Seconds to Live

Nov. 1, 1957

The contrails came from Siberia, crossed the Sea of Japan, and now ominously point at you. Your binoculars focus on three specks that spin the vapor-like spiders in search of their prey—the Russian light jet bombers.

A few feet away in the dimly lit control bunker on top of the Wakka­nai hill, at the northern end of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, US airmen watch the fast-moving blips on their radarscopes. Over the tense hum of the air conditioner the scope-men read off the Red jets’ course.

“Alpha- Bravo-two – seven-four-one-­time two-six.”

The radar controller picks up his phone. “Broomstick Two—vector three­-three-zero— angels four-seven—speed six hundred.”

Now the scopes “paint” another blip, far to the south. That’s the “Broomstick” F-86 Sabrejets, scram­bled from Chitose fighter base to in­tercept the Russians. The two blips—the Russian bombers and the Sabre-jets—converge. The radarmen lean forward.

Suddenly, the Russian blip veers away just before crossing the boun­dary line of our defense sector.

The controller sighs with relief. “Break off, Broomstick—break off. Thanks a million. Over.”

Still watching the retreating Reds, one of the scopemen says, “Another damned trip-tease.” It’s supposed to be a joke, but nobody laughs. For although the “trip-tease” is a daily drama at Wakkanai Air Station, the radarmen never know if this time the Russian jets are playing it for real.

“It’s like being the target man for a sideshow knife thrower,” as one airman puts it. “You know the joker is damned careful not to hit you. But maybe he didn’t sleep so good last night—maybe he is a little jumpy. A little accident and you’re a little dead.”

As Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, now Commander in Chief of the Pacific Air Forces says, “Wakkanai site is one of the most important in our defense.” And this is why.

Wedged deep into the Soviet air base complex, Wakkanai radar can practically “see” the Red pilots run for their jets on several Russian air­fields. This kind of information is in­valuable for our intelligence. Of course, it follows that the sixty-odd “watchmen” of Detachment 18, 848th Aircraft Control and Warning Squad­ron, would be the first to warn us of a Russian attack in the Far East. And they would suffer, probably, the first casualties.

So long as the cold war stays on ice, all the Russians can do is keep the watchmen on edge with their trip-tease acts. But should the Krem­lin decide on open warfare, there are long-range guns and rockets already zeroed-in on the lone Wakkanai out­post.

How does it feel to live on a bull’s-eye? Well, the watchmen know about the Red artillery and rockets, but they haven’t got time to sweat about it. They are too busy fighting another enemy—the weather.

During the nine-month winter, 100-knot gales bury the radar bubble and the camp under twenty-foot snow drifts. Power lines go down, and the water supply freezes. The other three months there it is either fog or rain. When the sun does make rare appear­ances, Wakkanai camp gets a choking gas attack from the “honey buckets” —the offal from nearby canneries.

While fighting the Wakkanai weather war, the watchmen must keep their radar sets and their radio relay stations on the air around the clock. To keep the “scope dopes” watching their sets, the “static chas­ers” passing radio messages, and the diesel generators feeding the juice for so much electronic gear, the main­tenance crews work hard, sleep little and lightly.

The spare parts problem—pumps, tubes, and condensers to be replaced in a hurry—are a constant headache for the supply men, whose nearest depot is some 200 miles away. Japa­nese roads, especially on Hokkaido, look good only on the map, and if a truck gets stuck in one of the highway hell-holes, it takes a deep-sea diving team to fish it out of the mud.

The camp’s main gate is at the last stop of the rickety bus from Wakkanai town, and, arriving, you get that end-­of-the-line feeling, for this is the tip of the Wakkanai peninsula and the snow-capped peaks visible across the murky sea are on the other side of the Iron Curtain—in Sakhalin.

Huddling under a bleak hill is the camp—a handful of green-painted Nis­sen huts and wooden, one-story bar­racks. Most of them are intercon­nected with narrow corridors leading to the mess hall—an arrangement the airmen appreciate in the heavy winter snow. Those hand-holding barracks hide the usual camp traffic and the place looks deserted except for a few Japanese mechanics at the small mo­tor pool. You can easily cross the en­tire camp from the main gate to the back entrance in minutes. And about three miles away, along a steep, wind­ing trail, the radar tower keeps its bulging eye on the Kremlin’s back­yard.

An Air Force blue “six-by” truck stops at the back gate. Bundled in a parka, Capt. Ed Spiller, the main­tenance officer and the “First Mate” of Detachment 18, leans out of the cab. “I’m taking a new shift up the hill—hop in,” he says.

