By George Darrow
1a: an ill-mannered annoying child
b: an ill-mannered immature person
2: the child of a career military person
My father, Albert Darrow, was (with a short break in service from October 1929 to June 1930) career Army from October 1928 to April 1953. While stationed at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1934, he met and married my mother, Jessie. My sister, Rita, was born the following year. In October 1939, the family was transferred to Fort Lewis in Washington where I made my appearance that December. In July the following year, we moved to Columbus, Georgia, to be with my father, who had been transferred to the Second Armored Division at Fort Benning.
We were at Fort Benning on December 7th, 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—thus catapulting the US into World War II.
We remained at Fort Benning until April 1942, when Dad was transferred to the Desert Training Center at Indio, California, for training in preparation for the North African Invasion. While he was there he was assigned as a Field Artillery officer to the staff of General George S. Patton; meanwhile, Mom, my sister and I had moved to Beaumont, California, where we lived in a tiny flat-roofed duplex owned by a man named “Pop” Leutwiler. Summers there are very hot, and “Pop” Leutwiler used to dry apricots and peaches on our roof. One day when I was about three or four years old, I followed him up a ladder to the roof so I could watch him drying the fruit. I was barefoot, and as soon as I stepped onto the roof my feet began to burn. Then I discovered that, even though I could get up the ladder, I couldn’t get back down it! My screams brought Mom to the rescue. The war brought rationing of items like meat, sugar, rubber, and gasoline. Fortunately, “Pop” raised chickens in his backyard; so we ate a lot of chickens.
During the war, Dad served on General Patton’s staff during the campaign in Northern Africa and the invasion of Sicily, and on the staff of General Alexander Patch for the 7th Army’s invasion of Southern France and campaign into Southern Germany. This was the army that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp. After the war, Dad told my Mom one time that he was at Dachau; otherwise, he never talked about it. During the war, Mom had one rule: My sister and I were to keep absolute silence during radio news broadcasts so that she could hear news about the war. Some years later she told me that she was absolutely convinced that, once my father went off to war, she would never see him again. Fortunately, she was wrong. World War II ended with the surrender of Japan in August 1945. The earliest memory of my father I have is the day he came home from the war. I was playing outside our home in Beaumont when this strange guy came walking down the front walk and right into the door. This was how I found out that my father was home.
The next couple of years were a period of transition for us with Dad being stationed at various posts in California and Utah. November 1947 found us at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah, and we were there in June 1950 when the Korean War began. Dad received orders for Korea that September. He was stationed in Pusan until April, 1953 when he returned from Korea and retired from the Army.
We had moved to Dallas, Oregon, while Dad was in Korea, and it was here that I went to both Junior High and High School, thus ending my “career” as an Army Brat.
During this “career” I attended 10 schools (including the two in Dallas). All during my childhood, I had considered joining the Army—preferably as a baker. So–using a delayed enlistment program—during my senior year in High School I stuck up my hand and volunteered for the Air Force!
So in June 1958 and I went through Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas. I remember that everything done in Basic Training was done in formation. For example, everyone marched to the dining hall in formation. Once there we had to wait in formation until we could enter the dining hall as a unit. On entering the dining hall each airman would grab a steel serving tray (there were no dishes) and do a side-step through the serving line. Due, I believe, to the large number of airmen going through the dining hall, each flight was assigned a limited amount of time in the hall. At the conclusion of the allotted time, we then assumed formation outside the hall and marched off to whatever we had to do. Upon the completion of Basic Training, I was sent to Air Police School (also at Lackland) and I became an Air Policeman.
That December I received orders for my first duty station at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. After a two week leave to visit my parents (who had moved to Shell Beach, California) I reported to MacDill in January 1959. MacDill was a Strategic Air Command base, and my duties there included doing guard duty on nuclear-loaded jet bombers, KC-97 aerial refueling tankers, the bomb dump, and the base command post. The policy of the Strategic Air Command was to have a significant portion of their nuclear bombers airborne at all times, and while I was at MacDill, one of the nuclear-loaded bombers crashed on landing, and I had to assist the fire department in reloading fire-fighting foam in their trucks. Unfortunately, one of the crewmembers was killed. While at MacDill, I was sent on Temporary Duty to Torrejon Air Base in Spain, and to Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland, Canada. I went to Harmon Air Force Base as a passenger on one of the KC-97 tankers, and on the way, we did a mid-air refueling of a B-47. I got to watch the refueling operation from over the refueling boom operator’s shoulder, and I remember waving at the B-47 pilot who waved back at me!
