Space “A” Travel

There were three of them traveling together…three different destinations, three different ratings, three individuals, but yet one goal. Save money on traveling and get to their separate destinations in time to celebrate Christmas with family. All three sailors were stationed together at Naval Security Group Activity, Misawa, Japan. They each had thirty days leave on the books. 

For the younger sailors and civilians reading this, you must remember that in the early nineteen-seventies military personnel were required to travel in their dress uniforms, otherwise know as “dress canvas” in the case of sailors.

The first leg of their journey would be getting from Misawa, Japan which was located in Northern Honshu, to Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. No space “A” flights were scheduled for another week that could carry them to Yokota Air Base. They would need to begin this journey by train. In the early 1970’s no high speed rail travel was available from Misawa to Yokota area. They would have to take the overnight train from Misawa South to the Tokyo area. The night train was about a seven to eight hour journey depending on snow conditions.

The Chief, a Communications Technician “R” Branch, was a career sailor with almost twenty years service. He was on his way to Connecticut to see his sister and her family for the holidays. The Third Class Petty Officer, a Journalist, was looking forward too seeing her parents for the holidays. The Second Class Petty Officer, a Boatswain’s Mate, was on his way to visit Mom and Dad whom he hadn’t seen in four years. 

As a side note; BM2 was known to be a bit of a hell raiser sometimes. Being stuck on this tour of shore duty was not really to his liking. However, in order to remain in Japan after completing the former tour he had to take what orders were available at the time in order to remain in Asia.

They made it to the Misawa train station just in time to purchase some bento boxes and beverages from the local kiosk before boarding the overnight sleeper. Bento boxes were small lunches packed in light wooden boxes to go, usually having a small slab of fish or chicken on top of a bed of rice with an assortment of pickled vegetables on top. JO3 was new to the Japanese culture and wasn’t sure what to eat. The tour in Misawa was the Chief’s second tour in Japan so he was familiar with what was available and edible. BM2 had been in Japan for a number of years having been stationed in two ship’s prior to this shore duty billet. Boats glanced over at the young JO3 and saw her questioning looks at the bento boxes in front of her. He decided to lend a hand to this young sailor. “Do you like fish or chicken JO3?” She immediately opted for the chicken dish. Being from the Midwest she wasn’t too fond of sea creatures especially when the denizen of the deep stared back at her. Boats was just the opposite, he enjoyed all types of seafood. He ordered a fried chicken bento for JO3 and a salmon bento for himself…and of course he bought several cans of the local adult beverage. He enjoyed the locally brewed Sapporo beer…maybe a bit more than he should have.

The three sailors boarded the train, found their respective seats and prepared for their long train ride. The train ride, approximately eight hours, was uneventful and they arrived at Tokyo station, transferring to another line to take them to Fussa Station located in the vicinity of Yokota Air base. They only had one piece of baggage each as the rules the Air Force had in place for Space A travel aboard Military Aircraft Command flights allowed only one checked bag and one small carry on bag. After a short taxi ride to the Air Base and the MAC Terminal they checked themselves in and were placed on a waiting list for the first available flight to the Continental United States (CONUS). Little did they realize how long their wait would be until their names would be called for a flight. Twenty-six hours later the three sailors were summoned to the MAC counter. They were in luck…a flight was leaving in about two more hours bound for Andrews Air Force Base. The Chief and JO3 were pleased as this would get them close to their destinations. On the other hand, BM2 was somewhat disappointed as he was hoping to get to the West Coast which was closer to his destination of Golden, Colorado  where his Mom and Dad were living. Although, he couldn’t really complain as this was a free ride to the United States.

The three sailors were directed to the gate and told to listen for the call of their aircraft which could be heard over the PA system. The desk Sergeant provided the tail number of the aircraft and the flight number. They ambled on over to the waiting area and sat down on the hard plastic seats….they had become well acquainted with these uncomfortable seats over the last several hours so it was nothing unexpected. They soon heard the flight number and tail number of the aircraft called out over the PA system. The three sailors found their gate and proceeded to a waiting bus for further transportation to the aircraft.

They arrived at their aircraft and proceeded to board the plane. This aircraft didn’t look like a regular military airplane to be sure. The aircraft was painted differently than your standard camouflaged grays and greens. The upper portion of the fuselage had “The United States of America” emblazoned in bold letters on a white background with the lower portion of the fuselage covered with a sky blue paint scheme. As they made their way up the boarding ladder they noticed the flight attendants were wearing what appeared to be dress uniforms vice the normal flight suits worn by flight personnel in the Air Force. As they were escorted into the interior they noticed that rather than rows of seats normally installed, there were tables affixed on either side of the plane with four seats per table, two seats facing each other. The flight attendant escorted them to one of the tables and invited them to sit down. Boats exclaimed, “wow, how did we rate this treatment? Ain’t nobody back home gonna believe this shit”. After getting situated and prepared for takeoff, it was explained to them that this was a VIP flight carrying US Diplomats, Congressional leaders, and some press corps personnel and that there were three vacant seats left and the aircraft commander told the flight desk personnel that the seats were available and anyone was welcome to board. 

