Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Experience with a Strange Missile

By Chester Campbell

Ghost stories, lethal varmints in the desert...how's a guy gonna top that? I seemed to have missed all the scary stuff. Real scary stuff, that is. Tim Hallinan's ghost story under the coconut palms in Bali reminded me of an experience during my early days in the Army Air Corps during World War II. I had to rough it at the basic training site at Miami Beach. Yep, that Miami Beach. The Army had taken over several hotels to house the troops. We did much of our training on a golf course. Not playing golf but listening to noncoms giving instruction on how to march, give first aid, and other things like the eleven general orders of a sentry.

I was assigned to sentry duty as part of the training and knew I'd be challenged on the general orders. One I remember was "To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert, and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing." Sometime after dark, I was issued an unloaded M1 rifle and hauled out to a small commercial building on a street with little traffic. During my tour of duty, I was to march around the building, which could have been vacant for all I knew, and challenge anyone who came near it.

A street light not too far away provided the only illumination, which was partially blocked by palm trees. The Sergeant of the Guard came around once, and I had to challenge him and recite some general orders. Other than that it was a lonely vigil with no one around, which was okay, since I wasn't supposed to talk to anyone "except in line of duty." But as I was walking (I wouldn't call it marching) around after a couple of hours, a loud thud sounded just behind me.

I spun around with my useless rifle at the ready. There had been rumors of German subs in the area, possibly infiltrating spies. But the only thing I saw was a big fat coconut that had fallen from a tree. I was lucky it hadn't conked me in the head. When I was relieved by the next guard on the post, I warned him to look out for flying missiles.

I received no Purple Heart in the war, since I wasn't wounded in action. Heck, the only action I saw was in Miami, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. I should have gotten the Purple Shaft, however. I was supposed to be in Aviation Cadet training, though most of the time I was shifted about various bases doing odd jobs. Part of the program involved assignment to a College Training Detachment. I spent my time at Winthrop College (a girls school back then) at Rock Hill, SC. One of our assignments was to take ten hours of flight instruction in a Piper Cub. However, I only managed seven hours.

What happened was we young kids just out of high school did the usual silly things while waiting our turn in the Piper Cub. I was showing my agility at turning cartwheels when my toe slammed into a rock. It hurt like hell and my foot began to swell. They took me to a nearby air base where it was wrapped and I picked up a crutch. I hobbled around for a couple of weeks and missed the rest of the flying hours. That was as close to being a pilot as I ever got.

It wasn't all for naught, though. While on my last assignment at Randolph Field in San Antonio, I roomed with a fellow cadet who had spent a year at Yale before entering the service. He told me if he had it to do over, he would've studied journalism. Somehow that resonated with me. When I was discharged, I enrolled at the University of Tennessee with the idea of studying journalism. It wasn't offered at the time, but they started a reporting class in my sophomore year and expanded it into a full curriculum the following year. That led to a writing career that hasn't stopped yet.

Things always seem to work out for the better in the end. But it could have been a bit more exciting.

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