Memories of 64th Air Division Defense

Ken Powers


After fifty years, some details escape me, but this is a summary of my three year tour in St. Johns and points north with the Pinetree Line.

In June 1950, I was a member of the 106th AC&W Squadron, 152nd AC&W Group, 61st Fighter Wing, NY ANG, as the Supply, Mess and Transportation Officer (2d Lt.). One day, when I arrived for our "Drill" at the ANG Armory, White Plains, NY, I was told that the North Koreans had invaded the South. We all assumed that we would be "in it."

On 1 August 1951, the 152nd AC&W Group was called into Federal Service. I (now 1st Lt.) had been on duty with the Advance Party, stationed at the Armory, since 1 June. About a month after unit activation, we moved to Grenier AFB, Manchester, NH for training. We brought all our ANG equipment, including a mostly WW II style Aircraft Control Center.

On 31 March 1952, the 106th AC&W Squadron, HQ, 152nd AC&W Group, and others, sailed from New York on the USNS General Stuart Heintzelman, arriving in St. Johns, by way of Norfolk, on 6 April, 1952. I got stuck as Mess Officer for the four meals a day for all passengers, so had little time to myself.

At first, in the 106th, getting set up, we in Supply worked 8 am to about 9 or 10 p.m., six days, and sometimes on Sunday. The pressure was on. Our mess and motor pool personnel were assigned to the base so I only had to worry about supply. The Control Center lash-up ANG equipment really was in poor shape and everybody wanted everything "yesterday." Each 106th section head and 152nd Group staff agency head felt that his was the most urgent requirement!

We did have the most unusual priority status for supply support. Before we left Grenier, HQ, USAF had told us to prepare a list of equipment and supplies that we would need in Newfoundland to list everything and anything we might need. We typed up a thick stack of sheets of everything all sections could think of. The group commander took it to Washington and returned with it signed by the Secretary of Defense! We were astonished!

Copies were sent to each AF depot. All we had to do for whatever we wanted was to enter in the authority section of a requisition, "SecDef SLOE, dated ------ 1952" SLOE was "Special List of Equipment." We even used this authority for things we hadn't put on the list! We were never turned down.

As an example of the pressure and confusion at the time, we arrived with the old wooden desks and chairs from the Armory in White Plains. They were in pieces the glue had dried out and many were broken. Most were not repairable. Our requisitions for office furniture and equipment would be filled at various depots and shipped by rail to the POE and then by ship to St. Johns. This would take time so we ordered stacks of 5/8" plywood sheets and 2 x 4s, which were airlifted in promptly. We built work tables, racks, desks, book cases. file cabinets), chairs, etc., and went to work. Eventually, good equipment piled in and replaced all the "lash-ups".

I had one good leave. 2nd Lt. John Gironda (son of 106th Squadron CO, Major Gironda), and I, took 30 days leave to visit England, but after having used several precious days of our leave at Harmon waiting for "space available", we took a flight to the Azores . A day or two later, we caught another bucket seat C-54 to the Air Base at Casablanca, French Morocco. ("What the Hell are you guys doing here? Your leave orders say England.")

The natives were in revolt against the French, which made for some interesting experiences. From there we traveled by whatever cheap, ground transport (Fourth Class Moroccan Railway, for instance) we could get (all transport aircraft were on a NATO exercise) across Europe to England. We were overdue when we arrived in London, so we "turned ourselves in" at the AF base at Ryslip (I think it was), so as not to be AWOL, and were picked up on their duty roster. They wired the 64th to that effect A few days later, we took the train to a transport airbase in Scotland. No space was available on any AF plane but, after several days, we caught a RCAF "North Star" transport warming up on the ramp (on the next to last day of our Ryslip authorized leave) and they agreed to take us to Goose by way of stop-off in Iceland. HQ, 64th was very unhappy and surprised to see us because they thought we had gotten ourselves transferred from Newfoundland to a choice assignment (England).

Ah, the weather in St Johns. It was gloomy. The town newspaper on the last day of each month listed the minutes of sunshine that month. It wasn't that it was so cold, it was the wind! It blew all the time - snowed sideways. We (I, wife and daughter) lived in a very old, narrow, clapboard, two story house at 344 Le Marchant Road, with an empty lot of piles of earth on one side and a "Trading Post" on the other. When my wife saw the house for the first time, she said, "You told me it was built about the 'turn of the century,' but you didn't tell me which century."

