Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Military

And now the Norks are sailing subs

What is North Korea up to these days? Just days away from their launch of a rocket-cum-satellite, the Norks are getting everyone’s attention again by sailing subs in the region.

Just days ahead of a controversial long-range rocket test and a major political conference in Pyongyang, North Korea reportedly quietly sent four of its diesel-electric submarines on deployment this week.

The North’s large Sang-O-class and “midget” Yono-class submarines are not as stealthy as more-advanced American vessels, but they are still capable of eluding many modern sonar systems.

Read the rest of the article here.

The last time a Nork sub got everyone’s attention was back in 1996 when one of their midget class submarines ran aground off the eastern coastal city, Kangnung, which resulted in a number of commandos committing suicide and the others fleeing into the mountains with ROK soldiers in pursuit.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part 4

Let’s look at the scorecard thus far. 

It’s 1976. I graduated from high school on June 3; six days later I was at Lackland Air Force Base doing my basic military training.

On July 4, we could stay up past 9:00pm to celebrate our Bicentennial. From our barracks’ windows we could see a fireworks display. Happy Birthday America. 

Six weeks later I am at Lowry AFB in Denver, Colorado. A few weeks later I was in Panama. 

So, there I was—eighteen years old and settling into my first duty station. I was living in Building 714 on the third floor. The second floor was for CAMS (if I am not mistaken, it stood for the Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron) and on the third floor it was all for Supply including the airmen who delivered the jet fuel. 

The barracks, which had supposedly been built during World War II (or so I was told; then again, it could very well have been another one of these military/urban legends that I have come to accept as the truth over the years), had originally been an open-bay style. Later, the Air Force with their infinite wisdom decided to give airmen a little privacy and remodeled the barracks with a block of rooms on either side of a central latrine. However, the hallway would run along the outside of these rooms which meant the rooms, at least in this barracks would have no windows. The only rooms that had windows were the row of rooms at each end of the floor/building.  

Supposedly, this design was the easiest one to convert the open-bay barracks into individual rooms. Another reason, which I am sure sounded good when explaining the window-less rooms to someone who was going to be stuck in one for two years, was that the heavy monsoon rains would be a problem. I think more had to do with the central located latrine that would have posed more problems re-designing the floor to accommodate rooms on either side. Now the biggest challenge for the shakers and movers would be how to keep these rooms “cool” in the stifling heat and suffocating humidity. So, this central air conditioning system was designed to pump cool air into the rooms 24/7. And when it worked, it worked quite well keeping us all cool as a cucumber (except there was still a bit of a humidity problem and you always had to watch out for mildew). On the other hand, three times the system broke in the two years that I was there and those rooms became like ovens without any circulation at all. Of course, with the hallway running along the outside of these rooms there was no way that you could keep your door open. 

My first roommate was a bit of a trip. Going by the name of “JJ” he had turned his half of the room (the back half) into his own private boudoir. He had a couple of black lights, posters, beads, most of the furniture and a steady stream of young Panamanian ladies coming and going all hours of night and on the weekends (how he managed to sneak them in and not get caught was one of the great mysteries of my early days at Howard). 

He’s the one who got me in trouble with the First Sergeant not long after I arrived when he refused to help clean the room for a Saturday inspection. Later, he got busted for drugs or something and was kicked out of the Air Force (by then I had already moved into another room). 

Barracks life was rather quiet for the most part. I can’t recall spending much time in the barracks other than hanging out with a few friends like Howard now and then. Off duty meant hitting Happy Hour at the NCO club and then later a bus ride to Panama City and bars like the Ancon Inn and the Ovalo Bar (my favorite bar) or the Fox Hole.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part 3

 

When I first arrived at Howard AFB in September 1976, there were very few airmen below the rank of E-4.

From what I understood, before I arrived most of the airmen stationed at Howard had served in Vietnam—either at bases in Thailand or Vietnam. Whether or not that was true or not, or one of the military/urban legends associated with the base (another one was about whether or not you could swim because if the canal was ever sabotage, the side of the canal that Howard was located on would be under water) there were a lot of E-1’s (Airmen Basic) to E-3’s (Airmen First Class) arriving at Howard in 1976 not long after the Tactical Air Command had taken over the United States Southern Air Command.

As one of those E-1’s arriving I was soon put to good use pulling all kinds of lousy duties/details like cleaning offices (which I thought was absurd later when most duty sections paid Panamanians to do the cleaning—like we did in the barracks) as well as painting the hangar floor (where some of the supplies were located) battleship gray. I got to do that my first weekend at Howard; guess they were waiting for me to arrive. Come to think of it, when I did arrive, I was the lowest ranking airman in the supply squadron. Yes, all that military training was being put to good use—and now I was being put to good use cleaning the Chief Master Sergeant’s office and painting the hangar floor.

