TAIPEI AIR STATION

James R. Zant Remembers….

 

MY TDY ASSIGNMENT TO TAIWAN

 

I was stationed at Johnson Air Base, Japan from April, 1957 to March, 1959. I was an electrician assigned to the 6041st Installation Squadron. It was September 18, 1958 at about 1600 hours and I had just signed out for a three day pass to Tokyo. It was the first and only 3-day pass I ever had. It was a reward for being named Squadron Airman of The Month earlier that year. On my way out of the orderly room A/1c Nado, the Squadron’s chief clerk, told me my NCOIC, M/Sgt Gay wanted to see me right away. So I went back to the electric shop and Sgt Gay told me that A/2c Richard D. Harris (hometown Crossville, Tennessee) and I (hometown Jennings, Florida) were going TDY to Taiwan. He told me to get Harris and report to Group HQ straight away. So I found Harris and reported to Group HQ as ordered.

 

At Group HQ they issued Harris and I typed orders with several carbon copies to go to Yamoto Air Station for airlift on classified mission for 90 days. The date was 18 SEPT 1958. The clerk told me, “Whatever you do, don’t give away your last set of orders or you’ll be stranded.” He sent us to the paymaster and we drew a month’s pay in greenbacks. Boy, greenbacks feel good! We left later that night in a 4-by-4 for Yamoto Air Station where we got all kinds of shots. Then we went on to Tachikawa where we boarded a plane with a bunch of other guys and flew to Okinawa. We flew then on to Tainan Air Base which was about in the middle of Taiwan. I don’t know what kind of plane it was but I remember it opened from the rear and we walked down a ramp. We got there and unloaded in the middle of the night on the 19th. We hadn’t slept since we left Johnson. It seemed every time we turned around they wanted a set of our orders. They didn’t have copying machines back then so we’d have to give up a carbon copy.

 

At Tainan they had squad tents already built on frames with concrete slab floors, which was a sight better than erecting them on poles tied to the ground. I’d done that before on a TDY assignment. Somebody directed us to one and we went in and lay down on canvas cots they assigned us and tried to sleep in our clothes. They had some F-104s there and they ran up those engines all night, and every time they would ease back on the throttle that thing would just scream. It literally shook the sides of the tent. Amid all that they got Harris and me up and told us to go unload a flat bed of lumber. It was rough-cut and we had no gloves. Just before day I told Harris, “I’ve had enough of war.” About daylight most of those F-104s had taken off and it was fairly quiet. So I thought I’d finally get some rest. Next thing I knew Harris was waking me up telling me to come get in line. So we went out and got in line and I was still about half asleep. I said, “What’s this line for?” Harris said, “This is the beer line. Everybody’s rationed two a day.”  Harris knew  I didn’t drink.

 

I was at Tainan for about two meals. The first thing Harris said was, “This is Navy chow.” And it was. Harris was a Navy veteran. The Navy furnished the food and the Air Force cooked it. The food was noticeably better. We actually had steak a few times. They split Harris and me up and we had just two carbon copies left. I gave Harris one and I took one. They put me on a six-by with a few other guys sent us to Hsinchu, which is on the extreme north western part of the island on the coast across the straits from Quemoy and Matsu. It was one of those six-bys with a tarpaulin on it and I couldn’t see a thing. Somebody said they thought we were in Taipei but I don’t know if he knew what he was talking about.

 

We got to Hsinchu and went to the north side of west end of the runway. The ROC (Republic of China) had what they called 50-cal quads scattered all over the place. They were sure glad to see us Americans.

 

That’s the first and only time I’ve ever seen terror on people’s faces, but they were scared. They would help us any way they could. They cut grass with hand sickles and one man struck a left over WWII phosphorus grenade. It left the skin on his face hanging. Another was killed in a fall from atop the water tank he was constructing. We took up a collection for his family. It wasn’t much but it was all we could do. Someone commented that it was probably more money than he had seen in his whole life.

 

They assigned me about six men to help wire the tents like the ones they had built at Tainan. We had an interpreter named Freddie (I forgot his last name) and he was well educated. He had graduated from a university in Oklahoma, I forgot which one. But he was good. I told him to ask if there were any electricians there. He did and he said there was one who had twenty years experience in a light bulb factory.

