By Harold W. Motte, Florence, SC
During the hostilities leading to the Six Day War in 1967, I was a Navy radioman on the ammunition ship Mazama in the Mediterranean Sea. When our ship hit port in Turkey, I got word that my mother was very sick and I had to come home.
The Turkish Air Force got me from the ship to the dock and took me to the end of a commercial air base where I boarded a military plane. I flew from there to the big naval base at Rota, Spain, where you took off to come to Virginia or New Jersey.
So I’m just sitting there waiting on my flight and about 3:00 that afternoon, a Navy petty officer comes and wants to know if anybody there has any kind of secret clearance. He said they needed a guard to go with the courier, an Air Force colonel, on a C130 that was leaving in 30 minutes and would arrive about midnight in Norfolk, Virginia.
I’m thinking, okay, I’ve got clearance. I’m not supposed to take the jet out of here until about midnight and we’d get to New Jersey about 3:00 or so in the morning. But if I go on the C130 now as a courier guard, I’ll land in Norfolk about 12:00 o’clock and I’ll be a lot closer to home. Makes sense, right? So I agreed to go.
He took me over to a hangar where there’s this pallet about 15 feet square piled with canvas bags, all classified material going to the States. Then he hands me a 32 revolver in a shoulder holster and four bullets taped up in masking tape, in a little row like you buy screws.
I felt like Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith show and I’m thinking, what good would that do me — “Just a minute, let me get these bullets out of this tape and load up my gun before you do anything”?!
Then a fork lift hoisted that pallet and me, my 32 revolver and my taped-up bullets up into the back of this giant C130 cargo plane. The colonel is already there, and all there was in the back of that huge plane was me, the colonel, two little cots, this pallet of stuff, the Cargo Master, and the pilots.
Well, we take off and we’re flying along when all of a sudden, the Cargo Master comes back and says, “Y’all come up to the cockpit, we got to descend to about 2000 feet — the back of this thing didn’t close up like it’s supposed to.”
So we went up with the pilots, they descended to 2000 feet, opened up the back end of the plane and re-shut it, re-pressurized it, and we went on back to our cots.
A little later I’m sitting there talking to the colonel when I noticed a small box strapped down on the belly of the plane. I was curious, so next time the Cargo Master came by I asked him what it was. He hesitated a little, then he said, “That’s white phosphorus.”
See, we’re on a plane with all this classified material and if something was to happen, such as somebody tries to get that material, then the white phosphorus would be ignited. And if the plane crashed, it would ignite.
If you even breathe on it very closely and you have hot breath, you’re liable to disappear! White phosphorus is highly volatile at a very low flash point, and it would literally disintegrate that whole plane and us and everything around it.
I said, “Okay, how much longer before we land somewhere and I can get off of here!”
Well, the next thing we know, the Cargo Master comes back again and says, “We’re landing.” I said, “Landing? We’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!”
He said, “No, we’re not that far out, we’re going to have to land at the Azores, we got some write-ups.” I said, “I’ve just got two more questions — what’s a write-up, and how many we got?”
He said a write-up was something wrong with the plane that needed fixing, and we had eight write-ups, “nothing major.” Yeah, right. By this time I didn’t want to know anything else about that plane!
So we land and taxi all the way down to the end of the airstrip, way away from everything. You know, what with the white phosphorus on board and all.
Here comes two vans, each with a driver and one other guy. One guy takes the papers the colonel was carrying and the other guy wants my gun and my four bullets. These were replacements to stay with the plane so we could have some liberty while it was being fixed. The colonel got in one van and I got in the other van.
Well, it’s late at night by this time and while the Colonel was probably relaxing in the officer’s club or something, most everything else was closed up. So my driver took me to the civilian bar at the airport terminal.
They started serving me rum and cokes in tall, skinny bottles about eight inches tall. I don’t know how many I drank. I vaguely remember the guy taking me back to the plane, but I don’t remember anything else until we landed in Norfolk about 8:30 the next morning.
Now, if I’d just waited on that jet to New Jersey and got another flight from there, I’d have been home in Florence, South Carolina long before we ever got to Norfolk, Virginia!
(Harold had forgotten his very first military lesson: never volunteer.)