© 2003-2011 by Author
Memories of a Cold War Tour
When I arrived in Turkey it was a cold day in March 1972. The flight from the States on the Pan Am Clipper, a new 747, and the arrival at the Istanbul International airport was most remarkable. In a rare maneuver the pilot made a go-around on the landing, and as we climbed back to pattern altitude he announced that there was a flock of sheep on the runway that needed to be moved off. It was incredible to me at the time, apparently the sheep kept the grass mowed along the runways. Some things you just never forget, Turkey had already made a first impression.
In days of the Cold War troops traveling to Turkey were offered the option of not wearing a uniform to disguise the number of US military coming and going. It was a time when being in the military was not always popular thanks to Vietnam. I liked the idea of civilian clothes but did not comprehend the ramifications on arrival.
I still marvel at the fact that I passed through customs not with a passport (I didn’t even have one) but a sheet of paper that was printed out on a ditto machine, my travel orders. I was glad to get through customs, this having been my first time, I stood realizing I had no idea where to go next, nor did it occur to me that I was not very identifiable, being dressed in civilian clothes.
As luck would have it my haircut must have given me away. My new Detachment commander, a Tech.Sgt, whose name I ashamedly cannot remember, picked me out of the crowd. I have wondered in retrospect if the haircut guise was really very effective. I was about to confront the greatest danger of my entire tour in Turkey, the traffic.
At the time he seemed to be the oldest TSgt in the Air Force. Looking back, I figure he must have been about 38 and was quite a character. In any event the 100 kilometer trip to TUSLOG Detachment 101 was hair raising at the very least. Evidently my new commander liked most to drive in the dark. He claimed he could best see around corners just by looking for the oncoming headlight glow, which enabled him to pass on corners in the dark. He roared past every car and truck on the road as we careened at breakneck speed towards Corlu. I had never been terrified before, as I was fast driver myself, but he gave me a glimpse of my own mortality that evenihg.
The accommodations were Spartan at best. In this regard the good seemed to outweigh the bad and I settled in for the year. In hindsight I am honestly surprised we did not have any fatalities as the winter was cold, we actually had two feet of snow on the ground at one point, and while the building's heat never worked, everybody had a kerosene wick heater in their rooms. This was very dangerous as there was no way to vent the carbon monoxide from the heater. Additionally, my heater was not able to keep the entire room above freezing all the time.
Not everything was fun and games and some indoctrinations for newcomers were more depressing than enlightening. Since personnel arrived at random, the training was personalized for the most part. One session, I remember in particular, involved the use of the radiation hood and gas mask. The effort was aimed at teaching you how to don the mask and aim and shoot a weapon while wearing it. In light of more recent events this probably seems rather common but at that time the purpose was far grimmer and it focused me on the realities of being stationed where I was, and the Cold War times when I was.
In those days the assignments to the remote Detachments were classified as non-accompanied, which meant no wives or families. Recreational opportunities were mostly limited to listening to records if you had the equipment, drinking at the Quonset bar and playing a little foosball or pool, a few movies were shown each week at the other end of the Quonset, and more drinking, some more than others. We did have a tiny exchange, a room next to the chow hall about 6 x 12, operated a couple hours per day by one of the troops, usually after lunch and also after supper. It mostly sold junk food that was in high demand.
I recall that in the fall of 1972 an Army Pfc. from DET 74 (co located with DET 101) was the first to bring his wife and baby to live in town. He needed a ride to and from the base and initially the only transportation available was a very old Army Dodge delivery van in really bad condition. I know this because as the Power Plant operator I dispensed the lube oil for the vehicles and that van used about a quart every hundred miles or so. Everybody chipped in to help the newcomers set up their newly built apartment as they had to supply their own water heater and furnace. He found a huge used space heater and, lucky for him, it could burn diesel fuel.
Naturally the military required good grooming practices so I frequently visited the local barber shop in Corlu. The Turks were extremely hospitable and, without fail, whenever I visited the shop, they would send out one of the young boys for Turkish çay (hot tea), brought in on the ubiquitous swinging platter. I was always amused because I prefer my tea without sugar and they were startled and amazed that I would drink it that way. It was a very fine black tea, grown in the Black Sea region, as I recall.
