It was time to leave Arkansas and I had a big decision to make. I had done well on my first assignment and I was facing some difficult choices. I still had three years to go on my six-year enlistment and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had managed to get my first two years of college done and Lillian wasn’t far behind. Not wanting the roulette wheel of military assignments to pick me up and randomly spit me out, I started applying for “special assignments.” Little did I know that the LtCol Thompson I told you about earlier was also working on my behalf. Once I finally picked a suitable job and location, somehow the “system” seemed to fall into place.
My first choice was to move to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas and become a U.S.A.F Thunderbird Photographer. Lillian says that I should remind you that the Thunderbirds are the Air Force’s aerial demonstration team. I’ll remind you that the Thunderbirds are like the Navy’s Blue Angels, only with skill. When I learned that it would require me to travel about 300 days a year, I thought of the fun and adventure of flying upside down at the speed of sound. I then thought of your mother and the frying pan that would greet me every time I returned from a trip. I quickly went to my second choice. I settled on a day job back in Denver as a Technical Instructor.
Shortly after showing up in Denver at the combined Army/Air Force Still Photography School, I was awarded a Commendation Medal. At the time, it was rare for a first-term airman to get anything like this. Why waste the ink on a group of first termers who largely get out after four years. I received the award largely for my work documenting the B-52 Air Campaign of Linebacker II in the final days of the Vietnam War. Turns out that the B-52s from Blytheville’s 97th Bomb Wing and the 42nd Air Division led the air campaign to bring North Vietnam back to the Paris Peace Talks. Yeah, I know, it didn’t work out the way America planned it, but Linebacker II was the largest bombing campaign since World War II, and this was history. I must have copied over 10,000 photographs of the planes on Guam jammed nose to tail for as far as the eye could see. Of the 207 B-52s used for the operation, 153 were on Guam while another 54 were stationed in Thailand. Linebacker II was referred to in the News as the Christmas Bombings. The concentrated bombing of North Vietnam lasted non-stop for twelve days. 266 Surface to Air Missiles were fired, shooting down 16 of the bombers. 43 Airmen lost their lives and another 49 were taken prisoner.
The Brigadier General who led many of the raids was now the 42nd Air Division Commander. Brigadier General McCarthy was a bit of a legend. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for his part as the 43rd Bomb Wing Commander during the most intensive period of the bombing campaign. The Air Force Cross is the Air Force’s second highest award. Second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. The General’s office and staff were now on Blytheville AFB.
One evening, tired of copying old photographs, I doctored up a picture of the General wearing a scarf and climbing into an old WW I biplane. Somehow a copy of that “photoshopped” picture got into the daily stack. Looking back, it must have been Joel who put it there. I’m sure he and Sergeant Al had a great laugh. A few days later the General’s Aide showed up at our lab. Now I’d never seen a General’s aide before, and it was quite the site. By now I had taken hundreds of official officer’s photographs, but this Captain, was right out of a recruiting poster. His shoes had shine on the shine and the white braided lanyard around his arm looked like he should be in the French Foreign Legion. I was proud to note that he sported a National Defense ribbon just like me. Apparently, we were both in the Battle of the BX (Base Exchange). He walked into the lab, Sergeant Al, Joel, the other airmen and I all stood up.
“Airman Z, come with me.”
The ride to Division Headquarters was less than a mile, on the other side of the flight line. The Aide, then reminded me how to “report” to a General Officer. I was more than a bit disheveled and had little to no time to square away my uniform. Lillian had long stopped ironing my uniforms so my BDUs looked like pajamas.* It’s not an excuse BUT, the chemicals used to process film burn holes in your cloths and turn your boots from black to an ugly cream color. My hair was no were near the military standard, I hadn’t shaved. My sideburns looked like Elvis Presley. I was, in short, a mess.
I reported and rendered the best salute I could remember. After a long pause, Brigadier General McCarthy looked up from his mahogany desk. It was covered with stacks of the photographs Joel and I had copied. He held up the doctored photograph of him wearing a scarf. “Airman, do you think you could make a few more of these? My wife thinks there great! She wants to send a few out with our Christmas Cards this year. “
The General, without looking, dismissed his Aide. I spent the remainder of the afternoon listening to the General tell me about the air campaign. He asked me where I was from, was I married, and how the hell did I get to Arkansas. He spent the entire afternoon talking to just me.
- Lillian stopped ironing my uniforms early on in our married life. Way, way too early. There I was relaxing on a Sunday evening, beer in hand, when I noticed, no ironed shirts. Politely I said. Honey – Dear, are you forgetting something? Then to be even more helpful I motioned over at the pile of laundry with the bottle. This did not work out as I had planned. From an early time I learned, marriage is never fifty-fifty. Problem is, I’m a giver.