TURNING AND BURNING WITH HULI-HULI CHICKEN
The international news this evening was grim. I was having some ‘ohana (family) and hoaloha (friends) over for dinner and had already started the coals for a barbeque as the CBS Evening News came up on the tube. The newscast’s lead story concerned ten medical aid workers (six of whom were Americans) who had just been shot by the Taliban terrorists in the northeast region of Afghanistan that lies along the border of Pakistan. That region is a particularly lawless area, totally uncontrolled by Afghani or US authorities and favored by the Taliban and related Islamic terrorists for its rugged terrain and proximity to sanctuaries within Pakistan, where Pakistani supporters of Islamic jihadists turn a blind eye to frequent Taliban and Al Queda incursions.
The news commentator revealed that the medical workers, including an optometrist, several medical aides, and a British woman doctor (Karen Woo) had undertaken an arduous 120 mile journey into the mountainous Badakhshan province to provide ophthalmological aid to tribes in that remote area. They had been taken captive by Taliban terrorists, robbed, and marched off into some nearby woods where they were murdered in cold blood, their executioners claiming that they were spreading ‘Christian propaganda’ and condemning them as spies. The small group of medical missionaries had been sponsored by a US based Christian help organization and were doubtless convinced that they were doing the Christian thing to help the less fortunate ‘heathens’ in that remote wilderness of Afghanistan’s farthest reaches.
Their immensely commendable dedication, faith and altruistic spirit notwithstanding, they were also unfathomably stupid to think that they could simply hike back in to the primitive wilds of rural Afghanistan and engage in their work unharassed or unthreatened by Islamic militants, who freely range that part of the country with impunity. It goes without saying that the brutal murder of these dedicated if totally naïve innocents constitutes a savagely barbaric act of mindless brutality that defies comprehension, but the fact is that similar acts of innocent thoughtlessness by do-goodniks occur quite regularly these days, as individuals and groups continue to delude themselves into thinking that their selfless idealism can actually make a mouse-fart of a difference in the ongoing, chaotic lives of these primitive peoples.
As I stood there by the barbie-pit mulling all this over for the ten-thousandth time, I took a long pull at the glass of Australian (Black Swan) Merlot-Shiraz I was nursing and stared glumly into the glowing coals, wondering yet again at the incomprehensible and infuriating contradictions of humanity, hoping that the ETOH effects would quickly douse the growing sense of anger, frustration and rage that this latest foul act of senseless butchery was filling me up with. But then, the world is simply chock-a-block full of both innocents and ignorant savages, isn’t it? And isn’t that why the entire history of the human race is annotated (virtually characterised) by serial acts of equal savagery and equally incomprehensible examples of wide-spread destruction and wanton chaos? In a sense one could almost make a convincing argument this is simply another existential demonstration (as well as our primitive consciousnesses will permit us to conceive it, at least) of the tendency for all forces in the universe to achieve an equilibrated stasis of balance. Assuming for the argument that you have a certain quantity of naively innocent victims, it must be more than mere coincidence that their numbers are counter-balanced by an almost equal number of ruthless, mouth-breathing idiots whose pleasure demands little more than the total annihilation of that of the innocents. Playground bullies and their quiet little nerd-like victims. Belligerent warmongers and peacenik protestors. Virulent racists and humane egalitarians. Geniuses and mongoloid idiots. Ralph Naders and Dick Cheneys. The list of possible counter-balanced matches is endless, of course. Certainly not something that one wishes to dwell on immediately prior to sitting down to a pleasant meal among kindred spirits on a hot, but always beautiful Hawaiian summer day, but the smoke rises strangely off the searing chicken legs, much the same way a suspicious dark cloud rising above the otherwise sylvan woods near Auschwitz would, and my thoughts tilt a bit, accordingly.
It’s almost as hot outside as it is among the coals of the barbie and there I am staring at the hulu-huli chicken (barbeque, Hawaiian style, which is an island style version of teriyaki chicken; ‘huli’ means to ‘flip’ or turn) that is sizzling on the grill. The skins on the thighs and legs are already semi-charred, cracking and pulling away from the reddened flesh just underneath, creating a patchwork of ochre-brown dripping meat, covered intermittently by clotted patches of black charcoal. Thickened puffs of rising smoke mingle with the sweetish aroma of burning flesh as I stare at the meat. Anticipation of the delicious meal about to be served makes me hungry as I watch the fat drip off the seared flesh to fall explosively onto the red-hot coals underneath as another strange phrase pops into my consciousness: crispy critters!
