Part 1 – The Arrival
“Hey man, I’m sending you on Wednesday.” I lifted my chin slightly, like I always do when confronting bad news or criticism. Wednesday was indeed bad news. I’d counted on having most of a weekend before leaving. “We just needed some guys to go early, to help set up. I wanted people familiar with all the systems.”
I cursed silently, looking the Major in the eyes. I hoped he couldn’t read my inner monologue. I replied, “Roger, sir. Make sense.” I had to admit, it did make sense. I did know the systems better than anybody in the squadron, really, except one person—and he was senior to me. Things being based on seniority and proficiency around here led to some cold, hard decisions. Oh well. As the recruiting poster said, nobody promised me a rose garden.
“Thanks Schrags.” The major turned to go.
And so I left early. Scheduled for the first C-130 out of Iwakuni, actually. I was going to Yechon Air Base, Korea as advanced party for exercise Foal Eagle 2010. It wasn’t a good deal.
Korea is usually a choice destination. Mostly, we go to Osan Air Base, a cushy, full-service Air Force Station. The kind of place where the Q (slang for the Bachelor Officer Quarters, normally abbreviated “BOQ”) is about as nice as an upscale hotel, there’s a Chili’s restaurant on base, a decent gym, and a chapel for religious guys like me. Osan is also notable for the maze of streets outside the main gate, chock-full of shops hawking NFL jerseys, leather products, jewelry, custom suits, and handbags. Since most of those products are originally produced in Korea to be sold at a fantastic mark-up in the US, it’s a way to get authentic and fashionable objects cheap. Or it’s at least a way to get a pretty good knock-off. Naval Aviators like myself have been getting G-2 leather jackets manufactured to the original specifications in Korea for a quarter of the usual cost in the United States. Everyone usually gets excited about Korea.
Except for Yechon. Yechon is in the middle of nowhere, far from bazaars and amenities. A small Korean Air Force training base, its chief “amenity” of interest for our Marine higher-ups is a collection of three fields to which we can deploy as if we’re going to an undeveloped airfield. And by deploy, I mean set up tent cities from which we live, work, plan, brief, and conduct aircraft maintenance in a “field” setting. Just to show that we can. You know, if we needed to go to an empty piece of freshly-conquered territory and set up an airfield. Just in case. Because we’re “expeditionary,” like. We can operate from “austere environments.” Unlike, of course, those comfort-loving Air Force zoomies who prefer to live, launch, and recover from vast and luxurious airfields and waste the not inconsequential fuel and aircraft flight time of their uncounted tanker aircraft to get their fighters and attack jets to the fight. Or the Navy squids who come with a ready-built and fully-appointed airfield sitting just off-shore. Of course, one might say that six months in an enclosed, steel city is “austere” enough. It’s really the Air Force guys that get my goat. No hard feelings of course. But living in the field is hard and well, it’s hard to be hard.
So there I digress. It won’t be the last time, I promise. But there I was on Wednesday morning with a fully-packed ruck-sack and a fully-packed seabag. With every undershort and undershirt I owned, in case the laundry wasn’t available. I didn’t expect it to be available, as you might guess. The vagaries of an “austere” environment, and all. It’s funny, really—there’s nothing like the prospect of austerity to make you enjoy luxury. I swear a shower and a clean shirt meant more to me the night before I left than it ever had before. But there I go digressing again. In any case, a dear comrade was also scheduled to leave that day, on a second C-130 taking off an hour after mine. We hoofed our heavy luggage into the Passenger Terminal, which on Iwakuni is a spartan room not far removed from a Quonset Hut (and in fact is surrounded by several Quonset Huts that house offices of the Visiting Aircraft Line—Quonset huts, no doubt, that were originally raised in 1945 when the Marine Corps occupied the airfield after V-J day).
