When You Hear Something You Wish You Had Said



A few weeks back I spoke of words which are never forgotten.

There's another category: words we wish we had said ourselves. I've heard a lot of those.

I'll tell you about a few I heard while I was on Guam participating in a major Department of Defense war operation.

Its name was Operation Great Shelf. It took place in February 1962, as the fighting in Vietnam grew more and more intense.

Publicly, Operation Great Shelf was announced as a war game to be conducted in the Philippines.

It involved thousands of men and large quantities of tanks, trucks, artillery, ammunition and support equipment.

In fact, war games did take place in the Philippines, but the operation was actually a pleasantly devious, and very successful, method of slipping large quantities of men and equipment into Vietnam, the final destination of many of the aircraft that poured to and through Guam during the 11 days I was there.

Our true mission was not part of my briefing, but it didn't take me long to notice that something more than met the eye was going on.

I mentioned that fact to the captain I worked for and he took me aside, told me what was really going on, asked me if I had said anything about what I had noticed to anyone, complimented me for being observant, and cautioned me to keep it to myself.

My job consisted of coordinating the ground handling of the cargo aircraft carrying men and equipment, getting them in and out in the minimum time.

I supervised one 12-hour shift and another NCO supervised the other one.

We worked straight through, no breaks except for meals, and no days off until the mission was completed, a minor hardship of which we thought nothing.

That's military life; you do what needs to be done.

If you don't like it, there's always plenty of room for more civilians.

We were Military Airlift Command people, charged with moving cargo, passengers and mail to any place on the planet.

Other Air Force commands, such as SAC, the Strategic Air Command, had more glamorous missions, such as bombing the U.S.S.R. out of existence if someone ever pushed the button, but what they did most of the time was train for a World War III that -- thank God! -- never occurred.

Our war was smaller and less apocalyptic, but it was happening in Vietnam right at that moment.

Anderson AFB on Guam was a SAC base, and one bright, sunny afternoon, right in the middle of Operation Great Shelf, as cargo aircraft landed and took off every few minutes, a prissy little SAC major came strutting toward me as I supervised the unloading of an aircraft that had been pulled aside for an engine change.

It was the kind of day that only Pacific islands can deliver--hot, salt-laden, and unbelievably humid.

I was sweating from head to toe and standing on asphalt so hot it threatened to melt and run off into the sea.

"You!" the major said. "You! Sergeant!"

I eyed a uniform with creases in it so sharp you could have sliced salami with them. "Yessir?"

"Stop this immediately!"


He pointed a small, well-manicured hand at a red smoke grenade I had missed seeing because I was too hard at work to notice small stuff. "Don't you know what that is, Sergeant?"

To be honest with you, he was already getting on my nerves. "Sure," I told him. "Red smoke."

He puffed up like a bullfrog. "Do you know what it means?"

I knew damn well what it meant. SAC was having a training exercise.

A red smoke grenade indicated a "broken-arrow," a major problem with a nuclear weapon, but one look at the prissy little major told me it was just a training exercise; otherwise he'd have been hiding under a desk somewhere and rediscovering his Christian origins.

"Smoke grenade fall off a truck?" I asked, unable to suppress a grin.

He waved his hands around, making a wide circle with them. "You will stop this work immediately. You will move your men back one thousand feet. Now!"

I walked about twenty feet away from my men and gestured him over to me with a finger. "Major," I told him. "I respect your training exercise, but this mission isn't going to stop for it."

"That's an order, Sergeant!!"

Just then I spotted Colonel Oglesby, my boss. "Be back in a minute," I told the major.

And I was, with Colonel Oglesby, whom I had briefed on the way back. Colonel O-G, as we affectionately called him, though I doubt he ever knew it, put his arm around the major's shoulders.

"So you're having a simulated broken arrow?"

"Yes, and you'll have to move your men back a thousand feet."

"Well now, Major," Colonel O-G told him quietly, "Tell you what we'll do. You simulate your broken arrow and I'll simulate moving my men back a thousand feet."

Gee, I wish I'd said that!

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