By Jim Novak
© 2003-2011 by Author
Click Photos to View Enlargments
After reading the wonderful stories submitted by the likes of former İncirlik alumni, Chuck Sibert, Al Cammarata, John Griffiths, and others who were stationed at İncirlik “back in the day” around the time I was also stationed there, I felt duty bound to input my two cents worth about my own tour of duty at İncirlik AB, Adana, Turkey. Unfortunately, some 52 years and 29 moves later, somewhere along the line I’ve misplaced what few pictures I had of the base and the city, although anyone who was ever stationed there has those pictures firmly forever implanted in their brain.
I was sworn into the United States Air Force at the U.S. Army Recruiting Main Station, in Manchester, New Hampshire, on 21 November 1957, one week into the eighteenth year of my life. That day signaled the beginning of a wild odyssey that spanned the globe from Turkey to Thailand over the period of 23 years, 7 months and 10 days that I proudly wore the Air Force blue. However, of those 8,617 days, there weren’t too many as memorable as that first day I joined the Air Force… or the day I arrived in Adana, Turkey.
The commercial Douglas DC-3 plane departed Grenier Field, on the outskirts of Manchester, as the evening streetlights were beginning to appear below. By midnight, I had experienced a limousine ride right through the heart of Times Square, treated my new-found friends to cocktails at a fancy bar in the Newark airport, and found myself sitting in the Dallas airport restaurant the next morning, the bearer of a slight hangover and with only seventy-five cents to my name. What does a hungry new airman eat at an airport restaurant with only seventy-five cents in his pocket, while all his “new friends” are feasting on ham and eggs and grits and hash browns? Well, after scouring the breakfast menu for far too long, I finally made my selection: Six half grapefruits @ 15 cents apiece = 75 cents! Sorry, there would be no tip for the waitress that morning.
With my concentration fully engrossed in the task of draining every ounce of juice conceivable out of each grapefruit, I failed to notice two gentlemen at a table gazing at my every maneuver diligently orchestrated with my grapefruit spoon. Suddenly, one of the gentlemen couldn’t restrain himself any longer and walked over to my table (I was sitting alone) and asked, “What are you doing?”
I immediately recognized the tall, handsome gentleman who helped himself to a chair opposite me. To which I responded, “What the hell are you doing here at the Dallas airport at five o’clock in the morning?”
My uninvited guest just happened to be Rock Hudson! He laughed aloud as I told him the story of my last seventy-five cents. He went on to tell me that he was in the Army Reserves and was returning to Los Angeles from a trip to the movie location where he had recently completed the movie, “Giant.” Before leaving the restaurant to be mauled by the throng of star-struck stewardesses waiting in the lobby, “the Rock” autographed six paper napkins for me to send to friends back home in Laconia, NH!
Later that day, after a very turbulent ride through a very rare Texas snowstorm, we were greeted by a not-so-pleasant Staff Sergeant at the San Antonio airport who screamed some obscenity in my ear for trying to say something to a recruit marching next to me on our way to the bus in the airport parking lot. Suddenly, reality set in. I was now in the “real” United States Air Force!
After a brief “adjustment” to military life at Lackland AFB, I devoured the daily regimen of fire drills, inspections, policing the area, memorizing the chain-of-command, marching, and more marching. Why, I didn’t even have to think. All I had to do was follow orders. And for that, I received three scrumptious meals a day, a comfortable cot with a roof over my head, and $78 a month. Life was good!
Sometime during my fourth week in Basic Training, squadrons of airmen waited outside the “Green Monster” to be called forward to select their chosen career field. (the "Green Monster:" a huge green one-story building where uniforms were issued, and the hub of where "everything happened" at Lackland. -Ed.) When my turn finally arrived, I approached the desk of the awaiting Personnel Sergeant. The first words out of his mouth were: “What do you want to be, boy?” Until that moment I had never even considered what sort of job I would be doing in the Air Force. I didn’t have any idea what “career field” was even available or the impact of my test scores from my entrance exam. As I pondered the Sergeant’s question, I quickly came to the conclusion that, with my poor eyesight, my new employer wasn’t about to let me fly a plane or even allow me near a flight line. As he cocked his head to look around me at the long waiting line of troops, his patience grew weary.
“O.K., boy, what did you do before you joined the service?” he asked.
“I was a short-order cook at Howard-Johnson’s, Sir,” I replied.
“No, boy, your scores are too high for that. You can’t be no damn food service cook. You understand?”
I said the first thing that came to my mind, “O.K., How about a tail gunner than?”
“Are you crazy, boy? You ain’t gonna be no damn tail gunner either.” By now, the Sergeant was
really getting pissed off with me. His patience had worn thin. I had to quickly come up with an answer.
“O.K., Sarge, what career field are you in?”
Why, he looked at me rather proudly, as if he were inviting me to join his fraternity, and announced: “I be in Poisonel.” I assumed he meant, “Personnel.”
I sarcastically replied, O.K., Sarge, put me in Poisonel too.” And that’s how my Air Force career began in the Personnel career field.
There must have been a shortage of “Poisonel clerks” that year because after only completing five weeks of basic training, I was reassigned to the 3277th Student Squadron, on the other side of Lackland, to attend the 17 week Personnel Specialist course, ABR73230. Upon completing the course in April 1958, by Special Order A-1543, A/3C James Novak, was directed to report to the Air Coordinating Officer, 1608th Air Terminal Squadron, Charleston AFB, S.C., “not earlier than 0800 hours 19 May 58 and not later than 1400 hours 19 May 58 for scheduled departure on flight 253 departing Charleston AFB at 1600 hours 19 May 58.” My initial permanent assignment in the Air Force was to the 2006th Airways and Air Communications Squadron (AACS), APO 289, New York, N.Y. Which I later came to learn was good old TUSLOG Detachment 16, İncirlik AB, Turkey. I also came to learn that AACS really stood for “Acres and Acres of Cow Shit.”