The Marines traveling with us had to be there much earlier than we did, worse luck, because their NCOs and Staff NCOs weren’t going to risk their being late. Because that would not do at all. Reflect poorly on the Marine Corps, like. Especially since zoomies were flying our transport C-130s. The C-130 Marines were apparently unavailable. Probably reluctant to leave their cushy hotel rooms. When my comrade and I arrived, the other Marines traveling with us lifted accusing eyes over their playing cards and cheap paperback novels and left an awkward question unasked in the air: “where the hell have you been?” Fair point that—they had been awake and present hours before us. So we dropped our bags in the pile and settled lowly into our seats. In the knick of time, of course. Irresponsible officers.
An hour later, the droning of a C-130 could be discerned through the paper-thin windows. A pushy young Marine in charge of the terminal organized us to “palletize” our luggage, which is a nice word to describe the mad rush of a working party that grabs all seabags and ruck-sacks in a given pile and slams them unceremoniously on a pallet, where they are crushed together with cargo netting to make them secure for transport. It’s old military wisdom that you carry anything breakable on your person. It can’t be too heavy, though, because after you’ve treated everybody’s valuable possessions as horizontal punching bags you get weighed with all your carry-on baggage. Apparently it’s important for airplanes to know how much cargo they’re carrying. Not really a factor in the ol’ F/A-18D hornet, as the 50-pound brains at Boeing and China Lake figure out what we can and can’t carry slung under the wings. We just know what we can’t carry. It makes things a little easier. Not so for these “tactical airlift” platforms, however—they could carry anything from much-needed combat supplies and equipment to a bunch of disgruntled Marines who got up too early to be carted to an “austere” environment for two and a half weeks.
We had a cargo mix-up between the two C-130s, of course. One of the Air Force crews decided that as they had landed early, they were damned well going to take off early, and to hell with the schedule. So for reasons unbeknownst to us poor devildogs, the original order of departees was reversed. Everybody scheduled on the first C-130 was switched en masse to the second, and vice versa. Not the luggage, however. Of course not. It was already palletized. No changing things now! So, ironically, we flew out with the other passenger’s personal items. The only thing that would make it worse is if one C-130 broke, stranding both crews without their pack-up. As we contemplated the odds of suffering that particular disaster, I remembered with a twinge of unease that our sleeping bags were packed also. And Korea was supposed to be cold. Awesome.
The plane ride, of course, was noisy and nauseating. There’s something about a long windowless aluminum tube that disrupts the inner ear—especially when it turns to and for, ascending and descending all the while. But like most of my brethren, I stuffed in some earplugs and went to sleep. I awoke to variations in the constant thrumming of the engine that told my aviation-sharpened senses that we were descending. A pale, dim gray light was visible in the cockpit, one story up from my seat in the cargo bay. I deduced that it was cloudy. And after we finally jolted to the runway and felt the sharp deceleration of the pilot reversing the thrust direction of the propellers, then waited as the aircraft taxied to the main building, then felt the sudden seep of cold air from the rear of the fuselage as the crew dropped the cargo gate, then shivered for twenty minutes as they offloaded the cargo (more important than a bunch of dumb jarheads, obviously), I saw that I was right. I stepped finally into the mist-shrouded and mountainous world of South Korea.
Huddled slightly in the cold, he stares through his breath at the computer screen. Dim gray light from the late morning sifts in through the low clouds and the translucent plastic window of the “work” tent. It’s another dismal spring day in Yechon. Receding behind him are the sounds of activity: thumping of boots on floor boards, swift clicking of keyboards, voices raised in argument or laughter. He is, for the moment, forgotten. Now, if he’s lucky, no one will call on him for a while, and he has some freedom.