From the camp level, the hill doesn’t look too bad, but from the truck’s cab it feels like the climb on a roller coaster before that first big dip. With the engine grinding in low gear, the truck noses up toward low clouds. The watchmen in the back of the truck automatically balance against the impossible angle and anchor them­selves to the stanchions.

“Good thing we can’t go any faster,” laughs Spiller. “At this angle we’dovershoot the bubble and wind up in outer space.”

Spiller, a dark, lean “Downeaster” from Maine, has a favorite trick he plays on the rare visitors to the Wak­kanai hill. Driving nonchalantly with one hand, he drops a casual remark, “The other day the brakes failed—just about here.”

The visitor looks down the precipice and quickly turns his head away.

“Don’t you want to know what hap­pened?”

The visitor grabs the door handle.

Lightheartedly, Spiller goes on. “Well, there’s a water reservoir down there—on the bottom,” he says. “We’ve never found the truck or the men. But the water has been tasting pe­culiar ever since. Maybe you’ve no­ticed. Once I found a hair in my water glass. Blond. Crew cut.”

When his passenger is about to bail out, Spiller breaks into a laugh. “Didn’t mean to scare you,” he says. “It didn’t really happen.” Then he adds. “But it could, you know.”

A stalled snowplow “Cat” balanc­ing precariously on the road’s edge and a bogged-down truck a little farther on bear mute testimony to the rough going on “Spiller Turnpike,” as the men call the trail to the top of the hill. Even though most of the winter snow has melted, we can’t drive all the way up. The slush is too much for the sturdy six-by, so we walk the last hundred yards.

It’s a comparatively calm day, but you still have to brace yourself against the Siberian breeze as it tugs at you with powerful eddies at the foot of the radar tower. It was at the entrance to this tower that A/1C Paul G. Brodeur, a radar maintenance man, fought a duel with a ninety-knot gale last winter.

Brodeur was on his way to fix an antenna. Holding down his parka hood and leaning into the gale, he made his way to the concrete porch of the tower. As he started to climb the steps, a gust of wind picked him up, carried him across the nine-foot porch, and slammed him against the corrugated steel wall.

Bruised and aching, Brodeur crawled back to the steps. The wind pushed him down, but he kept on trying until he made it inside. He fixed the antenna before he collapsed.

“I’m no hero,” he says. “That job had to be done. With the antenna on the blink, the guys in the bunker couldn’t work their scopes.”

If you want to get into the control bunker and live to see what’s going on inside, you’d better speak softly, move gently, and have your ID card right handy. For the airman who opens the steel door sticks his .45 “grease gun” at you—his finger on the trigger—no fooling.

Capt. Jack Miller, the Detachment’s CO and the radar controller, greets you at the bunker. “Sorry about the lethal hardware,” he says. “This bunker is the nut of our operation. We can’t take any chances.”

The door slams shut behind you and the concrete walls close in. Along a narrow corridor you pass the radar and radio maintenance shops, crowded but shipshape. You peek into the switchboard room and climb a few steps onto the radar control balcony. When your eyes get accustomed to the semidark, you see the “scope dopes” watching the PPI sets (Plan Position Indicator) and the Height Finder set.

Under the far wall of the control room (which isn’t very far—fifteen feet or so) there is the transparent plotting board—a kind of a skeleton map showing the outlines of the Siberian coast, Sakhalin Island, and, of course, Hokkaido Island with Wak­kanai on its tip. If you focus your eyes through that plastic sheet, you’ll barely see the plotter. The plotter is plugged in on the “scope dopes” who read the aircraft position off their PPIs. As he gets the messages, he draws the tracks in glowing crayon. He does it backwards—like the TV weather girl.

Beneath the control balcony sits the “teller.” Like his banking namesake, he is a stickler for figures. He keeps an eye on the plotting board and passes the information in code by radiophone to the direction center a couple of hundred miles away.

Captain Miller sits at his controller’s console. Looking over his shoulder, you see the “sweep”—a slim pencil of fluorescent light that goes around the scope with the smoothness of a sec­ond hand on an electric clock. That’s the electronic picture of radio waves the rotating antenna sends into space. As the beam bounces off the objects in its path—terrain, planes, etc., the sweep “paints” ghostly contours of coastlines. An aircraft shows as a blip—a sharp pinpoint of light—the kind you get after you switch off your television set.

