THE ROCKET MAN
In the early 60s I had been graduated from West Point and now I had just finished parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was loading my stuff in my car when a soldier came and told me to go to the orderly room. The First Sergeant wanted to see me because my assignment had been changed form Fort Carson, Colorado to Fort Hood, Texas. Well, I really wanted to go to Fort Carson, so I ignored the orderly room summons and got in the car and headed for Fort Carson. When I arrived, I went to post headquarters where I was told I should have gone to Fort Hood. I feigned ignorance and said, "How important can one brand new second lieutenant be? Why not send some other "banana bar" to Hood since Im already here?" "Do you know anything about Honest John rockets?", they asked. "You bet! My nickname is The Rocket Man." Well, I really didnt know what an Honest John rocket was, but I got to stay at Fort Carson and was assigned to the Honest John battalion in the newly activated Fifth Mechanized Division.
They were still looking around post for buildings when I got to the battalion headquarters. And soon I was assigned as a rocket firing platoon leader because of my extensive knowledge of Honest John rocketry. The first month or so I supervised the painting of anything which didnt move bright artillery red. And of course, anything which did move was saluted. My problem didnt begin until two live Honest John rockets were found on post. They had been left by the Second Missile Command what had been deactivated when the Fifth (mechanized) Division was reborn. We inherited all our Honest John equipment from them.
The Division Commanding General had dictated that these rockets would be fired in two weeks as a public relations show for the new division. I was the only firing platoon leader assigned to the entire Honest John Battalion so I got elected to put on the show. Now I was in big trouble because the painting of rocks had superseded any Honest John training, besides no one knew anything much about Honest John rocketry. I set about to find a Non-Commissioned Officer who may know something and soon met Staff Sergeant Jesus Gorge Borrachon. The troops called him Sergeant Jesus George. He was known to be able to out drink anyone in the army, and always had the odor of alcohol on him.
Jesus George told me he had extensive experience in Honest John rockets and it would be "no problem" to whip a firing platoon into shape in two weeks. So we trained and we trained and we trained. Soon I felt that we could do the shoot and maybe even get the rocket to land in the impact area, somewhere.
The great day came. We were dressed in full battle dress with camouflaged paint on our faces and branches in our helmets to make us almost completely invisible to the "enemy". We roared into the firing position and began to lay the launcher for the correct firing azimuth. "Number one adjust, aiming point this instrument." I shouted. A runner came to me from the launcher to say the crew couldnt hear me due to the band playing. You see, when we arrived, we discovered that bleachers had been set up and were full of local dignitaries and families . A band was blaring martial music. Television cameras were every where and some had found me and were in my face. "Lieutenant, tell us whats happening here" said a news commentator. I looked directly into the lens and with my serious face on said "This Honest John rocket can go twenty five kilometers deep into enemy territory carrying a nuclear warhead. It has 90,950 pounds of thrust so please stand back while we prepare to fire. " I turned my back on the cameras and shouted, "Number one, deflection 2783." "2783, zero mils" came the response. "Number one is laid, aiming point, aiming posts, deflection 2800 refer." I concluded. Boy this is going , well and besides Im gonna be a TV star. " But lieutenant, why does the Army need a rocket like this?" a smart assed long haired pasty faced peace creep reporter asked. I answered in my most threatening voice " It is designed to strike deep and drink blood!" All the reporters took at least one step backwards.
The band stood silent. The spectators held their ears --- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Fire. I pushed the red fire button hard. Nothing happened! Jesus George snatched the wires from the firing panel box and touched then to our jeep battery, which he had prepared for just such an emergency. VROOOOOM - the rocket departed in a huge cloud of smoke and dust. The crowd began to walk to the cars and busses which brought them and I felt proud and relieved that we had done it.
As the dust settled and I could see the launcher, I immediately saw that the whole front end of the launcher was gone! And about that time one of my crewmen yelled at the top of his lungs, "Jesus Christ sir the launcher blew up!" Of course that froze the crowd. Worse yet, it froze the general, the full colonel, the lieutenant colonel, the major and the captain - my entire chain of command was running to the launcher (as if they could fix it) and my life was passing before my eyes. When I saw my self in high school, in the back seat of a 50 Ford, making out with a cheerleader, I realized this must be someone elses life. No cheerleader would ever even look at me.