With much sorrow, I must confess, I ran into a slight problem on my way to my port call at Charleston AFB. More specifically, I missed my freakin’ port call! Of course it wasn’t intentional. I mean, heck, that would have been tantamount to being AWOL. I would never do anything like that. Unfortunately, I had stowed my duffel bag at the San Antonio train station while I cavorted about town with my latest girlfriend during my leave before departing for Turkey. When I arrived at the train station to retrieve it on that beautiful Sunday morning of May 18th, the day before my port call, I soon discovered that the storage room at the train station was secured and would not be opened until the following day. I frantically spoke with the train conductor, ticket agent, San Antonio police department, and even the Red Cross, to no avail. Nobody but nobody had access to the storage area until the next day. My heart sank as I missed my scheduled flight to Atlanta, then on to Charleston that evening. In desperation, I called none other than the Commander, Charleston AFB, in South Carolina at his house - in the middle of the night - to explain my plight. The Colonel made sure he copied my name correctly and advised me to report to the passenger terminal “as soon as I can.”
Without much fanfare, I finally arrived at the Charleston AFB Passenger Terminal at 2340 hours, 19 May 1958. The clerk who stamped my PCS order to record my arrival, and I, were the only two people in the huge terminal at that time of night. For some reason he knew exactly who I was and greeted me with a mop and bucket of soapy water. The Commander had left instructions to have Airman Novak mop the entire terminal upon his arrival. If the truth be known, I would have mopped the entire base to save my butt from further repercussion. I gladly mopped the terminal that night and after a two day delay, boarded a military plane for the next leg of my journey to Wheelus Air Base, Tripoli, Libya.
Having missed my original port call, I was told to report every morning to the Wheelus AB Passenger Terminal to check if there were any flights going to İncirlik. On the third day, a miracle of sorts happened. A tall man dressed in a sports coat, sporting a fancy Meerschaum pipe dangling from his mouth, overheard my attempt to catch a plane to İncirlik. He promptly interceded on my behalf and had the terminal official issue me a “Nonavailability Certificate,” which allowed me to fly via commercial airline to my destination in Turkey. As we left the terminal, my new-found friend introduced himself, informed me that he was also going to İncirlik, and told me, “Where you’re going is hell, with nothing to do, so you might as well enjoy yourself before you get there.”
Major Hurlbert, which I suspect was a pseudonym, would not disclose anything about the nature of his work in Turkey. However, through his adept finagling, I was rewarded with two luxurious days in Rome and another two days in Istanbul on my way to Adana. It didn’t matter to me that I wore, for the next five days, my new tailor-made long sleeve gabardine uniform, with the accompanying dress blue hat that resembled the bus driver hat worn by Ralph Kramden on the Jackie Gleason show.
All my other uniforms had been stored in my duffel bag for over a month and were unfit for wear and my “civvies” were in dire need of laundering. The only suitable clothing I had for the five day trip from Tripoli to Adana was that one gabardine uniform.
After two luxurious days touring all the sights I could absorb in Rome in that brief period of time, we flew the next leg of the journey to Istanbul, landing at Yesilkoy Airport, then into the city, where Major Hurlbert and I spent the next two days at the world renowned Istanbul Hilton hotel, which sits majestically, on a hill overlooking the city and the Bosphorus strait. By the way he was greeted upon our arrival, it was quite obvious that “Major Hurlbert” had previously stayed at the Hilton. In fact, he even arranged it so that we were accommodated in special cabanas by the swimming pool. All the while, I tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, while totally mesmerized by all the beauty and excitement around me. That is to say, I was as inconspicuous as an American serviceman could be while wearing an Air Force uniform in a hotel lobby in Istanbul, Turkey! It was in that very lobby, during my first evening in Istanbul, that an incredible, unforgettable event happened.
By circumstance of my earlier years, raised under dire financial conditions, I was penurious by nature. What little cash I had with me was loaned to me by Major Hurlbert, so I carefully abstained from needlessly squandering that money. I was perfectly content to sit in the hotel lobby and watch the parade of foreign guests checking in. The lobby was full of arriving guests when a gorgeous Bridget Bardot look-alike began ranting vehemently at the poor hotel clerk who didn’t understand a word of the French this sexual beauty was rabidly exclaiming, while her elderly escort, who resembled a placid Alfred Hitchcock, silently stood by her side.
Ah, when opportunity strikes, one must avail himself of that magic moment! And I did, as I sauntered between the warring parties to offer my assistance. At that very moment, I thanked the Lord Almighty for those miserable eight years I attended a French speaking Catholic school. I was able to act as an interpreter between the anguished blond French beauty and the muddled Turkish desk clerk who was quite proficient with the English language. In no time at all, he was able to trace the missing luggage. For this little act of kindness, the Mr. Hitchcock look-alike invited me to join them for dinner later that evening.
I was treated to a meal fit for a king, as I spoke to my new Parisian friends in broken French, while we dined on a three foot fish (balik) in a beautiful dining room overlooking the Bosphorus strait and the city lights on the other side of the passage. I don’t know what possessed me to concoct a “little white lie” that my father was an American soldier in World War II who met and married my French mother while stationed in France. Naturally, to bolster my story, he was killed and my mother and I went to the States. I couldn’t help myself, as the sultry Bridget Bardot look-alike embraced my story, and suddenly was rubbing her leg against mine, with tears practically flowing from that pouting face. It was definitely a night to remember!
