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Team Spirit 1987 Part 3.
One of the interesting things about this exercise was the wood. I have mentioned, earlier, that I spent a lot of time doing things with wood while I was there. The interesting thing was that, after the wood had gone to Korea, we were not allowed to bring it back to Okinawa. I was told that the wood we took there, and left there, would be used to provide heat and housing for thousands of people. I have no idea if that is true but I do know that we didn’t take any of my works of art back with us.
Our unit’s ops people seriously under-estimated the amount of wood that it would take to provide tent floors and walkways for the number of people that would eventually join us there. I have a feeling that this was actually part of an on-going contest among all of the supply sergeants involved in the exercise. Unfortunately, for all the others, our supply sergeant was not an amateur. A good supply sergeant is basically someone that you would not want to have living next door to you unless you enjoy inventorying your children, pets and silverware on an hourly basis. Don’t get me wrong. They aren’t exactly dishonest. It’s just that their unit is more important to them than anything else in the world. A good supply sergeant will lie, cheat, steal and do a lot of other socially unacceptable things in order to make sure that ‘his’ people have everything that they need. A great supply sergeant will even take into consideration things that people want rather than need. Our supply sergeant was one of the great ones.
I saw him in action a few times and I don’t want to go into details in case he is still alive somewhere and taking care of someone else, but we ended up with three times as much wood as we were supposed to have, and it was enough for us to make all of the walkways and tent floors necessary, with a little to spare. He spent a lot of time with us when there were only 20 people from our unit over there, before the ‘main party’ arrived, and I got to know him pretty well, but he rotated before I did, and I never saw him again. He could get anything that we asked for, from electronics spares to exotic food. A genuine character.
I’ve seen a lot of things dropped by cranes and, especially, helicopters because, in the operator’s opinion, the load has become unstable. (I’ll never forget watching a helicopter drop a Lister bag with my section’s supply of drinking water for the next week in it, into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Honduras, after it started swinging, or the choices that we had to make afterwards. No water for three days and you die. Drink radiator water with anti-freeze in it and go blind. Drink out of the river and you never know what you will get. We took the third option and I still don’t know what we got but I lost 40 pounds in 4 days. Why didn’t we boil the river water? We were not allowed to start fires.)
Anyway, back to Korea. At the port a helicopter was lifting a very expensive van. (I heard that this little incident cost close to a million dollars but who knows. It wasn’t one of my vans.) A few seconds after the van was in the air the helo pilot lost control and had the cargo handler cut the cable. The van glanced off the dock and fell into some relatively deep water. It had been expensive because of the amount of electronics equipment in it. Electronics equipment and salt water don’t mix well. It was written off.
That leads to the story of my solitary walks along the sea wall and other places near the air station. There was a gravel loading facility, for ships, near the base, and I soon began to notice the crane operators’ style. There were at least two because at least one of them was an artist. The way to tell was that his bucket cable was never vertical. He, or she, would literally throw the bucket into the pile of gravel, jaws open, take a big bite, and then throw the load into the hold of the ship. It was amazing. The other(s) were considerably more sedate. In one way or another I have controlled a lot of machinery over the years, but that crane operator, or those crane operators, were spot on every time, and that is something that I surely can’t say.
Cleanup after this exercise was especially nasty. We were in the middle of a stinking soupy mud patch, in the rain, when we got the word to tear down. One of the many things that a Marine is not allowed to transport is mud and we were going to have go through de-snailing before we could load out. Snails are another thing that Marines are not allowed to transport. I remember spending three days in Norway going through a de-snailing inspection, even though all of our vans had already flown out.
The TACC Center ‘bubble’ was originally designed to house Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals. It was made up of half circular inflatable sections sitting on honeycomb floor panels that were, in turn, held up by extensible legs. I think they were originally manufactured by a company that might have been named Aircrafters, sometime in the late 1960s. To convert a MASH into a TACC center only required some modifications to the end panels so that two vans could be attached to them.
If you think in terms of 5-ton truckloads, an entire ‘light’ TACC center (fully functional but with no amenities) could be moved on 17 trucks. Of those 17 only four would have gear on them that didn’t belong to the TACC people. TDCC needed two and so did my section. I don’t know who designed this system but setting it up and tearing it down was a lot more labor intensive than anything I ever did while I was a tank crewman.