At the same time I wasn’t too keen on working in the Base Service Store and maybe my attitude could have been a little better because I started off on the wrong foot rubbing some people there the wrong way (maybe that is why I was having to pull all those lousy details). That probably got people thinking about finding a different job for me as it were because not too long after my friend Howard arrived I was soon transferred out to the Repair Cycle Support Unit on my way to a better position that I would stay in until I left Howard AFB in September 1978.

The Base Service Store carried everything from toilet paper and cleaning supplies to pens and stationary. Most of the time I worked there was spent stocking the shelves in either the store or the hangar where supplies like boxes of government issued toilet paper were stocked (none of this 3-4 ply stuff that you can pamper your butt with these days). My AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) was 64530 Inventory Management Specialist—a fancy expression for supply.

The one nice thing about the Base Service Store was that you could meet a lot of different people on any given day. Stocking shelves was a little boring (I had done that the previous year when I worked at K-Mart) but it was cool working along the flight line and watching A-7’s, C-130’s and C-141’s landing and taking off.

One thing that I found surprising about being stationed at Howard was that many people worked from 9-5. No wonder so many people wanted to extend their tour of duty there. Many of the people I would get to know in the first few months I was at Howard had been in the Vietnam War like Larry Easterly who had been a gunner on a Huey (he had done two or three tours in Nam) and for them, coming to Howard was like being on R&R I guess. Maybe that was just another one of those military/urban legends or something that I have come to accept as the truth over the years.

When I first arrived at Howard and got a glimpse of the base and later Balboa in the Canal Zone it was like nothing had ever seen before. I regret that I hadn’t been a little more up on my history of Panama. However, when I was in the sixth grade, my classmates and I made a clay model of Central America and if I am not mistaken, I was responsible for making the Panama Canal.

I would soon learn, as I had not when I was making that clay model that the canal did not run East-West, but instead North-South.

There would be a lot of things I would learn in those first few months of being in Panama. I did get to see a little of the Canal Zone a few days after I arrived with my sponsor Airman First Class Gary Grimes. He took me to Balboa and Miraflores Locks and I got to see a ship transiting the canal for the first time. It was also a real treat to cross over the Thatcher Ferry Bridge and see the Pacific Ocean on one side and the canal on the other. No matter how many times I crossed that bridge in the two years that I was stationed in Panama it was always a thrill for me.

Ron Cortez, Cerveza Atlas, Cerveza Panama, Monkey Meat, the Ancon Inn, Ovalo, Paris, the Foxhole, Gran Morrison, Chiva buses….

 UPDATE: August 2015

My novel about Panama, The Panama Affair is now available at Amazon!

Panama. It sounded just as much exotic as it did foreboding for Gary Taylor, Kevin Rooney, and Frank Costello, three airmen assigned to a military base in the Canal Zone during the 1970s, who soon became enraptured with its beauty, danger, and adventure; for Buck Smith, an analyst for the CIA it was a constant source of frustration and anguish as he followed the meteoric and deadly rise of Manuel Noriega.

Things become complicated when the airmen cross paths with one of Smith’s associates in Panama City and the lives of these individuals become intertwined in drugs, deception, and death. The airmen will be forced to face their demons, but doing so only leads to more strife.

Friends will become enemies. Old hurts will resurface. The death toll will rise. No one will emerge unscathed.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and other stories — Part 1

Path between the Seas — Panama Canal Zone, 1978

I have to confess that I wasn’t too crazy the day I found out that I had orders to Panama.

At first, on that cool Denver morning at Lowry Air Force Base in the summer of 1976 when our orders for our first duty assignments were passed out, I didn’t even know where I was going. All my orders said were Howard AFB CZ Zone. None of my sergeants that morning knew anything about the base. It wasn’t until later that day when I asked one of my instructors that I found out where I was going. Although I might not have been too keen on going overseas then, by the time I left Panama two years later and the years since, I have fondly looked back on the time I was there.

During the two years I spent in Panama I got the chance to meet a lot of cool and interesting people—some who had previously served in Vietnam before coming to Panama—while others, like my good friend Howard Hakkila had only been in the Air Force for a short time.

I first met Howard the day we both had to get our yellow fever shots at some Army hospital in Denver. Turns out we both were in the same technical training school and chances were we would probably end up working together. We did. For the first couple of months we both worked together at the Base Service Store stacking toilet paper and handing out tools before I was transferred to another section. Guess I must have complained too much that working at the Base Service Store was like working at K-mart.

When I arrived at Howard Air Force Base in September 1976, I was part of this wave of airmen being assigned there after the Tactical Air Command had assumed control of the base (previously it had been under the auspices of another command). Later I would discover that most of the personnel assigned to the base prior to the arrival of all these airmen were E-4 and above, many who had come to Howard right after American’s involvement in Vietnam.