Finally, late in the afternoon of May 30, 1958, the Turkish Airlines DC-3 airplane that carried me from Istanbul to Adana touched down at Adana airport. Airport was a misnomer. It was more akin to a barren field with a runway. The “passenger terminal” was a dilapidated one room shack where I waited for my duffel bag to be offloaded. Absent was any kind of bulletin board to inform me how I was supposed to obtain transportation to İncirlik AB. After retrieving my duffel bag, I stood alone outside the terminal dumbfounded, sort of wondering, like many a man had done before me: “What the hell am I doing here?” Suddenly, while standing alone in this vacuous plain of nothingness, while taking in the strange scents and sights of my new “home,” a Catholic priest appeared in a taxi and asked me if I was going to İncirlik. He told me to “hop in” as he was going to the base himself.
Until that taxi ride through Adana, I had never even imagined what life would be like in this foreign land, some 5,200 miles away from my “real home.” Relieved that the long journey was over, but startled by the reality that I found myself in, my head spun in every direction: taking in foreign sights of bazaars, people in strange clothing, a man actually walking with a bear on a busy street, the smells of foreign food, dead chickens (I hope) dangling from vendor stations in the middle of the sidewalk, women walking with heads bowed and veils covering their faces, smoke emanating from strange looking pipes men cuddled in their hand. I was exhilarated, excited, and frightened, all at the same time. After driving through the heart of the city, we approached an impassable bridge, which I later learned was the 4th century old Seyhan Bridge spanning the Seyhan River.
The sidewalks and roadway of the bridge were crammed with rabid Turks, shouting in some foreign gibberish, with arms flailing in the air. Stranded in the traffic jam, my eyes wandered to the right where I became a witness to the most heinous, barbaric murder scene I would ever encounter in my life. Three Turkish prisoners stood at the top of the railing, with nooses firmly strung around their necks, as the executioner performed his objurgatory duty before casting the three helpless men over the side of the bridge. Was I shocked? Only to the point where my body turned extremely cold, my hands were shaking uncontrollably, sweat was streaming down my face, and I was overcome with nausea. As I turned toward the priest for some sort of acknowledgement of what we had witnessed, he merely stared straight ahead, impervious to what we had just observed. Now, I had good reason to be frightened as we completed the last seven miles to my final destination.
Arriving at the main gate, we were met by an Air Force AP and a Turkish guard. The taxi was not allowed on base, so the priest and I waited for a military truck to take us to the new Detachment 10 Headquarters building to officially sign into my new duty station. While waiting for the truck, I asked the priest, “Why is there only a Turkish flag at the entrance?” It was then I learned that İncirlik was not an American base. It belonged to Turkey. It was a training base for Turkish soldiers and pilots and we were merely guests there. There would be no flying of the American flag at this vast desert wasteland called İncirlik Air Base. Like many of my predecessors, my first night there was spent in a tent with flies swirling all around me. I was dead tired, but couldn’t sleep for the images of those three men cast off the bridge earlier that evening.
The next morning, I found my way to the base Chow Hall, still wearing the odorous, and by now quite grubby, gabardine uniform I had donned back at Wheelus Air Base, some six days earlier. As I gobbled my breakfast, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the center of attention in the Chow Hall. For my part, I probably drew everyone’s attention by the out-of-place uniform I was wearing. I couldn’t help but feel unwanted in a place I very much didn’t want to be. When I asked some airmen where the 2006th Airways and Air Communications Squadron was located, with smirks on their faces, they simply replied, “Never heard of it.” Finally, a two stripe Air Policeman was polite enough to tell me that I was actually looking for TUSLOG Detachment 16, which was located on the street directly behind the Mess hall.
There would be no warm welcome for this fresh new Airman Third Class right out of tech school. I was the rookie on base and had to earn their respect the same way they had: By putting in time on station until I became “one of them.” Yes, I was pretty discouraged and homesick those first few days, as it seemed like I was some sort of pariah to be ignored. Even the Orderly Room where I was assigned to work treated me with indifference. That is except for Master Sargent King, the First Sergeant, who greeted me with a warm smile and actually spent the time to help me get situated. I was given the day off to unpack, do laundry, and learn my way around the base. Initially I was billeted in temporary quarters in one of the Detachment 16 Dallas huts - pre-fab wooden structures assembled in the field as a "kit" - with shift workers who played poker, night and day, occupying their leisure time.
Although I must have had a million questions, nobody was interested in learning about me or even answering my basic questions. That night I stayed awake to the sound of clanking poker chips, unable to lock the noise from my mind. Finally, out of desperation, I asked if I could join the game when there was an opening. Although I wasn’t much of a card player, I just desperately wanted to feel accepted. To cut right to the chase, in a matter of three hours, I managed to lose an entire month’s pay playing cards in a game I knew very little about, and with a bunch of card sharks who easily beat me at their game of choice!
The following morning, I arrived at the Detachment 16 Orderly Room a half hour before anyone came to unlock the door. I soon learned that I was to be the Squadron Payroll Clerk. While I was arranging supplies at my assigned desk, I noticed four or five airmen and NCOs in fatigues waiting for service, while my cohorts went about their morning ritual of filling their coffee mugs and conducting a meaningless gabfest. I reasoned that the waiting troops had worked the night shift and simply wanted a little Personnel assistance before going to their huts to sleep. I took it upon myself to go over to the waiting airmen and asked, “Can I help you?” That one statement was the beginning of a new attitude in the Detachment 16 Orderly Room – at least on my part.
Everyone found their own formula for completing their tour at İncirlik. Some were very involved in sports, some played cards endlessly, and some pursued more education or read a great deal. Others were content to socialize at the NCO Club every night. I know that for a fact, because I worked at the NCO Club four or more nights a week during my entire tour, serving the same faces night after night. That allowed me to stay busy all the while, rather than dwelling on the miserable conditions we had to live with, and that work enabled me to save a nice nest egg for my return to the States. ()I’ll elaborate more about my experiences at the NCO Club in more detail further in this memoir.)