Suddenly I am reminded of another barbeque I involuntarily attended many years ago, while serving in the US Air Force at Minot AFB in North Dakota. This one took place on the base about half way down the main runway, an eight foot thick, three hundred foot wide ribbon of specially reinforced concrete designed to support the weight of 450 ton nuclear bombers. The runway stretches two and a half miles off into the Dakota prairieland and contrasts rather strangely with the flat, open pastures and grass-fields it punctuates.
It was January of 1968 and Minot was a primary ZI (Zone of the Interior) SAC (Strategic Air Command) base, home of the 450th Strategic Bomb Wing (later to become 5th BW), with its ‘Christmas tree’ alert pad, where eight B-52G model Stratofortresses were constantly poised on 24/7 nuclear strike duty. Each ‘BUFF’ (USAF slang for ‘Big Ugly fat F**ker’) suatted on the concrete like a lethally cocked, flying cannon loaded with live nuclear bullets. Fueled and ready to fly out and obliterate targets in the Soviet Union (a moment we all fervently hoped would never come) on a split second notice, should the ‘go-code’ suddenly be sent out from headquarters, nothing was permitted to come within 200 yards of the alert pad without proper security clearance. Aside from the armed Air Policemen standing guard, the only signs of life near them were the occasional jackrabbits that lopped unconcerned across the bare concrete.
As a junior member of the base’s Flight Surgeon’s Office (FSO), I was on base at the clinic near the flightline when a KC-135A (the military version of the Boeing 707 civil airliner) rolled down the taxiway and turned 90 degrees to line up for departure on that great ribbon of concrete used as the main runway. It was a typical Minot winter day, a bit blustery with no signs of let-up from periodic dustings of wind-swept snow and I was very grateful for my Air Force issued ‘bunny suit’, a severe cold weather outfit consisting of the Air Force N-3B arctic parka, matching pants, and white rubber boots. As was customary for any departure, we were outside the operations building near the emergency crash vehicles on the ramp and although the ‘cracker-box’ (our big blue crash ambulance, also occasionally called a ‘meat wagon’) provided some respite from the perpetually freezing Minot winds, it was still pretty damn cold inside the vehicle.
I called to check in with the tower, noting we were on routine standby as the big KC rolled slowly past us, freshly refueled and ready to depart on the next leg of its 15th Air Force Command Staff inspection tour to Glasgow AFB. On board were thirteen individuals, including most of the 15th Air Force’s higher headquarters staff and Major General Charles M. Eisenhart, its Vice Commander. The General had flown out from March AFB with his group as part of a Command-wide Air Division inspection, carried out in accordance with SAC’s strict policy of maintaining constant operational readiness for its nuclear deterrent mission (‘Peace is our profession’ was the cute little SAC PR motto of the day).
At the end of the runway, the big KC paused for a final engine run-up and last-minute cockpit check, but it seemed to take a little longer than I was accustomed to witnessing. Out on the field the wind gusts were increasing and the blowing snow briefly assumed a horizontal attitude of obscuring the deck from ground level up to about 20 feet…a very common and characteristic aspect of winter on the wide-open and unprotected North Dakota prairie. Finally, I could see the black clouds of combusted JP-4 kerosene fuel dramatically start to pour out of all four engine exhausts as the big KC began its lengthy take-off roll.
Heavily laden with full fuel tanks and its complement of seven crew and six higher command dignitaries, the plane wallowed down the runway at 0900 hours, gradually but steadily picking up speed as it flew into the teeth of the ground wind and frozen fog. As it reached the half-way point of the two and a half mile long runway it had already became obscured by the blowing snow, but the roar of the big turbojets was by that point quite palpable and we could feel the pounding vibration from its four full-throttle, axial-flow J-57 engines inside our crash vehicle. By then the nose of the aircraft should have started to poke slightly above the blowing snow, but visibility had been reduced to about 400 feet and nothing was viewable from our vantage, parked as we were back by base ops. I was watching the take-off keenly as I would every takeoff and not just because I am a big airplane buff in my own right: it was also our duty to provide extra sets of eyes to watch for anything that might be anomalous or out of the ordinary during any take-off, given our duty with the Flight Surgeon’s Office. In this instance, however, the weather effectively precluded any direct observation we might have been able to make.