Outside in the gathering dark engines whine as aircraft are started and taxied. The sound is loud and helps mask the presence of others; as his mind wanders the sound becomes a comforting source of white noise, the medium of emptiness and rest. His imagination, once filled with green formation lights glowing along the sides of aircraft and the lighted displays of the cockpits, flies off the airfield faster than any fighter. His thoughts alight in Southern California, eight thousand miles away. Home. The tasks at hands slowly unstick from his consciousness and fall away completely. The plywood for walling off briefing rooms, the aircraft log-books for the plane with the right engine problem, the computer network set-up that cannot be completed until the aircraft arrive on deck, the Fitness Reports he has to review in his inbox, the need to exercise—they all fade slowly into that delicious white noise along with background chatter behind him. He exhales again and shivers as his breath wafts visibly out over his work-station, then begins the email, “Dear Kate…”
Part II – The Camp
You know those stylized oriental prints? I’d call them Japanese prints, because that’s what most people call them. I dare say most of them are Japanese. But that’s not the point. They’re easy to recognize: sharp, impossibly steep and many mountains; plenty of ominous mist; a red sun or moon? Crazy art, of course. Usually with a pagoda, a samurai, or a kimono-clad lady in the foreground. Perhaps all three. Cartoonish. Well, it hit me as I stared around at South Korea that those prints were actually depicting more or less a real scene. I’d seen those saw-toothed ridges with far too many peaks, too close together; I’d seen that ominous mist; I’d seen that reddish sun (I couldn’t see the sun when I stepped off the C-130, but I would later). It was just like those prints. There were no samurai or pagodas, but maybe those are Japanese things. This was, after all, Korea. But the landscape was both pretty and alien.
I didn’t have much time to contemplate it, however, since our palletized luggage was sitting there and it wouldn’t unload itself. Of course, as an officer I didn’t really have to help—but it doesn’t do to say such things aloud. The essence of Marine Corps leadership is example, and it’s sort of the thing to do to get your hands dirty. Besides, I wanted to get things unloaded quickly and settle as best I might amidst all this austerity. And I don’t like watching other people work without lending a hand. So we conducted a palletization in reverse. The zoomies slung back the cargo net, and every Marine grabbed two or three seabags or rucksacks and amid much cursing humped them over to a waiting 7-ton, whereupon each Marine tossed each bag up to the cargo bed, eight feet above the ground. Not too gentle with our gear, we Marines. Sorta mirrors the way we treat ourselves. And each other. The zoomies watched incredulously. I’m sure they have luggage conveyor belts on their base.
After unloading all our gear we piled into rented minivans for the trip down to our living quarters. There’s apparently a single road on base that winds past the flight line, ducks down a slight incline, forks right as a dirt vehicle track, and ended up at the dusty field where all our tents were pitched. We filled an area the size of a soccer field—and the presence of two goals at either end confirmed that a soccer field was exactly what we’d occupied. In orderly rows the tents stalked, two per “block” with wide paths between. Inside there was wooden flooring that left open a single dirt walkway the length of the tent, while cots were arranged on the flooring every few feet. It looked deceptively neat when I first walked in, of course; there were no Marines there yet. But it was crowded. Even empty it was crowded.
Outside the newly-arrived Marines were roughly sorting the bags by squadron and tent. I picked up my dear comrade’s gear, wondering if he’d soon be here with mine or not. I found a cot in our tent for him, saving a slightly better one for myself. First come, first serve, and anyway we were both close to the heater and far from the door. For maximum warmth and minimum disturbance, of course. One must think about these things.
Fortunately, the other C-130 was delayed but not broken. It arrived after I’d toured the camp, and everyone was finally re-united with their warm clothes and personal effects. It was a happy reunion. Nothing like an austere environment to make you appreciate what luxuries you have…like a sleeping bag, for example. In any case, as he dropped my stuff in the tent I considered our situation.
The living area was right below the departure end of the runway. About 300 feet, actually. As aircraft took off they thundered scarce hundreds of feet above our heads in afterburner, sending deep vibrations through the metal tent poles and assaulting our ears. A little offset was an ingenious pair of “hygiene tents,” which had sixteen shower heads apiece and nine sinks. Behind those tents stood large bladders of water that would be heated and emptied three times a day when sinks and showers were available for washing and shaving and the like. Pretty chic for an austere environment, no? It didn’t matter, of course, that the sinks were small and cramped or that the mirrors reflected a distorted picture from their stainless steel surfaces. It didn’t matter that the shower stalls were communal and uncomfortably close, or that dirt tracked in quickly coated the stall floors with mud, or that they occasionally failed to drain and would become shallow, grimy pools. The great and wonderful news was that we wouldn’t have to shave with cold water from a canteen, or go without showering for days. Thank God for that!
