I was an 18 year old A/2c X-Ray Technician stationed at the 6486th USAF Dispensary (Hickam AFB, Hawaii) when one afternoon in early 1955 the first sergeant called me into his office. I was told to go to the barracks and pack my duffel bag. I was being sent PCS (permanent change of station) to APO 105 (Johnston Island) the next day. I boarded a MATS C-97 for the nearly 800 mile (about 3 hour) trip to JI. As we got near the island it looked like a big aircraft carrier in a very blue ocean. The runway, which I was later told was 5600′ long, ran from one end of the island to the other. The island seemed to be about 1/4 as wide as it was long. The hook shaped reef was clearly visible.
After we landed I went to base headquarters to sign in and was sent to the 6488 USAF Dispensary. It turned out to be underground (never really knew why). There was a long ramp leading down to the door. After a tour of the dispensary I was taken to the barracks and assigned a room. The room they gave me was on the bottom floor of a 2 story barrack and it faced the runway. The runway couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet away. The fire/rescue department. was just outside my window. When I arrived on JI there were still dependents (wives and children) on the island. The Dispensary had a female Air Force nurse. For some unknown reason (at least to me) all the dependents including our nurse were ordered to leave the island very soon after I got there. It was then male only.
During my JI time it served as an emergency landing base. As I later found out we provided emergency help to the Navy as well. When I arrive on JI there was a B-45 (4 jet engine aircraft) on the parking apron. It had landed earlier with what I was told was mechanical trouble. Our runway was very short for jets, so everyone one on the island turned out to watch it take off. It used every foot of the runway and kicked up large coral dust cloud at the end as it slowly gained altitude.
Twice a week a military plane arrived from Hickam AFB carrying food, mail and people. As soon as the tower had an ETA (estimated time of arrival), it quickly spread all over the island. When the “turn around” was due everyone stood by the runway and watched. The new people on the plane must have really wondered what they we getting in to!
Shortly after it landed it was time to go line up at the post office and find out if you received any mail. You could tell from the long faces who didn’t receive any letters. Mail, for the most part, was our only contact with the outside world. Your big hope was that some day that plane would bring your replacement and you could go home.
We had a small PX. It never had much of a variety of anything. They would get several sizes of the same shirt. Off duty we all looked alike, just like on duty! In those days nearly everyone smoked. I remember the PX had a large supply of “Kents”. They had a filter and were not very popular. They put them on sale for a nickel a pack. The smokers just tore off the filters and smoked them anyway.
The service club had a library, hobby rooms, and a large room for the weekly bingo games. The prizes at the bingo games were things that the PX couldn’t sell. We went anyway because it was something to do. The hobby rooms were usually full of what got to be known as the “leather pounders”. These guys turned out great numbers of wallets, handbags, belts, etc. Everyone they knew must have received some leather goods made on JI.
After evening chow most went to the NCO Club. I was now an A/1c and could get in. Beer was ten cents and mixed drinks were a quarter. Every night they had a different movie. These were not “first run” films, but they were better than nothing and there was nothing else to do. Once in a great while the club would get hold of some steaks. They charge $1.50 for a steak dinner and they were great. The Medics ran the club. Every base I was ever on the Medics ran the NCO Club. Almost forgot we could get the best whisky for $1.50 a 1/5. The beer was 3.2% but the whisky was real!
We had an M.D., a lab technician, a pharmacy technician, a medical records clerk, a medical supply clerk, 10 or 12 real medics (we called them “bed pan” medics, but not to their face) and me, the x-ray technician. And an ambulance used more for fishing than work.
Sick call was at 8 am Monday though Friday. Usually less than a hand full would show up. Doc would finish with last one before 9 am and that was it for us three techs (lab, pharmacy and x-ray) for the rest of the day. Given the size of the island we really wouldn’t be hard to find if we ever had a real emergency.
One month I took 3 x-rays. That’s about 1/2 hours work including development time. The operating table was used to play cards more than for operating. The favorite games were double deck pinochle and hearts. No money was involved, but there were some high dollar poker games on pay day nights. We used the operating table because there were only 2 air conditioned rooms on the island (surgery and x-ray) and X-ray was too small. I don’t recall that our game ever got interrupted by any emergency!
