Base Commander

CHAPTER VIII
BASE COMMANDER

I returned from Okinawa to March Field, 15th Air Force Headquarters. The 15th Air Force Headquarters at March Field, California was one of many of the air bases listed as part of the overall command of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) of General Curtis LeMay. SAC headquarters was based in Omaha, Nebraska.

General Emmett “Rosie” O’Defit, then the 15th Air Force Commander, assigned me to my new operation which was to be base commander at Smoky Hill Air Force Base in Salina Kansas. This was a SAC base under the 15th Air Force Command.

This base was being rebuilt from World War II to accept jet bombers coming off the line soon. The air base had not been in use since World War II. The new base would have a 15,000 foot runway for B-52 bombers and would also accommodate NASA operations as an emergency field for satellite shuttle landings. This was a surprise assignment for me, but a welcome one from Okinawa.

To fully appreciate my reporting for duty at Smoky Hill, you have to know that this is January, and they had just had one of their typical Kansas snowstorms. The field was not open except for maintenance crew and buried in three feet of snow that was still blowing, as only it can do in Kansas. The maintenance group was six airmen. No one was in sight at the base that I finally found. I was driving and there were very few streets plowed of snow. I also had trouble finding what was the working headquarters on the flight line. This was based in a small maintenance shed. And to report in, it was necessary for me to park the car in one of the few spots cleared of snow. I took my briefcase with my assignment papers, stepped out of the car into the blowing snow and marched toward the maintenance office. Three steps away from the car in this deep snow I disappeared into a drift, briefcase and all. I had tried to cross a bridge that spanned a drainage ditch, and all the boards on the bridge had been rotted out, so I went through in a standing position. Finally I fought my way out. That was my arrival.
The base had six maintenance people at that time. It was scheduled for 8,000 in a year. And work on the new super runway was already in progress. So you might say I was in command of nothing but snow and wind, and that was the scene of my first base command.

Personnel started arriving, several hundred a day, every day, and they were put up in temporary barracks. So it was rather frantic, because the mess halls and all the other support facilities were in the process of completion. The aircraft B-52 bombers were also due arrive within a short period of time, so most of the construction priorities were for hangers and aircraft maintenance facilities. In addition to the arrival of the bombers, the base was to get two squadrons of air refueling planes — tankers. There were twenty tankers per squadron; thus 40 tankers in all. A wing was 30 airplanes, and two wings of bombers were scheduled for arrival. These were also urgently needed in North Africa, which was the staging area for the first of the long-range bombers. So the crews and maintenance people were all frantically training to enter the Korean War, or as the thinking was going then, World War III. It took six months to get the base up and running.

Being base commander had a very prestigious ring to it, but not much authority. All the construction was under civilian contractors and the army engineers. They were working off of previous designs and blueprints. There was little decision making for the base commander.

My family joined me here. Fortunately, the base commander inherited the living quarters of the original farm house, which was a beautiful, huge, three-story frame house that had all the necessary facilities except for weather stripping. The Kansas winds came in one side of the house and out the other.

It was a gentleman farmer setup, so I filled the setup with six horses that I had kept in Lincoln, Nebraska, my home town.

Smoky Hill involved quite a few acres of land that was for the most part farmed with wheat. But part of this land had been occupied during WWII as an army training camp, Camp Phillips. The houses on Camp Phillips and the streets and grade school were in operation on a rental basis to various families as a separate community.

During the summer, there is no snow, of course, but Kansas has its own brand of summer heat. So the land around the house that I had been using for grazing had dried out, and it was necessary to put the horses in the north highland of the base to weather the summer heat and lack of grazing. I was my own horse wrangler with six horses, so I usually saddled one horse and drove the other five ahead of me across the land. On one occasion I was in the process of moving the horses to the high ground when I got a very acute side ache. This side ache increased until I had returned to the house, called the flight surgeon who diagnosed an appendix that was close to bursting. We didn’t have a hospital at the base, so we had to use the facility in Salina which was a converted clinic, Catholic home. The doctor that came with it was to do the operation. I asked him how many appendectomies he had done. He said it didn’t make any difference that mine was like the only one he would ever do. I had heard about appendix operations where the patient requested a very small incision so that it wouldn’t show when they wore a bathing suit — buttonhole. I asked the doctor if he was going to do a buttonhole incision. He said: “Buttonhole incision, buttonhole brain! You won’t find me guilty of buttonhole incision.” The operation went okay. The doctor said the appendix had another hour to go before it burst.