The “services” were located about a quarter mile up the runway and consisted of a medical tent, a mess tent (for non-military types, “the mess” is where food is served), a chapel tent—with no Catholic services, of course—a little gym packed dustily into the sweat factory of a small tent, and an internet tent for those fortunate enough to have packed a computer (and kept it unscathed through the bag transport). The mess hall served freeze dried food in bulk, but it was hot and not too bad. It also provided fresh fruit and coffee almost every meal, which together neutralized the choking down of re-warmed eggs and chicken and made meals quite the red-letter occasion. Later in the exercise an exchange truck showed up along with a Korean Bazaar hawking cheap t-shirts and accessories, but that suffered but poor business at Foal Eagle, the reason for which will be explained shortly.
The work spaces were up next to the ramp, an aviation term for a vast expanse of concrete for which to park airplanes. As North and South Korea are still technically at war, and Yechon is a military base, the ramp was parsed by revetments into individual parking spots. A revetment is usually an earthen mound built up higher than the object it encloses, and serves to protect something from the blast and fragmentation of an explosion. The aren’t much use against precision weapons, of course, which generally will be guided inside the revetment and thus negates it’s defensive effect, but artillery and “dumb bombs” are usually nowhere near accurate enough. Long experience had shown me that the trappings of war are everywhere evident in Korea. The permanent revetments at Yechon were corrugated steel siding built up to about fifteen feet and filled with dirt. The maintainers set up their work tents in one of the unused revetments; the planning and briefing areas were with command post in a barbed-wire enclosure under the fringe of a small forest on base. Again, tents. Though things were a bit nicer here, as wooden boards were laid for walkways between the various spaces, field-mobile generators provided electrical power, and a ruggedized satellite piped in internet and telephone service. A cut above actual austerity, really. Not that I was complaining.
So yeah, it was camping. The tents were drafty and creaky and more than a few had visible pinprick holes through which the light shone in daytime, the roads were dusty and we walked them back and forth ceaselessly (occasionally stepping out of the way of a passing forklift or cargo truck), and the jets audibly assailed us at all hours of the day. But we had shelter, showers, hot food, internet, and phones. Things weren’t all bad.
He made his way gingerly to the back of the long tent, stepping gingerly on creaking plywood so as not to disturb the line of cots running the length of the structure on either side of a center aisle. The cots were erected on floorboards, but the center aisle was nothing but dirt. Actually, tonight (like nearly every night) it was a soggy morass of yellow mud.
Were people sleeping, it would be a treacherous journey as (shielding the light of his flashlight so as not to wake his comrades) he’d have to negotiate strewn seabags and backpacks, lines of cord on which hung clothing wet from the constant rain, and the occasional end of a cot sticking out farther than the rest. But fortunately the light was still on. Most of the Marines in the tent were reading or watching movies on laptops as the hours ticked onward. Sleep was on everyone’s mind—it was the only thing that made the time here pass quickly.
As he reached his cot, he knew something was missing. He looked blankly at his little area for a moment, balancing over the muddy aisle. Suddenly it hit him. His backpack! He cursed quietly, remembering he’d left it up at the work spaces. He needed it.
One of the few luxuries at Yechon was the Korean Gym. The Korean Air Force, of course, did not live or work in tents. They had normal dormitories and facilities that were probably pretty nice. Only the Marines were practicing “expeditionary warfare” by enforced austerity. The gym was really a sort of community center, for it had a small restaurant (irreverently called the “Yum Yum Chicken Shop”), a bowling alley, some pool tables, and—wonder of wonders!—a large shower and locker room. The reason he needed his backpack was because he kept his toothbrush and all the rest of his toiletries in the backpack in case he had an opportunity to sneak a shower in that gym during the day. Without it, however, he couldn’t hope to shower or shave the following morning. He’d have to go back to the squadron spaces and pick it up.
He cursed again. It was raining hard, as it had been all day, and the walk up to his backpack was a little over a quarter of a mile. It would not be pleasant.