As I watched, still trying to see the plane lift-off successfully, I suddenly felt a sick stab of upset in my stomach when our crash ambulance was violently shaken by an immense explosion. It was immediately apparent that the ball of fire and black smoke that was just becoming barely visible through the fog, far down the field, was our departing KC-135. As the com system suddenly came alive with urgent emergency calls, the crash trucks took off down the runway with sirens blaring and lights blazing, followed by us in close pursuit. Since visibility was so poor, we had to be cautious and the blowing snow made us all wary of speeding too quickly into what was by now undoubtedly a raging cauldron of fire and scattered debris.
The intensity of the fire and smoke shortly became quite apparent as we broke through the whiteout and neared the edge of a massive debris field. We later learned that it stretched more than a thousand feet in several directions from a cratered impact area about 20 feet to the right of the runway, nearly three-quarters down its length. Despite the poor visibility, the sight that greeted us was sickening at best, since what had formerly been a large, three hundred thousand pound aircraft was now nothing more than a scattering of small, smoking objects littering the snowscape. Nothing I could see was larger than a few feet long or wide and in fact the largest section of the burning crash wreckage we observed was a six foot by six foot portion of the fuselage that was totally consumed by fire.
Clearly there was nothing we could do but stand-by and observe for the immediate moment while the OA-1 crash trucks poured gallons of fire retardant on the wreckage. It was pretty obvious that survivors were unlikely, given the immense destruction the aircraft had sustained. As soon as most of the fire had been controlled (not an easy task hampered by blowing snow and poor visibility) and what larger bits of debris that existed had been checked by appropriately suited crash response rescue personnel, we were cleared for more close-in operation and got out of the vehicle to help others check the debris field for any possible signs of life.
The foot deep layer of snow caused considerable difficulty trying to make sense out of the devastation we were confronted with, but the whole of the viewable landscape confronting our gaze had a bizarre sort of black and white Swiss cheese appearance, as bits of still burning matter continued to smoke within snow-melt circles where they had been blown by the initial explosion. I was briefly reminded of how Yellowstone National Park had once looked to me during a childhood winter visit, with all its boiling fumaroles and hot mud springs melting patches of snow all about, but that vision was quickly dispelled when I literally stumbled across my first human remains: an oddly elongated chunk of blackened, smoldering debris that lay just to my right. Recognising what it was too late to staunch a wave of nausea, I finally made out what appeared to be a smoking human torso without head, arms, or legs. In other words, a big chunk of smoldering (human) meat. The flight suit the torso was wearing had been consumed by the fire, despite its fire-retardant Nomex fabric, and there was nothing except intuition to help one recognise that this fire-charred object was one of the aircraft’s unfortunate crew . [When we were in a benevolent mood, we called crash victims ‘souls’ in the service approved aviation euphemism for ‘crash victim’, but when the mood was too stressful to cope sanely with such carnage, we’d refer to burnt human remains as ‘crispy critters’. While that may sound tastelessly callous to the uninitiated, it’s actually an old decompensation mechanism called ‘sick humor’, picked up out of necessity in the Air Force Medical Service while operating under severe emotional duress, and a real psychological life-saver in later civilian ER and cardiological venues when things got iffy.]
Since many of those who were among us searching through the debris field for survivors had just recently finished breakfast (it was 0930 hours, or 9:30 AM), a good number of our group were soon overcome by nausea and vomited the SOS they had eaten (a military delicacy known as 's**t-on-a-shingle', or gravied-hamburger bits over toast) freely upon coming across other, equally grisly vestiges of human remains that morning. By late afternoon, the immediate search for survivors was called off and the subsequent aspects of the initial on-site crash investigation continued. For all our exhaustive efforts, we found only one surviving crewmember, an enlisted Tech Sergeant, who had apparently been in the far aft end of the aircraft when it hit (statistically a safer place to be than in the nose or forward section). Although severely burned over approximately 80% of his body, he was quickly retrieved and dispatched to John Moses Air Force Hospital in the city of Minot (some 24 miles from base), from whence he was soon flown to the Army’s burn facility at Brooke Army Medical Center (Ft. Sam Houston, TX). General Eisenhart (age 53), the three Colonels, three Lt. Colonels, a Major and a Captain, along with the other three enlisted personnel on board, were all killed in the crash’s initial impact, since most were in the cockpit and forward section of the KC when it plummeted.
