Master Sergeant • U.S. Air Force 1963 – 1985
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one of many American Veteran accounts published in The Sidney Sun-Telegraph. The writer, who is from Sidney, is conducting the interviews as part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.
A bundle of roofing shingles weighs 86 pounds. Clarence W.R. Mellott (Clarence) was working for a roofer and was carrying bundles of shingles over his shoulder up a long extension ladder. They needed to be placed at various spots on the roof of a three-story house. He checked a nearby thermometer and read the line at 115 degrees. On the roofs of houses, it was hotter than that.
While Clarence worked, he took notice of a man sitting in a nice, air conditioned office across the street from where he was working. It seemed like the harder he worked, the more often he checked out the man in cool space. The man in the office was the area's recruiter for the U.S. Air Force.
Clarence went across the street and talked to the man. He asked if the Air Force had a spot for a man like him. The recruiter told him that there was a spot for a man that worked that hard. "What do you want to do?" Clarence said he was interested in the mechanical end of things; engines, helicopters, machines...
It didn't take much time after that. Soon, Clarence was sworn into the U.S. Air Force at Ft. Meade, Md. and flown to San Antonio, Texas. The Air Force training installation for basic recruits there is Lackland Air Force Base. Clarence got the usual lovely haircut, uniforms, a place to eat and a place to sleep. A formation was called by the Training Instructor and when one forms up, there is only the position of "Attention." One's head and eyes are straight ahead, shoulders back, arms straight, and no talking. Clarence got all of it right except the last one. For chatting, he was allowed to use a tooth brush to clean the dirt from cracks in sidewalks for some time.
He recalled the day President John F. Kennedy was killed. Clarence was in the dining facility when he learned of the tragedy. Pay in basic training was $86.00. He learned the essentials of being an Airman.
The next stop was Sheppard Air Force Base, just north of Wichita Falls, Texas. This was the start of mechanics training. Towards the end of this piece, he was informed that he was going to be a helicopter mechanic. And in not much time, he was sent on to Little Rock Air Force Base for further instruction on helicopters.
As things in the military sometimes work, Clarence was sent to an Air Force base that wasn't so much a training place. His next assignment was F.E. Warren in Cheyenne, Wyo. There weren't any helicopters there.
Within a few weeks, the "choppers" arrived and Clarence was working in his field. There were about three versions of helicopters to work on. The mechanics had a great shop to work in. Things were fine. As Frontier Days arrived that year, Clarence took three days leave, Wednesday thru Friday of that particular week. There were some social interactions (parties) going on and Clarence was able to get back to his room at about 0530 hours the second day. A note was attached to his door directing that he report to the Personnel Office at 0700 hours that same morning. That morning, he received his medical evaluation, two arms full of shots and news that he was headed to Southeast Asia. He was on a plane headed to Nakhon Phanom Air Base, Thailand the next day. The flight from Cheyenne to Travis AFB in California was on a C-54. After the overnight rest, the 97 men loaded onto two C-130s (four engine-propeller cargo plane. No seats inside) and island hopped to get to their destination. So... Travis to Hawaii to Guam to Atsuka, Japan and on to Thailand. At every stop on every Island, the men ate breakfast. Lots of biscuits and gravy, pancakes, etc.
When Clarence got to his duty station, the welcome committee showed him where to eat, work and sleep. He was housed at the end of a row of hooches – right about 75 feet from a bank of four diesel generators.
The work there was specific to his training. There were several different varieties of helicopters that he worked on. Moreover, the helicopter itself is a maintenance-heavy aircraft. It requires a use-to-maintenance ratio of about twenty to one. Twenty hours maintenance for every flying hour (if the choppers didn't sustain gunshot or fragmentation damage). There was one runway, and a shop made of canvas to work in.
This tour was for 149 days. When day 149 finally got there, Clarence was told where to be for the flight back to the US. The return flight was different, it went north to Alaska and they stayed overnight at Anchorage. The men came from hot, sticky Thailand, having hot weather clothing on. They nearly froze in Alaska and in South Dakota at Ellsworth AFB plus arriving at Warren AFB.
The re-adjustment to life in the U.S. was not easy. From working the long hours in Thailand plus time at the NCO Club, the days were long. Now, back in the world, things were different. One evening, Clarence and others were in the NCO Club. A "message runner" came into the club and told the men they needed to install a hoist on a helicopter because a rescue was needed. The runner should have found personnel more sober, but he didn't. The hoist was installed but one safety check was not made, resulting in the death of the person who was to be rescued.
Clarence went back to work on helicopters and received orders to report to Southeast Asia, again. He was allowed permissive travel to go to Pennsylvania to see his parents. His new wife accompanied him. On arrival at his parent's home, his father remarked how badly he looked. Not much of a greeting, but his father took Clarence to a nearby military installation that had surgical capability. Clarence was bleeding internally and was down to three units of blood in his body. He went into surgery right away and several hours and transfusions later, was recovering but not fixed. They had to re-open the sutures but couldn't find the leak. He had to be transported by ambulance to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. "STAT!"
The surgeons at Walter Reed found a cut in his small intestine, and had to remove about half of that body of organs to be safe. He continued to receive transfusions. One of the units of blood was contaminated, leaving Clarence with a lifelong illness of Hepatitis B. After six months convalescence, he was allowed to leave the hospital. Clarence has two middle names, Walter and Reed. It was likely that the people at the hospital of that name saved his life.
Clarence was assigned to several different air bases after that, including Malmstrom AFB in Montana, Kadena AFB on Okinawa, Hill AFB in Utah, and Langley AFB in Virginia. The U.S. Air Force had a need for a Maintenance Section Chief at Keflavik, Iceland. The main aircraft there was the CH-53.
On a "Black Russian" Sunday, a Russian container ship became mired down in the ice of the Arctic Ocean. The ship's captain made the emergency radio calls for assistance in getting 138 people off his ship and onto safe ground. Like a pinball, the request for assistance bounced around some, but ended at Clarence's Unit.
The pilots and crews left their living quarters and headed for their aircraft. During the next twenty-four hours, the big helicopters rescued all the people in distress. In the extreme cold, items made of aluminum and metal break and/or break down. When that happened in this instance, Clarence and his mechanics made sure the aircraft stayed in the fight to save all these lives. Often the folks behind the scenes don't get so much credit, but it takes the maximum effort from each team member to get the mission accomplished.
After twenty-two years in the U.S. Air Force, Clarence turned down a promotion for a chance to just stay home with his family. He thought it would take two months to change perspectives and then maybe go to work. Four days later, he was contacted by a civilian aircraft agency which needed an instructor and one to be in charge of their maintenance. There were other employers along the way as well.
Clarence went back to school and received a college degree and later earned an MBA. He is an accomplished writer now and is a relentless volunteer at the VAMC in Cheyenne, Wyo. He is a thoughtful, considerate American Patriot!
Master Sergeant Clarence W. R. Mellott, you've done a great job! Thank you for your service!