He shuffled around in his seabag and extracted his gore-tex parka and pants. Cinching them both tight over his flight suit, he clapped a fleece beanie on his head against the forty-degree weather and pulled his hood down low. Carefully he made his way back to the tent entrance, paused for a minute as if having second thoughts, the plunged into the wet outdoors.
Outside was a world of falling water and slippery mud. The floodlights illuminating the tent city showed nothing but hard, driving rain, and the shadows of ruts and tire tracks in the mud gleamed treacherously under his lowered gaze. He walked carefully, so as not to slip, ignoring the rainwater rolling down his face and the gore-tex trousers he kept having to pull up.
After several hundred yards he made the road. The going thereon was easier, since he didn’t have to deal with the mud. He strode purposefully, eager to end his errand. He could feel the rain saturating and soaking through his parka. Away from the lights the world was dark and wet.
The squadron spaces were another illuminated wilderness of mud and falling water, only this time the spectral shape of concertina wire and rifle-toting guards stood out in sharp shadows. Presenting his ID and shivering in the cold brought on by his sudden stop, he ducked into the camp, found his backpack, and began home. By now his feet squelched inside his boots and it was harder to keep the gore-tex pants up as they were weighed down by water. But more than halfway finished with his task, he walked rather more quickly down the hill to the tent city.
After another slippery trip over the mud, he ducked back into his sleeping tent and brushed off the water near the door. Most of the lights were off by now, as his comrades began falling asleep. Making his way back to his cot he stripped off his wet outer garments and hung them up, did the same with his flight suit, and changed into a waterproof track suit for the quick trip back outside to the hygiene tent. All that for the ability to brush my teeth, he thought wryly. I hate this place.
Part III – Camp Life
Remember how I said that things weren’t all bad in Yechon? Well, they weren’t until the first night. Really, to be expected—you know what they say, “If it sounds too good to be true…” I was totally unprepared for the hard, implacable cold that set in when the sun went down.
This was no mere nightly chill such as we find in San Diego, laced with the fragrance of flowers and the softness of the sea. This was no crisp coolness, the delight of autumn evenings. This was continental, wintry cold, dead and dry and soul-sucking. I thought I was prepared. I had all three modular elements of my sleeping bag put together, making it as warm as possible. I was wearing a fleece over a t-shirt and undershorts. And yet I awoke at 3:00 AM by the crushing cold. I couldn’t escape it. With each movement my bare legs or arms would come into contact with some unwarmed patch of my sleeping bag, sending shards of pure, evil cold into my core. Shivering, I quickly sat up and struggled into polypropylene long underwear. Warmed by my struggle and by the added layer, I was able to fall asleep again. Yet I still woke up cold…and as I climbed reluctantly out of my sleeping bags I noticed that the water bottle I kept inside my sleeping bag had frozen. It was apparently still winter in Korea despite the late April date.
The reason for the 3:00 AM wake-up became obvious the next morning. Our “field expeditionary” tent heaters were these little metal cylinders that burned kerosene like a jet engine (in fact, to make logistics easier they burned the same fuel as our aircraft). They didn’t feel very efficient, but that was mostly because they had a cavernous tent to fill with warm exhaust. They also ran out of fuel after eight hours of operation—hence, the 3:00 AM freezing wakeup. Standard. In any case, there were two cold hours spent in the sleeping bag that night before the requirements of nature and the inevitable dawn drove me shivering into the dread Korean winter (ok, spring really) for a morning shave and shower.
Being a prideful military organization, and mindful that there were foreign military personnel to impress, the rules on uniform wear were pretty tight. There was to be no hanging out or loitering, like, in anything less than appropriate civilian attire or full “uniform of the day” when in the camp. Otherwise we might embarrass ourselves in front of our warlike Korean hosts, what with the chained wallets, affliction T-Shirts, and high-end exercise gear that Marines like to wear these days. Though I can’t for the life of me think that we had much to be proud of in front of the Koreans—they probably thought we were crazy enough living in the tundra and mud of their soccer field instead of somewhere indoors. South Korea being a civilized country and all. But that’s neither here nor there; in fact that’s where the brass are. Far above my pay grade.