Thinking all of this over, many years later as I gazed at the searing chunks of huli huli chicken I was fixing, I seemed to recall that the survivor, a Sgt. Wright, ultimately succumbed to his injuries. The others, although all killed, were in a sense more fortunate since they died quite quickly in the initial impact, such was the force with which the aircraft plunged to earth. A subsequent formal crash investigation phase was shortly initiated to determine what exactly had caused the incident and our Flight Surgeon’s Office had privy access to the medical report findings, given our participation in the post-mortem investigation of injuries sustained by the victims and the fact that the base Flight Surgeon always prepares that aspect of the overall crash report.
Although I was not directly involved in the actual autopsies done on the crash victims, I heard several things from colleagues and fellow medics who were and their accounts made me glad I was not a radiographer! Since the remains of aircraft crash victims are routinely radiographically examined (‘X-rayed’) to determine the precise extent of their mortal crash injuries, several of the base rad-techs had been charged with performing these post-mortum films on the remains. Consisting of charred torsos at best and severed chunks of upper or lower body at worst, the techs had one victim’s intact torso on the X-ray table and were positioning it so as to gain AP and lateral views when the torso literally split open in front of them. Both were splashed by the spewing juices contained within the charred husk and had to immediately leave the procedure room owing to extremely violent nausea they suffered. I can certainly commiserate with the horror they must have experienced at such an unexpectedly sickening occurance.
The final accident report was eventually completed (although at a somewhat later date) and the official version handed over to higher command headquarters, since it had not been immediately apparent at the onset as to exactly what had caused the crash. Word we medical personnel were given was that the crash was attributable to a combination of factors (as follows). It should be noted that aircraft crashes do not typically occur owing to a single catastrophic failure (either structural or human caused); more commonly, crashes are caused by a combination of several factors or events that together create the circumstances that lead to a catastrophe. That certainly appeared to be the case in this instance.
First, the general and his staff had been lavishly entertained the night before their departure with a formal dining-in at the base O-club (Officer’s Club), attended by all the ’liquid’ celebrating that often occurs with the visit of a higher command staff officer to the base. Apparently, the general and all his entourage had been drinking substantially (as might perhaps be expected). Further, the general had apparently been treating himself with medication and there was some concern evidenced in the medical report over possibly untoward synergistic effects involving self-medications and ETOH being a factor of special focus. His refractive eyesight index had also not been updated recently so there was also a question of his visual acuity being adequate for assuming aircraft PIC (pilot in command) status. Further, and perhaps most significantly, since it was known that the general held a Command Pilot rating and was previously qualified in the KC-135A aircraft, the surmise was therefore advanced that as a courtesy to the general, he was offered the left seat (pilot) position in the aircraft’s cockpit by the aircraft’s assigned PIC to fly it out (since he was type-rated).
Under normal circumstances that might have been a fact rather unworthy of further consideration, but shortly after getting a hundred feet or so airborne, all indications are that the aircraft suffered a severe and precipitous unilateral hydraulic failure during the initial, critical part of rotation off the ground that suddenly rendered the aircraft totally uncontrollable. It is estimated that at an altitude of no more than 150 feet or so the aircraft began a sharp roll, owing to the unbalanced control surface effects caused by the hydraulic failure, and efforts to recover were unsuccessful (due to insufficient airspeed, low altitude, and loss of control, and perhaps the above mentioned pilot factors) as the aircraft then stalled and impacted the ground inverted (on its back).
All of the above is not anywhere definitively documented to my knowledge (except in the official USAF crash report), being merely information that was informally passed along to us at the time, but it would be interesting to request release of the entire accident report under the aegis of what is left of the much constrained FOIA to see how closely the above scenario matches (or does not match) the official conclusions reached by that accident board.