Upon reaching Andrews Air Force base, thirteen hours later our three intrepid Space A flyers were faced with another decision. The Boatswain’s Mate needed to catch a flight West toward Colorado and of course his fellow travelers didn’t have that far to travel. The Chief was headed just a bit further up the East Coast and the JO3 had a short flight to Chicago. The three said there goodbyes and headed out on the next leg of their journey.

Boats had checked for flights out of Andrews Air Force Base for further transportation West. He found nothing available…he was thinking “now what do I do? I really can’t afford to fly commercial”. The MAC agent at the desk saw the worried look on the face of this sailor. He approached this salty looking sea dog and started a conversation. Boats told the airman where he was headed and that he was hoping to get there as soon as possible. Seeing nothing available on the flight status board, the Airman recommended the sailor try his luck at the Naval Air Station. The Naval Air station shared the runway with the Air Force Base and was not that far. The Airman offered up a truck as transportation. BM2 offered his thanks and said “what time do I leave”. The Airman told him to stand by, a carryall van soon pulled up and the Sailor stepped in. The driver said, “I hear you need a ride to the Naval Air Station.” “That’s affirmative the Boatswain’s Mate replied. The driver and BM2 arrived at the Naval Air Station terminal building about 15 minutes later. “Thanks for the lift”, said the sailor to the airman.

Boats wondered through the double doors into the terminal…typical pea green tile and dull colored walls in the terminal. The place was actually rather small and not many people were around. He noticed the long counter and a status board hanging on the wall a short distance away. He began scanning the board for any services headed West. Soon realizing there apparently was nothing available a deep frown overcame him…all he could say was “well shit”. As he was looking at the board he heard a loud voice behind him…”where are you headed Boats”. BM2 turned around and found himself looking at a Senior Officer descending the stairs from behind him. “Well, Commander I am trying to get to Golden Colorado to visit family for Christmas” exclaimed the Boatswain’s Mate. The Commander explained that there would be an EA-3B departing at around 0600 the following morning. The aircraft was making a milk run flight to Alameda Naval Air Station to pick up spare parts. He added that if the aircraft had to stop and refuel it would be stopping at Buckley Air National Guard Field in Aurora, Colorado. As luck would have it Aurora and Golden, Colorado are about twenty miles apart…but Boats’ luck was never that good. Fat chance of stopping at Buckley Air National Guard Field. But, at this point BM2 would take anything available. The Commander told the sailor to be back here in the terminal at 0400 the following morning.

(As a side note; two of these type aircraft were converted from the original mission packages to be VIP Aircraft used for transporting dignitaries around)

The Air terminal had a small transient barracks located a short walk down the flight line and the Boatswain’s Mate was able to catch a few hours sleep before reporting back at 0400 for his flight. He made it back to the Air terminal in plenty of time and reported in. A carryall van pulled up and the BM2 and a Lieutenant climbed in for the short ride to the flight line and a waiting A-3 aircraft. BM2 was greeted at the aircraft by a Chief Petty Officer in flight gear who directed him aboard and told him to find a seat. Boats was expecting the normal web seats along the sides of the fuselage but to his surprise the aircraft was fitted out with regular passenger type seats similar to those found on a civilian airplane. The interior of the aircraft was paneled and felt more like a fancy private jet than a military plane. As it turns out the flight Chief explained that this was the CNO’s aircraft, although the CNO would not be aboard today. Boats was again thoroughly impressed at his luck thus far. He sat down and buckled in for the flight…the Lieutenant did the same, not much conversation took place which was fine with the Boatswain’s Mate.

A voice came over the PA system in the interior of the aircraft, “let’s kick the tires and light the fires”. Boats smiled at hearing this. Military pilots have a knack of doing things a bit differently than civilians and this aircraft commander was no exception. BM2 felt the airplane begin to roll down the runway and he was soon airborne…not a slow deliberate climb but a quick and fast climb clawing at the cloud cover to gain altitude. The bright sunlight was soon shining through the four cabin windows, two on each side of the fuselage. The sailor was to excited to sleep. The lieutenant across the aisle from him was not much of a talker and appeared to be asleep already. However, soon the BM2 began to doze off. He awoke with a start and felt the aircraft descending, thinking they were already arriving in Alameda he began to think about his next moves. The A-3 made a smooth landing and the flight engineer, Chief Petty Officer Northrup made his way back to the cabin of the aircraft and approached the sailor. “You can deplane now Boats” said the Chief. Boats drowsily replied, “where are we”? The Chief replied “Buckley Air National Guard Field” Aurora, Colorado. BM2 was now thinking, this is cool. I guess that we had to stop for fuel. He offered his thanks to the Chief and said “see you later and thanks for the lift”. Boats stepped off the plane and made his way to the air terminal. He was inside the terminal and heard a roaring of jet engine noise, he turned around and saw the A-3 taking off. Unbelievable, as he knew that the plane was not on the ground long enough to refuel. He was thinking, “holy smokes, they didn’t have time to refuel. The plane stopped just to let me off…wow, I can’t believe this. I surely do love this Navy now”.

BM2 locates a telephone and calls the number his father had provided to him. “Hi Dad! I am here at Buckley Air National Guard Field. Do you have time to pick me up?” Dad replies, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes”. Turns out the field is only a short drive from where Boats’ dad works.

So ends another story of how things used to be in this man’s Navy. 

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