We got the bombers in, we got the tankers in, we got the General in. The General commanded the bombers and the tankers and the tank crews. I commanded everything else. The general was a West Point officer that was barely five foot tall with an attitude that fit. I don’t know how he got into West Point, but he was my daily, daily director. His favorite pastime was a clean base. Now in Kansas, with a forty knot wind, most of the time it was just blowing trash cans in the air. Paper everywhere, blowing, always blowing. My job was to prevent this. Every morning at five minutes after eight my phone would ring, and the General would be on the phone with very clipped: “Bud!” “Yes sir.” “There is a piece of paper between this headquarters and my home, and that piece of paper has been there several days.” “Yes sir.” “Bud, that piece of paper is beginning to take on a personality of its own. I would expect not to be aware of that personality another day.” “Yes sir.” After about two or three of these calls, it was always something. “Bud, there is a banging door in the top loft of the parachute building.” And I knew the door was beginning to take on a personality of its own.

So I got an airman, a GI, had him stand by my desk at 8:05 a.m., so that all I had to do was hold the phone out and the General would be talking at the airman. I selected very carefully the GI I was going to use because he didn’t speak. I was the only one that would say “Yes sir.” I would just motion to him where this offending windstorm was taking my day.

The General, he was really quite a character. I had found out he was a West Pointer, of course, and he had his own ideas about everything. And one of the things the base commander gets involved in is that the base commander’s wife is also president of the wives club and responsible for the social activities of the base. That meant the dance. My wife was not too keen about this authority, but reluctantly …. However, after the first dance, she came to me and said she was drawing the line at one of the protocols. Each dance was opened by the base commander’s wife dancing with the General. I could tell by the way the General walked that he couldn’t dance. And he was so short and aggressive and besides my wife said, “That’s not so bad, I can handle that. But he clicks his teeth in my ear!” I knew that was the place for the line all right, but I didn’t have a solution for that.

I certainly couldn’t change the protocol. The General wouldn’t accept any change of protocol. What would that do to the troops and their morale! I just told her grin and bear it.
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The general’s name was }¥.D. G@}ey. His name was left over fre ~~t, I learned. His initials were W.D. and t~ at West Point ~~Wily Dog~ Wily Dog Ga~ey, famous, famous throughout the Air Force.

Monday morning was the morning with W .D. This was his staff meeting — my staff. So I was chairman of this committee for the General. And one of the things W .D. could be depended upon was consistency. Small details, but repeated. I mean he repeated everything. He repeated what you just said to him, he repeated back before he commented on it. And my staff, I thought they were pretty bright relatively bright. That’s what they had given me anyway. That’s what you get.

You get to pick what they give you. And so Wily Dog, in his consistency, always started out with the same guy on the staff to ask questions. And the General had laid down his rules for the staff meeting at the first one we had. Each staff guy, whatever he was supervising, had five problem areas, and each time when he was to report, he was to run down all five of those items — personnel, staff, housing, etc.

So he started with the same guy each Monday, and he wanted him to run down his list — the general’s list. They weren’t necessarily the problems that guy was having — housing wasn’t necessarily a critical thing. Housing wasn’t number one on this guy’s list. He didn’t get number one anything. So Wily Dog hit this guy. And after the meeting, this guy always came up to me and he said, “Why does he ask me that same thing all the time?” I said, “That’s his method. He believes in his method. He’s got a method of what you do at a staff meeting and this is his — five things.

If you get off the track, you’re dead! You don’t get zot!” I must have told him that same speech myself several times before he ever did catch on to the fact that we were playing a method game here. So it was excellent training for me and the General. I could cope with the General as soon as I understood we were in a game thing.