Back in 1958, the troops were paid once a month. As the Payroll Clerk, I would have them sign the payroll log beside their name, count out the cash, and then pass it on to Lieutenant “Scooter” Magruder to pay the respective airmen. Sergeant King’s job was to inspect the troops before sending them to my station. That was about as much a joke as the ridiculous gun belt and 45 caliber revolver I adorned myself with on payday. I probably looked like the cartoon character, Yosemite Sam, with that heavy gun belt full of bullets dangling from my waist. The entire scene was ridiculous. However, as we all came to know: There’s a right way, a wrong way, and the military way of doing things. This particular ritual was probably unmarred by tradition ever since the Civil War. And just where was a G.I. supposed to go with the loot after he had robbed me? Certainly, I hope, nobody labored under the misapprehension that I would actually shoot someone in the back with that hand gun! If the money was ever stolen, I felt certain the poor idiot wouldn’t have made it to the main gate without being apprehended.
The most exciting time during my tour happened six weeks after I arrived at İncirlik. It was on July 15, 1958, that President Eisenhower authorized “Operation Blue Bat” which was aimed at bolstering the pro-Western Lebanese government of President Chamoun against internal opposition and threats from Egypt and Syria. The plan was to occupy the Beirut International Airport, then secure the port of Beirut. In response to President Eisenhower’s order, some 14,000 Army, Air Force, and Marine troops were deployed to the area. İncirlik Air Base became the staging area for all the troops sent there in support of the Beirut Crisis. Night and day the sky was filled with planes landing at İncirlik. Rows upon rows of tents were strewn, in no particular pattern, all over the large field which separated the Americans from the Turkish side of the base.
Frankly, it was a blast! When I went to work at the NCO Club after completing my day job, I could barely squeeze my way through the huge mass of G.I.’s standing around drinking beer or waiting for a table. I couldn’t even make my way to the tables to serve them food. I would simply hand them their food orders from the kitchen, take their money and stuff it in a cloth pouch I carried, and holler out the next order. This process would be repeated for some five or six hours straight every day for nearly three months. At the end of my shift, I sat totally exhausted in the kitchen and drank a beer with the Turkish cook. He and I became good friends over the course of 20 months. Regrettably, I don’t recall his name, but I’ll never forget him. He was a good cook and a good man. How could I forget him? He had five wives and probably as many jobs to support them! In time, I learned to trust him and would supply him with cigarettes from the Base Exchange. He, in turn, supplied me with Turkish Lira, at a far better rate than that available through legal channels, that I sold to the NCOs who felt that sudden urge to go “bowling” in Adana, but needed Lira to use off-base. Payroll clerk by day; Banker by night!
I’ll never forget Casino night at the NCO Club during the Beirut Crisis! NCO’s waited hours just to gain a spot at the craps table. I saw them throw down $100 bills at a pop and lose seven or eight hundred dollars gambling a night. I never saw that much money pass hands before in my life. And to the loser goes the spoils: When they were winning, they thought nothing of giving me a $10 or $20 tip for bringing them food. It wasn’t uncommon for me to make $60 a night in tips when the going was good. I even managed to loan money to some NCOs in Detachment 16, whose names I won’t mention, so they didn’t have to face the wraths of their wives when they made it home. Observing all that was a good experience for me. I reassured myself that I would never be a serious gambler. The Beirut Crisis came to an end as abruptly as it began. The presence of the troops successfully intimidated the opposition and the U.S. withdrew its forces in October, 1958.
The length of everyone’s tour was totally a matter of conjecture. When I received my assignment in Tech School, I was told that I was being assigned to İncirlik on a 12 month unaccompanied tour. However, it was a “Catch-22” to actually learn my DEROS (Date Eligible Return from Overseas).
Some troops were there on an unaccompanied tour for 24 long months; others were there for 18 months, and somewhere in between I ended up being there for 20 months. I actually didn’t know when I could return to the States until I received my PCS orders a month before my departure. It’s no small wonder that the most important thing on everyone’s mind was when and where they were being reassigned. We optimistically counted the days before our departures by the number of friends who left before us. You wore your time on station like a badge of courage. There was nothing you could be called better than a “short-timer,” which signaled that you would be heading home soon. Do you recall the acronym, “FIGMO?”
Oh, there are countless stories of my memories I could tell. Anybody who was stationed in Turkey during the Cold War years certainly remembers the primitive conditions we lived in “back in the day.”
After a few weeks on station, I was fortunate enough to find a bunk in a Dallas hut reserved for we few “day-workers.” My roommates worked in the Detachment 16 Supply warehouse. It was an education for this eighteen year old “rookie” learning about the experiences of my roommates: A/1C Al Hanson from North Dakota was one. Later, Al was the best man at my wedding at James Connally AFB in Waco, Texas. Then there was A/2C “Whitey” Ferguson from Baltimore, Maryland, and A/2C Barnes of Bozeman, Montana. One thing markedly absent in our hut was any semblance of colored airmen. I found that a bit odd in a Squadron full of black airmen.
Apparently Executive Order 9981, signed by President Truman on July 26, 1948, hadn’t found its way to İncirlik AB by 1958. Executive Order 9981 ended racial segregation in the Armed Forces and was issued to change the way colored men and white men interacted in the military. When I was there, the blacks lived together in “their” quonset huts and segregation pretty much still prevailed. I don’t know why it had to be that way. I got along great with my black contemporaries and treated them just like I did any white guy when they came to the Orderly Room for assistance. However, I did notice that the black NCOs did not patronize the NCO Club. Many people took on a different persona when they were drinking and they wisely didn’t want any part of it. I played basketball with mostly black guys, often hung out in their hut to listen to good soul music and jazz, and was widely accepted by my black neighbors. Unfortunately, there was one particularly prejudiced Tech Sergeant, who would get on my case after he had too much to drink, and called me a “nigger lover” and would admonish me for “hanging around with the niggers.” I simply ignored him and knew that if he didn’t change his ways he was heading for serious trouble when he went to his next base in the States. Like it or not, these times they were a changin'.
