Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Republic of Korea Armed Forces

South Korean Air Force F-4E


 

Prelude to Cuba and Dallas

 

By Bill Vernon

President Kennedy was coming to Bogue Field? Standing with the other lower level NCOs on our half-hour trip to Bogue, one hand on a metal pole screwed fast to ceiling and deck, I swayed with the bouncy rhythm of our cattle car and tried to maintain my balance. The North Carolina countryside zoomed past outside like a movie on fast forward, and the open windows and doors sucked hot air inside. The roar in my ears confused me. Would the President actually visit here?

I had doubts. On my first month-long rotation to Bogue, leaders at our main base of Cherry Point had not even bothered to observe us. Also, Bogue Field still looked abandoned: 800-plus acres of pine forest around a tiny airfield decommissioned after WWII. Tobacco and cotton fields and the Atlantic surrounded it. We lived in a 15-man tent at Bogue, ate in a tent, showered in a tent, and used urine pipes and slit trenches while millions of dollars worth of Navy and Marine Corps planes just occasionally practiced on its one runway.

Then again, maybe we were doing something special there. Our unit claimed to be developing a new capability for Vietnam: quickly constructed airfields slightly longer than a carrier deck to catch and launch jet aircraft in close support of ground troops. My first month’s rotation at Bogue, I’d helped Seabees lay newly designed AM-2 aluminum mats on sand, extending the end of Bogue’s single runway to improve emergency recoveries.

My preceding three years of experience reflected similar concerns. Infantry units I’d been in tested new weapons like the M-14 rifle, M-79 grenade launcher, and M-60 machine gun for use in Vietnam. In the Philippines and Okinawa, we’d trained for jungle, anti-guerilla warfare. And I knew for certain that secret military actions were occurring in Vietnam. I’d been involved in one. Leaving our cattle car, I talked myself into believing the JFK visit might really happen.

This possibility excited me. I was naive enough to have heroes, and JFK was one. My Brothers of Mary high school teachers (in Dayton, Ohio) and the priests I’d served as an altar boy had beatified the Catholic WW II hero before he’d won the election. Since then the things he and Jackie had achieved were so admirable, his ideas about serving humanity had made enlisting in the Marines, as I’d done, seem like what he wanted. I was in a military Peace Corps so to speak. I believed in his Camelot ideals.

Imagining a JFK visit made me do my menial jobs enthusiastically at Bogue. When we relieved the crew on runway duty, I helped set up the arresting gears for landings and Stop and Gos. The officers told us to stay ready because important visitors might be coming. No names, vague time schedule, but those omissions bolstered my hope that the CIC would appear.

That first afternoon, with the slate-colored waters of Bogue Sound gleaming like an invitation at the runway’s end, I worked like never before: helped clean the arresting gear, police the runway, and practice catching aircraft. I could see the launching crew across the runway doing the same with their catapult. That these jobs repeated themselves every two hours under the supervision of officers and upper level NCOs confirmed for me that visitors were near.

That evening those leaders returned to their homes or barracks, but left the Officer of the Day at Bogue instead of Cherry Point where he usually stayed. This kept our card-playing and beer drinking subdued, more clandestine than normal (we posted a guard to warn us if the OD came calling), but that was okay with me. The OD’s presence meant the big event was soon.

My excitement peaked at reveille with orders to wear starched, pressed dungarees and shined boots. Then we actually marched instead of straggled down the sandy path to our duty stations. Just above the treetops circling the field, jets loudly whined, waiting on us. We broke rank, ran across the runway to our stations, proclaimed our gear ready, and caught 4 A-4Ds and 4 F-8Us. One by one the jets dropped our cables, taxied back toward the head of the runway for takeoff, but parked alternately faced right and left off the taxiway so their exhausts did not buffet another plane. This arrangement couldn’t last very long. JFK or other VIPs had to be near.

Sergeants double-timed our crew back across the runway and put us in formation with the crew of the other arresting gear facing the runway below the catapult engine. At the same time two helicopters landed on the runway, prompting our officers to run into positions in front of us. “Attention!” We snapped to as people emerged from each chopper, which then took off and disappeared. Their passengers, men in uniforms or business suits, talked among themselves while Marine Corps colonels and generals hurried across the runway to join them. Nobody left the runway for the viewing stand, apparently waiting, but for what or whom?

Three black limousines surprised me, coming from the trees behind us off our sandy path. They curved around the catapult and stopped on the runway beside the men. A little flag fluttered importantly above each front fender. Dark suited men from the third car hurried to the first and the middle cars to open passenger doors. Then from the front vehicle, JFK emerged.

Unmistakably, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not in DC or Boston or Hyannis Port. He was here in the woods with us. With him were some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I learned later, but I focused on the President. To watch what was going on, my eyes strayed from looking straight ahead, our at-attention position. JFK saluted, shook hands, spoke to those on the runway, then led them to the viewing stand.

Through my mind scrolled images of him playing touch football with relatives, sailing on a yacht with Jackie, holding the hand of his little son, walking. My mother had offered up her daily rosary to elect him. His charisma had reached out through the media and penetrated my adolescent indifference. Only the materializing of God could have impressed me more.