 

So I was about to get them organized this old- and I mean gray headed old- first sergeant came up to me and wanted a copy of my orders. I told him I only had one copy left and I had orders not to get rid of it. He says, “I know you. You’re an eight ball. As of right now you’re on permanent KP.” They had plenty of Chinese help but he did it just for punishment. He never did look at my orders. So I put my tools down and reported to the mess sergeant who put me to cleaning out a small concrete drainage ditch. I shoveled away and I noticed a spent bullet on the ground. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, thinking I had found a souvenir. I kept picking up bullets up till I had so many they were sticking me. I soon realized that the place was a WWII battle field. They got so heavy I had to throw them back to the ground. I saw that the ditch I was cleaning might be a pretty good place to be in case some MIGs came over strafing. Which is what everybody was looking to happen.

 

The next day the Captain came to me and asked why these tents weren’t being wired, that he and the first sergeant couldn’t see in the HQ tent. I told him what the first sergeant did and that I couldn’t see either to wire them at night. He said, “Get your tools and go to work.” After that I had no more trouble with the first sergeant.

 

I had to sleep in the tent with the rocket guys we were supporting and they would come in at all times of the night turning on the lights, so I moved my cot and stuff out and moved to the tent we used for an electric shop. The first sergeant came by one day and wanted to know what I was doing there. I said, “I here to guard the place.” He didn’t say any more.

 

I lost my Army fatigue cap, which I’d gotten bonded to. You could wad those Army caps up any way you wanted to and stuff then in your pocket and they would retain their shape. That’s why airmen liked them, and they looked sharp when you had a tailor box them. It’s funny that I’d remember such a trifling thing, but we had so few personal possessions in those days outside what was issued.

 

A few weeks later, after I’d gotten everything wired, they sent an electrician named Flowers to help me. They had assigned him to sleep in the tent with the rocket men and he got tired of them just like I did. So he decided to move in with me. I helped him get all set up and he slept there a night or two and here comes the first sergeant. He told Flowers to move his stuff back to the rocket men's tent. The first sergeant left and Flowers said he dreaded going back to that place, and I told him, “I don’t see any sense in it.” So he stayed, and a few days later the sergeant came back by and saw Flowers still there. He got all over him, and asked why he hadn’t moved. Flowers said, “Sarge, I just couldn’t see any sense in it.” When he said that the old sergeant threw what in call in the south a tizzy fit. This time Flowers moved.

 

When we first got to Hsinchu the tent frames had already been set up and the mess hall had been set up in what looked to me like a WWII Japanese camouflaged bunker. It was made of concrete in the shape of a Quonset hut covered with earth and grass growing on top. Just outside the mess hall they had a GI can to empty your scraps in, if you had any, then they had a row of 4 or 5 GI cans with water kept boiling by a kerosene burner that sucked kind of like a Bunsen burner, and I mean that water was hot. You cleaned your mess kit by dipping it into each of these cans in series. A brush helped out on the first can. It cleaned it alright, but after about three days of this your mess kit had a thick white scum on it. It was disgusting but it never hurt anybody. I couldn’t drink anything but water out of that aluminum canteen cup. The chemical reaction between the coffee and aluminum made it taste like acid.

 

Between the kitchen and the sleeping tents they built a (you guessed it) a latrine. They dug slit trenches and built toilet seats over them. They took two boards and cut a “V” in them. Then they put them together to make a diamond shaped seat. Privacy was a canvas strung around the perimeter. So you ate and slept with that scent. They put lime on it to kill the harmful bacteria and that made it smell worse. One morning I saw a guy sitting there donning a gas mask. I don’t know if it helped or not.

 

We drank water from lister bags until the well was finished. By the time we got water they had built a concrete block and a septic tank system and a 500 gallon forced-air boiler so we could have hot showers. Things got pretty comfortable. But the boiler wouldn’t heat water as fast as those rocket men wanted it to and they would manually override the thermostat.

 

I saw them doing it and I told them to stop, but they told me fast to mind my own business. After all, nobody put me in charge of the boiler and they let me know that pretty quick. Pretty soon the burner burned out and the T/Sgt (Sgt Hurley) in charge of that rocket outfit told me to fix it. I told him I didn’t know a thing about boilers but he insisted I fix it. I kept protesting and he kept insisting to the point I could see that I was going to get in big trouble for not obeying a direct order. And there was no way could I prove I couldn’t fix it. So I had to at least try.

 

So my crew and I took the burner out and you could see that the flame holder had overheated and melted and that let the nozzle and igniter fell out of place and the fall had shorted out the igniter. But there was no way to tell what the melted part looked like. So I fashioned one as best I could and went over to ROC Air Force maintenance shops and had it welded. They didn’t have electric arc welders; they used raw acetylene heated in a forced-air forge to make the welds. They did an excellent job, too. The improvised part worked fine for a while but then it failed and almost burnt the latrine down.

