Yes, I confess…I offended another four-star general. That was back when General John Kelly was still in diapers. It was unintentional on my part, but that made no difference when I committed the crime. Recounting the event here, I believe, is instructive on why politics and the military make a volatile mix.
It was chill morning in 1953 at Komaki Air Force Base outside Nagoya, Japan. I was there as a member of the Air Force’s Twentieth Weather Squadron, detached to the Ninth Fighter-Bomber Squadron of F-84 Thunderjets tasked with hitting secondary targets in North Korea.
I had just finished a twelve-hour shift and was trudging along the road that ran from the weather station to my barracks when a jeep approached me from behind, to my right. Weary after a night of balloon chasing, I kept my head down as it passed, then, maybe ten seconds later, I looked up. I saw the backside of the head of a tall man in the shotgun seat...and then the jeep’s license plate with the four stars.
At that very instant a second following jeep with a pair of Air Police inside pulled up abreast of me from behind. “Airman! Stay right there.” I did as told. “Were you taught when to salute?” the one driving challenged in a harsh tone.
I kinda knew, but if not I got a three-minute, detailed lecture on how it was mandatory that I salute the general in his vehicle. And did I know what general I had failed to salute? Before I could think, he told me. It was none other than General Mark Clark, a somewhat controversial hero of World War II and now Commander of the United Nations Command, the highest mucky-mucky on the Free World’s side! (Actually, I did know Clark’s name, and his exalted rank, but thought it best to feign ignorance; enlisted men are presumed stupid by their superiors, and that often works to our advantage when discipline is meted out.)
Then the cop who wasn’t driving pointed to my stocking cap: “And you’re out of uniform, Airman. Write him up for that too,” he told the driver
“I am not out of uniform,” I protested. “Our commanding officer lets us wear stocking caps because we work 12-hour shifts and the nights get cold!”
They were having none of it. Rules were rules, and I was now a double offender. They wrote up my Discrepancy Report without another word and then drove off to catch another stiff without eyes in the back of his head.
Unfair! Like a damn speed trap...or call it a salute trap...or call it plain old chickenshit, which I did under my breath.
What punishment came next? Would I get busted in rank? I only had two stripes as it was...that would mean a cut in pay as well...maybe even time in the stockade? Dread fell heavy on my slumped shoulders.
Two days later I was summoned to the Squadron Headquarters office to face the martial music. My commanding officer, Major Preer, was by far the best CO I had in my four years, eight months and fourteen days in the United States Air Force, and on this day of judgment he sat at his desk with what seemed a near-smile on his face. A hopeful sign? He waved me to a seat, then picked up a thin sheaf of papers, and turned toward his wastebasket. It was a smile that spread to almost a giggle as he slowly tore my DR into little pieces over the receptacle. Done, he grinned at me and said, “Now get outta here!”
Whew! What a relief. Before I could ruminate on why I got off so lightly, I already knew. Major Preer was a MIT-educated meteorologist, not a service academy-trained martinet. His view of life was much broader than General John Kelly’s narrow perspective.
Next week I will give you some opinions I’ve formed from my military experience and how they relate to our present nation, where three generals sit so close to presidential power. Some of my conclusions may not please you.