In any case, those clothing strictures did not apply the hygiene tent. So shivering into my running suit and clapping a fleece beanie on my head, I cobbled together a towel and shaving kit and headed to the sinks. The ground had frozen solid and was a warren of ridges and ruts under my sneakers. I would learn to love a solid ground beneath me in a few days, after the rain set in. There was a ten-minute agonizing wait in line outside the tent before finally, thank God! entrance into the warm moist environment of steamy showers and hot shaving water.
The hygiene tent worked with an admirable, if awkward, efficiency. A quick and self-effacing disrobe, five minutes at the sink, two minutes in the shower, a five-minute period of dressing and packing up (careful not to get more mud than necessary on our persons or gear), then a quick cold shuffle back to the tent. This would be my morning routine for two and a half weeks. Sometimes there would be a line, and the Marines running the tent would yell and belittle and threaten to cut off our water in an attempt to make us more efficient. But if there’s a right way and a wrong way to do such things, well, the yelling and threatening is one hundred per cent the Marine Corps way. Not that it was really necessary, as the cold does wonders for the efficiency of a morning toilette. From there it was a quick walk to the chow hall for freeze-dried eggs and hot coffee (which we’d make last as long as possible) and then a jaunt up the hill to work.
“Hey, you want to burn one?” asked Mac. To no-one in particular, really, though it was directed at Red Bone.
“Yeah man,” came the response.
“Anybody got extras?” I could tell Mac didn’t feel bad about asking, since most time he provided cigarettes for the rest of the squadron.
“Yeah man,” replied Red Bone, consciously echoing his last utterance. He smiled a little with his eyes to let everyone know his sarcasm was meant humorously.
Craving the company, I popped up from my position next to the computer screen, and made my way to my cot. Navigating the crossing wires, the mud puddles in the central path that stretched the length of the tent, and the clotheslines was almost second nature by now. I quickly flipped back my sleeping bag cover, fished my fleece wash-cap out from under my pillow, and jammed my feet into my sneakers. Their smoke would not entail enough time outside to require a polypropylene layer or anything.
Following them, I bent down to push through the tent flap and suddenly emerged into a monochromatic world. The cold dark night stood face to face with the cold bright night illuminated by the floodlights on the hill. The generators hummed loudly and the gas-powered heating units roared quietly, effectively masking the squelching footsteps of Marines walking to and fro between tents, picking their way carefully between the ruts of vehicle tires and the patches of slippery mud. Shielding my eyes against the floodlights, I followed the smokers into the shadows behind the tent. I paused briefly to let my eyes adjust to the sudden darkness when the floodlight disappeared behind a dumpster.
As I stood their smelling the unadulterated cold, two jets rocketed overhead in sequence from the runway, growing from a sudden roar to an unbearable crescendo of shaking noise, long blue afterburner flames, and flashing red anti-collision lights. My ears ringing, I watched in awe, never having gotten over the magnificent power of fighter airplanes casting off the earth for the freedom of the sky.
The smoke pit lay next to a gully, a tree, and was marked only by a metal pail. Instinctively we huddled into a tight circle, and passed the lighter around. They inhaled gratefully at their cigarette while I stood, hands in pockets, and enjoyed the familiar smell of secondhand smoke.
We were suddenly aware of two Marines walking toward us on the outskirts of the camp. This was not unusual. However, one of the Marines was dressed in a shiny silver overcoat. Our conversation hushed slightly as we watched him walk by. I pulled on my cigarette to avoid making a facial expression, noting that the overcoat was really more of a hoodie, and the silver material appropriate to a space-blanket.
He passed, walking stiffly. He was aware of our sarcastically amused scrutiny.
“That’s an interesting garment” opined one dark figure, jovially.
“Hey, it’s cold outside. It’s like a space blanket” replied another. Captain Obvious, I thought.
“Is your name Marty McFly?” queried a third. There was a pregnant pause, and suddenly we couldn’t help it. We laughed. It only made things funnier to watch my comrades involuntarily cough out mouthfuls of cigarette smoke in their merriment. The silver hoodie was too ludicrously like “Back to the Future.”