Before the ‘bubble’ can be deflated, everything has to be off of the interior floor. The controller’s scopes weighed several hundred pounds and had exactly four carrying handles. The side with the CRT on it was about twice as heavy as the other side. The worst items were the WASD Coffins. (Weapons And Systems Display carrying cases.) Each one was filled with three primitive CRT devices that were used to show the weapons and fuel status for fighters that the TACC center controlled. I would say that they weighed over 600 pounds and had 6 carrying handles. (There is a four-inch section of my spine, on the right side, just above the pelvis, that has no muscles attached to it, because of a WASD coffin carrying accident.)
After all of the junk is out of the bubble and the ramps and end panels have been torn down and stowed, the fun starts. The rain strips are unlaced and the manifold operator opens all of the outlet valves for a section, which quickly deflates. Then we would roll it up into what was called a ‘burrito’ and try to get it into one of the storage shelters. We had some spectacular mishaps trying to get these objects through the narrow storage van doors and onto the top of the stack. Each ‘burrito’ weighed more than 300 pounds and they were always slippery with talcum powder and general slick rubber obstreperousness. They were especially difficult in rain. I’ve seen people slammed into the walls of vans when they missed the door, people that ended up under a ‘burrito’ when they did not get out of the way in time, and a few occasions when someone already under one was piled onto by a whole stack of bubble sections when a stack fell over. We never lost anyone and never had any injuries more serious than broken bones, but the point was that we were putting the thing away. We were getting ready to go back to where our current home was, even if it was a barracks in a foreign country. No matter what happened, it was funny, as long as no one was seriously injured.
The next part was the real bastard. We had to clean all of the electrical cables that had interconnected all of the pieces of the system and the cables had to be neatly stowed on reels with the connectors bagged and sealed. Korea was the worst cable cleaning that I ever had to go through. We worked for 36 hours straight, under searchlights when necessary, and it rained constantly. (Oddly enough, after we were packed up, it stopped raining and the next few days were beautiful.) We had two 55-gallon drums cut in half (we got them from the supply sergeant) and we had to pull each cable through a few feet at a time. The people on the dirty end knocked off the big chunks and the people on the clean end did the final polish. I’m not sure exactly where I was all the time but a lot of the work was done by two of my Woman Marines, Lance Corporals Pope and Stelly. (Oddly enough, Lance Corporal Pope eventually married a man whose last name was King.) They never complained. Somehow they never got to do any of the heavy lifting (neither of them was more than five feet four inches tall) but they would volunteer for anything that was required to get us out of wherever we were. I was and am proud of them.
After the cables were on the reels we had to take down the floor that had been sitting out in the rain for two days. Some of the floor panels were still sealed but it was easy to tell when the one that you had grabbed was not. When those panels were full of water, they were very heavy, and you never knew until it had come loose from the rest of the floor. We usually had two people, in chain of ants, hauling the floor panels off to their pallets and they could be stacked nearly four feet high. (I saw a fork lift blow a hydraulic line out at Yuma, Arizona, while trying to pick up a pallet of floor panels after a rain.)
Once the floor panels were all on the pallets the support ‘legs’ had to be collected and washed. I think that was all there was to it, except putting away the two inflation pumps. The inflation pumps were the ultimate cruelty, though. After all that work our hands were a little sore. The inflation pumps weighed about 400 pounds each, and had two carrying handles on each side, a few inches apart. It was very difficult to carry the old ones because the handles were just too close to each other. (Some genius heard about this and the new model only had one handle on each side, but still weighed 400 pounds. I’m not sure what that was all about.)
Believe it or not, I wound up staying with the ‘retrograde’ party after going to Korea with the ‘advanced’ party. Retrograde meant that I got to tear down most of the stuff that I had put up some time before. It was a little sad. The liberty was still great but we were alone again. The only funny part was when some unit commander had let his whole unit go home except for himself and his First Sergeant, and then found out that he was responsible for tearing down and packing all of his tents and hauling his tent floors and walkways off to the communal pile. He looked a little grim but his First Sergeant was positively livid and spent a few days tearing things apart with great gusto.
When I got back to Okinawa it was mid-summer, I think, and I appreciated that place like I never had before. I had a lot of trouble sleeping for some reason and I would frequently get up a little after midnight and start walking south along the highway towards Naha. More than once I went all the way to the center of the Naha Bridge to look at the brass map of the world inset into the concrete there. I don’t remember what I was thinking. At the time I didn’t have any appreciation of the number of American military people, men and women, that had been there before me, on their way to Vietnam, or the number that never came back.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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