One of the nicest men I ever had the occasion to meet was A/2C Buford. Frankly, I don’t recall if his last name or his first name was Buford. I do recall that “Buuf” could pass for a Sidney Portier look-alike. He was on temporary duty at İncirlik for several months and was assigned to the 2nd Mobile Communications Group (2nd MOB) out of Hahn Air Base in Germany. I met Buuf' through Whitey Ferguson. He was a Radio Equipment Repairman and had a ton and half military truck at his disposal. On many of the sweltering summer days, Buuf, Whitey, and I would head out after work to a swimming hole he had discovered in the mountain range on the outskirts of Adana. It was a beautiful spot. I recall we had to drive though a small village to get there and were constantly pelted with rocks by the children as we drove by. You have to wonder where they learned to dislike the American soldiers.
In any event, we dove off a rock into the deep, cool water below. We often talked about our plans when we returned to the U.S. and even discussed getting together after we returned. However, on one particular venture, I was swimming leisurely when suddenly Buford shouted out for me to swim as fast as I could to shore. I could see his eyes bulging out and the concern on his face as he shouted to me: “Hurry, hurry, Jim. There’s a large snake right on your tail.” It was closing in too fast. I never would have made it to shore safely. Risking his own life, my friend, Airman Buford, dove into the water with a machete in hand, and deftly slashed the huge venomous snake. I will never forget the day this brave man risked his life to save mine. I certainly would love to locate him through the Merhaba website.
Then, there was A/1C Bickerstaff. What a piece of work “Bick” was. Military bearing was not in “Bick’s” vocabulary. As the story goes, he was transferred to İncirlik directly from Saudia Arabia after being booted out of the country. If you knew my friend Bickerstaff, this would not come as a surprise. He was a Jewish kid with kinky black hair and sported a goatee. Not the image one would expect for someone assigned to the elite Control Tower group. The ones I knew were “straight arrows,” who were always seen in neatly starched uniforms. They were considered to be the “cream of the crop.” Ron Bickerstaff defied that conventional mold.
One night, when we were all sound asleep, Bickerstaff came into our hut, pulled on the light cord to wake us up, jumped on the burning oil-fired heater, and began reciting some Beatnik poetry he had written. I listened intently while watching his shoes begin to smolder on the burning heater in the middle of the room. About the time his shoes began to smoulder, he quickly jumped off the heater, dashed out the door, tripped on his way out, and then laid on the cement sidewalk in front of our barracks with a broken leg until someone ran to the clinic to get an ambulance to take him to the hospital. That was my man, Bickerstaff!
I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about SMSgt Harriman. Forgive me if I changed his name a bit to spare him any embarrassment. Many of you who were in Detachment 16 at the time know exactly who I am referring to. How could you not remember him? He looked as old as Methuselah and was “in a world of his own.” He was a tall, silver haired distinguished looking gentleman who resembled what you would expect an old retired Southern Colonel to look like. Well, you see, at one time Sergeant Harriman was, in fact, a Colonel. After World War II, like many soldiers, he was given the option of leaving the service or remaining on as an NCO. I didn’t look in his personnel records to learn his age, but he was by far the oldest looking NCO I encountered in my 23 year service career.
My issue with Sergeant Harriman was that the poor creature was hell bent on making Chief Master Sergeant before he retired. More precisely, he was obsessed with achieving the top NCO grade. Unfortunately, being a lowly one-striper, new to the Air Force, I became part of his plan. What the old Sarge wanted to do was rewrite every g--damned Personnel manual in the Air Force! I’m serious. That was his entire mission when he was stationed there. He would lay these thick manuals out on his desk and redline them and change a word here and there, merely for the sake of making “changes.” He never included any of the Administrative types in his mad scheme. No, no, only his pet slave, the obsequious A/3C Novak. He would bring 10 or 20 redlined pages to me and inform me that they needed to be “retyped” by the end of the day. I worked my ass off for that maniac just because he outranked me, and nobody did anything about it.
Well, one particular hot afternoon in the middle of summer, I cracked. That’s right; I couldn’t take it any longer. Bear in mind, I worked in a non-air conditioned metal hut, with a concrete floor. It often felt like 135 degrees in there by mid-afternoon. In the summer, I watched airmen pass out on the beaten down path in the wide-open field near the Orderly Room as they tried to make their way to the Chow hall. That was not uncommon. İncirlik was a hell hole in the summer. There was even an ambulance that would drive back and forth along the path to pick up airmen who fainted along the way.
My nerves had been on edge for quite some time. What, with working some 15 to 16 hours a day, it was no wonder I lasted as long as I did before I “cracked.” On this particular occasion, Sergeant Harriman brought me another pile of papers he needed typed “right away.”
When I did it, I did it good! Suddenly, I picked up my typewriter and threw the damned thing right through one of the screened windows. It whizzed right by his ear and landed out in the street where it tumbled to a stop. He stood there with his mouth wide-open and a shocked expression on his face. For my part, I was in tears, contemplating my court-martial as I proceeded to the Squadron Commander’s office next door. With tears streaming down my face, I barged into Major Hobbs’ office and reported what I had done. To my surprise, Major Hobbs said: “Shit, we should have done something about him a long time ago.” He actually apologized to me for not reassigning him sooner. Was I ever relieved! Within a week, Sergeant Harriman and his wife were miraculously sent back to the States for “further reassignment.”
