Getting assigned to a unit in Germany was something I expected in my military career. What I didn’t expect was how much of a pain it would be to get there.
It was in August of ’89 that I filled up my duffel bag and rucksack, and took a puddle jumper to St. Louis. The Army put me up in Ramada Inn, and if memory serves, it was a pretty nice place.
I’d sat up the evening before in the hotel bar drinking beer with a couple of other guys and gals that were headed the same way. We kept everyone entertained with military stories. Before too long, all the traveling sales people and such were buying us drinks.
I turned in about eleven, and was up at four. We were all up and in Class B uniforms for an early breakfast. Now we weren’t telling war stories. Instead, we were picking the brains of the people who’d already been there.
“Don’t worry,” we were told. “You’ll spend a month at the division reception company getting acclimated to Germany.”
Once we finished eating, we waited for the bus to take us to the airport. We each had our bags, some like me had a ruck. Over all, we were traveling pretty light.
After being dropped off, I followed the sign for military personal. I thanked God I was both in good shape and traveling light. It seemed our check in was miles from where we were dropped off.
But once there, I presented my travel orders, gave them my duffel, but hung onto my ruck. Outside, a 747 waited for us..
When my father went to Germany, he traveled by ship. He said it was almost two weeks of throwing up. My next sunrise would be in Germany. I remember drinking a lot of coffee, still slightly hung over from the night before, wishing I hadn’t drank so many beers.
Now, more and more soldiers arrived. Some by themselves, some in groups, some with wives and children in tow. Before long, the terminal was full.
We were scheduled to leave around eleven AM and right on time, the gate opened and we walked out onto the tarmac.
I’d flown on 747s before, all of it while in the military. Both times it was to get to and back from the National Trained Center at Ft. Irwin, California. The military maintains a contract with airlines to move troops, and I’m sure the airlines don’t mind. It helps then to stay open and it helps the military by freeing up the Air Force planes to move what they have to move.
I settled in my seat, strapped in, and found myself sitting next to a charming young specialist. She made for delightful conversation. Of course the thing that intrigued me most was that we had stewardesses and in flight movies. Months later, I’d be amazed at the same thing while flying into a combat zone.
We took off on time, and since the young lady didn’t like the window, we traded places. We talked, watched a movie (I’ve no clue what it was ), and ate lunch.
What amazed me is how short the day was. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. We’d left at noon, but we were heading into later time zones.
When we cleared the United States, somewhere around Boston, I looked down and saw the coastline, with the ocean beyond. Then nothing but ocean and sky. There was nothing to see, and I remember looking for ships but never saw one. I figured from thirty thousand feet, their wakes would be easy to spot. Only once did I see something out of the ordinary, a white dot in the middle of the ocean. It took me a few seconds to realize I was seeing an iceberg. It must have been fairly large to be visible from that altitude.
But soon, even that was gone. Clouds settled in, and a few minutes later, the sun set. There was another movie, and then everyone turned in. I remember waking up with my head against the window and looking down, Below us there was a city, which the flight attendant said was London, not that far from Germany. The lights came up and a breakfast was served.
It was still dark when we arrived over Germany. The plan was that we’d land at Rhein-Mein Air Force Base, but fog covered the runway. After orbiting the city of Frankfurt, it became obvious the fog wasn’t lifting anytime soon. With fuel starting to run low, we were diverted to Cologne, Germany.
We got there about sunrise, landed, and then were directed to sit out on a corner of the tarmac.
And we waited.
And we waited .
And we waited some more.
The sun got higher. The engines had been shut down due to lack of fuel and, without a support vehicle to provide power, there was no AC on the plane. Stuffed to capacity and with a cloudless sky, the plane warmed up.
Surely this can’t be an unusual occurrence. I rather doubted we were the first flight full of military personnel who had diverted here.
