyone in this world would build the largest military supply base
there. To finish off the education portion of the ‘Welcome to’…, a Sargent got up and said, “now gentlemen, here is a friendly reminder, if for some reason you decide to go AWOL, we can watch you for days if you go South, West and East from the Control Tower and if you go North, well we can watch you till your arms get tired of swimming”. With that we were escorted to our barracks. They were my first encounter with two man rooms and a very nice ones at that. Those with dependents might find a nice apartment in town, but they had to have a live in servant, this afforded security, as the locals did not bother their own.
There was a day that comes to mind very clearly. Four or five of us were walking down a main street in Tripoli when a local man went by, he stopped to look in a store window and as his wife walked by us she was talking to someone else when he turned to see her going past, he shouted at her I guess to stop, which she did, he calmly walks up to her and proceeds to punch her to the ground, our first inclination is to step in and stop this. One of the guys with us had been there for a while stepped in and told us to stay out of it as it was local custom that a women never walks past a man on the outside where he would be embarrassed by her ignorance. Never could get use to this type of life. But let us return to our story, shall we? The trouble with getting old is that things have a tendency to get out of order.
Next morning we reported to the 633rd and assigned shifts. We then went to Ops for a visit. Damn, I thought, a cement building for Ops Center, the ‘Scope Dopes’ dream. We were affectionately called ‘Scope Dopes’ because we sat in front of a RADAR repeater (scope) and tried to decipher the battle situation from a bunch of greenish dots crawling across the glass of the CRT.
I do not know why I can remember our Call Sign (Farnsworth), but out of three that I was assigned to, that is the only one I remember. The outer walls of the site faced the Mediterranean had a watch tower. The whole place was sort of like a prison.
Off to Work
Our crew Chief gave us the rest of the day off, except those reporting for the third watch. I
came on at 11 pm and spent the first couple of hours going over the books and sitting with the regulars. Sometime during the night I was assigned guard duty in one of the watch towers. My tower buddy told me that I had eight rounds in my Carbine. He also let me know that most of the ammo was left over from WWII, so I might have to fire a few rounds before I got a good one. He had one more piece of advice, “if you do shoot, make sure that whoever is breaking the security barrier falls on your side, or you might be sent to the local jail.” I knew right away that this was going to be a very different location, and a very active one. I remember going to midnight chow after work one evening and there was an Air Policeman sitting with his bags and we got to talking. He said that he was on his way back to the ZI (Zone of the Interior, in those days, CONUS today). It seems he got an intruder that fell on our side and it was a free ticket back to the States for him.
Wheelus was busy, there were constant incomings and out bounds there both military and civilian. Approximately 90 miles to our South the British operated the local civilian airport (Idris) named after the Ruler of that country (pre-Gadhafi), at that time it was a Sheikdom and the county type operators were all Sheiks, they had as many wives as they could afford. We were in telephone contact with the tower at Idris where they had a few women tower operators. Our job was to take control of the civilian planes and guide them in and out. The USAF planes came from just about everywhere. I do not remember too many times when we could turn down the runway lights.
Having Some Fun
The British movie house was the one place that you could go off base. You got to see both American and British movies without subtitles. It was just like back in the States; popcorn, candy and you could smoke. My first encounter with British protocol was at the movies. When the lights went down, through the smoke there appeared a picture of Queen Elizabeth on the screen and all the Brits stood up and sang “God Save the Queen”, now not being British I did not stand up, as she was not my Queen. About midway through the anthem, a hand reached around my neck and pulled me up and looking into the eyes of this burly chap who informed me that “she may not be your Queen, but she is mine and while here in my movie house, you will stand up, is that clear”? Well, you know what I never stayed seated again. Guess I learned my lesson.
On Meeting a Tuskegee Airman
Wheelus, at that time, was home to an F-100 Squadron commanded by then Colonel Benjamin
O. Davis. He was a very tall Black man who I was told was a member of the famous “Tuskegee Airman” from WWII. I was assigned to work with him and his staff regarding the work in the target assignment out over the Mediterranean. Basically we made sure that those planes that were being controlled did not wander into that target area, while it was being used. Sitting with Colonel Davis was probably the most exciting thing I had ever done up to that point. Always neatly dressed when in uniform, he never raised his voice and his demeanor always that of a gentleman. The only time I heard exclaim profanity was one day when a group of F-84’s were TDY’d to Wheelus for gunnery practice.