Our tight circle momentarily fell apart as the laughter grew. “Dude! Where did you park your DeLorean?” asked one of us, drawing new gales of laughter.
Slowly, happily, conversation returned, but this time to skim-boards, flux-capacitors, and 88 miles per hour. One by one, they finished their cigarettes and we trooped quickly back to our tents through the mud.
That was a happy moment.
Part IV – Flying
He stepped out of the “work” tent into the cold rain. Shivering slightly at the sodden shrubbery outside the barbed wire and the ankle-deep mud within, he strode down the wooden boards towards the mission planning tent. Some planks had become so waterlogged they had split, leaving a hole that could eat your foot if you weren’t careful.
Ducking inside the mission planning tent, he joined with other aircrew to look at the day’s special instructions and code words, incorporating them into the planning for their specific flight. That was the hardest part, he thought—the missions out of Yechon weren’t particularly complicated except for getting around the battle-ready airspace of the peninsula. But part of the reason they were in this exercise was to simulate the complexity of flying within the intricate coordination measures required in a hypothetical conflict, all the while sharing the airspace with aircraft from the Air Force, the Navy, and the South Korean Air Force. The actual training was in the flight procedures, not the tactics.
An hour later, they had updated a common card with that day’s correct information and planned their mission on the computers. Grabbing their flight bags, they trooped through a gray drizzle to a cold tent, empty but for a table and several chairs. He sat down to hear his pilot begin the brief.
The brief mostly covered the procedures for flying. It was more of a rehearsal than an explanation, and it took nearly all the allotted time. Remembering he had yet to get his flight tapes, when it was over he hurried out and down to the intelligence tent, where he signed out several pieces of classified gear and received a pre-flight brief covering the simulated situation. The exercise made things as realistic as possible with daily objectives and a shifting enemy situation.
Armed now with all the paraphernalia required for the flight, he joined his crew members as they slithered through the mud to the maintenance tents. They signed for the aircraft, buckled on their flight gear, and strode out to the airplanes parked in the revetments. The canopies were closed against the rain, so he carried his bag with him on the preflight and was careful not to set it down on the wet pavement. After he looked at the exterior of the aircraft, he paused, waiting for his pilot to finish, and then when they were both ready, the maintainer in charge of the launch opened the canopy. They quickly scurried into their seats and closed the canopy before too much rain could fall. They started the jet a few minutes later, checked in with their wingman, and taxied out of the revetment to the end of the runway.
He called for takeoff clearance. Despite the thick Korean accent of the controller, he deciphered, “Combat six-three, cleared takeoff runway two-eight. Switch departure.” He tapped the comm switch with his right foot, and holding it down responded clearly, “Combat six-three cleared takeoff two-eight, switching.” The noise of the jet engines increased through the helmet and earplugs as his airplane began slowly tracking across the pavement on to the runway concrete. Reaching down to the radio control, he turned the knob to the pre-set departure frequency and pulled the knob out to check the frequency digits.
The jet lurched to a stop on the runway and he turned to look at his wingman taxiing out behind him. As his wingman pulled alongside, the pilot began the complicated exchange of hand gestures that sufficed for communication. First the two fingers wagged two and fro, indicating “run ’em up,” which was followed by another engine surge from both aircraft. He glanced inside the cockpit at the engine indicators to ensure they were both operating smoothly, then flicked his glance up at the Flight Control System display. No error indications.
Quickly he looked over his wingman’s aircraft, staring hard in turn at the panels and the control surfaces, then underneath the aircraft. Nothing was loose, no surfaces were binding, and no fluids were leaking. He saw in the other cockpit both aircrew doing the same for his jet. The other pilot flashed a thumbs up, and over his instrument cowl he saw his own pilot initiate the takeoff gesture: palm flat, rotating slowly down to the throttle. As it disappeared below the canopy, the aircraft lurched with brake release and the engines rolled up quickly. Both aircraft began moving.