By now, things went from bad to worse aboard the 747. People asked for drinks, and there wasn’t any to be had. Babies cried, children were restless. One woman paced the walkway between seats. I expected her at any minute to fly against one of the bulkheads and try ripping her way out of the plane.
To make things worse, I noticed my charming companion on the flight wasn’t as charming as she had been mere hours before. Everyone was starting get ugly, smelly, and tempers were on edge.
And it got warmer still.
People still answered the call of nature, and now the airplane was beginning to smell a little like an outhouse on a nice spring day. I checked my watch which was still set at Central Standard Time. I’d been in the same clothes for over 24 hours. I ran my hand over my face. I needed my morning shave.
To make matters worse, it was nearly noon. The airplane had no more food, and had run out of drinks.
The stewardesses glanced at each other nervously. The passengers were getting hotter and angrier by the minute.
About one or so, a truck pulled with a set of steps up to the plane. A Polizi vehicle with two very official looking officials in plain clothes came aboard and talked with the pilot for a few minutes. Some buses came out, and an announcement was made that we would be bused to the terminal. We could get some lunch and drinks there, and the buses would bring us back in an hour and a half. During that time, the plane would be serviced and then, we’d leave for Frankfurt.
Being the nice guy I am, I didn’t make a mad dash for the door, but was among the last out. I kind of figured the law of the sea at that point applied and women and children should be getting out of the hot, dank environment.
The exodus off the plane went smoothly, and soon I passed through the hatch and out onto the stairs. It was warm outside, but a cool breeze made me feel great. I hadn’t realized I was sweating and could feel the cold as my shirt clung to my back. The spiffy looking Class B uniform I’d put on the day before was almost destroyed. I tried to arrange myself a little to at least look presentable.
I boarded the bus behind my traveling companion and sat down, and in few minutes later we were in the terminal. I had no German money, but was assured that American cash was more than acceptable.
We found the restaurant, where I ordered my first meal in Germany, a schnitzel sandwich with pomme frites and a cola. After being stuck on the plane they could have given me dog food and dishwater and I’d have thought it was great. But the food was amazing.
By the time we finished eating, it was time to go back the plane. The flight back to Frankfurt seemed short, but by the time we landed, the sun was setting.
There were more buses waiting for us, and this time we were taken to 21st Replacement Company. We did some quick in-processing and were told we’d be spending the night. It was too late to go to our assignments.
We were each shown a bunk and somewhere to secure our gear.
After supper, there was a quick briefing. “You are not allowed to leave the base. Don’t even try. NCOs, you can go to the NCO club. E-4s and below, you’re confined to the company area.”
I glanced at some of the NCOs I’d meet the night before, and after the briefing, we got directions to the NCO club.
None of us had ever been to Germany before and we were eager to try German beer. We’d all heard good things about it, but none of us knew anything about what kind to order. So, we sat there in the NCO club drinking Pilsner beer. This is a light lager beer, and while better tasting than American beer, I wasn’t entirely sold on it yet. It wouldn’t be until about a month or two later that I found a German beer to my liking and once I did, I never drank anything else.
Soon, we were joined by a could of Staff Sgts and a few Platoon daddies (Sergeant First Class). By the time we were into our fourth beer, some Master Sergeants and First Sergeants wandered in and joined us. By beer number six, some Command Sergeant majors came in. The scowled at us, the cream of the United States Army, and said in deep gruff voices, “Boys, you’re not buying anymore beer tonight.”
Then they smiled and their voices got happy. “We’re buying it all for you.”
I vaguely remember this mob of NCOs finding their way back to the barracks that night. I do know I went to bed about 2 a.m. local time.
I was up at 6 and I felt like the Russian Army had marched over my head.
Somehow I got ready and was out to watch my first official sunrise in Germany.
As I wondered if I had any aspirin in my shaving kit, all I could think of “Welcome to Germany.” If this was any indication of how my assignment here was going to go, I’d be dead before the weekend.
I was so hung over that they could have put me in front of a firing squad right then and there and I would have thanked them for it.