My Days In The Leper Colony At Tachikawa Air Base

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In the Gregory Peck film titled “Twelve O’clock High,” a story of Bomber Command in England during World War II and in my opinion one of the best war films ever made, all the squadron screw ups were transferred into one flight crew called the “Leper Colony.”

In an Air Force terminal squadron if you want to find the leper colony, it’s called fleet service, the section which, among other things, empties the on-board latrines. You’ll also find some fine folks in there, but you can usually also find the screw ups.

At Tachikawa Air Base in Japan, having more or less told a prissy first lieutenant where to go, I found myself in charge of a shift in fleet service.

And what a shift!

On my first day in fleet service I strolled into the office as happy as a pig in you-know-what, having escaped the most boring job on the planet — running a VIP lounge in a large air terminal. I was also happy because my run in with said lieutenant had upped my stock with the troops.

Oh how different I might have felt if I had known what that sneaky little %$#@! of a lieutenant had arranged for me. He had hand-picked the men on my shift, absolutely certain that I would be relieved of my stripes within two weeks.

Let me introduce you to C-Shift.

Meet Airman Second Class Sam Held, a 24-year-old kid from Pittsburgh, Pa.

Shake hands with Sam, but count your fingers when you get done. Sam is awaiting a court martial for possession of a half pound of heroin.

Next meet Airman Third Class Donnie Puckett, a tall lanky kid from Portland, Ore. Donnie’s a shy, quiet sort of kid, but if you talk to him for a while and draw him out, you may be surprised at the things he tells you about himself. And Donnie will probably be surprised too, because Donnie has recently been diagnosed at the base hospital as a pathological liar.

Then shake hands with smiling, dark-eyed Airman Third Class Pete Bradshaw, Kid Personality himself. And don’t rib Pete about that spare tire around his waist. It’s not a spare tire. Pete, aspires to be a herpetologist — snake scientist — and that “spare tire” is one of his pet snakes. He likes to carry one of them around with him. Kind’ve makes him feel warm and loved. A little snaky hug, you know?

Pete, by the way, is serving a suspended sentence imposed by a Japanese court. Three years for holding up a liquor store in Tokyo with a forty-five automatic he stole from the Base Exchange.

Nobody told me all this, of course. The men in the squadron all figured I knew it. Who could be so ignorant, after all, as to not know it? And of course my lieutenant buddy didn’t brief me.

But here’s the craziest part of it all. Except for one slight screw up with Pete Bradshaw, which I’ll tell you about in a minute, that was absolutely the best outfit I’ve ever run in my life!

The only thing I had to be careful about was to make sure that nobody ever asked Donnie a question, because the answer, even if the question was as simple as “Is it raining?” was going to be a lie. Other than that, those guys were workin’ fools. We handled all the ... uh, stuff we offloaded from the latrines with great efficiency, dumping it into honey carts, from whence I was told it was headed for Japanese vegetable gardens.

Hint: If you vacation in Japan, don’t eat raw vegetables.

As I said though, I did slightly screw up with Pete Bradshaw. His three-year suspended sentence required that he stay on base or go to a Japanese prison, and the guards at the gates all knew his face. The base commander didn’t want to have an international incident on his record, so he made sure that Pete stayed on base by posting an 8-by-10 glossy of Pete at all the gates.

Now Pete knew I didn’t know any of this, and one of his other minor quirks was that he just adored Joe Stalin, don’t ask me why. And so, hungering for some Russian food, he got friendly with me and talked me into driving him through the gate. And all the way into downtown Tokyo! Why? To dine in a genuine Russian restaurant.

As we went out through the gate, he bent down to “pick up his cigarette lighter.” On the way back in, it having worked on the way out, he did the same thing. We made it, but it made me a little suspicious and got me asking questions.

Man was I glad I did!

Ah, yes. Good old fleet service. I’d tell you stories, but ...

Oh, well, just one.

Up in Thule, Greenland, where everything is frozen solid all the time, it’s impossible to dump the ... uh, stuff out of planes because it freezes in-flight and didn’t defrost on the ground. A fuzz-faced young lieutenant, outraged that the transport aircraft were “not being properly serviced,” insisted on dragging a big old aircraft heater under the belly of one of them.

Now the way the eight-inch diameter, four-foot long drain pipe works is that there is an outer door in the skin of the aircraft and an inner door to the pipe. You open the outer door, hook up the honey cart, and trip the lever to open the inner door.

And away she goes. Look out below!

Well, the troops obediently opened the outer door, hooked up, and tripped the inner door, but nothing happened. So our young lieutenant, despite all warnings, insisted on unhooking the cart so he could look up the pipe. So unhook they did. And look he did. And just then a four-foot long, partially defrosted slug of you-know-what came shooting out, hit him in the chest, knocked him to the ground, and rolled over him, leaving a nice brown trail of pasty stuff right up the front of his uniform and over his face.

And get this! He then jumped up and said, “Oh s—t!”

Talk about famous last words!

He never talked about “proper servicing” again though.

I’ll slip a tale about fleet service into a column whenever I can. Watch for the one about parachutes. I swear it’ll kill you.

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