Thursday, February 16, 2006

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, V

Runnin’ Blue

Ko Kha Ban Nong Soong (ed: corrected on the authority of a Gentle Reader who was there. Memory ain’t what it used to be), Thailand; British Crown Colony of Hong Kong; Yokota AB (Tokyo), Japan. Fall, 1976.
Runnin' scared
Runnin' blue
Goin' so fast
What'll I do
When the tasking came down the job seemed simple enough: take a team of four guys and minimal equipment, load up on a C-141, head out to an Army Security Agency monitoring site in northern Thailand via Clark AB in the Philippines, de-install an MSC-46 satellite uplink, pack it up, load it on a C-5, and ship it back to Japan. Nothing complex, just a lot of disassembly work, inventory all the components, pack, load, and get out of Dodge. No systems installation, alignments, testing, or certifications; just a lot of grunt work. A short-duration job and then back home—just the type of job we all liked.

I was the Team Chief. I had three other guys on the team, plus we were assured there would be Army augmentees from the MSC-46 maintenance organization to assist us with the de-installation. We had two weeks to complete the job. Piece of cake, really. The team consisted of my buddies Barry and Bill, plus a new guy to the shop, a young buck sergeant named James Johnson, who, of course, went by the name of JJ.

The load out at Yokota went according to plan. We flew into Clark AB, spent the night and then caught another C-141 the following morning to Utapao AB, Thailand. Once we got to Utapao we went through a couple of days of mandatory briefings required of all personnel newly arrived in Thailand, along with sufficient time off to explore the local area. We immediately headed out to Pattaya Beach for a little fun in the sun before heading up-country to Nong Soong. All told, we were at Utapao for two days before we caught a C-130 that flew us up to Udorn AB, an AF base near the Laotian border. We then took a bus from Udorn to Nong Soong.

Ramasun Station, near the town of Nong Soong, was an Army Security Agency monitoring site; its main system was the AN/FLR-9. The MSC-46 satellite terminal we were tasked to remove was the principal communications up and down link for the base. Ramasun Station was being deactivated because the Thai government had terminated the Status of Forces Agreement with the US in 1975; nearly all US Forces had to be out of the country by the end of 1976. When we arrived at Ramasun Station nearly all of the permanent party cadre had already departed, leaving only a combination de-installation, removal, and caretaker force in place. In other words, the place was pretty much a ghost town.

I reported in to the Army captain in charge of satellite operations, was introduced to the maintenance superintendent, an Army Master Sergeant, got the team billeted, and we set to work. The major part of the job was disassembling the antenna, which was in a fixed configuration on a large concrete pad about 30 feet in diameter. The remainder of the system was in air-transportable vans, so the main effort there was securing all the equipment racks, performing an inventory, and affixing customs seals on the vans once they were ready for shipment. Taking down that antenna was a pure bitch, however.

The ambient temperature during the day was in the high 90s, as was the humidity. We were working on a blazingly hot white concrete pad, which acted as a hellish solar reflector, intensifying the heat and making working conditions all but unbearable. You literally couldn’t touch the metal pieces of that antenna without wearing gloves, it was that hot. We worked 20 minutes outside, then ten minutes inside the air conditioned shelter, then 20 minutes back outside again, eight hours a day. It took us an entire week to disassemble that damned antenna and pack it up. I must have sweated off ten pounds, and for a light-@$ed guy like me, that’s a lot.

Our nights, though, were quite different. While it was hotter than blazes during the day, the nights were warm and balmy. The restaurants were quite good in the local area, and there were plenty of bar girls left in town who hadn’t flown the coop when the major part of the base’s population left, about two months prior to our arrival. The team and I partied-hardy, as the saying goes, spending our evenings in casual conversation with the ladies and each other in open-air watering holes. Quite pleasant, it was. Well, almost all of the team. All except for JJ, who had brought his girlfriend up to Nong Soong from Bangkok. The lady was also his fiancée and seemed like a really nice girl. JJ disappeared every afternoon to places unknown to be with his woman and didn’t show up again until the following morning. And that was OK. What you did after hours was your business; I only cared about what you did during the duty day.

So, the work proceeded according to schedule and we got the job done. We had received a couple of messages while at Ramasun about a follow-on assignment requiring two radar guys in the Philippines. Barry and Bill volunteered for the job, JJ and I decided to get back home as soon as we could. We caught an over-night bus from Udorn down to Bangkok and left Bangkok via commercial airlines two days later. We couldn’t get a direct flight to Tokyo; the best we could do was a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong, layover in Hong Kong for the night, and catch a flight to Tokyo the following day.

I felt bad the morning we left Bangkok and so did JJ. We agreed it was probably the flu and didn’t think too much more about it. Once on board the aircraft, we asked a flight attendant to get us some aspirin, which she immediately did. We took the aspirin and went to sleep, sleeping the entire duration of the flight.

We arrived in Hong Kong in the early afternoon, went through customs and caught a taxi to our hotel. Even though I still felt pretty rough I wasn’t going to miss a night out on the town in Hong Kong, given that I might not ever pass this way again. I told JJ we should head up to our rooms, shower, change clothes and meet in the lobby in about an hour. JJ demurred, saying he felt really bad and was going to go to bed and try and sleep off whatever-the-Hell it was we had. Nothing I could say or do would change his mind. I told him I would see him in the morning, went up to my room, showered, changed, took more aspirin and headed out on the town.

