Christmas Eve With TACAMO
Yokota Air Base Flight Line In Japan
The flight line is quiet and still. A deep black night sky blankets the earth. Stars shine and twinkle soundlessly in the cold winter air. An Air Force parka and gloves, two layers of thermal underwear, and a ushanka hat with ear flaps down are keeping me warm. On my right shoulder is an M-16A1 with a 20 round magazine holding 20 5.56mm NATO copper jacketed bullets. There are five more magazine on the web belt around my waist.
It’s Christmas Eve 1979. I am 19 and this is my first Christmas away from home. My only company on this midnight shift is a U. S. Navy C-130 called the TACAMO. This aircraft comes onto our flight line every month for a few days. It is one of a team of aircraft designed as “survivable communications” links in case of nuclear war. It sits in a “hardstand” which is an aircraft parking spot. This one features an angled concrete barrier in the back that obstructs the view. There is always one TACAMO in the air, one in maintenance, and one, this one on stand-by. The crew is asleep in quarters, as is most everybody else on the Air Base. As a member of the Air Force Security Police (today called Security Forces) I am tasked with protecting TACAMO. This aircraft is my first real introduction to the wonderful world of global thermonuclear warfare.
A blue pick-up truck sits at the front of the aircraft. It is there to keep me out of the cold and allow me to get warm. I’m not supposed to sit in it all night. My job is to provide security and make sure nothing happens to the aircraft. The TACAMO itself is a restricted area meaning that only the crew, maintenance teams, and a few other key personnel are allowed inside. This restricted area sits inside another larger restricted area which encompasses the entire flight line containing other military aircraft. A restricted area within a restricted area is serious business. This one is lit by two portable light generators each with two adjustable high powered globes. They blanket the aircraft itself with light, but leave the rest of the area around it in dark shadows. A trespasser can get shot for violating the boundaries identified by ropes along the ground of the flight line, or the ropes on stanchions around the TACAMO. Blunt, no nonsense signs that state clearly “Use of Deadly Force Authorized” are everywhere. My M-16A1 and me are that deadly force.
Slowly I begin my required walk around the perimeter of the aircraft. Suddenly the Motorola radio on my hip come to life as the Security Controller (desk sergeant) requests status updates from all of the posted sentries and patrols. There are three other sentries that night, one lucky enough to be indoors at 5th Air Force HQ, plus one two-man vehicle patrol, a one-man patrol vehicle, and the flight chief. I await my turn and then as I walk hold the radio to my mouth, click the speak button and say “Security Control, this Is November-6, all is safe and secure.” That will be the extent of my person to person communication for the next hour or so.
The ground has frozen a bit and crunches a little beneath my feet. This sound is all that I hear as I walk and watch my breath waft up into the black night. I’m careful to walk behind the light units to keep my night vision from failing. From the south and west side of the aircraft I can see the runway, the control tower, and three housing towers off in the distance. Anyone approaching TACAMO would have to cross this flat open expanse. The back, or west side of the hardstands however, feature a long gully that acts as a drainage ditch. This would be how someone with bad intentions would approach.
Pacing along the gully, I shine my flashlight into it and consider my reality. They may call me a sentry. But what I really am is the canary in the coal mine. If some bad guys were to decide to steal or destroy TACAMO, my actual job is to die sounding the alarm. Any moderately intelligent team of saboteurs or would surely be able to approach the aircraft quietly enough not to be seen. I am the lamb to sacrificed on the altar of national security. Nevertheless, it’s what I’m there for. so I continue my walk and scan the horizon, stopping ocassionally to use the “overlapping” scanning technique where you keep your head still and roll your eyes left to right being sure to slightly overlap the new scan with the the previous scan.
When I reach the light unit on the north side or left of the aircraft it’s time to find a dark spot and melt the frozen ground a bit. Bathroom breaks are complicated. A radio request is required, a relief sentry must be sent, and the time involved may not be of service to the bladder.
A few minutes later as the walk is completed I see headlights approaching. My radio squawks again and I hear the Flight Chief, an odd, skinny man with the stripes of a Technical Sergeant inform the Security Controller that he’s paying me a post visit. I am uncomfortable in his presence. He says inappropriate things when only I can hear him. Deeply personal things. He has told me a few times that I have the hips and lips of a woman But he’s the boss and I’m young and have no idea what to do except ignore it.
When a vehicle approaches an aircraft with a sentry it’s supposed to come in from the right. Even if it means looping around. This a a small procedural thing that helps the sentry to know the vehicle is occupied by authorized personnel. He comes on correctly, rolls down the window and tells me to get in. He has a coffee for me. The coffee is hot and black which is how I drink it. He offers creamer and sugar but I decline. We engage in small talk for a few minutes and he mentions that it’s too bad that the parka hides my hips. Suddenly both of our radios sound off with a request for the Flight Chief to return to station. This relieves me greatly. Before he drives off he says to me, “I saw you there pissing behind the lights. Nice show.” My stomach did a couple of flops and a feeling of dread and fear came over me. This sort of thing is new territory for me. If I had jumped out of that truck any quicker I would have been flying.
As he drives off, quiet and solitude return to my realm. The relief is palpable. I consider my first Christmas alone. The air is cold in my nose and lungs. My family and friends are on the other side of the world. But at this moment it’s Christmas Eve and I am alone. For a reason that I’ll never understand I am happy in the solitude.
I look at TACAMO and tell her that I’m quite sure that since I didn’t shoot the Flight Chief I won’t have to shoot anyone tonight. She seems happy in our solitude too.