I found later, after I left the base, that when he left the base, his next assignment was the gym instructor at the Naval Command School. At one point I got up enough couragebbring up his appointment with the one that appointed him, General O’BttBftltl-~~d I cited a couple of incidents that I thought were significant. And General O’Deaald just said to me, “He gets things done!” And the subject ended.
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The one thing I did have fun doing at Smoky Hill was, as the base commander, I was the number one dominant decision maker, designer of the officer’s club. And I did wall designs, I designed the bar. You know, it’s interesting how in the military like that, they design everything in sight except the things that make a difference. For instance, the barracks. What color are you going to paint the barracks — GI barracks. Paint them all gray, paint them all air force blue. No, people are going to live there. This is going to be where they live — got to have a little distinction as you walk down this row of sameness. So I designed a color chart for all the barracks. And told the Corps of Engineers there’s the answer as to what color this barracks is going to be, and the one next to it, and what the trim is going to be, and the front door. And they didn’t deviate. If it was on that chart, the Corps of Engineers followed instructions. They stuck to it! I used pastel colors — blue, yellow, orange, etc., so that when you put it together, like one city block, you had a little variation. And the same way with the landscaping. The Corps of Engineers have a budget — that was more important! And I designed the city block! That was the most fun base in the nation. Others commented on it a lot and wanted to know how they could get theirs changed. “Stick within the budget, and they will paint it any color you say!”

One of the things that should be mentioned when you speak of Kansas is the weather. I don’t mean just the weather like snow. They had plenty of that. Wind, they had lots of wind. Buy they also had tornadoes. Now, I had just come from Okinawa and I got pretty well educated on living through hurricanes and tornados on Okinawa. But Kansas had their own version. We went through, on my watch, about three violent storms — snow storms and rain storms. One of the unusual storms that added its unique touch to Kansas regular storms was one spring storm early in my stay there. We had already gotten some delivery of the new tankers — shiny aluminum tankers. With not enough warning, this storm also added hail – hail the size of golf balls and hail blowing in a wind strong enough to damage these just delivered shiny Boeing tankers. The problem with protecting those planes was there was not enough covered space to park them, so they were caught in the open. Someplace in the military system, there is always a solution for solving such problems as protecting new aircraft in storms. Therefore, we received orders to use the excess mattresses that we had in storage, tie them to the wings of the new aircraft to prevent serious damage to the aluminum surfaces. What seemed like a brilliant idea overlooked the fact that tying a mattress on these wings in a 70 knot wind was like impossible. As a result, we had hundreds of frozen, wet mattresses flying through the air base. No one had the courage afterwards to raise the question of who gave the order to use mattresses. Certainly not the base commander, yours truly. But it goes down in air force history that never again would they solve the hail problem by tying mattresses in the height of a storm on the wings of brand new Boeing tankers.

I was at Smoky Hill two years. Then, at the end of two years when we got the combat troops in, my tour of duty was just about over. At that time then, General O’Donald said, “You can either get out of the service now or go to Lincoln, Nebraska and do the same thing you are doing here — be base commander at the Lincoln Air Force Base.” I still owned the house I had in Lincoln, and my family was living there really, although I still had the farm house at Smoky Hill.

When I got to Lincoln, it was pretty much the same thing, but I just really got started there. At Smoky Hill, I have seen since the use of that runway by the guy that went around the world. The Corps of Engineers spent forty million dollars in one year on that base. And Lincoln was the same thing corning up. And in Lincoln I had a secretary there, a girl, civilian that was huge, I mean she was huge — not just fat.

She was big. She was a real brain, and she had everything lined up. I had been gone from Lincoln for quite a while so I didn’t know who the civic leaders were and who their committees were, who was important and who wasn’t within Lincoln.

One of the jobs in Lincoln, the same as in Kansas, was cultivating the local authorities and their relationship with the base, because you are always going to a luncheon. That was your day.

Lincoln Air Base was also a SAC base. This being very close to Omaha, Nebraska, where the SAC headquarters was provided us with almost immediate inspection visits. General LeMay was one of our frequent visitors at both Salina, Kansas and Lincoln, Nebraska.

On one of those occasions when General LeMay was visiting, he was interviewing tanker crews. In the process, he asked a tanker crewman how his morale was. The crewman answered, “Excellent, sir. We have a slogan for our tanker,
‘Up your ass with Mobile gas!'”

One year after I came to Lincoln, to rebuild that air base for the Strategic Air Command, the air force sent out letters giving reserve officers who were on active duty a choice: they could sign up with the air force as regular, permanent air force in their present grade or they could resign with honor from the air force and join the air force reserve in the Strategic Air Command. This had never been a problem as far as I was concerned. I was a civilian and was anxious to get back into civilian status. So I accepted the opportunity on September 3, 1953.