We couldn't use the dining room because the rain poured in around the casements and nothing would stop it. I puttied shut all the windows in the house wind still came through the floor boards no basement. Heating was by a small coal grate in the living room. There was an oil stove in the hall with the metal smoke stack passing through the bathroom on the second floor for the only heat up there. My wife cooked on a one pot-lid, oil cooking stove in the kitchen. Oil was stored in a 55 gallon drum in the back yard; coal in bin in kitchen entrance. We made out OK except when the oil and coal trucks couldn't get through to us. Housing was hard to come by. You took what you could get and signed a lease before the AF would cut orders for your dependents to join you. At that age, we all took it as an adventure, which it certainly was.

Food was bought at the Commissary not bad, except the re-constituted milk. Many items we might want were not available, of course. For example, my parents would occasionally send a baking potato by US Mail!

After I was made Captain in April 1953, I was transferred to HQ, 64th AD as Director of Supply and Services. When AC&W units had problems with getting supplies or the Squadron Supply had "failed" an IG (Inspector General) annual inspection, I went on TDY to see what could be done. Sometimes, when the Division CO was making a "round robin" (visit to all sites), he would take me along.

The most interesting trip involved the problem with the contractor's equipment upon conclusion of construction at the sites outside of Newfoundland. The contract called for completion by some time in the late summer and evacuation of contractor personnel, equipment and cleanup of sites, concurrent with the arrival of the squadron. However, they fell behind schedule and didn't get finished on time. The ocean froze over so that no ships could get through. Contractor personnel were hastily evacuated but the equipment and supplies could not be taken out. The base camps, essentially, had to be abandoned, with no one left to look after the property.

This situation had not been foreseen, apparently. The contractor agreement was flawed. So, the DOD had to buy everything from the contractor; but then what?

In the military, someone is always accountable and responsible for property, equipment and supplies. The commander, at each level, is ultimately responsible, even though someone lower in rank has signed for the item and has his pay docked for loss or damage.

The commander at any level can be held responsible, if the A/3C, S/Sgt., Captain or Colonel was simply following orders, or the commander failed to insure protection of government property (Commanders are always responsible, like a ship's Captain, even though asleep when the ship ran aground). In this case, DOD could not provide custody and control of the former contractor equipment and therefore it would deteriorate or be pilfered. It amounted to millions of dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. What to do?

One day I was told that DOD had named a "Board of Survey" to look into this matter. It consisted of a Colonel from the Army Corps of Engineers (responsible for the contract), one from HQ., USAF and me, representing HQ, 64th. We were to visit the sites to insure that all the property the contractor had billed OSD for was there, to make a recommendation as to it's disposition and, although carefully not expressly stated, who was responsible for any loss to the government (the requirement for placing responsibility was, after all, in AF Reg covering Boards of Survey and Survey Officers)

For each site, we were given a stack of typed, bound, legal size pages, two to three inches thick, of all items the contractor was billing for and supposedly had left at the site thousands and thousands of items.

We went by ski-equipped C-47, usually landing on the ocean. At the first site, actually, we learned everything we needed to know.

Snow and ice covered everything. Rows of vehicles of all kinds, some drained, some with broken blocks, some obviously unusable and not repairable. Buildings kitchen, living quarters, tool crib, machine and repair shops, etc., all filled with equipment and supplies. I remember the lathes and drill presses, rows of machine and hand tools hanging in the tool crib, the food in the kitchen (shelves of canned hams, for example) a power plant of some kind. In some cases, windows were already broken, doors unsecured and ice and snow drifts inside.

At any rate, we realized we couldn't check every item, even the more expensive items. We did try sampling, randomly selecting items and seeing if we could find them. As you would expect, sometimes we did, sometimes we didn't. We knew that anybody coming by could take anything they wanted, and probably had already done so, in many cases. We hoped that the squadrons, at least, would get some use out of all of it. Essentially, all were total write-offs.

Our final "Report of Survey," while describing the condition and our inability to verify the equipment list, recommended that all property be dropped from accountable records (since AC&W Squadron, supply and commanding officers could hardly be made accountable for the property), and (tongue in check) that no one be held responsible for the loss to the government, as the loss was due to "Exigencies of the Service." The finding was promptly approved by the Departments of Army and AF, and OSD. I often have wondered how much was used by the squadrons, how much was taken by "unauthorized personnel" and how much was left at the time the sites were closed.

The following year, there was considerable talk in the news and in Congress about the mishandling of the construction at overseas military bases, starting with SAC bases in French Morocco. I kept looking for any reports of the Pinetree construction affair, but never found any.

Oh yes, the great diplomatic flap! It must have been the first pay day, after our arrival. The pay (in cash) was received through the Royal Bank of Canada. As was normal in the states, Air Police (with side arms) provided guards for the transfer from the bank to the base finance office. Somebody had overlooked the British tradition of unarmed police. Actually, at the time, we were told there were only 12 constables in the St. John's force; all, of course unarmed, and four of these were on shift in front of the Premier's residence, Joey Smallwood.