Miller points to a couple of blips over Sakhalin. “Looks like a training mission,” he says. “Probably shooting landings. See how they go around the field?”

The Russian blips stay over Sakha­lin, and there is no cause for alarm. Yet Miller’s deep voice is tense. “You never know when those boys get or­ders to head for us,” he says. “So we play Peeping Tom on them all the time.”

The shift on the hill ordinarily lasts eight hours, but the two scope dopes always on duty have to be relieved every forty minutes or so.

“By the end of your stretch you fall into a scope spin,” A/2C Bill Minton, a radar crew chief, tells you. “They carry you off stiff with your head go­ing around.”

But in the winter even the tracked “Weasels” can’t get to the hill. The relief shift don their snowshoes or skis and walk up—or try to. On many occasions, the trail disappears under the snow drifts, and the bliz­zard drives the men back to the camp.

“You go on a shift and it’s like shipping overseas,” says A/2C Bill “Country” Howard. “You’ve got to carry a load of C rations and you never know when you’re going to be back. Just to walk up that hill takes you almost two hours.”

“Yeah, and what happens when you finally get back?” chirps in A/2C Wayne Ippolito, a “static chaser” from Brockton, Mass. “You hardly have time to stretch in your sack and in comes Sergeant Frizzell and gets you up to dig snow.”

M/Sgt. Edmond “Lefty” Frizzell, the “top stud” of the detachment, has a way even with the exhausted watch­men. “I hate to pull them out of their sacks,” he says, “but the damned stuff piles up so fast that if we didn’t dig all the time, we’d be snowed under for the duration. ‘Course, I know how bushed those kids are so I make a big joke about it and sure enough, they get up and shovel—no sweat at all.”

In spite of Lefty’s psychology and the efforts of his men, the snow always wins in the end. The men have to tunnel their way out of the barracks, and only the crosstrees of the tele­phone poles stick out of the buried camp site.

One winter, Lefty recalls, a bird colonel from higher headquarters came to inspect the camp’s security measures. “Sergeant, the camp is sup­posed to have a twenty-foot fence,” the colonel said firmly. “How come you haven’t got one here?”

Lefty, never at a loss for words, said, “We do, sir. You’re standing on top of it.”

The camp is supplied by the Wak­kanai town electric power. Of course, when a blizzard knocks off some wires and covers up others, the power goes off. And no electricity—no water.

“What do you do in an emergency like that?” you ask.

“Emergency, hell—this is our winter SOP,” answers Captain Spiller. “We use sake for a whiskey chaser—tastes good and works twice as fast. The only problem is shaving. You see, it’s dark in the latrine and we have to do everything by braille. Shaving with toothpaste isn’t so bad, but have you ever tried to brush your teeth with shaving cream?”

Wakkanai winter is the toughest on mess hail boss Sergeant Tippton and his right-hand man, A/2C Fred Clark. The watchmen never miss the chow call, no matter how deep the snow outside. And, as Clark says, “A hun­gry CI is worse than the Hokkaido bear.” So, Clark marshals his Japanese cooks and helpers to fill every sink, can, and dish with water for use in cooking and dishwashing.

“It’s a headache, but we’ve never missed the chow schedule,” says Clark. “Of course, when the power fails we can’t use our ‘reefers’ (walk-in refrig­erators) but it’s plenty cold so the stuff keeps all right.”

Clark ought to know the CI mess hail behavior pattern. His father was an Army mess sergeant. Of course, being a GI himself, Clark gripes, too.

“I can hardly wait to get the hell out of here—go home to California,” he says. And in the same breath, he adds, ‘On second thought, I’ll prob­ably wind up reenlisting in Japan. I know I’ll miss this God-forsaken place —a swell bunch of guys.”

The only spot at the Wakkanai Mr Station where there’s no water short­age or power failure is the hill. Wa­ter is no problem because the crews do not have any. If they want a drink, they merely melt snow.

The power on the hill never fails because of the unbeatable combina­tion of three diesel generators and the “Quiet Man,” as the men call S/Sgt. Robert Booth. In a separate dugout near the control bunker, Booth pets his diesels until they purr with­ out missing a beat. Keeping them shipshape is no mean task. The diesels breathe through louvered intakes on top of the dugout, which must stay open lest the engines suffocate and quit. So, when a blizzard starts ram­ming the snow into the louvers, Booth and his helpers arm themselves with shovels and fight the snow for some­times hours at a stretch.

But Booth only shrugs at praise. “The radar’s got to go on,” he says quietly. “I’m just doing my job.”

