NIKE AJAX AND HERCULES
ORDNANCE SUPPORT UNIT
SHORT, TALL STORIES
Air Defense Artillery
Submitted by: Tom Davis
Seeing the reminiscences of James Young about his experiences in the 502nd Ord. Det. brought memories flooding back to me of that same time and place.
I arrived at the 502nd on a Saturday in June, 1959. I had just completed a week long sea cruise with luxurious accommodations in the top rack of five, immediately below some pipes and right next to a bell which rang in the middle of the night when the watertight doors were shut from the bridge, far below decks on the SS William O. Darby. This was followed by a ride at night on a troop train from Bremerhaven to Frankfurt where I transferred to commercial train to Kaiserslautern in the morning, and another transfer to a local train to Pirmasens.
I was impressed by the beauty of the countryside, particularly on the final leg of the trip. I arrived at the railroad station in Pirmasens about noon, a slick sleeved private E-2 in my Class A green uniform. In the station, a Sp4 in a rumpled khaki uniform with a loosened tie, and a Parkbrau pin on his chest where his ribbons should have been spotted the flaming p-pots of the Ordnance Corp on my lapels and asked if I was going to the 502nd. I told him that I was, and he asked me what my MOS was. I told him it was 433.10, and he told me that I was his replacement. He was heading back to the States on the next train out of Pirmasens. He made the comment that "they will sure be glad to see you."
A 3/4 ton truck met the new arrivals at the station. There was an SFC E-6, a signal corp Sgt E-5 and myself. Naturally the SFC rode up front and I shared the back with the buck sergeant. I mentioned to him that I had met the Sp4 at the station that I was replacing. He looked at me as if I were a bit retarded and said "you don't really think that a private is going to replace a Sp4 do you?"
The 3/4 ton truck dropped off the two NCOs on the main part of D'Isley Kaserne, and then the driver had to ask directions to find the 502nd. We left the main part of the base, went out one gate and in another, and finally came to the locked gate of the 502nd shop. The driver honked the horn, and someone poked his head out the door and then came and unlocked the gate. The truck dropped me and my duffle bag at the gate and drove off.
I expected to present my orders to the CO in my Class A uniform, but there was only an NCO Charge of Quarters and a runner there, both dressed in fatigues, and not overly impressed by seeing me. The CQ took my orders, told me I would see the First Sergeant on Monday, and had the runner take me to the barracks in a Jeep. He got me sheets and a blanket and showed me an empty bunk. A little while later the company clerk came in with a Class A pass and meal ticket for me and directions to the mess hall. The barracks were relatively spacious, with four beds to each squad room and two wall lockers and one foot locker for each bed.
After dinner at the mess hall we shared with the Military Police Company (an arrangement which saved me from problems when I was in town on pass at a later date), I met several of the people in the barracks. They were mostly draftees (particularly those in specialities using electronics) and had trained together as a unit and then transferred to Germany as a unit. I was one of the first replacements. The draftees had spent over 14 months of their two year hitch in training and were all now short timers waiting to get out of the Army and back to civilian life. The unit had a high educational level (13+ years of education) in the lower ranks. I wondered about the Army's wisdom in investing fourteen months to train draftees to spend less than ten months in the field. As replacements came in later, they were all RA, and the rumor was that the Army was no longer sending draftees to lengthy schools.
On Monday, I went to the shop (about 300 yards down the road from the barracks) and found out that the Sp4 at the railroad station was correct. I was definitely his replacement. I was the only MOS 433.10 in the unit. Sergeant Crowley, the Section leader was the only other MOS 433 in the unit. We had one Chief and one Indian. Fortunately Sgt Crowley was the type that would pitch in and get his hands dirty when it was necessary.
I was not the most confident guided missile repairman at that time. I had gone through the course at Penamunde South (aka Redstone Arsenal) which lasted eight weeks. But military training was not like going to college. Because we were dealing with classified information, at the end of the training day, everything, including our notes had to be locked up, and could not be studied at night. In spite of this handicap I did pretty well in training and scored high on the final exams. If I had gone straight to an assignment I would have been pretty sharp, but that was not the Army way. Once school was completed, all the books and any notes were locked away never to be seen again, and I was given a 30 day leave and orders to report to Fort Dix. I spent my leave criss-crossing the country from Washington D.C. to California by military aircraft and finally arriving at Fort Dix with empty pockets. I received some pay at Dix and was there almost three weeks traveling to NYC whenever I could and enjoying myself there. By the time I reached the 502nd more than 60 days after leaving Redstone, it would be fair to say that the only thing I remembered from my training was the ability to tell the difference between an Ajax and Hercules missile (if they were sitting side by side).
I expected to have time working beside an experienced repairman to do some OJT to become proficient but that was not to be. I was almost immediately sent out to one of the batteries to make a repair. My MO was to go to the sergeant in charge of the assembly area, and when he told me what the problem was I would ask him "What do you think the cause of the problem is?" Since he had seen the problem before, he would tell me what he thought the most likely cause was, and I would tell him "You're right sarge!" This accomplished two things. It flattered the sergeant that I was interested in his knowledge, and covered my own ignorance of the subject.
I got my true introduction to the "real" world way of doing things one night in the first month that I was there when I was called out to D battery which at that time was all Ajax and on a temporary site on the kaserne in Pirmasens. I went with Sgt Crowley, my section chief in the evening to change an accumulator. I remembered from my training that we should find the missile in the assembly area defueled, with the warheads removed. When we got to the site I had the shock of my life. The missile was sitting on a loading rack fully fueled among other live missiles. I was beginning to think this was going to take all night because the missile would have to be transported to the assembly area, defueled and prepared before we could work on it.
Sgt Crowley, a down to earth career soldier who was the first one I heard use the term "mox nix," told me that it wouldn't take long at all, and he, I, and a couple of his NCO buddies from the assembly area went to the missile. They removed the canvas cover and dropped it on the ground under the missile and started removing the nose warhead. Sgt. Crowley called me over and told me to hold the nose cone (with the warhead still attached.). I went to the front of the missile and was standing on the canvas missile cover on a steep slope with the nose warhead on my shoulder. The detonation cord was still attached!!
At Redstone they had emphasized how touchy the detonation cord was. They indicated that they thought the explosion at the New Jersey missile site in 1958 was caused when someone added a washer at the point where the cord was attached to the warhead and squeezed too tight on the attaching bolt. Either a compression of the cord, by squeezing, striking or pulling on it could cause it to set off the three warheads.
This was going through my mind as I was standing there with the twelve pound nose warhead on my shoulder. I was standing as still as I could as close to the missile body as I could, while staying out of the way of the others removing the accumulator by flash light. Then they opened the hydraulic lines. Hydraulic fluid dripped down onto the canvas I was standing on, and ran downhill to my feet.
At this point it was not only a slope I was standing on, it was a slippery slope. I began to feel my feet slipping, and changed position a couple of times to get better footing. I remember thinking if I drop this I won't have to worry about a court martial. Fortunately they got the new accumulator installed quickly and reattached the nose cone without further incident. As I said this was my introduction to the real world of direct service as it was done at that time and place.
During the three years I was in the 502nd there were several instances where I came uncomfortably close to death or serious injury, mostly due to my reckless driving, but when I was that young, I felt invincible and a miss was as good as a mile.