We had a houseboy to do some of our cleaning and laundry tasks in our barracks. He actually worked for everyone in our building so he had about 10 to 12 clients. I remember his name was Fikret Chalim, although I am unsure of the spelling. In retrospect I suppose it was demeaning to call him a houseboy as he was older than most of us and was a Turkish army veteran in the conflict between Turkey and Greece on the island of Cyprus. I would often give him a ride into town and we would stop by his friend's tailor shop where I would again enjoy some çay and have pleasant conversation passing the time of day. Now I look back and I hope he faired well and prospered as he was a good friend and a good man.
One of the more enlightening incidents occurred quite by accident as several of the guys were having a rather animated conversation with some of the local Turkish troops that used to hang around, or were posted near our barracks. Naturally the conversation turned to money and pay and of course Americans, typically being not too tactful, told the Turks how much they were paid and proceeded to convert the amount to Turkish Lira. Upon grasping the amount the ağabeys were unbelieving as they realized that an American PFC was making as much as a Turkish General. Inevitably the Turks accused the Americans of lying. The Army first sergeant noticing the commotion came over and when he realized what it was all about just told his troops to shut up before they caused and international incident. They did, no harm done, very interesting for us at the time.
As a requirement for driving in Turkey we were required to get an international drivers license. At least at the time I thought it was international though it may have been just a Turkish license. I took the test at the consulate in Istanbul personally administered by one of the friendly Turks working there. He personally made sure I answered all of the questions correctly especially when he saw I was about to mark one wrong he helpfully pointed to the correct answer. Upon the unquestionable successful completion they took my picture and pasted it into the small license form and with great fanfare proceeded to place his official stamp on the document. Unfortunately there was so much ink on the rubber stamp that upon smacking the paper ink splattered over both of us, it was unreadable but official.
During the summer months a few of us took the opportunity to visit the US Coast Guard Detachment, about ten miles south at the nearby Sea or Marmara, the intervening waterway between the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Yes, there were US Coast Guardsmen stationed in Turkey. They maintained a thousand foot high transmission tower ostensibly for communications but its strategic military uses were commonly known. In any case there was a nice little beach house at the shore of their compound and there was snorkeling gear which we often put to good use. The water was so clear you could see the bottom in sixty feet of water. Even then the area was a growing tourist destination due to the beautiful clear water and sandy beaches.
Istanbul, 100 km to the east, was a major weekend destination with many places to visit. We had to pass through The City to make our way to our USAF headquarters at KARAMURSEL. On the way into Istanbul the highway passed many interesting places, not the least of which was the tanning factory. I remember smell at this location was beyond imagination, tolerance, and it challenged everyone to see how long they could hold their breath and how fast they could drive to get out of range.
Though the first transcontinental bridge was under construction at the time, the only transportation across the Bosporus, at the time, was via ferry. Given the large amount of truck traffic, the line was often three or four miles long, in terms of time that meant 12 to 24 hour wait -a suspenseful time to be in the military - as the country was under marshal law during my entire tour. This allowed the military vehicles to go to the front of the line, a real power trip for young troops.
Most of our sightseeing was by bus. We could catch a regular bus, just outside the gate, for about 15 lira (about a buck in those days) and take it to Topkapi bus station on the east side of Istanbul. From there we could catch a city bus to most locations in the city. Often getting onto a city bus was a challenge as they were usually overloaded and it was very difficult to push one's way onboard. This was a really good way to get up close and personal with the local residents whether you wanted to or not.
The list of interesting and fascinating places to see in Turkey is very long! There are the city walls established by the Emperor Hadrian, the Blue Mosque, and the city cistern built back in Roman times - and featured, by the way, in the movie “From Russia With Love”. My favorite destination was the Grand Bazaar the oldest continuously-operating marketplace in the western world. I still remember a jewelry dealer we all called “Gold Finger”. From another shop I purchased several beautiful brass and onyx tea sets that I sent home. I found the actual structure of the place the most fascinating as the streets were completely roofed over though very difficult to observe due to the lighting at the lower levels.
I remember how the merchants seemed to love to haggle, and if you would play their game you could usually get a very reasonable price for most items and enjoy the process at the same time. If you really played hardball and walked out after bargaining a while they would follow you down the street and offer even lower prices. Buyer beware though, some of my buddies thought they were buying ancient valuables but when they got back to the barracks often the corrosion that made them look very old was evidently from being buried in dirt with chicken droppings, later a little TarnX revealed them to be quite new not mention relatively worthless.