"Well Sarge," I said, "What do we do now?" "Ive considered running." He said, "But lets look at our check list to see if we hooked the beam extension hook." Yep, we had hooked the hook. You see, the Honest John launcher folds up for travel and then two large rails fold forward and hook to make the launcher rail longer for firing. It was these extension rails which were gone - ripped form the launcher and blown ,who knows where, by the 90,950 pounds of rocket thrust.
Every member of the chain of command asked if we had hooked the beam extension hook. And each one looked at our check list to see the grease pencil check next to Hook Beam Extension Hook.
In the next few days I stood at attention before each member of my chain of command. "Well young man" the Colonel said, "I hope youve planned to stay in the Army a good long time, because a big chunk of money will come out of your paycheck each month until that launcher is repaired." Since I only made $222.20 a month, I wasnt sure what a "big chunk" meant. " Buy the way" said the Colonel, "Youve got one more rocket to fire next week, so you get Sergeant Borrachon sobered up and do it right this time."
The band was back and there were twice as many bleachers full of people who had read the headlines in all the local papers "NEW DIVISION FLUBS FIRST ROCKET LAUNCH" There were twice as many TV cameras this time, and I stayed behind the barbed wire we had strung to keep them at bay. We had been in the firing position for five hours, even before sunup, so every officer in the division who outranked me (thats a lot) could check the hook on the beam extensions. They pulled it, hit it with their fists, and even hung from it like monkeys. Every one was sure no mishap would happen this time. I could have stayed in bed, because everything I did was redone at least three times by colonels and generals.
The band was again quiet. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Fire. I pushed the fire button gently. VAROOOOOOM, the rocket departed, the dust and smoke settled, no one left their seats, the front of the launcher was gone and the band struck up "The Old Rugged Cross."
Nothing but twisted steel remained on the ten ton truck frame. An now the 5th Mechanized Division had no Honest John launchers remaining, and subsequently had to report themselves NOT combat ready. A black mark indeed on our young record. The supply people reported that there were no Honest John launchers available in the United States. I went back to painting rocks artillery red. There was talk of transferring me to Fort Hood, but they made it clear I was not wanted there. Jesus George went on a two week drunk.
One of my best kept secrets was that my father was a major general in the Army Ordnance Corps. His current job was the Chief of Field Services in the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, in the Pentagon. This had always caused me grief at West Point so my lips were sealed, at least until now , when I had to take a great risk and call him about our Honest John fiasco. He told me he would dispatch a Pentagon investigation team to determine the cause of the launcher damage. He would not reveal our relationship in so doing. "By the way, " he said, "There are two brand new Honest John launchers in the Pueblo Depot just a few miles from Fort Carson, Ill have them sent down ASAP."
The investigation team showed up and in no time determined that the problem had been caused by the installation of an aluminum beam hook where a steel hook should have been. This had been done by The 2nd Missile Command prior to turning over the equipment to us. I was cleared, and (only I knew) new launchers were on the way. Next week was my birthday, and it was going to be a happy one indeed.
The phone at my firing battery started ringing early in the morning. A train with two flat cars, each containing a new Honest John launcher had pulled onto the post rail siding late last night. The engine left, but the launchers sat there gleaming in the morning sun, each with a large gift tag reading " Happy Birthday Gunnar, Love Dad"
My secret was out! It wasnt two weeks before I was transferred to Division Headquarters to be the Commanding Generals Aide de Camp. My first duty was to escort my father who had announced he was going to inspect the maintenance facilities at Fort Carson.
My father was a staff guy, no experience with combat troops. I was concerned as to how he would behave around real soldiers. I was sure he would think of something dramatic to do, so as we toured all the maintenance shops, I waited for the other shoe to fall. I didnt have to wait long. In one shops smoking area, the butt cans were newly painted bright red and lined up in a perfect straight line. "What color do you paint your gas cans?" my dad growled, in his best general Patton voice. "Red sir" the shop supervisor replied. "Red for danger, right?" dad replied. "Yes sir, danger sir" General Patton continued, "You wouldnt want some idiot to put a cigarette but in a gas can, right?" "Yes sir, right sir." By now I was cringing in the corner, trying to become invisible. "Well then, mister, why are the but cans red? Do you want people to get into the habit of putting buts in red cans .like gas cans?" "No sir, three bags full sir." Well as a consequence of this important observation, all butt cans were painted yellow at Fort Carson. In fact all butt cans in the U.S. Army were painted yellow, and are yellow to this day. I figure the cost at about $250,000 in paint and labor.