4:20 PM AKDT, October 13, 2012
The scuttlebutt was that when the base commander, a bird colonel, found out that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio had a sergeant who made the best pies in the entire Air Force, he demanded that the sergeant be transferred to Louisiana.
I don't know if that part of the story was true, but I do know that in 1957, soon after I arrived at Bossier Base, located in a remote part of Barksdale Air Force Base, the sergeant showed up at our mess hall and he made truly scrumptious apple pies. That was his entire duty.
That was part of the pattern at that ultra-secret base, surrounded by three sets of high fences, the middle one packing a 20,000-volt wallop. Bossier Base, not even under the direct control of the Air Force, got anything it wanted.
We enlisted men had rooms that were nicer than officers' quarters at Barksdale, and we were pampered in many other ways — but not at work. This was at the peak of the Cold War and we worked on the nuclear weapons maintained by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project.
AFSWP was unbelievably demanding. After we reassembled a weapon, for example, we sealed its seams with lead foil tape. If there was the slightest wrinkle in that tape, we had to do it over, using triangles of leather to smooth the tape. To this day, I always keep a little leather triangle on my key chain because I feel insecure without it.
Those memories of my military days were stirred the other day when I saw an announcement from Bucks County Community College about a forum planned for Tuesday, dealing with the most historic moment of the hot war that preceded the Cold War. "A-bomb survivors share forum with Truman's grandson at Bucks," said the announcement's headline.
The "May This Never Happen Again" forum will feature two survivors of the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Setsuko Thurlow, now living in Canada, and Yasuaki Yamashita, now in Mexico. Also appearing will be author Clifton Truman Daniel, eldest grandson of President Harry Truman, who authorized those bombings.
The forum is free and will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Rollins Center in the college's Newtown campus.
The perspective provided by the meeting of these three people is rare indeed. It is particularly special for me because I have deep ties to Japan, and one of our weapons at Bossier Base was the Mark 6, nearly identical to the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and completely different from the uranium bomb that hit Hiroshima.
That forum announcement represented an eerie coincidence.
Just before that email arrived, I received another from Air Force SMsgt. Frank Warg, who said he was at Barksdale Air Force Base and was studying the location of the former Bossier Base. He came across a 1995 series of articles I wrote about my experiences with nuclear weapons, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
One of the articles focused on Bossier Base and Warg was eager to find out what it was like in the 1950s. He sent me a photograph of the site now, and I was sad to see they had torn down my spiffy quarters.
He also sent a copy of The Bombardier, the Barksdale AFB newspaper, which reproduced a big 1957 story in a Shreveport newspaper under a huge red headline that said, "BOSSIER BASE EXISTS." Until then, there were only rumors about it.
I was there when that story broke and sent a copy of it to my parents, who were worried sick because the FBI kept coming to our town to ask about me. It was for my "top secret" and "Q" security clearances, but I could not tell them what I was doing and they thought I was in trouble.
Soon, I was on the phone with Warg and a civilian at the base, Anthony Vann, and we talked about the old days. I noted it had taken me two years to get Pentagon clearance to write about my experiences.
Warg said he has visited the Bossier Base site and he and his co-workers were "surprised by this bit of history" when they read my 1995 series. "It's an awesome feeling, visualizing what must have been going on there at the time," he said.
Military people believe notable things always happen in threes, and just as memories were jogged by Tuesday's forum and Warg, a third installment came along.
Bill Mayo of Trexlertown, a retired Navy flier, told me he is in a group of veterans who will visit the "Boneyard" at Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tucson. "I'm going out there toward the end of this month," he said, and sent photographs.
They showed rows and rows of thousands of warplanes mothballed at that base. We could not publish any because of copyright concerns, but the people at that base sent some of theirs with permission to use them. Again, poignant memories were stirred because I worked on many of those planes (we always called them "birds") when our bombs were loaded on them.
My memories really got going when Mayo mentioned that one of the birds he flew during World War II was the Corsair, which was one of my favorites when I was a boy in San Diego and my father was stationed at a Navy base there. Mayo said he also had spent time in San Diego.
Somehow, I'm going to have to find a way to get my mind back on things that are going on in 2012, but it won't be easy.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.