On one trip into Istanbul, toward the end of my tour, I was driving an Air Force 68 Impala Staff car, our pick-up was being repaired at the time. In any case this staff car had a 327 V8 with standard column shifter. Unknown to me this car had a common defect in that the engine mounts tended to break. Consequently under torque the left side of the engine would lift pulling on the throttle linkage to wide open throttle. Not that this was bad enough, given unexpected hard acceleration, but the clutch pivot shaft was mounted with one end to the engine and the other to the inner fender wall! In any case I was driving on a busy street in Istanbul when the car went to full throttle and the clutch shaft fell off its gimbals rendering the clutch inoperative. So there I was accelerating through 65 MPH, with no throttle control and no clutch to disengage the engine. Of course I applied the brakes as hard as I could and amongst the squealing tires and racing engine I managed to turn off the ignition.
Once we got to the curb the first problem was to determine what had happened. By the time we had ascertained the nature of the failure there was a crowd of bystanders all offering their advice in Turkish none of which we understood at the time. By some miracle we were able to use the car jack, the only tool we had, as a lever to lift the engine and reinstall the clutch shaft. The trip back to the Detachment needless to say involved the most cautious and tentative uses of the gas peddle. When we got back I repaired the mount with a small piece of chain I happened to have, it probably was driven for years like that.
Not everything was sightseeing, of course. We all had our military duties to attend to, but after a military career, nobody really remembers the mundane parts of their time in a place most of us initially didn’t want to be in. There were times, though, which stand out in one's mind and they are not hard to enjoy in retrospect. Since we were co-stationed with the Army, as Air Force personnel we were usually included in most activities. One summer day the Army first Sergeant came around and announced there would be target practice training. I gathered that this was not necessarily a common practice, but evidently there were about seven thousand rounds of 5.56mm that were about to expire and needed to be disposed of.
As chance would have it the there was a nice rifle range right on base, unlucky for us though, the Turks would not let us use their target frames. In the past our predecessors had destroyed them with stray rounds. So, undaunted we checked our weapons out of the armory and scoured the trash dump for empty soda and beer cans or bottles to use as targets. We loaded our weapons, munitions and beer cans onto a deuce-and-a-half and trundled our way over to the range. For my part it was the first time I had the opportunity to play with an M-16 on full auto. I can tell you we sent those beer cans to the great beyond with great fanfare, and that was about the most fun you can have with your pants on! We had several Turkish ağabeys ("AH-bees" = big brothers/friends) observing us and I think they thought we were all crazy as hell.
There were some bad times to go along with the good. As I mentioned earlier traffic was by far the most hazardous part of being in Turkey at the time. We lost three men, and another severely injured, in a single traffic accident during my tour. An unfortunate head-on collision with a bus killed the three instantly. I spent most of that night on a radio watch outside the local hospital with our portable communication rig while the disposition and resolution of the situation was handled. I do not recall which Detachment they were from but I do recall it was to the west of our location at Corlu.
As with most everything in life, the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and in the end, the time to depart neared. From my perspective at the time I could not have been happier. In hindsight, though, it was the end of what was and still is one of the most memorable times of my life. The final act prior to making the final trip to the airport involved shipping whatever belongings one may have accrued during the tour, back home...or in my case to my next duty station stateside. For this purpose we were provided a special corrugated box into which we could fit anything we wanted to ship as hold baggage. My recollection is it was two feet square and four feet deep.
In those days I am quite certain there was little or no inspection of what was in those boxes so as you can imagine there were instances of nefarious use of the service. For my part I was just able to fit in my stereo equipment and a few souvenirs. Though we had to individually deliver them to the consulate in Istanbul for shipment, they were then shipped for us to our next base.
I delivered the box to the same kind fellow who had helped me with my driver’s license. While filling out the necessary paperwork, in passing, I asked him about how long it would take for the box to arrive at the destination. His response was “perhaps several months”. I was clearly dismayed, but wait: he had a suggestion for expedited service. All I had to do was take his money and buy him two bottles of Jim Beam. Hard liquor was not legally sold to the general population. Since it didn’t cost me anything and I had hardly ever used my ration card I happily went down the hall to the Class VI store in the basement of the consulate and purchased the grease to lube the gears of bureaucracy.
To my amazement the box was waiting for me when I got to my next duty station!