Lest you mistake me for some young, naïve, little “choir boy” type, rest assured I may have been young and naïve, but I was definitely not an angel. Like most eighteen and nineteen year olds, I had testosterone coming out my ears and an insatiable appetite for amalgamating into the Turkish culture. I was as curious about them as they were about us. Often, I took the bus from the base to Adana to mingle with Turks in hopes of engaging in a conversation. I looked forward to my days off when I could take an “arabasi” (horse drawn carriage) from the heart of Adana, near the Grand Palace hotel, to the train station for lunch. There, I would often sip champagne while I gorged myself with their fabulous ekmek (bread), dipped in oil, and with a side order of sliced cucumbers. They also served the best shish kabob I have ever eaten. And for fine dining and a bit of entertainment, there wasn’t anything that compared to the ballroom on the second floor of the Grand Palace hotel.
It was at the Grand Palace where I met and became good friends with Doctor Hamdi Baku.
Speaking French fairly proficiently definitely served to break the language barrier for me. While dining alone at the Grand Palace one evening, Dr. Baku invited me to join his party at their table, to which I accepted. It seems that his beautiful daughter was home from college in Paris and wanted to meet me. They were quite surprised and delighted to discover that an American soldier could speak French. Perhaps because we overcame the language barrier, as well their genuine interest in making me feel welcomed in their country, Doctor Baku invited me to their home to dine with them. Dinner, hell. I just wanted to pounce on their daughter! At one point during my visit to their home, the good doctor and his wife “suggested” the lovely daughter and I go into the parlor so she could practice her English. There was my opportunity...Or so I thought. She quickly informed me that she was engaged to be married and that our relationship would be strictly platonic. With no hope of “scoring the big one,” I quickly settled on fostering a stronger tie with her father, the esteemed Doctor Baku.
My favorite all-time Turkish friend was my barber, “Sammy.” That’s how I knew him, and that’s what he preferred to be called. Whenever I went to Adana, generally on Saturday afternoon, I looked forward to visiting my friend at his barbershop. Sammy didn’t sport the typical Turkish build. He was a rather rotund figure who always seemed to “come to life” when I walked into his business. We just clicked as friends. Even when his shop was full of customers, he often stopped what he was doing and went to the train station with me to have lunch. Sammy was more like a mentor or big brother. He just took me under his wing and enjoyed the hell out of his young, inquisitive American friend.
He explained Muslim and Turkish customs to me at great length. Any question I had was within bounds. I recall him explaining the Muslim ritual of Ramadan and the Turkish law of Sharia, which allowed the victim to perform Sariqa - the amputation of the hand by chopping it off! Of course, that’s an oversimplification. Once, my good friend tried to lure me to witness a hanging with him. I wisely rejected his offer, but a week later, he gave me a memento of his outing. The picture taken at the hanging is at right. In turn, I tried to lure Sammy to go to the compound (Kerhane in Turkish) with me or to a nightclub to see a belly dancer. That’s where he drew the line. The fact is, he was very much a faithful husband and such activities went against his religious beliefs. Yet, he accepted me and wasn’t critical of my desire to seek female companionship.
The Adana kerhane (brothel) was “off limits” to American servicemen by order of the Base Commander. That only further aroused my curiosity. I had been in Turkey for over a year when my constitution couldn’t repress my desire any longer. One Saturday afternoon, dressed in European style clothes, I pretended to be a French sailor from the ship docked in İskenderun as I made my way down the lonely rock-walled side street to the Turkish women’s compound (Kerhane). With bowed head, I peered into the small barred windows of several doors to examine the “merchandise.” For some reason, elderly, obese, toothless women just lacked that sexual appeal I was longing for. Soon, I became uncomfortable being there in broad daylight as Turks came to realize they had a “çok fena” (very bad) foreigner in their midst. It was well known, the Turks didn’t take to foreigners looking at their women. Worse yet, if you were an American. With my sexual desire dissipated, I made it out of there as quickly as I could.
In some regards, I was fortunate that I was able to break up my tour at İncirlik by going on temporary duty (TDY) to other bases in-country. Within a year, I passed the “5” level exam and was upgraded to a Personnel Specialist, AFSC 73250. More importantly, I was fully capable of handling just about any Personnel matter that came up, including assignments, record checks, payroll matters, performance reviews, and so on. For that reason, I was selected to do the annual personnel records reviews at outlying Communications squadrons, including Diyarbakir, Karamürsel, Trabzon, and İskenderun. It didn’t matter to me where I went. It was just nice to get away from İncirlik for a few days and broke up the monotony.
Of course, each trip was a new adventure, with many fond memories, such as the time that I went to Karamürsel. Talk about being out in the middle of nowhere. I flew there in a C-130, accompanied by some twenty or so Turkish soldiers (Oskeris). The big bird was bobbing and weaving uncontrollably for most of the flight. We were flying in very turbulent weather. Midway through the flight, the Turkish soldiers began a chain reaction of vomiting on the floor of the aircraft. By the time we approached Karamürsel, every one of them managed to unload their gurgling stomachs. Fastened in my seat belt, I couldn’t contain my grin as we all realized that this sole American soldier was the only one onboard that didn’t puke. I actually had to lift my feet off the floor to avoid the nauseous barf expelled by our friendly allies, as it swashed below my feet. The plane was making rapid rises and descents just before we landed at the base. I heard the pilot trying to obtain landing instructions from the Control Tower. When he realized the Turk in the tower didn’t understand a word he was saying, he concluded the flight by saying, “F--k it, I’m taking it in.” Ah, a flight in Turkey to never be forgotten!