He looked back at the engine indications. RPM increasing quickly, matched by engine temperature, fuel flow, oil pressure, and the needles that indicated the varying degrees of nozzle closure. A few seconds later, the just perceptible change in engine timbre as the afterburners lit off. Feeling pleasantly the acceleration pushing him back against his seat, he turned to look at the wingman, tracking along the runway beside him. The scenery was flying by now. Smoothly he felt the aircraft’s nose lift off and he watched his wingman pitch up beside him. They were airborne. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his pilot give the first exaggerated head bob: gear up. Then the second: flaps up. He watched his wingman’s gear retract into the jet and as he felt the three thumps of his own gear he checked his instrument panel. Three gear mounts up and locked.
Depressing the comm pedal with his right foot again, he intoned clearly “Departure, Combat six-three airborne passing five hundred for one-zero thousand.”
“Combat six-three, roger. Climb maintain one-zero thousand” came the accented reply
“Combat six-three, one-zero thousand.” Pulling his foot off the comm pedal, he glanced at the ground passing swiftly beneath him. In the sunlight he saw farms spreading out below him, fallow after the winter. It was a pretty and organized country, with industry and commerce centered on the obvious roads running through the valleys while the many steep hills remained undeveloped and beautifully stark.
Turning his attention inside the cockpit, he adjusted the navigation toward the anticipated point on their route. Bringing up the fuel management page, he saw the external tanks emptying back into the integral fuel tanks. A quick check on his wingman before he bought up the air-to-air radar and began seeking aircraft that might conflict with his flight path. He quickly noted the sun angle and elevation for later. Then he looked outside again.
Climbing quickly, the aircraft now offered a much wider view of the countryside. A scattered layer of clouds at eight thousand feet looked flat and solid from just above, and the valleys below were disappearing in the characteristic haze of the region. All around him he could see ridges marching in serrated lines away to the horizon.
Noting that they were still flying the runway heading, he keyed the radio again. “Departure, Combat six-three like to turn left to TAMBO and switch Cobra.”
“Combat six-three, roger. Cancel IFR. Switch Cobra.” He swore under his breath. He didn’t want to lose Air Traffic Control flight following just yet. But that’s how they do things out here. Sighing inaudibly, he replied, “Combat six-three, switching.” He keyed the other radio to talk to his wingman. “Button 16 prime.” He rolled the radio to button 16 and checked the frequency, then transmitted “Cobra, Combat six-three, VFR one-zero thousand feet, direct TAMBO for the R-110.” The aircraft banked left as he waited for a response, and the flight began the transition to their actual mission for the day.
“Sir, the CO said I was to take you wherever you needed to go.” I looked incredulously at the Lance Corporal. He stood sheepishly beside the passenger-side door, through which I could see all my bags. It was a second before I replied, “That’s awfully nice of the Colonel.”
He smiled at that. “Yes, sir.” I got in the car and gave him instructions to my barracks.
Yechon was over. Finally. The familiar buildings of Iwakuni, drab though they might have been, stood over me. The prospect of a real shower and real fresh food loomed large in my mind. I couldn’t wait to be able to talk to my wife twice a day again…and actually see her face on video chat! It was good to be back.
I got a good deal on the end, you see. That ol’ major was a good guy after all. I was the first aircrew sent into that muddy little hole, so I got to be the first one out, albeit while flying in the Colonel’s back seat. That was my guarantee, actually. If that aircraft broke, well, the Colonel wasn’t staying. He’d just take another jet. Perk of the rank, and all that. I was just happily along for the ride.
It was an interesting and mostly painful experience, Yechon. I got to look over the treeless slopes of North Korea, marching away abruptly at the band of virgin forest that occupies the Demilitarized Zone, and marvel at a hostile nation so poor its denizens must cut down trees for fuel in the winter. I got to laugh with the Koreans while eating Yum Yum Chicken. I got to see my beloved Corps take half a Marine Aircraft Group and deploy it to an “austere environment.” I got to endure two weeks of rain, mud and cold. I think I got to be a little wiser for all that, though my comrades will (in all probability) tell you otherwise.
It was a good experience, I guess. At least after the fact.