The Dental Clinic did not have a full time DDS. About once a month one would come from Hickam AFB and stay a week or so.
We didn’t fish for the regular fish for two reasons. We didn’t have any real fishing equipment and we didn’t have any idea if the fish could be eaten. The only reason to fish was to get a set of shark’s jaws. The sharks around JI were in the 6-8 feet size. They called them “sand” sharks.
The Medics had the only shark fishing equipment on the island so we could not only get jaws for ourselves we could trade jaws for whatever. I traded one set of jaws for a 50 caliber bullet from a F-86 (it was deactivated mind you.) The fishing gear was made up of a 5 gallon drum (float), 2 feet of 1 inch chain leader, a very large hook (about 1 foot across), several dozen wooden blocks and a couple hundred feet of nylon parachute line. The nylon line passed through the blocks so the line would stay on the surface and not get cut by the coral, the coral being just under the surface of the water.
Shortly after evening chow a truck brought the days garbage from the mess hall to the end of the island and dumped it. As soon as the garbage hit the water all kinds of little fish went crazy feeding on it. The mound of garbage slowly began to float in deeper water with all the fish going with it. During this time we would spear enough little fish to fill the hook. The baited hook with it’s float attached was tossed in the middle of the floating garbage. As it floated out we let out the line. Soon you could see shark fins circling and then “all hell broke loose” as the little fish realized that they were in shark filled waters. When the 5 gallon float went under and we knew we had a shark on the line. They never seemed to put up much of a fight, it was more just pulling them in.
Remember we were Medics so we had the tools to remove the jaws (after the shark had died of course). The jaws were then placed on a board and hidden under a bush overnight. In the morning ants would have completely cleaned the jaw to the bone (it is really cartilage). Then taking a clear plastic spray from the dental clinic the jaw was coated to stop the smell. I still have my set of jaws to this day. I don’t think we had much much of an impact on the JI shark populations.
There were only a couple of skin diving sets on the island (mask, flippers and snorkel) and, of course, the Medics controlled them. Remember we could get anything by trading shark jaws. The water inside the reef was 15-20 feet deep. As you can see in the aerial pictures coral heads were abundant. We were after sea urchins and small stalks of coral.
We had what I was told was an A-1 boat. This one had 4 glass panels in the floor. You could cruise all over and then stop when you saw some thing of interest. There seemed to be a lot of airplane wrecks, but we didn’t mess with them. When a “treasure” was spotted we dove down and picked it up. One of us always looked for sharks. When one was spotted it didn’t take long to get back into the boat. We had seen enough coral cuts to know how nasty they were and one guy stepped on a sea urchin and had a spine driven into his ankle bone. We couldn’t get it out so we sent him to Trippler Army Hospital in Hawaii.
The coral and urchins were soaked overnight in bleach. The next day the coral, which had been brown in the water, was white and the spines had fallen off the urchins and they were shades of light brown or blue. Once more the dental clinic plastic spray was used to kill the smell and seal and protect our bounty.
The Medics had a softball team. The field was at the same end of the island (the south end) as the garbage dump where we went shark fishing. From time to time a flight of eight to ten B-26s (WW II era light bombers) would landed for refueling. They were headed back to the “ZI”, that’s the ” zone of interior ” or as most of you know it, the United States. We were told that the AF was replacing these old bombers with B-57 jet bombers. Flights of the B-26s began to stop at JI regularly for fuel.
Our 5600′ runway didn’t seem to be a problem for them. One afternoon we were in the middle of a softball game when a bunch of B-57s were seen over head. They soon lined up to land one behind another. We watch as the first one landed. As soon as he came over the end of the runway his wings wobbled. There was a few feet of coral before the runway started. I was told later that hot air was rising from the hot coral surface and that caused unseen turbulence and caused the planes to handle erratically. The planes were stable over the cooler water but would have trouble when it hit the heat induced turbulence over the coral. Anyway the 2nd plane wobbled more than the first one, but landed OK. The 3rd plane wobbled so much that the tip tank on his left wing hit the coral. That made the plane turn left (where we were!)
