Short Stories - Another Time, Another Place
John J. Uskert
Frank and John at BJ's Restaurant 17 Nov 2017
Another Time, Another Place
January, 1970. My four-year U.S. Air Force enlistment was just half over as I stepped off the United Airways jetliner onto the tarmac and into the humidity of the Okinawan night. The air was profuse with moisture. Apparel hung and clung and stuck to the human form. So was the beginning of this eighteen-month tour. The snow-covered environment of Wurtsmith AFB, Michigan, my previous assignment, stood in stark contrast to the unrelenting heat and humidity of the Naha AB flight line.
The 51st Avionics Maintenance Squadron was an integral part of the larger 51st Air Wing. Defending Okinawa and surrounding bases was the mission. Our squadron maintained the airborne weapons control system (missiles and rockets) on the camouflaged F-102 fighter interceptors. With combat skills honed through daily sorties, our pilots displayed air superiority over the East China Sea. The F-102, an air-to-air combat fighter jet, was capable of scrambling from runway bunkers to over thirty-five thousand feet in seconds. Hotrod pilots were prepared to intercept all invaders of our air space. Such daily sorties prepared us for our mission at Suwon, AB Korea.
The 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing was responsible for maintaining twelve F-102s, with two fully armed aircraft on ready-alert status at Suwon AB, Korea. The 51st’s presence, precipitated by the Pueblo incident, commenced in 1968. A number of our avionics personnel volunteered for temporary duty (TDY) to Suwon AB, just south of Seoul and 40 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The demeanor at Suwon AB was distinctly grave and defensive, as South Korean soldiers captured North Korean infiltrators daily.
The adjacent communication (comm) shop was responsible for maintaining radio communications and ID function systems on the F-102s. Comm techs often assisted our techs in radar maintenance and repair.
I became fast friends with a New Yorker, a comm tech, Frank Kennedy. Frank and i soon recognized that, halfway around the world, we had much in common. Frank was 18 years old; I was 22, both single and living in the barracks. Although we did not share a room in the barracks, we did share the uniform heat and unrelenting humidity enjoyed by all. The only respite provided was a government-issued 9-inch oscillating fan which effectively distributed hot air in all directions. Frank and I did much together as two impecunious airmen. We enjoyed nightly entertainment at the airman’s club by all-girl rock ‘n’ roll bands. We often took motorcycle excursions to the hills at the north end of the island with primitive camping on the itinerary. We dabbled in photography developing black and white prints and color slides. The scenery of Okinawa was stunning. Sunsets, rock formations, rock-lined seascapes, and the sights of Okinawan farms, cities, and the industrious Okinawans working the land. We passed time listening to American rock 'n ‘roll music on an available Sansui stereo system. Equally entertaining were black and white TV reruns of “Bonanza” broadcast with Hoss, Little Joe, Adam and Ben Cartwright speaking fluent Japanese. Frank and I took TDY assignments to Korea to fulfill our commitment to the mission of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing.
Through training and hands on experience, Frank and I mastered radar and communications to become quite proficient in our respective systems. We worked similar shifts, often twelve hours, to complete the mission. Our squadron was battle-ready. We were confident in our aircraft, in the weapons control and communications systems and confident in the skill of our pilots. Frank and I were buddies, teammates, colleagues. We made the best of our tour of duty at Naha AB, Okinawa, and Suwon AB, Korea, 7,000 miles from home. Despite bouts of homesickness, we did understand our mission and thanked God that He provided for our needs, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
March, 1971. Rumors spread throughout the radar shop. So it went, Naha AB would close with control of Okinawa returning to the Japanese. Okinawa had been occupied by the United States military since September 21, 1945. Within days of this rumor, I received transfer orders with my departure from Naha AB in mid-March, effective in just over a week. I was one of the first to leave the island with assignment to Tyndall AFB, Florida. Immediately relieved of my duties at the radar shop, I was given the next several days to out-process. Within days, I was in an Okinawan taxi heading north for Kadena AB to catch my flight to San Francisco, and eventually to my new assignment in Florida. I had thirteen months remaining in my enlistment to be spent in the Sunshine State. My buddies, my friends, my colleagues would also be leaving Okinawa soon. Their new assignments would be unknown to me. Frank’s anticipated assignment was also unknown.
