A patriotic weekend in Klamath Falls
October 12, 2006
I was in Klamath Falls, Ore., a couple of weekends ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of my old fighter squadron. It was a weekend filled with bittersweet nostalgia, strong emotions and pure, unadulterated patriotism. I loved every minute of it.
It all started about 100 years ago (or so it seems) when I completed the Air Force ROTC – Reserve Officer Training Corps – program at the University of Washington in Seattle, and received a second lieutenant’s commission upon graduation. A few months later I was in navigation school at Harlingen Air Force Base on the Texas – Mexico border. That was an educational experience for a Seattle boy, as was my next assignment to radar intercept school at James Connally AFB in Waco, Texas.
After 18 months of training I was ready to get into the back seat of the Air Force’s new supersonic fighter-interceptor, the F101-B “Voodoo.” We back-seaters were called “scope wizards” because we flew around with our heads in the radar scope, navigating and putting our pilots on the proper intercept course. After training, several of us newly minted radar officers (ROs) were assigned to the 322nd Fighter – Interceptor Squadron at Kingsley Field AFB in Klamath Falls, where we spent a couple of mostly enjoyable and occasionally intense years pulling alert duty and watching for unknown aircraft approaching the U.S. West Coast.
Every now and then we’d scramble our “Voodoos” out of the alert hanger and make ID passes at some poor, unsuspecting commercial airliner that had wandered off-course. We usually put on a bit of a show and waved at the surprised passengers.
Although I served between the Korea and Vietnam wars, I describe the K. Falls experience as “occasionally intense” because we had some scary incidents and lost one of our comrades, a promising African-American officer, Jack Peoples, who had been student body president at North Carolina A&T University and was destined for success later in life. Jack ejected one night far out over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Northern California and was never seen again. His aircraft’s canopy blew off for unknown reasons and he decided to eject rather than to ride the 25-ton aircraft into the drink. It was the wrong decision, however, because his very capable pilot brought the plane back to the base. We flew search grids over the ocean for days but found no trace of our fellow back-seater.
Jack was my friend and sometime roommate and when we lost him, it brought the rest of us closer together in a sad and tragic male bonding experience that’s lasted a lifetime. Those kinds of experiences can turn a diverse group of Americans into a band of brothers, or sisters, as more women have joined the military in recent years. Over the years I’ve found it difficult to explain those strong bonds of loyalty and patriotism to people who’ve never served in the military, including journalists, diplomats and other government officials I’ve dealt with along the way.
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All too often during my Foreign Service career I saw bureaucrats and diplomats with no military experience make political – military policy decisions without sufficient knowledge of the far-reaching implications of their decisions. A current example of that problem is when Vice President Dick Cheney, who never served in the military, tells us how to fight the war in Iraq.
I mustered out of the Air Force after 18 months of alert duty with the 322nd and went to work for the local newspaper, the Klamath Falls Herald & News, covering local government, sports and the Air Force base. That was just before I came to Carson City as Associated Press capital correspondent. I really didn’t think much about my brief military career for the next 40-plus years except to maintain contact with two or three former comrades from the old fighter squadron, which was decommissioned in the mid-1960s.
But last year a couple of aging flyboys decided to organize a squadron reunion in K. Falls and the response was enthusiastic. We were welcomed to the base, now the site of a very active Air Guard fighter pilot training school, by the base commander, a young (mid-40s) “bird” colonel with more than 5,000 hours of flight time and many combat missions over Iraq during the first Gulf War. There was an immediate emotional connection between two generations of flyers as we watched five F-15 fighters take off for Okinawa (think nuclear weapons in North Korea and you know what their mission is). As we stood out there on the flight line giving the “thumbs up” salute to the new generation of flyboys, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “Those men are doing this to protect us,” said one of the wives in our group. “We owe our freedoms to them.”
The emotions were so strong that some of the old pilots asked where they could sign-up for another tour of duty. If 70-year-olds were eligible for military service, there’d be 20 or 30 veteran pilots volunteering for service in Iraq and elsewhere around this troubled world of ours. I tell this story to illustrate an important point: No matter how we feel about President Bush’s Iraq policy (which I oppose), we should unite in support of the brave men and women who fight our country’s wars. God bless them.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, served a three-year tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force back in the “brown shoe” days of the late 50s and early 60s.