The pilot push his throttles forward and the jet passed over our heads and sprayed us with fuel from the ruptured tip tank. Fortunately for everyone involved it did not catch fire. He went around again and landed safely on his second attempt. After an aircraft accident the pilot must be checked over by the Medics. He told us that he had been having trouble with his B-57. It has 2 jets engines and he had complained to the mechanics that when he advanced the throttles the left engine would rev up faster than the right. His “problem” might have just saved his life and those of a bunch of Medics. Since the left engine was faster it pulled the left wing back into the air. If it had been the right engine it would have pushed the nose of the plane into the ground and headed for us. The pilot said he would never land so closely behind others again. That was enough softball for that day!
We also provide emergence help for the Navy. The first incident I remember was a call from a Navy ship that had some very sick sailors on board. A case of food poisoning we were told as they had been on a beach on Canton Island eating native fish and drinking beer. The USAF had a crash/rescue boat at JI which we on one very dark night to go out and meet the Navy ship. Our lagoon wasn’t deep enough so we had to go to them in deeper water. We took the sick sailors off and returned to JI.
Our Doc decided that we had a serious medical problem we should call in the closest military plane. In emergencies any equipment hailed had to come to JI no matter were it was going (at least that’s what I was told). The sailors were loaded on the plane and it headed for Tripler Army Hospital near Honolulu. After dropping off the medical emergency it was free to go were it was headed to begin with.
On another occasion we got a call from a Navy tanker. They said that they had 3 sailors on board with shrapnel wounds. Since we weren’t at war at the time it seemed a bit odd. We went out and picked them up. It turned out that they had been having gunnery practice and one shell hit the rigging of the ship and went off. It sprayed the bridge with shrapnel. They were covered with little holes. Painful I am sure, but not really too deep so off they went to Trippler for medical attetion.
One day a very small Navy tanker came to JI with aviation fuel and tied up at our dock. There was a small “refreshment” stand near enough to the dock so that the sailors, who were not allowed to leave their ship, could watch us enjoying our “refreshments”. We found out later their Captain was not a very likeable fellow and would not let the boys join us on shore for some “refreshments” and wouldn’t even let them sleep on deck. Remember this was 1956 and navy ships did not have A/C, at least not in the bunking quarters.
The reason they had come to JI was one of the sailors who was sharpening a paint scraper got his hand in the grinder. It was a real mess. Doc decided that he had better send him to Trippler where he could get better care. So Doc sent me down to the ship to tell them what we were doing and to get the sailor’s ditty bag. I was able to talk my way aboard (not knowing any Naval protocol). They took me down in the ship to the sailors bunk. It was very hot and confined. I then knew why I joined the Air Force. I told them they needed to turn him over to the Air Force so that we could turn him over to the Army. They couldn’t seem to find a “reg” that covered that. I told them we had a plane on the way and the sailor was going on that plane. They finally radioed “ComSerPac” and got their orders.
One day they called me to base headquarters and gave me my rotation day. They said I could have three choices of bases I could go to. I picked 3 in the midwest. Several months later a buddy told me that they had posted a bunch of rotation assignments and mine was one of them. It said the Duluth Municipal Airport! I couldn’t find anyone who had ever heard about it (as far as USAF assignments went.) It didn’t sound like any Air Force base. All I knew was that the next November I had to go from the warm mid-Pacific to cold Duluth, Minnesota to run what ever x-ray machine they had.
I began my countdown to “The Day.” It turned out that a few days before “my day” one of our drunk airmen fell of a bike and broke his leg. Doc wanted to send him to Trippler so they called in a plane. We always sent a Medic along as a escort and since I only had a few days left anyway, he told me to go. A C-124 came and picked us up. It was a slow six hour unpressurized flight. Just before I left JI one of the guys from base operations told me to look up a buddy of his at Hickam base operations and tell him where I was coming from. He said he would take “good care” of me.
The next day my name was on the list to ride back to the mainland on some General’s plane. The seats face forward and they even had carpet on the floor! I enjoyed my JI days. Our Doc, who had been drafted into the Air Force, was very good to us. He said he would make sure we each got a promotion while we were on the island and he was good for it. I got my A1c, but had 2 more years to go… on to Duluth.
(Today Bill is retired and living in Texas.)