This “just doing my job” is the standard answer at Wakkanai. You get it from the green GIs just off the train and from the “repeaters”—the oldtimers bitten by the Wakkanai bug who sign up for another tour. The top oldtimer among the watchmen is one of the youngest men there—the twenty-three-year-old M/Sgt. William “Sid” Sidwell, in charge of radio maintenance.

When the watchmen got sick of listening to the Kremlin radio propa­ganda—the only stuff their sets could get—Sidwell and a couple of other “static chasers” built their own broad­casting station, the WAKK. Now rock-and-roll platters drown out the Ochy Tshornye from Vladivostok. A bulb burned out? A mess hail “reefer” on the blink? Sid always hears about it and always finds time to fix it.

One night during a rainstorm Sid got an emergency call. One of the 3,300-volt line poles in the camp was on fire. Sid grabbed his pole-climbing gear, corralled Bob Marshall, his help­er, and raced for the trouble spot.

Sure enough, the creosoted cross-arm supporting the wire insulators was crackling like a bomb fuse. One high-tension wire was already droop­ing and within minutes there would be dangerous fireworks that could wreck the camp’s electricity supply.

Leaving Marshall below to stand by, Sidwell climbed aloft. Perched be­tween the two hot lines, Sidwell put out the fire. Swaying in the gale, he reached for the wire to refasten it. A gust of wind whipped the 3,300-volt line against Sidwell’s thigh. There was a flash.

“I thought he got it,” says A/1C Marshall. “He let out a hell of a scream and slumped in his safety belt. I started to climb to get him off, but before I was halfway up, Sid came to. He was still moaning, but he told me to stay down.”

Looking back on his high-wire act, Sidwell crinkles his baby blue eyes. “Hell, I was up there already,” he says. “Why should Marshall stick his neck out, too.”

Sid finished the job as he always does. He still sports a scar above his knee. Had the wire touched him sev­eral inches higher he would have been a goner.

Sidwell’s main responsibility is the radio relay stations—the lifeline of the Wakkanai outfit. Usually, when one of the radio sets goes off, the stand-by set takes over. But last spring, a one-­in-a-million chance put the stand-by gear out of commission, too. There was no way of repairing the sets—they had to be replaced.

Putting an order through the sup­ply channels would have meant weeks off the air, so Sidwell decided to pick up the new sets himself. With two spare tires on his six-by truck, he took off for the depot 260 miles away.

Nineteen hours and two fiats later, he made it. He helped load the seven tons of equipment, and that same eve­ning he began retracing his tire tracks to Wakkanai.

The heavily loaded six-by was harder on the fires—four of them blew out. The overworked hydraulic jack gave up the ghost.

“But I was lucky,” Sidwell says. “The outside tires still held so I drove on—the hell with the inside flats.”

However, Sidwell began to wonder about his luck when he stopped at the flood-swollen Teshio River. Crossing the river on the way to the depot had not been bad. The truck had been light enough for the hand-operated ferry boat. Now, the laden six-by would make the wooden ferry 9,000 pounds overweight.

Sidwell rooted out the old Japanese ferry operator. “Papa-San, we’ve got to get across. Think we can make it?”

Papa-San looked over the squatting truck and shrugged. “Dai-jobe — we try.”

The crossing, Sidwell recalls, was a submarine operation. Hauling on the ferry’s rope, Sidwell and Papa-San stood waist deep in the swirling current. The boat creaked and lurched, but made it across.

Another watchman who is held in high esteem is the “Doc”—A/lC William E. Porter. His doctorate is purely honorary; he is a medical tech­nician. But he is trained to take care of any ailment from trenchfoot to ap­pendicitis. And since Wakkanai has no MD, Porter rates high among the men.

Porter has an honest-to-suture sur­gery—scalpels, drugs, the works. He holds regular sick calls and like any conscientious GP, he’s always on the end of a phone after his office hours.

One night he was dragged out of his sack to attend a delirious airman. Porter unpacked his bag and examined the fellow.

“I’m always wary of malingering,” he says. “Some guys like to take advantage of me, but that kid had real-McCoy pneumonia—high fever and high pulse rate—everything like in my medical book.”

Porter gave his patient an alcohol bath, a shot of penicillin, and calledthe nearest MD, then at Chitose Air Base. The doctor confirmed the diagnosis and told Porter to keep the man at Wakkanai. And after three days of Porter’s care, the patient was good as new.

