As soon as they told us we were shipping overseas, everyone in my outfit, the 103rd AC&W Squadron, began speculating where we were headed. Strangely, I never heard anyone mention Korea even though we were a Connecticut Air National Guard outfit put on active duty a year earlier when things began heating up over there.
To a man, we were all ready to ship out. It had been a long, dull year at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod up in Massachusetts.
I mean DULL dull. No training and not much of anything else, and we were ready to go.
“But where to?” we asked each other.
No one was able to find out. We were certain the officers knew, and probably a few of the senior NCOs. And security, like everything else in the 103rd, was not first class. The instant one man learned something classified it went around the squadron in a flash. If one man knew something, everyone knew it.
“Hey, did you hear the range of that big radar over on ...”
“Forget it. Henry Parker told me all about it yesterday.”
“Yeah, but I’ll bet he didn’t tell you how they can tell if it’s an enemy aircraft or one of ours. They have this ...”
“The IFF? Told me all about it.”
In truth, most of the things I learned in my 12 months on Otis AFB were things I wasn’t supposed to know.
The first clue to our destination came when they tried to feed us a line of baloney. “We will select only the best because this important assignment does not call for the entire squadron.”
We were dumb, of course. We had to be dumb to join an outfit like the 103rd, but even we knew what that statement really meant. The cadre around which the outfit had been formed, the old worn out World War II retreads, were going back home to Connecticut to guard against UFO landings while the rest of us shipped overseas.
But as they began to separate the outfit into two parts, one of the personnel people let it slip that no blacks were permitted in the overseas-bound group.
“No blacks?” we asked each other. “I wonder why not?”
We mulled it over and finally decided that we had to be shipping to a place where the people, or a good portion of them, were black. Speculation ran rampant, but the possibilities were just too great for us to settle on any place in particular.
But then a second clue emerged. It came in the form of a name someone picked up by reading a segment of typewriter ribbon as he sat beside a desk in the orderly room filling out a pay change form. “M. B. Stewa,” he managed to read.
Inside of an hour, all 200 of us were speculating on what, who, or where was, “M. B. Stewa.”
I’ll have to hand it to those guys. Inside of 24 hours we knew the answer. “M. B. Stewa” was the name of a troop transport that operated only in the Atlantic, the M. B. Stewart.
And then we discovered a third clue. We were shipping in late September, near the date for the official change from summer to winter uniforms. We were told to wear our summer uniforms and pack our winter gear in our barracks bags and foot lockers, which we would not see or need until we reached the “destination base.”
Bingo! We were crossing the Atlantic to some place with a hot climate, where many of the locals were black, and where there was an American Air Force base.
Exactly one place met those criteria in those days, the American base in Libya. The celebration began. Oh boy! Low dives with native girls shaking it in next to nothing. A hot-bodied Italian girl behind every palm tree. Lying back in an oasis as something young, Arab, and hot-blooded fed us full of dates.
After that, 200 Connecticut Air National Guard troops sashayed around Otis Air Force Base with knowing grins on their faces.
They stayed on our faces on the buses down to Fort Dix, New Jersey. They stayed there when we entrained at Fort Dix. And they expanded into even bigger grins, plus cheers, as we climbed the gangplank onto the M. B. Stewart from a pier on Staten Island.
Later in the day, though, those grins did fade a bit.
That was after the pilot boat cast off outside New York harbor and Col. Luckingham called us together on deck to announce our secret destination: Keflavik Air Base, Iceland.
Who knew that Iceland, worried about maintaining the purity of its Viking blood lines, did not permit blacks on the island?
But what about packing away all our winter uniforms?
Just a typical 103rd AC&W Squadron screwup.
Ever try crossing the North Atlantic in late September dressed in lightweight khakis? Let me tell you, that was one mighty cold sea voyage, even for a bunch of Connecticut Yankees!
On top of that, the Navy did not allow troops to stay down below during the day. Everyone had to get up on deck. The result was that as the ship drove northward, with waves breaking over its prow and an icy wind slicing across its decks, all 2,800 troops aboard the good old M. B. Stewart — us and a passel of Army troops — crowded onto the lee deck, causing the ship to list badly.
No matter how much the Navy screamed at us over the ship’s speakers to get on the weather side of the ship, we stayed put. So the Navy enlisted an Army MP unit to stand guard throughout the ship and prevent anyone from crossing from one side to the other. That worked for perhaps half a day. Then we discovered that a Hershey bar would bribe your way over to the lee side.
And so, listing somewhat, we sailed into sun-soaked Reyjavik harbor and dropped anchor as sultry breezes carried the lush scent of rich tropical growth wafting across the bay.
Ah yes, sunny Iceland, where tropical breezes wind gently down off steaming, rain-fed glaciers. Where a dark-skinned, dark-eyed, half-naked native girl peeps out from behind every tree. A true tropical paradise. A place so hot that even the very soil steams, a place where every man’s wildest dreams come true.
Honestly. Would I kid you? Buy a ticket. Go see for yourself.