After spending a year at MacDill, I was transferred to Fairford Royal Air Force station in England where I spent three years guarding B-47s. I was there for the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. At the time I was in the barracks watching television along with some of my fellow cops when President John F. Kennedy gave a live speech where he began talking about Soviet rockets being in Cuba. He said the United States was initiating a quarantine against Soviet shipping to Cuba, and that any Soviet freighters encountered would be turned back. Just then our Squadron Charge of Quarters came running into the barracks and said that we were on full military alert. This meant that we were to man our emergency war posts. When we asked him why he said: “You’re watching it!”
I cannot overstate how serious this was.
We were used to going on alert, but all previous alerts had been tests. This was the real deal. I remember guarding one of Fairford’s nuclear loaded B-47s one night and asking one of its crew members his chances of survival if he had to make a bombing run into Russia. He estimated that one bomber out of ten would make it to its assigned target and that out of those who made it to the target, one in ten would survive the bomb run. It was the only time in my Air Force career that all military leaves were canceled and all personnel was ordered to report to duty. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, this is the closest the world has ever come to a global nuclear war.
In 1963 I received orders for Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. At the time Vandenberg was the Headquarters of the 1st Strategic Aerospace Division; and it and Cape Kennedy, Florida, were the only two places from which the Air Force launched its satellites and fired its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. My duties there consisted of guarding Atlas, Titan I, Titan II and Minuteman I missiles. These duties consisted of controlling the access to the underground launch control facilities, escorting convoys of missiles from maintenance shops to the launch facilities, and setting up roadblocks during missile fueling activities and launches. Vandenberg was my least favorite duty station. This was because it was a spit-and-polish, showplace base due to the frequent visits from congressmen, senators, and generals who came to watch its missile launches.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Tonkin Incidents, and the Watts Riots all occurred while I was at Vandenburg.
The Tonkin Incidents of August 2 and 4 1964 resulted in the Tonkin Resolution, which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to build up US military involvement in Vietnam. An announcement was made at Guard Mount (a military formation where all of the security guards were inspected and received their orders before going to their respective posts) one evening that there was an immediate requirement for security guards to go to an undisclosed location in Southeast Asia. We all knew this was Vietnam. There were over fifty volunteers. The Watts area of Los Angeles—due to racial unrest– erupted into riots from April 11 – 16 1965, and several people were killed and over one thousand were injured. The Air Police at Vandenberg were put on standby for the riot, but (fortunately) did not have to respond.
I left Vandenberg in late 1965 on-route to Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland, Canada, where I was the last guy to sign into my outfit because the base had just been closed. So, after spending nine months on the caretaker force (and being tired of being a cop) I was accepted for into the electronics school at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and became a Ground-to-Air Radio Maintenance Technician.
The war in Vietnam was entering one of its hotter periods so (figuring I was going to be nailed for it anyway, and I might as well go and get it over with) I volunteered for Vietnam on my graduation from Keesler in June, 1967. I was sent to the 485th GEEIA (Ground Electronic Engineering Installation Agency) Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base. I flew in to Cam Ranh Bay in a contract civilian airliner in the middle of the night and could see a lot of flares going off as we approached. During the approach the plane’s captain came over the intercom and said that, if we came under attack while landing, he would stop the airplane in the middle of the runway and we were to run to the nearest bomb shelter. This was my introduction to war.
The mission of the 485th was to go all over the country and install electronic equipment. I was assigned to a team that installed Ground-to Air radio transmitters and receivers. While I was in Vietnam during my first tour, I was sent on temporary duty to Da Nang Air Base in order to assist in the installation of some UHF (Ultra-High Frequency) transmitters and receivers at the nearby radar site on Monkey Mountain. While I was there, the air base there came under attack from North Vietnamese rockets and mortars, and there were times when I was lying under my bunk in the barracks, or in the neighboring bomb-shelter, and listening to the shrapnel bounce off of the roof. I was at Da Nang for the Tet Offensive of 1968. This was the celebration of the Lunar New Year and was supposed to include a truce. The North Vietnamese violated this truce on the night of January 30th, 1968 with a massive surprise attack on cities and installations throughout the country, including Da Nang. On the morning following the attack my teammates and I went to breakfast in the Da Nang mess hall and the truck we were in was fired upon by a sniper as we tried to enter the mess hall.
While I was at Da Nang, I became involved in a sponsorship program run by the China Beach Orphanage and became the sponsor of a little 6-year-old girl named Lai, and Bo, her older sister. I used to go visit them on Sundays. Lai and Bo were not true orphans, but their father had been killed in the war and their mother was too poor to support them. Neither Lai nor Bo spoke any English, and I didn’t speak any Vietnamese, but we got along together just fine.