Curious how all of this semi-morbid reflection was precipitated by that charred and sizzling huli huli chicken I had been trying not to incinerate on the barbie, and strange also how after several decades have passed, during which any further thoughts of this event had not occurred, a seemingly unrelated event like sizzling chicken legs suddenly and illogically prompted the Pandora’s box of memories to spring open once more.
Speaking of unrelated events and recurrent (or non-recurrent) recollections, despite the fact that it is a hot summer’s island day and regardless of the waves of heat given off by the charcoal coals, I am tangentially reminded of a fondness I have for that old heavy-duty cold apparel (the Air Force ‘bunny suit’ mentioned earlier) I depended upon for warmth, those many years ago during bitterly cold North Dakota winters. Specifically, the N-3B Arctic parka the Air Force gave us that one wore like a personal tropical environment to keep out frigid Minot wind and snow storms. It was a life-saver, to say the very least, and a classic item of issue produced by the US Air Force quartermaster corps to keep Air Force troops warm in the sort of profoundly cold environments that Strategic Air Command frequently flew its nuclear deterrent missions out of (North Dakota, Alaska, etc.).
The N-3B parka can be visually recognised by its typical ‘arctic’ ‘Nanook of the North’ look, complete with a whitish synthetic wolf fur ruff and its sage-green nylon (or 60/40 cotton/nylon) fabric. Featuring two large lower external pockets, two snap-secured upper external hand-warmer pockets, and an adjustable, attached hood lined with Acrylic fur, the N-3B for a while became quite popular in the civilian fashion world, some years back when military surplus items and camouflage clothing were first discovered to be chic and cool attire by youthful consumers.
Originating in the late Second World War era as the insulated N-3 Aircrew Cold Weather Parka for issue to US Air Force crews as high altitude protective outer clothing (along with a shorter, waist length version known as the N-2 for pilots), after the US Air Force was established in 1947 the venerable USAAF N-3 parka underwent several subsequent improvements, the second version being designated the USAF N-3A. The N-3A (blue nylon) version with its real wolf fur ruff soon yielded to an updated version that featured a ruff of coyote fur and used insulated sage-green nylon fabric, designated the N-3B parka in the mid 50s. A further improvement (although still designated the ‘N-3B’) used white synthetic (or simulated) Acrylic fur for its ruff, attached to an insulated nylon/cotton blend outer shell. Polyester fiberfill material replaced earlier insulating materials used in the earlier permutations of the N-3B parka and although not used as much by aircrews today, the parka remains in current issue for all US Air Force troops stationed in severely cold environments, since there’s little that could be done to improve on this archetypal item of perfectly functional cold weather apparel.
Back on the base at Minot, we were issued the N-3B (and its accompanying pants, boots, etc.) as part of our cold-weather duty gear and it was constantly drilled into our heads that we were to never go anywhere off base during the cold North Dakota winters without our parka in the back seat of our vehicle. To be caught without one close at hand by the ‘Apes’ (Air Police) was a serious violation of orders, so we all complied. For my part, I was more than once damn glad I had brought the thing along with me in the back of my old blue 1963 VW convertible. Although the VW beetle was one of the German secret cold weather ‘weapons’ of the WWII period, it also quickly proved to be a vital necessity in parts of the USA (such as the bitterly cold plains states), since as an air cooled car with all its traction and weight centered aft, it could meet and easily defeat cold conditions and snow drifts that would have stopped a conventional front-engine, rear drive car cold. Prepared for duty during cold North Dakota winters with my sturdy little beetle and an N-3B parka, I felt ready for anything nature decided to throw at us. That was also the start of my life-long appreciation of the N-3B parka that continues to this day, despite moments when I am as far away from subzero weather (as I am on a Hawaiian summer day like today) as one could possibly be.
Consequent to this, an N-3B parka always occupies a hanger in my closet (near the more expensive cold-weather gear I use for mountaineering), ready to grab and toss in the back of the car when I’m on the mainland and about to embark on a seasonal trip to or through the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter. Others who see me attired thusly may feel I’m just another proletarian captive of popular consumer culture trendiness, but that’s because their own familiarisation with this wonderfully functional garment didn’t begin, as did my own, sitting in the bone-chillingly cold confines of an Air Force emergency crash ambulance, alongside a North Dakota SAC base runway in the ‘Cold War’ years of the mid-60s (a truly COLD ‘Cold War’ experience, at that).
Aloha mai e!