Airman 2nd Class John Montez was tired, but couldn't sleep. The island
weather, as usual, exuded steam and heat. His bunk, wet with heavy moisture,
glued him to the sheet. He looked at the half naked bodies of his buddies
glistening with sweat, their hair matted to their skulls and their chests
pumping for air. The airman would doze off for a moment and wake, gasping for
breath; the barracks was a steam room with no door, no escape. He knew there
was no use wetting a towel and putting it on his body. It would immediately
become hot and steamy adding to his misery. The worst part was that he
couldn't get up and do something about it--he was going to be here for at least
another year unless they carried him out.
Montez croaked to a fellow sufferer in the next bunk, "I don't know how long
I can take this!" "Don't think about it," he replied. "I close my eyes and see
little streams of rushing water in the snow in Maine."
Montez tried to visualize a picture of coolness. It didn't work. Most of
his life had been spent in the hot country of the open southern California San
Joaquin valley: dry heat, bearable heat, with swamp coolers to give respite.
As he sloshed in his bunk, the only cool thing he could think of was an ice cold
beer from the PX. He visualized buying two beers, one to put on the back of his
neck and the other to drink slowly, allowing the snow-like liquid to refrigerate
It happened. The thought of the local slop-shoot, The Lair, with its
scratchy music and icy beer took Montez away from the present to that place of
cool repose and honorable discourse. The smell of stale beer and echo of old
ballads gave the place a sense of history and purpose. It almost made up for
the hot glare of the angry sun, the brief, but incessant, emptying of wet vapor,
and the steamy aftermath of that pouring.
Montez's buddy Edwards, a lanky Tennessean, liked to say, "A few beers, a
good fight and a bad woman were all a man had a God-given right to expect in
He slowly dozed off again thinking that at least they had the first, and
Edwards would strive mightily for the rest.
Stationed in Guam, the main island of the Mariana Island group, for six
months, Montez was angry with himself for not enlisting in the Marines like
most of his friends and relatives did. The Air Force promised to send him to
aerial photography school. The Marines promised infantry training and how to be
a real man. Hell, he figured he didn't need to be a real man. He was in enough
trouble already. Still Montez felt that he should have joined a tough outfit
like the Marines with their well known espirit de corp. Air Force basic
training was a joke. Hell, he walked farther as a Boy Scout in the hills around
the South Central California valley where he grew up.
Aircraft and Engine Mechanic school in Wichita Falls, Texas, was exactly what
he didn't want. So much for government promises. The training and the
inevitable waiting for something to occur lasted for nearly a year. After
graduating, they sent Montez to some more school. Finally, they put him on a
Liberty ship, and he bobbed across the Pacific Ocean for nearly three
weeks, sick and angry at himself for not joining the Marines--at least they're
tough and don't have to go to school all of the time.
Edwards finally put it all in place. "Quit yore bitching 'bout school an
such, boy. This here U.S. Air Force runs on brains, not brawn."
It was exciting, finally reaching the island and smelling the rich, fecund
odor coming from the vegetation on the fertile land mass. Even before
disembarking from the ship, it hit him--searingly hot, humid weather that had
him gasping for air and his uniform wet with sweat in a few minutes. The harbor
was full of working sailors and some Marines. The sailors were working large
noisy cranes in huge ships, some taking out and others putting in cargo. The
dock area was fascinating to watch from the ship's deck, but Montez, along with
other sweaty troops, was ordered to disembark. It was then that he finally
came to terms with joining the Air Force. The Marines were stuck over here too
and looked as unhappy as everyone else.
The long, hot bumpy drive in what looked like a converted cattle car took the
airmen to Andersen Air Force Base on the northern half of the Island. The trip
was an education in itself. From the bouncing trailer, Montez could see how the
native Chamorros, or Guamanians, lived. Even though the natives were working
hard in the sun on their little plots of land, he noted that they weren't
sweating. He figured he could get used to the climate.
He didn't get used to it. In fact, it got worse. The aircraft mechanics and
other ground support personnel were working on B-29 bombers which made up the
19th Bomb Group, Far East Air Forces, in the full glare of the burning sun every
day. There were no trees or shade on the flight line except under a wing. On
the other hand, when his crew could get leave, their time was spent chugging
beer on the beach at Tumon Bay or prowling the island in hope of meeting a girl.
Tumon Bay was the most beautiful spot in the world with its white sand, and palm
trees bending gently to kiss the softly lapping, clear water. When Montez had
time between beers, he went swimming in the coral-ringed bay.
Staff Sergeant Gomez, a former golden gloves welterweight champ and current
sheet metal specialist, summed up Tumon Bay by quietly telling Montez,
"Sometimes I feel like crying like a baby when I watch the sun setting. It's
beautiful. Heaven must be like this."
The Staff Sergeant turned and looked at Montez, then raising his fist said,
"You mention what I said to anyone, cabron, and you're dogmeat."
Montez looked at his muscled arm and was suddenly very happy he was smiling.
At six feet, he had at least three inches on the boxer, but he knew that the
sergeant could take him. Montez was very conscious of his age and lack of
girth. Everyone was older than his twenty years, even his buddy Edwards was
twenty-one years old. To add insult to injury, Montez had the face of a
fourteen year old, unlined fair skin tanned by the unrelenting sun, and somewhat
sad brown-green eyes, which thwarted his immediate goal of looking a little
ferocious or at least sophisticated. He disliked his one prominent feature, a
thrusting, slightly hooked-at-the-end, nose. Airman 2nd Class Montez didn't
know that it would all come together in the near future and he would have no
trouble with the opposite sex. As of now, however, he just knew the looked like
a skinny scarecrow and no self-respecting girl would associate with him.