When the team I was on completed the installation project on Monkey Mountain, we were sent to Binh Thuy Air Base in the Mekong River Delta region in order to help install a radar site. The radar site (called Paddy Control) was located in some rice paddies about a half-mile down a single two-lane road. One day I was walking down this road and caught sight of something black in the corner of my eye that I thought was a crow. The crow turned out to be a sniper who took two shots at me but fortunately missed. I returned to Cam Ranh Bay upon the completion of the Project at Binh Thuy and returned to the States.
Before leaving Can Ranh Bay, I filled out a form called a “Dream Sheet.” On this, I could volunteer for any Stateside duty station I wanted. Being as I was returning from a combat zone, I was told I was almost guaranteed to get any base I wanted. I decided I didn’t care for hot, wet, sticky places so I volunteered to be sent as far north as I could get. The powers that be considered this and sent me to Florida.
I reported into the 1942nd Communications Squadron at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida in early September 1968.
At the time Homestead was the presidential support base for President Richard M. Nixon, who would fly into Homestead on Air Force One, and transfer to a helicopter for a ride to Key Biscayne, where he had a retreat. Whenever he did this, all of us radio maintenance types would have to man our communications sites from one hour before he arrived until one hour after he left, in case of equipment failure. While I was at Homestead, I decided to try and adopt Lai and Bo, but this was denied by the orphanage. Not being able to bring the children to me, I decided to go to them and volunteered for a second tour to Vietnam.
The powers considered this again and, instead of returning to Vietnam, I received a set of orders sending me to Bossier Base, Louisiana. Bossier was an Atomic Energy Commission site located on Barksdale Air Force Base outside of Shreveport. My orders were for a four-year tour, but Bossier was closed two months after I got there. Working there was strange because radio maintenance came under Air Force regulations, but building maintenance came under Navy regulations, and supply came under the Army. This made it interesting if you wanted to order something like paper-clips (Army) or needed a plumber (Navy). When Bossier closed, I was transferred to the 46th Communications Squadron on Barksdale. I spent about four months on Barksdale and then returned to Vietnam.
I signed in to Detachment 3 of the 619th Tactical Control Squadron (Paddy Control) at Binh Thuy Air Base in October 1970 and got to maintain the same radio transmitters and receivers that I had installed during my first Vietnam tour. 1970-1971 was a relatively quiet time during the Vietnam War, and I managed to wangle a three-day pass to go visit my girls in the China Beach Orphanage. This was the last time I ever saw them. American involvement in the war began to wind down during this time, and I was reassigned back to the states after only ten months.
Following Binh Thuy, my next assignment was to the 907th Radar Squadron at Bucks Harbor, Maine.
While I was there, I was given the opportunity to go to Thailand for four months. So April, 1972 found me at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. My mission there was to assist in the support of Operation College Eye, which was a precursor to today’s AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System). This was divided into airborne and ground sections, and I was involved in the ground section. The airborne section flew EC-121T (modified Lockheed Super Constellation) aircraft out of Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. These were missions that lasted for six hours or longer, and were classed as combat missions due to their being over enemy territory. Even though I was part of the ground section, I was given the opportunity to go on several of these missions. I returned to Bucks Harbor from Udorn at the end of August. My departure from Bucks Harbor for Elmendorf Air Force Base the following April meant that I got to spend two winters in Maine, but no summers!
I arrived at Elmendorf in July 1973 after attending a special electronics school at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and visiting my parents in California. I was assigned to the 1931st Communications Group spent two years at the Aero Station on Six-mile Lake (where I maintained radio receivers) and at the transmitter site on Fort Richardson I was reassigned to the quality control branch and spent three years inspecting the radio maintenance shops on Elmendorf, the forward Air Bases at King Salmon, Galena and Fort Yukon, and thirteen of the Air Force’s remote Radar Sites—visiting each facility twice a year. While I was in the quality control branch, I was also sent to Shemya Air Force Base in the Aleutians for four months in order to fill a manpower shortage.
American combat units were withdrawn from the Vietnam War in 1973, and North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam on January 6th, 1975.
I had continued sponsoring Lai and Bo until this time. Da Nang–including the China Beach Orphanage—was captured on March 30th. By this time Bo had returned to her family. According to the letters I received, there was an evacuation plan in place for the orphanage, but there was no time to implement it and all of the children were captured. At the time I was living at the transmitter site and was in a state of shock as I watched all of this on television. As of today, I have no knowledge of the fate of Lai or Bo.
After retiring from the Air Force, I spent a couple of years as a janitor, then went to the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and got a degree in history. From there I spent 20 years working for the Veterans Administration. Upon retiring from the VA, I joined the Alaska Veterans Museum, where I currently serve on the Board of Directors.