It wasn’t a good evening. I didn’t have much of an appetite and picked at my dinner. I took more drugs and decided to ride the ferry across the harbor to Kowloon and back. I got seriously sick on the ferry; the return trip was miserable. Since I felt like death warmed over, I decided to call it a night and headed back to the hotel thinking “what a waste.” My only night in Hong Kong, perhaps, and I was sicker than a dog, too sick to enjoy myself.

The following morning JJ and I met up in the hotel restaurant, had breakfast and headed out to the airport. JJ looked bad, really bad. I felt as bad as he looked. And I don’t remember much about the flight. I do remember landing at Haneda. The Second Mrs. Pennington (who was my intended, not my wife, at that point in time) met me at the airport. Reunion is a wonderful thing when you’re young and in love, but I won’t dwell on that. Suffice to say it was good. TSMP, JJ, and I got on the train and headed back to Tachikawa, where TSMP and I lived; JJ continued on to Yokota. It was the last time I ever saw him.

When we got back to our place I told TSMP I felt really bad and just wanted to take more drugs and get into bed, alone. That got her attention, because we’d been separated for nearly three weeks and all I wanted to do was sleep. She insisted on taking my temperature and it was high, probably 101 or so. I took more drugs and went to bed. It was a bad night; I was up and down all night, violently ill, with a severe headache, and chills.

TSMP took my temperature again in the morning and it was 103. She got me dressed, went out to the phone box down the street, called a cab, put me in the back seat, and we were off to the base hospital at Yokota. I waited for about a half-hour to see a doctor, who examined me and told me he was going to admit me for “observation.” By that time I didn’t care, I just wanted someone or something to take away the chills and headache. I filled out the admissions paperwork, was put in a wheelchair and taken up to the ward and put in a private room, which was highly unusual. The doctor sent TSMP home, telling her he would “be in touch.”

About an hour later the door to my room opened and in walked a gaggle of medical personnel…the doctor who initially checked me out, another full-colonel doctor, still another doctor, and a couple of nurses. They all looked very grim. The colonel introduced himself as the flight surgeon and began asking me questions. After he determined I had been in Thailand, had returned the previous evening via Hong Kong, hadn’t taken any illegal drugs, and other assorted medical and non-medical questions, he asked “Do you know a Sergeant James Johnson?” “Uh, Yes, Sir.” I replied. “Why do you ask?” “We admitted Sergeant Johnson last night, he died early this morning, we don’t know what killed him, and we suspect you have what he had.”

Oh, Shit.

I don’t remember much about the next 48 hours. I was in and out of consciousness, had an IV in each arm, and was poked, prodded, injected, and generally harassed every hour, on the hour. I do remember hearing TSMP screaming down the hall at the ward nurse, demanding to be let in to see me or she was going to call her congressman, and right now. I don’t think it worked; I didn’t see her again, or don’t remember seeing her again, until two days later when I was out of the woods. The military is pretty inflexible when it comes to rules, especially when one is sick with an unknown disease and is in isolation.

Eventually we convinced the flight surgeon, who was handling my case personally by now, that it was OK for TSMP to be allowed to visit me. She came every day, without fail, bringing me magazines and books, and smuggling in food fit for human consumption.

I think it happened on the fifth day I was in the hospital. TSMP was lying next to me on the bed, I was under the sheets, and I was definitely feeling better. And she could tell, too. She whispered something to the effect of “let’s get comfortable,” (but a helluva lot bawdier, and I loved her for that) but I stopped her, pointing toward the door. The door, while it was shut, had a rather large window with a full view of the room. This would never do. But…

I pushed her off the bed, hopped off the bed myself, grabbed my IV pole in one hand and her hand in the other, and led her to the attached private bathroom. The bathroom had a door, and once closed, no one could see in, period. She grinned.

It was good. Even while standing up, attached to an IV pole.

And that’s when I knew I was going to live, even though I spent a few more days in the hospital, just so the medical staff could “make sure.” That little experience also qualifies as the strangest place I ever “did it.”

And what did I have? The AF says it was extreme viral pneumonia. I think it was Legionnaire’s Disease, but I can’t prove it. But I’m alive to tell the tale, which is better than the alternative. I still feel bad for JJ, to this day, even though I didn’t know him that well. And I feel worse for his girlfriend; I have no idea if she was ever told of his death. How do you contact someone in Bangkok, address unknown, whose name you don’t know? You can’t. Life just isn’t fair, sometimes.

Updated on May 18, 2008. Corrected the name of the town near Ramasun Station and added a pic of the installation. (Image credit: the person or persons who run this site.)


  1. Wow, what a story. Clicked around my daily reads and thought oh, this is a long one, have to wait for lunch hour to read it. Glad I waited and gave it full attention.

  2. Stumbled upon your story after googling Ramasun where I was stationed in 1970/71.
    Well written!
    Still remember the hard partying downtown!

    SP5 Burns

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Specialist Burns. That TDY was my last trip to Thailand (in the AF) and I tried to make the most of it. I went back to Thailand (on business) some 20 years later, but I was married by then and all grown up (sorta). It just wasn't the same... ;-)


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