I recall that I managed to make it to Istanbul a couple of times during my tour at İncirlik. One of those times was for the purpose of setting up some sort of payroll system and records check at Diyarbakir. Savvier than when I arrived at İncirlik, I managed to schedule these visits on Mondays so that I could spend the weekend beforehand at my favorite hotel in Istanbul. By now, I had several custom made suits in my wardrobe and looked very much the part of the world traveler I pretended to be. It was certainly an improvement over the stinky gabardine uniform I wore on my first stay at the Istanbul Hilton. On this particular trip, I arrived at the Istanbul airport after 9:00 p.m. While waiting to retrieve my luggage, I met an American FBI agent at the carousel who was also staying at the Hilton. Together, we shared a taxi to the hotel. As our old run-down cab was chugging up a steep hill, suddenly I heard a bunch of Turks screaming, “Durdur, Durdur, Durdur” (stop! stop! Stop!)as they ran as fast as they could up the steep slope carrying a suitcase that had fallen out of the open trunk of the cab. When the cab finally stopped at the crest of the hill, huffing and puffing, the panting Turks brought us the suitcase.
To this day, I have never witnessed anything like that in my life. If that would have happened in the States, more than likely that suitcase would never have been retrieved. So, what was different? My new friend, Pat Murphy, explained how the Turkish police system works. According to him, if we had reported that suitcase missing, the police would have opened the hand-written journal established for “stolen suitcases” and proceeded to round up everyone whose name appeared in the journal. Then, they would beat the shit out of them and give them an allotted time, say, 48 hours, to find the missing suitcase. If they didn’t catch the culprit who stole the suitcase in the allotted time, they were apprehended again for another beating, until the missing suitcase was eventually found. At that time, the name of whoever stole the suitcase would be added to the “missing suitcase” list, to endure a like punishment for the remainder of his breathing life. Bear in mind, this log only applied to “stolen suitcases.” Likewise, they had separate logs for such things as “stolen jewelry,” “stolen cars,” “stolen watches,” etc. I marvel at that every time I think about it. Can’t you just imagine how much crime we could eliminate in the United States if we followed such a system?
I spent a very enlightening time with my new friend that weekend. He hailed from Boston and had a great sense of humor. Murphy was the epitome of the big, burly red-haired Boston Irishman. He had this casual manner about him, which concealed whatever he was up to. After an excellent dinner that Saturday night, he invited me along on one of his “assignments.” For over four hours, we visited several brothels along the Bosphorous! He knew exactly where each bordello was located. Generally, he chatted with the proprietor for a few minutes, and then we proceeded to the next one. Fascinating evening! I don’t know exactly what he was up to, but I believe it had something to do with drugs being smuggled in and out of Turkey.
The following Monday, I made my way to the ferry terminal at the Galata Bridge to catch the ferry to Yalova on my way to Karamürsel. It was another of those rides never to be forgotten. If we had been in the States, that small antiquated tugboat they called a ferry would have been grounded. It was a particularly cold, wet, foggy day as the little chug boat slowly made its way across the Marmara Sea, all the while taking in water from the high waves which rocked the boat from one direction to another, like a rag doll in the mouth of a pit bull. If I were a betting man, I would have given odds against making it to Yalova that day. To make matters worse, we crossed the Marmara strait in a sea of fog, with zero visibility. When we miraculously docked at Yalova, I was shivering uncontrollably, and was soaking wet from my head to my toes. Right then and there, I promised myself there would be no way I was taking that tugboat back to Istanbul unless the sun was out and the sea was calm. Fortunately, when I returned a couple of days later, the sun was out and the sea was much calmer.
Do you recall I mentioned earlier that I loaned money to a few senior NCOs who lost their shirts gambling at the NCO Club on Casino night? Well, as you know, “paybacks” are hell! A particular NCO was deeply indebted to me. In fact, he was indebted to the point that I was surreptitiously placed on the manifest for R&Rs (Rest & Recuperation) to such exotic places as Tel Aviv, Israel; Nicosia, Cyprus; and Beirut, Lebanon, as a “gratuity” for the loan. Some stories are best left untold, but I will mention that I was slipped a “Mickey” at a nightclub in Beirut and woke up in an alley at 2:00 a.m., minus my wallet. What was bizarre about that escapade was that when I came to, I managed to walk the streets of Beirut in the middle of the night for at least two miles back to the hotel where we were staying, as if I had lived there all my life. How I accomplished that, I’ll never know. I had never been to Beirut before and that was my first night in this exotic city. Quite concerned about the loss of my military ID card, I reported the theft to the American Embassy the next day. The Consulate was rather indifferent about the entire matter. Fortunately, we were flying by military aircraft so I didn’t have to show any identification to return to Turkey.
Oh! The story doesn’t end there. Since I worked in the Orderly Room, it was my duty to type up an “Application for ID card” to replace my stolen ID card. Since Lieutenant Magruder was on leave in Germany, I took the liberty of signing his name to the application. “Oh well,” I reasoned, “Since I forged an officer’s signature on my application, I may as well lie about my date of birth as well.” So, I entered the year 1937, rather than 1939, as my year of birth, which instantly made me twenty-one and eligible to drink at the Mar Mar nightclub in Adana and watch the belly dancers, without being thrown out by the military police. I thought it was a rather good plan.
That night while I participated in the Turkish practice of “bowling,” with a knock-out gorgeous belly dancer, I was interrupted by a pair of Air Force Air Police who asked to see my military ID card. In a rather assured manner, I immediately whipped out my forged “Application for ID” form. They looked at one another, then looked at me and said, “You don’t look 21. We’re taking you back to the base to verify your age.” Oh shit! My little world suddenly came tumbling down. I sweated bullets on the long ride back to the base. When we arrived at the AP shack, they told me they were going to call Lieutenant Magruder to verify my age. I responded that he was on leave. To that, the Security Police Sergeant said he would call my First Sergeant. I tried to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances as he phoned Sergeant King at his trailer late that night.