As soon as I walked out of the commercial airliner that brought all military personnel to Panama from Charleston Air Force Base, Howard’s tropical charm with its manicured grounds and massive white buildings with ocher terracotta roofs was like nothing I had ever seen before. It almost was though I had literally stepped back into time. Too bad someone from my squadron didn’t know about time: no one was at the terminal to meet me and I had to wait for almost an hour before someone was sent to pick me up.

My first month at Howard was one extreme after another—with a lot of sensory overload thrown in for good measure. However, it started off as bit of a downer.

When I was taken to my room the first day I arrived, I couldn’t believe that this was the Air Force that I had joined. Those beautiful looking tropical buildings that had appeared so lovely when I espied them from the MAC (Military Airlift Command) Terminal were not so inviting once you were inside.

Built sometime during World War II (or so it seemed) they had at one time been these large open-bay barracks. Then, someone got the idea that the airmen stationed at Howard should have their own rooms, so a block of rooms was built on either side of a central latrine with additional rooms at each end of the building. If you were lucky enough to get a room on the end, you would have a window. However, for most of us hapless airmen, who were assigned to one of these rooms in the middle, there were no windows.

Okay, so I would have a room with no window. At least air conditioning (which he had no control over) was steadily pumped into the rooms (except a few times when the power plant that supplied the air conditioning broke down), which keep us cool. And if I really wanted a view, all I had to do was step outside and look out one of the windows, which ran the length of the barracks. Had a nice view of the parade field that dissected the middle of the base.

Then, I got to meet my roommate who would be one of many interesting and colorful characters that I would meet while stationed at Howard. Except, he was perhaps too interesting for my liking, at least for being my roommate.

Establishing his territorial claim to the room, he had taken over the back half of the room and turned it into his own private boudoir with lots of blacklight posters, beads, and the constant smell of incense burning (no doubt to camouflage his propensity for some burning some of the local herb).

Sadly, we did not hit it off too well. After informing me that this was his “crib” we hardly ever saw much of each other.

We did have one small run-in, which was no fault of my own. Not long after I arrived, the First Sergeant inspected our room and gave us a number of demerits—which included everything from mold inside the refrigerator to garbage in the trash can. Not wanting to get on the bad side of the First Sergeant (who had a bad-ass reputation in the squadron) I freaked out over the demerits we got, but my roommate assured me that the First Sergeant wasn’t that serious and not to worry about it.

The inspection was on a Friday and that night, like almost every Friday night that I was in Panama, I started off at the NCO club before heading downtown Panama City for another night of drinking and debauchery—crawling back to my room and in bed sometime early in the morning.

I had only gotten a few hours of sleep when there was a thunderous knocking on the door, quickly followed by the door being thrown open. Rubbing my eyes, and wondering who in the hell would be knocking on the door at this hour of the morning, I could just make out the silhouette of this gargantuan figure standing in the doorway. Espying the stripes that ran up and down the figure’s arm, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in big trouble.

“Get your asses out of bed,” bellowed the First Sergeant, “and get ready for inspection!”

Inspection, what inspection I thought as I groped for my glasses at the side of the bed, relieved that I had not brought any woman back to my room.

In his hand he held a copy of yesterday’s inspection report and waved it in front of my face as I approached him. I could hear my roommate stirring in the back of the room.

“You were supposed to have this room in inspection order,” he said.

I wanted to say that it was Saturday morning, but looking at my First Sergeant in front of me wearing heavily starched fatigues with sharp crease marks on the sleeves that could cut paper, my instincts told me better.

My roommate though, beat to me to the punch. Finally out of bed, he was mumbling something about that it was too early in the morning for this kind of shit.

I picked up a copy of the inspection report that was still on the desk from yesterday and looked at the demerits we got. Okay, mold in the refrigerator that would have to be cleaned, but when I saw a demerit for garbage in the trash can, what I said next even surprised me, no shocked me.

“Where else are we supposed to put the garbage?”

Ouch. If I wanted to make a lasting impression on my First Sergeant and be forever in his graces, I definitely pushed the right button.

“Get your asses dressed in your uniforms and report to my office in five minutes,’’ barked the First Sergeant as he reeled about and stormed out of the room.

I quickly threw on my uniform, but my roommate didn’t seem phased by what had transpired.

“Don’t worry Miller,’’ said my roommate, “it’s all just an act.”

Five minutes later I am standing in front of my First Sergeant’s desk getting a good ass-chewing, the likes of which I had not had since I was in basic training the previous summer. If it was just an act, the First Sergeant was having one heck of a performance. 

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