The St. John's paper, the next day, on the front page, had a cartoon of soldiers carrying out bags of money (marked with a "$") between lines of scowling, AP's with gangster type, sub-machine guns, pointed at scared (hair standing straight up) citizens! I forget the headlines, but they were caustic! The Head Constable was quoted as saving, "If they had asked, we would have been glad to send a constable around."

In later years, during the Vietnam War, the term "Fire Fight" for short, quick, shoot-outs became common in news reports. Before that, however, Pepperrell had two of its own, although quite different.

Fire Fight No. 1. Sometime in 1952 or 1953, a serious of building fires occurred at NEAC major bases. They were of all types quarters, warehouses, clubs, etc., and at Pepperrell, including White Hills, Harmon, Argentia, Goose and Thule. Base Commanders were frantic, because the NEAC boss, (I think it was Glen O Barcus) was being hammered by TWX's (telegrams) from HQ, USAF, to "do something." They all appeared to be accidental. As the number increased (along with Washington's anger), there was much activity on the subject of fire prevention, but little apparent results as one after the other reports of fires came in. General Barcus message to all the troops stated that the number one enemy was no longer the Russians, it was fire!

Everybody had to be made fire prevention conscious. School children in the base school were given cardboard firefighter's hats to wear. One half hour before offices closed on bases, all cigarettes, pipes and cigars had to be extinguished. All ashtrays and trash cans were emptied outside. The designated building "Fire Warden" had to remain after departure of all other troops to inspect the building and sign a form on the wall that he had done so (to be destroyed in any fire, no doubt). The number of fire extinguishers was increased in all buildings (although all buildings caught fire when unoccupied), except the one at White Hills.

The White Hills fire (I think it was the "block house", which was under construction,) revealed that the base fire department could do little since their hose coupling threads (US) did not match the fire hydrant connection threads (Canadian). Apparently, the couplings matched on the base proper. The St. John's FD saved the day. (Fortunately, they could get their trucks through, unlike the time I watched, somewhere, as a horse drawn sled [my recollection is that it said, "St. John's FD" on the side], went by with four firemen, with several old-style, soda-acid and water fire extinguishers).

Shortly thereafter, all hydrants were immediately replaced. Eventually, the series of fires ceased as mysteriously as they had begun apparently a random event, like a gambler's "run of luck."

Fire Fight No. 2. Early on, all personnel were issued carbines for base defense, which were stored for quick issue in the unit supply buildings in locally made gun-racks. The primary responsibility for ground defense was given to the Air Police Squadron, but everybody was supposed to be used when necessary. Sometime in 1952, higher headquarters thought the base should undergo a ground defense exercise, to be sure everybody was "on the ball."

Arrangements were made for a portion of a Canadian Army Parachute regiment to act as the attacking force. The plan seemed to be only concerned with the enemy coming down from the hills. I guess they thought that Ft. Amherst's 18th century guns and the WW1 "Queen's Own Battery" would stop any Russian ships coming through "The Gut" (Narrows at harbor entrance).

At any rate, when the alarm sounded, all personnel available drew their carbines (no ammo) and went out into the snow to their assigned positions in the hills to repel the attack. We really didn't think they would make an air drop, but weren't sure. We waited, and waited no reports of "enemy" activity. About when we thought that this was another coordination "SNAFU", we received word to return to quarters, the exercise was over.

I blush on behalf of the USAF! The Canadian Army had landed at Torbay airport, loaded on to trucks, driven down to Pepperrell, drove right through the front gate, waving at the open-mouth Air Policeman in his sentry box and unloaded in front of base headquarters. They entered and captured the base commander and his staff, and thus the base! We had no more ground defense exercises!

I and my family always remembered those days, with all its problems, with pleasure. The locals were very friendly and the military was truly "a band of brothers," who helped each other out, whatever the problem.

In February 1955, I received an assignment to "heaven." I was transferred to one of General Curtis LeMay's Strategic Air Command bomber bases - HQ., 15th Air Force, March AFB, in balmy, southern California, in the midst (then) of acres of orange groves (now housing developments). LeMay was paranoid (probably a good thing, in those days). Army 90MM, anti-aircraft, batteries surrounded the base. In the offices, all enlisted personnel had rifles in wall gun-racks and officers had .Colt .45 cal. automatics in holsters in their desks. There was to be no second Pearl Harbor "on his watch." But that is another story.

 

 


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Updated: May 29, 2001