If I ever needed a miracle it was then. And I got it! From what I understand, Sergeant King told him, “Oh yes, I know Airman Novak. He works in the Orderly room with me. I’ll vouch for him. He’s 21.” Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I’m here to tell you, I sure learned a valuable lesson that night. The following morning at work, Sergeant King merely waved his index finger at me a few times and grinned. I couldn’t help but think that the old Sarge probably also raised a little hell when he was younger. I could have easily been busted for that stupid act.
Much to the contrary, shortly thereafter, I was selected as the Detachment 16 “Airman of the Month,” followed by my promotion to Airman Second Class, with a date of rank of 1 February 1960. I would be returning to the States with another stripe on my sleeve. One can only ponder the likelihood that I could have easily returned with no stripes on my sleeve. “Some days the diamonds; some days the stones!”
This Photo is not enlargeable. Copyright 2008 David Carter/Peter Eckersly. (David's and Peter's website no longer exists.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I was at İncirlik, while the U-2 flights were taking place. Certainly, everyone on base knew that Det. 10-10 was up to more than the sign in front of the barbed wired fence, and giant "barns" behind the fence implied. How convenient: “Detachment 10-10, Upper Air Weather Research and Development Squadron.” I never saw Major Hurlbert again during my 20 months at İncirlik. I feel certain he was part of the Det. 10-10 operation. I happened to fill in as a waiter at the Officer’s Club a few times and actually served Francis Gary Powers, and his former wife, Barbara, at the Club. The Det. 10-10 guys were a close knit group and were often seen sitting together at the Club.
There was always an underlying tension at İncirlik during the Cold War era. I remember the time we were called to the Base Theater and were told by the Base Commander that there were spies on İncirlik. He went on to tell us, “We know who they are and watch them closely and limit the information they obtain. This way we can control their activity. If we capture them, the enemy, (I assumed he meant Russia), will replace them with someone more qualified to do their mission.”
That’s just the way it was. Everyone stationed there knew they had to be alert at all times. For that matter, your friendly houseboy may have been a spy. It came as no surprise to listen to Moscow Molly on the radio late at night announce, “Hey İncirlik, the third light at the end of your runway is out.” That was the world we lived in. Conversely, the biggest morale booster on the base was when a U-2 returned safely after completing its mission. Like wildfire, the word spread in a matter of minutes that a U-2 was approaching the base. We scurried outside to watch the big bird, with the 103 foot wingspan, land and glide down the runway. What an unforgettable sight to behold!
Finally, my day arrived to return to “the land of the big BX!” I made it! I boarded a Turkish Airlines, Douglas DC-3 airplane, at a much improved Adana Airport, on the evening of February 6, 1960, for my flight to Izmir, Turkey. We remained overnight in Izmir, departing the country on an Alitalia airlines flight to Athens, then on to Shannon, Ireland, and to our final destination where it all began: Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. It was raining the day I stepped off the plane at the Charleston base, however, that didn’t stop me from getting on my hands and knees and kissing the ground on the land I had so dearly missed.
As I reflect on my tour at İncirlik, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to serve there in my initial assignment in the Air Force. Like many who made it before and after me, I learned that if I could make it through that assignment, I could make it anywhere. It “toughened me up” for my future years in the Air Force. The rest was a piece of cake. I went over there a naïve, insecure boy of eighteen and returned as a much more confident, experienced young man. That is not to say, I didn’t have a lot more to learn, but that tour certainly prepared me to face the challenges in my life that lay ahead. I didn’t realize how much that tour really affected me and touched me until I wrote this story for the Merhaba Turkey website. Thank you for giving me that opportunity.
Before you wonder too much, I’ll tell you what happened to me after my tour at İncirlik. I already mentioned that I became a “lifer” and stayed in the Air Force for over 23 years. I love the expression: “Every day was a holiday, and every meal was a feast.” That’s pretty much how it was for me. I had a lot of breaks in my career. I’ll just hit on some of the highlights: I made Master Sargent with minimum time in grade and only ten years in the Air Force. As a Tech Sargent, I filled a Major’s slot, as the Chief of Contract Administration in Bangkok, Thailand. I was selected to complete college under the Air Force’s Bootstrap Commissioning program. I graduated magna cum laude from Park College in 1970, with dual degrees in Business Administration and Economics, and later earned my Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma (go Sooners!).
In April, 1970, I completed Officer Training School, with honors, graduating 3rd in a class of 1,200 cadets. While assigned as the Chief, Procurement Division at Sheppard AFB, Texas, I was selected as the Air Training Command’s “Outstanding Procurement Officer of the Year,” not once, but twice. I am also very proud of the fact that during my tenure there, the Sheppard AFB Procurement Office won the coveted “ATC Outstanding Procurement Office of the Year” award for two consecutive years and, in my final year at the helm, that office, out in the barren plains of West Texas, was selected as the second runner-up for the “Air Force Outstanding Procurement Office of the Year” award, in competition with over 200 bases world-wide. Those three years were the most memorable years in my Air Force career.
From there I attended the 11 month AFIT, Education with Industry Program, at Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., in Sunnyvale, California. My end assignment in the Air Force was as the Contracting Officer for all the Navy programs at the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington. I retired as a Captain on 1 July 1981 and began my civilian career as the head of Purchasing at Lockheed Shipbuilding & Construction Company, in Seattle. I held several management positions with Lockheed over the next 14 years before retiring from the civilian world in 1995. I currently live with my wife (and pets) in Bluffton, South Carolina.
Recently, I completed my first book, a true story titled, “Ora’s Boy,” about my difficult childhood growing up with the prejudices of a small New England mill town in the 1940s and '50s. Visit my website by clicking here: www.jamesjnovak.com. My hope is that perhaps there just might be a message in there to inspire a disheartened, lost soul, to believe in himself, against all odds, and find a path to a better future. I did.