His presence validated my enlistment. I felt elated. I had a moment to shine in his presence. Then disappointment set in. My crew had already caught the planes. Our work was done. I’d been imagining that JFK would watch me run out onto the runway, position the notched half-tires, elevating the cables, and run back. But I also realized that aircraft carriers had for decades been catching planes as my crew did. I’d seen myself doing my job so well, he even shook the hands of my crew. But obviously, launching planes from the ground in a short distance was the innovation. Catching planes was old news. It was taken for granted.

Where the visitors sat, 40 yards off the runway and about 30 yards ahead of where launched aircraft would leave the ground, was nothing special: a set of bleachers, the common metal frame with green-painted wooden seats found at most high school athletic fields.

The action began immediately. Each A-4D taxied onto the runway above the arresting gear and launched itself using booster rockets. We called these rocket-assisted take-offs. These rockets attached to an aircraft’s fuselage allowed it to reach flight speed in the distance of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Routine. Such launches here were common. The first F-8U, however, a larger, heavier aircraft than the A-4D, taxied its front gear onto the shuttle (a dolly or sled) to use our catapult, which was a jet engine modified to retract at high speed a thick nylon belt attached to the shuttle. The belt pulled the shuttle, and hence the plane, down the runway on a track. I’d witnessed its crew having problems operating the catapult, and it seemed superfluous anyway because the booster rockets did the job. But what did I, a lowly E-3 know?

A flagman signaled, the plane revved its engine, the catapult engine shrieked, revving, and the aircraft shuddered, building up its power. The flagman dropped his right hand to point down the runway, waving for the take-off. The catapult engine wound up the thick nylon strap and the plane raced forward. Reaching the appropriate speed just past the arresting gears, the shuttle released the nose wheel. The plane rose off the runway and began banking upwards to the left. The plane launched perfectly.

But so did the shuttle. Instead of stopping, it broke free, rose off its steel track 30 to 50 feet high and arced off to the left straight at the viewing stand. I’d seen that heavy, rectangular chunk of metal break loose twice before, but it had shot straight forward down the runway both times. From the viewing stand, its approach must have been terrifying. From my angle, it looked destined for JFK seated in the middle of the first row spectators. My breath stopped. No one in the stands moved. The shuttle dropped, plowed a short furrow in the sand, and buried its leading edge just 20 or 30 feet from the President. Everyone remained stunned, frozen and silent.

Then noise and activity erupted. A helicopter roared in and landed near the stands, other choppers circled the field’s periphery, fire trucks and ambulances rushed across the runway, jeeps streaked toward the bleacher, and voices screamed for my crew to fall in. We snapped to attention startled and perturbed.

Two men in dark suits took JFK’s arms and rushed him into the helicopter. It climbed steeply, swooped around, and passed directly over the runway in front of us. Through the chopper’s open side door, JFK looked down at us. I could see him clearly. He seemed relaxed. He smiled and waved. We quit standing at attention and waved back. Then he was gone. Within minutes, limos whisked away the other important officials until only we peons were left.

Looking back, I imagine the incident as dreamlike. Nightmarish but ironic and strangely comical too. JFK and others could have easily died. They’d simply been doing their jobs, observing the expertise of their military, the innovations they’d ordered us to test for Vietnam. They’d deliberately taken what planners considered “safe, out-of-the-way” seats. We and they had been too smug about our abilities. Had no one anticipated possible dangers beforehand?

My arresting crew had nothing to do with the catapult, yet we felt responsible. What that other crew had done suggested incompetence in us. Some experts we were, Launch and Recovery technicians, MOS 7011. My friends shared my hope that the head honchos who’d fled to Washington, D.C., and Cherry Point were punished. We hoped that demotions occurred and careers ended. Off duty but confined to Bogue Field without liberty, my crew expected interviews, assuming an investigation would occur. As the hours passed, we entertained ourselves with poker and beer while waiting for investigators who never showed up.

That evening, we gathered at the spectators’ bleachers by the runway. There was no evidence that JFK had sat in the stands. None of us took his first row seat. The catapult’s shuttle was gone and nowhere in sight. The sand in front of the bleachers was unreadable, gouged with tracks from tires and feet. We stared silently at a bloody sunset.

The sand stretched away, sloping down to the sea. Darkness fell and obscured the details. Was anyone held responsible for the accident? I eventually heard that someone with a little rank was court-martialed, that administrative reports about catapult operations had downplayed its failures, presumably to make someone’s personal records look good. However, all this was a rumor. Was the accident ever reported in the news? I can find no media articles about it.

This happened a few months before the Cuban missile crisis, when Fate let us escape another catastrophe. It was also just over a year before JFK’s visit to Dallas.

 


 

About the author:

Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Recently published military-related stories are in PARHELION LITERARY MAGAZINE, CHA: AN ASIAN LITERARY JOURNAL, BULL, AS YOU WERE: THE MILITARY REVIEW, MARATHON LITERARY REVIEW, and GOOD WORKS REVIEW.