On May 17, 1972, I received my Honorable Discharge from the USAF. I continued my life with purpose, energy and professionalism. I completed pharmacy school early on and law school a decade later. I practiced both professions simultaneously. In due course, I married the love of my life and consider myself the luckiest husband in the world. I received no word from or about Frank. During my adult life, I maintained faith in God and trusted in Him to provide for me and my family, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
January, 2017. On January 31, 2017, I received an Instant Messenger text from Frank Kennedy. I responded immediately. We began texting, emailing, telephoning. My relationship with Frank was renewed, but not without shock, awe and epiphany.
Frank and I met for lunch on November 17, 2017 at BJ’s Restaurant in Fishers, Indiana forty-six years after we were on assignment at Naha AB, Okinawa. Certainly, physically, we both changed. Emotionally and spiritually, it was a great meeting between two Air Force colleagues at another time, another place.
During our three-hour lunch, I learned of Frank’s disposition when he left Okinawa in April, 1971. He was less fortunate than me and less fortunate than many. Frank had twenty-four months left in his term of enlistment when he departed Naha AB. He was assigned to Seymour-Johnson, AFB, North Carolina until November, 1971, then to Dyess AFB, TX for several weeks of training on the C-7B Caribou (a miniature C-130). Being an above average electronics specialist, Frank mastered the communications system of the C-7B quickly. It was more versatile than the C-130 and used as cargo and troop transport in short landing airfields. When Frank completed this additional training, he was assigned to Cam Ranh Bay AB, Vietnam for a one-year tour. Conscientious and detail oriented, Frank was an immediate asset to the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing in Southeast Asia.
In January, 1972, Frank received a temporary duty assignment to Buon Ma Thuot, a green beret special forces operations camp in Vietnam. Frank worked on HU-1A (Huey) troop carrier and gun ship helicopters. Early, during the quiet morning of March 30, 1972, Frank was on the flight line repairing the communication system on one of his helicopters. With few seconds to react, the Buon Ma Thout flight line came under attack by rockets, mortars and shells. Frank was hit with shrapnel. Dazed and knocked unconscious by the concussion of rockets and rocket propelled grenades, Frank took hits to both legs, both arms, head and back. He was severely injured. After immediate field attention, Frank was transported to Tan Son Nhut, AB, then to Japan for extensive surgical and medical treatment. My colleague, my buddy, Frank Kennedy, did not know the extent of his injuries at that time and did not know if he would ever recover to the point of normalcy. Frank's flight line colleague, fuel specialist Charles Smith, made the ultimate sacrifice. I listened intently, motionless as Frank recounted his ordeal.
After eight months of repair, physical and mental rehabilitation and therapy at St. Albans Naval Hospital in New York, Frank was honorably discharged January 3,1973. He was healed physically, but mentally and spiritually, it was more difficult. Over time, Frank was renewed in strength and purpose. Over the next 33 years, Frank served unselfishly in many capacities, always in the service of others: a policeman with a New York Police Department for one year, with a New York Fire Department for another year. Frank spent 25 years with the Anytown, Oregon Police Department and then held the position as Director of Safety for the Anytown Public Schools until his retirement in 2006. During these 33 years, Frank met and married the love of his life in Anytown. She was originally from the state of Indiana; in fact, her family lives in a small rural town just a few miles from my wife and me.
The unexpected January 31, 2017 text message was fortuitous. The fact that Frank’s in-laws live in such proximity in Indiana facilitates a reunion of sorts between Frank and me, and our wives, at least once a year. Interestingly, Frank’s retirement job after 2006 was a weight and nutrition counselor. He utilized concepts applicable to goal setting: techniques of encouragement, accountability and reward. When I retired in 2018, after routinely working 65 to 80 hours per week for years, I ground to a dead stop. I was a blank slate with little to do. Frank instinctively instructed me, assisted me, encouraged me and counseled me to become productive in my retirement years. We were successful. Frank instilled in me the desire and the drive to attain my goal, to hone and polish my writing skills in articles and stories for Spiritual magazines, based on the Holy Word of God. My writing has been developing for some time. Efforts in Spiritual and other writings are beginning to bear fruit. My Air Force buddy, Frank Kennedy, provided guidance and direction. With Frank’s assistance, I found fulfillment in my retirement years through prayer, reading Scripture, meditating on the Lord, and evangelizing Jesus Christ through the written word. Frank, you are unaware how profoundly you have affected me in finding my Holy purpose in life.
For the injuries he sustained in the 1972 rocket attack in Vietnam, Frank was awarded The Purple Heart. Frank, I salute you. Frank, you are my hero.