Yesterday was Veterans Day, and the Rim country remembered those who served in the armed forces to protect America’s freedoms. An even stronger reminder came to the area in the 1970s when 150 Special Services troops parachuted from four C130 airplanes to invade Green Valley and the Tonto Basin.
It was February, that time when spring in Arizona begins, as the troops fluttered down amidst excited ranchers and townsfolk. The Green Berets came from Ft. Bragg (N.C.), and Ft. Deven (Mass.), to coordinate their tactics with a Marine group from Camp Pendleton (Calif.). The Rim country was just what the armed services needed for their mission, rugged mountains and thirst-producing deserts, clear air, a mild climate and wide open spaces.
In traditional frontier manner, the people of Payson gave the men an all-out welcome. “Payson Does Care” touted Chamber of Commerce posters, and Gov. Jack Williams flew in to extend his hand on the special day set aside to celebrate the invasion. Juniper trees were cut to open an area for the air show. Williams Air Base planes flew overhead, followed by a giant whirlybird. It hovered 150 feet off the ground as six men slid down ropes and fastened themselves to the ends. Then the helicopter lifted them up, and spirited them away as they dangled, to demonstrate a rescue from jungles or rough terrain. Then the crowd of 200 spectators gasped as freefalling parachutists joined hands at 9,000 feet before opening their black, orange and white mushrooms and guided themselves to land in the clearing.
The action then moved to the rodeo arena, where the Army and Marine detachments demonstrated how parachutes work, and displayed their equipment, such as inflatable boats and rope bridges. Twelve men, each specializing in a different foreign language, explained how their skills were used.
After that it was time for the local cowboys to entertain the servicemen with an old-fashioned rodeo. Parachutists who defied death in their free-falls admitted the rodeo looked too dangerous for them. “I wouldn’t ride a bull for any amount of money,” said one Green Beret. “In no way would you get me into that arena.”
Then came one of those famous Payson barbecues, produced by Howard Childers and his crew. It was free to the boys in uniform. However, that wasn’t the last of Rim country hospitality for the servicemen.
The Payson Womans Club hosted many of them. Often they were invited for home-cooked meals.
Fritz Taylor, who with his wife Cleo, was one of the families to invite the soldiers to dinner, commented, “Our daughter Donna brought the nicest young feller home for dinner 5 years old, 6-foot-2-inches. He couldn’t believe the Payson people, just opening up their homes. He said he’d never been invited to dinner in any other place they were stationed.”
Of course such big events didn’t happen more than once in a lifetime in Payson, isolated as it was.
“We were so thrilled,” Anna Mae Deming recalls. “And they were so handsome and young and coordinated.” She still glows at the memory, and how the Womans Club enjoyed serving them meals.
After the grand day of celebration, the next couple of weeks were filled with activity on Rim country roads.
Local ranchers complimented the lads on their quiet and careful driving. Post office employees spoke of their good manners, and the sheriff expressed pleasure that there were no troublemakers throughout the soldiers’ stay.
A base station for mountaineering was set up in East Verde Park. Rappelling, building rope bridges and suspension-traversing techniques were practiced. At Punkin Center, a desert survival station was established, where the men learned to live by catching small game and harvesting edible plants. Farther down the Basin at Roosevelt Lake, they practiced scuba diving, swimming and how to survive when their boat capsized.
Up at the other end of Tonto Basin, Rye became a field for long range reconnaissance. Other then a few sprains and bruises, and one broken finger, the medics had few calls. One patrol did almost skirmish with some Apaches. Shots came in the direction of their survival camp, but a quick investigation revealed four Indian hunters unaware of the war games going on.
“We escaped Vietnam,” said a Marine, “and were worried for a minute that we would end up shot in Arizona.”
By the end of the month the Green Berets and Marines had left the Rim country, and behind them a big parcel of goodwill among the residents.