Another time Lefty Frizzell got banged up in an automobile crash. Porter taped Lefty’s broken ribs, put his broken arm in splints, sutured the gash on his forehead, and fed him codeine. Since Wakkanai has no X-ray, Porter shipped the doped-up Lefty to Chitose base hospital, where he recovered nicely.

The man who by popular opinion (and Porter’s medical book) should get a case of ulcers is Maj. James S. Purdum—the Wakkanai station com­mander. Running what he calls a housekeeping detachment, Purdum is the camp’s Mess Officer, Postal Officer, Special Services Officer, PX Officer, Installations Officer, Provost Marshal, and the Motor Pool Officer rolled into one.

“I am like the tail trying to wag the dog,” he says in his West Virginia drawl. “I guess even Houdini would be stumped by some of my problems.”

A former horse artillery officer, Purdum is every inch a regular soldier—rough, tough, and regulations. Yet, behind his ramrod back the men call him Dad.

If one of his men gets in trouble in Wakkanai town, Purdum dons his civvies and goes to see the mayor or the chief of police. He gets no cramps from sitting cross-legged, and he can hold his sake—assets highly esteemed, by the Japanese. He speaks enough Japanese to assuage the officials and get his man off the hook.

During a typical day, Purdum survives mostly on coffee. You see him supervise the mess hall extension, the new airmen’s club project, snowplowing, the camp’s ancient plumbing, planning lawns, booking movies, checking the camp’s laundry, and haggling on the phone with higher head­quarters over the shortages—his biggest headache.

One day Purdum got word that the American consul was arriving by train for a visit. “All my jeeps and weapons carriers were on the job,” says Purdum. “The Japanese taxi was busy, too, and I was in a fix.”

With only minutes to get to the station, Purdum pulled one of his famous improvisations. He took the only vehicle available and probably made diplomatic history. The consul rode to the camp in a garbage truck.

Of course, the men still gripe—what GI does not? But they appreciate “Dad’s” efforts to make Wakkanai livable, which is a far cry from what the camp used to be in pre-Purdum days. Before Purdum took over the radar detachment’s CO struggled with all the housekeeping problems. And holding so many jobs besides keeping the radar watch was enough to make anybody slip his blip.

A part of the Wakkanai legend is a story of the early CO who bought himself a horse, a ten-gallon hat, and a pair of six guns. His men called themselves Wakkanai Rangers and actually ran the camp in the Old West style. When the higher brass learned about it, they sent a tough master sergeant to the camp to whip up some discipline.

Of course, the “Rangers” didn’t go for that. They held a meeting and decided to string the top stud from a mess hall rafter. The CO’s western blood boiled. He galloped to the scene and with his shooting irons cocked, rescued the sergeant.

Purdum, of course, heard the legend. An avid horse lover himself, he would like to have a mount of his own. But as he says, “I’m going to keep walk­ing—I don’t want anybody to jump to conclusions.”

As you leave the Wakkanai Air Station, you see a small, white build­ing by the fence. That’s the chapel. The men put it up themselves in six weeks of their spare time.

During the dedication ceremony, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish watchmen listened to the rites and the speeches in perfect harmony. The visiting Protestant chaplain and Fa­ther Peter Takamia from the Roman Catholic Wakkanai parish consecrated the chapel. There were only three men of the Jewish faith—two airmen and Alex Berger, a Philco technical representative. So, Alex—an Orthodox Jew—donned his skull cap and chanted in Hebrew before the tough Wakka­nai congregation.

And Dad Purdum gave a brief speech. “The thing that makes us men is the spiritual life,” he said. “This chapel is the symbol of it and of what we stand for.”

The watchmen have a succinct CI term for those who are about to go home. It is “figmo,” which in polite, free translation means, “Farewell, I’ve got my orders.” But those who are figmo hate to leave, for the rugged Wakkanai duty holds a magnetic challenge.

Bill Minton, the twenty-year-old radar crew chief, puts it this way, “If the shooting ever started, we’d have ninety seconds to live. But it’s a damned good feeling to know that as long as we’re doing a job here, the shooting may never start.’!—END


Michael Gladych, who contributed this piece, is a veteran of flying serv­ice in the air forces of three nations—Poland, France, and the US. An aero­nautical consultant and member of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, he has been a free lancer on aviation and airpower for several years since, as he puts it: “I’m too old to be a jet-jockey in the air but I try to do the next best thing—write about the USAF and airpower.” Holder of a pilot’s license, he has logged over 7,000 hours in military and private aircraft, including time in jet craft.