 

So then the captain sent Freddie and me in a 4-by over to a regional supply depot to see if we could get a new burner. The lieutenant in charge and his supply sergeant told me they had only one left in the entire Far East and they weren’t about to give it up. They were both really nice guys. I told them all I needed was the burner out of it. I explained what the situation was and how it came about and were without hot water. And every body was getting pretty scummy. And if I didn’t get a burner I was going to be in hot water. So we took the element out of the new boiler and compared it with the failed burner I’d brought. You could see right away that the flame holder was designed, not only to hold the igniter in place, but to focus the flame, too. Without that focusing mechanism the fuel didn’t burn completely and would puddle in the bottom of the boiler. The lieutenant and the supply sergeant understood what I didn’t at the time – the boiler shouldn’t have allowed its own protective thermostat to be overridden. They sent me back in a six-by with the whole new boiler. I think the lieutenant must have called the captain because when I got back there was a lock on the door and a key for me. The captain had the other key.

 

The Chinese crew they sent to install the boiler hadn’t eaten all day and I asked the mess sergeant to feed them. He said, “NOoo!. NOOOOO.! What if I feed them and they get sick?” I told him, “Nobody else ever got sick eating your chow, why should they?” He says, “Yeah, but they’re Chinese.” I said, “These guys can eat from the same table you feed your own Chinese help from.” But he was unrelenting. “NO, NO, NO.” I saw this guy had bureaucratic paralysis so bad he couldn’t move a piece of paper from one side of his desk to the other without orders. And he needed a hot shower as bad as any of us. The captain was out of pocket at the moment day so I gave the crew what the little money I had so they could buy something to eat on their way back.

 

There was another bunker like the one we used for our temporary mess hall a hundred feet or so to the north. We set up a special service unit there to play ping pong and games. They had slot machines, too. We played a lot of Pinochle in the Far East in those days and that’s what I was doing the night the latrine caught fire. Pinochle kept men who had no family with them occupied and out of trouble.

 

We had some supply people there from the 6041st ABG at Johnson. I believe they came directly to Hsinchu from Johnson. The rocket men were from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and I sure had a good impression of them. But there is just something that feels “family” about Johnson people That I see from the internet has lasted through these 50 odd years.

 

We’d been sleeping on canvas cots for about six weeks when some containers came down from Johnson and they opened one up and found racks but no mattresses. That afternoon I saw some of the guys getting those racks bringing them to their tents. I guess they thought anything would sleep better than a canvas cot, so they tried using blankets for a mattress. The next morning I saw them taking the racks back to the container. A few weeks of waiting and complaining waiting went buy when I heard somebody throw up a shout. He’d gotten curious about the other containers and opened one up and they were full of mattresses.

 

The weather was mild in Hsinchu, but those cloth cots let all the cold the climate had in through the bottom of it. I couldn’t decide if my two blankets felt better on top or on bottom. I’d wrap my feet in newspaper and wear both pair of my socks and they’d still be so cold I couldn’t sleep. Finally one night I wrapped them in my towel and they got warm right away. Boy, did I sleep! Of course when we got the racks and mattresses  life got a whole lot better.

 

I saw a couple of things I still don’t believe. There was not a lot of air transport (MATS) traffic but there was some. They had this white capped MATS plane come in there and I recognized it because I saw it at Johnson many times. One day it came in and I thought there was something unusual about one of the wings. It looked like it had oil all over it. It had a few GI’s on it, I don’t remember how many. I usually didn’t get too close to the apron, but one of these guys came over and stood near me. He wasn’t very talkative. In fact, he was a little pale. He told me one of the engines went out and they had to jettison every thing they had to stay in the air. He said one of the crew crawled up in the wing some how and fixed it. They were just above the waves sea when they got it restarted. I would not have believed his story if he hadn’t had the fright to go along with it.

 

I remember another guy, a staff sergeant, who was a passenger on one of these MATS planes, who wandered over to the HQ area. HQ was right next to the apron. He was the kind of guy you’d not pay much attention to except he was in dress blues clutching a 45 cal “grease gun.” He may have a steel helmet on but I don’t remember for sure if he did. He was all rumpled up. I asked him where he’d been and he said, “Quemoy.” I said, “I didn’t think there were supposed to be any Americans over there.” He just turned and walked away slowly as if he didn’t hear me.

 

Ever wonder what they did with all those WWII B-17s? They were at Hsinchu. Every day they would go out and run the engines on a few of them. We were there to defend Taiwan from being invaded but it seemed to me like Chiang Kai-shek wanted a piece of the mainland, too.

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