Guam was a piece of paradise, despite its sweltering heat, especially when
the sun set in the colored ocean, fusing reds and yellows and purples, and other
colors that Montez couldn't describe. He felt the heaviness of the painted
ocean as the sun slowly submerged into the deep. Moving as it was, it was also
a lonely scene. Days and nights, then weeks, months passed tediously for him in
paradise with the wearisome sameness that brought a languor to his body and a
slackness to his mind.
Wading in Tumon Bay one day, the inevitable beer in hand, Montez heard a
loudspeaker blurring unintelligible words some distance away. The noise got
louder every moment. Suddenly a large military truck broke through the palm
trees and brush, loudspeaker blaring, "All military personnel report to your
duty station. This is not a drill!"
When the driver saw the drunken group, he stopped the truck and an Army
sergeant motioned them forward. The Air Force, Marine and Navy personnel
didn't, of course. He was Army. However, an Army type among them walked to the
sergeant, and after a couple of minutes returned.
"Looks like we're at war with Korea!" he exclaimed excitedly. "Don't know
anything else. That's all he said. Air Force and Navy trucks will be coming to
pick up ya'll."
The truck had shown up just in time. One of the drunk soldiers floating face
down in the Bay. He wouldn't have drowned--drunks never do. They threw him on
the truck and hurried back to finish their beer before their trucks came along.
Montez didn't know why the military was doing this, picking them up in trucks,
but he knew that it was a bad sign. He had been in the service long enough to
know they would make you hurry, then they would make you wait. Who "they"
were didn't matter. It was the Government and they were GIs, the lowest form of
critter on earth.
A couple of minutes later, two trucks careened to a stop in the sand,
loudspeakers blaring. The airmen jumped in one truck, and a couple sailors in
the other. As they sped to their barracks, Montez knew instinctively this was a
turning point in his life--for better or worse remained to be seen.
They were all excited and a little scared at the same time. America was at
war! The airbase was in an uproar. Airmen rushed everywhere. After changing
into their fatigues, they jumped on a truck and were shuttled to their aircraft.
Montez asked while holding tightly to the truck's wooden rails, "Ed, what
you think about being at war and all that stuff?
"Don't know what to think. But hell, Monty, they won't be shooting at us
Montez, still nursing a hangover, replied, "I hope you're right. Maybe
they'll land commandos to blow up the planes or some stuff like that." Placing
his hand on his friend's shoulder said, "Ed, don't you worry none, I'll take
care of you. You'll be as safe as you were in those Tennessee hills
"Boy, If there's commandos sent, they'll be after you ugly people so watch
As the truck dropped off crew members at their aircraft, Montez saw a changed
flightline: armed guards; armament specialists carrying wooden boxes of bomb
fuses; trucks scurrying to each B-29 with flack mats, flack suits, metal aircrew
helmets and other equipment; groundcrew personnel crawling over uncowled engines
"Are you airmen assigned to this plane?" asked a burly guard as Montez and
Edwards jumped off the truck and walked to their plane.
After assuring the guard, Edwards commented, "He thinks were saboteurs with
Montez shot a backward look at the guard. "I think we better be careful with
those idiots. They have guns."
They joined their crew, busy working on the huge R-3350 engine for the trip.
Montez scrambled up on top of the wing, shielding his eyes with his already oily
hand, and was frozen taking in a spectacle of symmetrical confusion for nearly
as far as he could see. What astounded him most was the feel of a huge hand
keeping things in order. Huge fuel trucks were rolling down the flightline,
barely missing trucks and jeeps, and ponderously stopping at each aircraft to
fill the large rubber-like tanks in each bombers' wings. He knew that they had trained for this for years, but didn't think it would work so well.
His bemusement was abruptly broken by an exasperated crew chief. "Montez, what the hell you doing? Go help Smitty get that gear in the rear hatch."
The aircrew was checking the B-29, inside and out. Montez could feel their excitement and apprehension. He wished he was one of them, a waist gunner, and going with them. He realized they could be killed, but not really, not yet.
Their bomber left the next day, but they were not told where. Ordered to pack everything they had, they rushed back to the barracks, then told to wait in readiness.
Two days passed and they were still waiting. The news from Korea was not good. The North Koreans were pushing the United Nations forces down the Korean peninsula. The bad news dribbling in made the ground crew even more anxious to join their aircraft. The airmen could not go off the base and the delay began to get on their nerves.
They were reduced to listening to Airmen Jones' and Garcia's, "hurry up and wait" routine. Garcia, in a deep voice, boomed, "I want you ready at a moment's notice. Your country expects you boys in Air Force blue to bomb them back to the Stone Age!"
Jonesy, in falsetto, "I'm ready, sir...." He was interrupted by a sergeant who ordered them to report to the flightline with all of their gear.
The crew quickly packed and shoved their gear into the ubiquitous 6X6 truck, and drove to the flightline where they boarded a waiting C-54 transport, along with what Montez thought were VIPS. Well, they must be important he thought. They were at least forty years old, and he didn't know anyone that old who wasn't a high-ranking officer or civilian.
The flight was not too long,
but the closer they came to their destination--Okinawa, the more their
apprehension built. Montez had read the history of the island, including
what happened during World War II, but that didn't tell him much about
the present. He recalled that the Okinawans were a mixture of Chinese and
Japanese; Japan finally taking control from China early in the seventeeth
century. Then, just as the sun set, he spotted the island. It must be Okinawa.
It was the largest island he had seen during the transport's slow descent.
When deplaned, he groaned in disappointment. The island wasn't as lush
and pretty as Guam, but, conversly, it was not as hot and humid. Gear in
hand, he walked to the waiting truck thinking this was going to be alright--
lower humidity and less heat. He didn't know about the mosquitos.