The commander of that group was from Wiesbaden; Colonel
Robin Olds, also a WWII Ace and man about town. With Colonel Davis sitting behind us, the controller and I worked Colonel Olds’ pilots to the range for target practice. A T-33 towing the “rag” then moved through the area and we aligned the F-84 pilots to the rag. After the third pass the tow pilot started screaming that a few of those guys were putting holes in his tail. Colonel Davis got up and took the radio and calmly told the F-84’s to break off right now and return to base. He looked at me and said “let’s go outside and watch them return”. You never question a Colonel, so we went out and about 10 minutes later the planes returned to within visual of the base, and each landed they moved to their area, the last plane came into view very quickly, faster than a landing speed. He flew over the field did a victory roll and then landed. We went back inside and Colonel Davis took the controllers radio and told Colonel Olds to report to him after briefing. Seems that Colonel Olds had done this before when it was not allowed.
My other contact with Colonel Olds was on a Sunday morning when part of the runway system was shut down and the Base Sports Car Club had races. There was a sergeant from my unit that had a Porsche but was afraid to race it. The rules of the club were simple, top speed in your car was never to go over 70 mph and when approaching the hay bales it would or should be down to 45 mph. Colonel Olds always managed to win these races and immediately after would be disqualified. Invariably, he would stomp away mad, complaining that a little speed was good.
One day we picked up a fast moving plane coming from Cyprus. Checked with Idris and there
was no flight plan for this bogey and we had to scramble four F-100’s. As we got closer to the bogey an Englishman came on the radio and informed us that he was an Avro Vulcan aircraft out of England and Cyprus and “for God’s sake do not close on the rear of his aircraft as he was armed (hot). We broke off the intercept at that point. He left the area with a “see you, Chaps”. Later we found out that our guys were as close to being shot down as you could possibly get.
During my off days (3) I usually went over the Apollo area. These guys were the secret bunch that met in the Mediterranean in an SA-16 and did whatever. I spent time rigging parachutes. Not much to do on Base in those days. We had a movie theater, bowling alley and clubs, but unmarried enlisted were way down on the pecking order during the days as the NCO’s and Officers and their dependents had first dib’s on most activities. The tour of duty at that time was only ten months as the suicide rate there was in the critical stages. Men were jumping off barracks roofs and in some case shooting themselves while on guard duty. Ten months was quite enough and I filled my time with plenty of things, which kept my idle time just that. After twenty-seven months out of the country, I had the chance to return home and then to Duncanville, Texas for a short visit to the 745th AC&W, just outside of Dallas. Now we are talking! After that it was off to SEA and a part of my history that remains somewhat vague for a purpose. Our main task was to locate areas for future radar sites, end of story.
After eight years I decided or my wife helped me to decide it was time to go back to normal life.
[Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of three Flying High posts about life in the early Cold War era. The first two, TakeOff and Cruising Altitude, are good reads as well. Frank Maio tells us: “I was born in Washington, DC on August 4, 1935, lived most of my younger years in the City and moved out to the Maryland suburbs at 16 and attended DeMatha Prep High School in Hyattsville, Maryland graduating in 1955. Having received a partial scholarship to the University of Maryland, in Journalism and had made plans to attend. As is the case at that age when you have difficulties at home you act accordingly. Moved out of the house to the Volunteer Fire Department where I was a member. As stated in the article I had seen the movie “Strategic Air Command”, turned down the scholarship and joined up.
After 8 years I decided that rank could not be made and so with family in tow, I came home struggled
through 8 years of night school and was accepted as a Computer Systems person with the National Science Foundation. Worked there until 1985, transferred to the Department of Agriculture retiring from Federal service in 1997 with a grand total of 38 years counting military. Diagnosed with Lymphoma that same year went through the whole deal and was declared free of Cancer in March of 1998, my wife informed me that I had always wanted to teach, and so it began, retiring this past May. Am presently a house husband here in the little burg of Great Mills, Maryland. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.]