"How I Got to Asmara in Spite of the Army" by Robert E. Fields, Jr.

I joined the ASA in January of 1952 to go to language school in Monterey CA. I had all the qualifications, I had extremely high scores on all the tests given to new recruits at the time and I wanted it. It was promised to me. Did I get it? Are you kidding?

After basic at Fort Knox I went to Vint Hill Farms for assignment. I flew in with the 1st half alphabetically of my basic training unit. We were given our choice of High Speed Radio Operator, Morse Code Interceptor, or Intermediate Speed Radio Operator. Absolutely nothing else! Since I also had a high score on the OCS test I decided to apply for that--to hell with radio, but they said I had to go to one of those three schools and apply for OCS there, not at Vint Hill.

The second half of the basic company flew in the next day and were offered their choice of any school in the army, language school included. I went back to the assignment section trying to get my orders changed. I was told I was qualified for those three schools. I told them that, with my test scores, I was qualified for any school in the whole damn army, all to no avail. They said I could get out of the ASA only by volunteering for active duty with the infantry in Korea. I tried that. They threw me out of every office at Vint Hill that I went to trying to volunteer.

I ended up back at Ft. Knox in Intermediate Speed Radio Operator school, the shortest one I could get so I could get to OCS faster. My orders were to report to Arlington Hall, VA, upon completion but my orders were changed to report to Ft. Devins, MA instead. It seems everyone got those orders but me. I reported to Arlington. I had passed my OCS board at Ft. Knox and was given my papers and told to turn them in when I got to Arlington. I did. Military District of Washington looked at them and figured I wasn't there, I had been ordered to Ft. Devins, so MDW sent them there. Ft. Devins looked at them and couldn't find me. After 90 days I was declared a deserter until the MPs showed up at my parents home in Pensacola looking for me. They told them I was at Arlington Hall and that they had just talked to me a few nights previously. Things finally got straightened out but not before I decided I didn't mind saluting them but I'd be damned if I would associate with them.

I was finally given a choice of Greenland, Germany, Japan or Asmara. What the hell was an Asmara? I was directed to a sergeant up at HQ who had just returned. He told me it was warm there. It was cold as hell in DC and that was all this old southern boy needed to hear. I had been in Special Services at Arlington. Off all day, projectionist at the base theater at night for pay. On weekends, the manager, ticket seller and assistant projectionist would take off. I would load the projector, go downstairs and sell the tickets, run upstairs and run the film and back downstairs to do the paperwork. For at least two nights every weekend I collected 4 people's pay, a tidy sum to a private. I was supposed to go to Asmara to manage the base theater.

But things don't happen your way in the military. I was sent to Camp Kilmer for shipment overseas but my orders, pay records and passport were lost for some 35 days, to be found only after a janitor accidentally tipped over a secretary's chair and found my orders and four others under her fringed cushion on her desk chair. She didn't have enough sense to screw her chair up to the proper position.

Westover Air Force base, in the January snow and cold. My flight was called. I went to the terminal to depart. Delay. Picked up a Life Magazine. C124 Globemaster crashes in Germany with 96 killed. Picked up another. C124 Globemaster crashed in Japan with 80+ killed. Another Life, another C124 Globemaster crash in the states, 100+ killed. Told to load. Walked out to see our plane, a C124 Globemaster. We flew out, had engine trouble and returned to Westover with one engine out and another leaking oil badly. They fixed it overnight and we went out again. We had the same problem and had to return again. Went out the third time and got past the point of no return before the same engine went out again. We couldn't fly over a storm like that and were hit by lightning. It blew the whole top of the rudder off but we finally made it to the Azores. I cleaned up and went drinking immediately. I ordered 3 double martinis at once and tossed them down in about 10 minutes. That's when they found me to tell me we had another plane and were leaving immediately. I was out of cigarettes and bought a pack in the terminal. Don't ever, ever smoke a Portugese cigarette when you'r drunk and about to fly. I only remember wheels up, and then we were in Tripoli.

After a one night's stop in Dhahran I arrived in Asmara on a Friday. Bill Harkins and a few others had a weapons carrier and were going to Massawa. Bill got a pass for me so I could go with them. Still woozy from the trip I was introduced to the Asmara-Massawa road and the CIAAO Hotel. I don't remember very much about that trip except the sheer terror of taking those curves at least at 97.53 MPH. I'm still amazed that I'm alive.

But the long delay of having my records lost had its cost. The army couldn't wait for me and had given the management of the base theater to someone else, so I ended up as projectionist assistant to a little Muslim native who frequently delayed the start of the movies until he had bowed to Mecca and prayed. It was a bad situation. However, after only a couple of days I heard of an opening in the photo lab and managed to get that. I spent a few months working under Glen Stauffer and then took it over for about the last year and a half that I was there.

The photo lab then was a small room off the side of the PX warehouse. After I took over the department I designed and had built about a 14x20 lab behind the small stucco library. At least now I didn't have to listen to the PX officer's wife taking her friends into the warehouse to give them an opportunity to buy whatever they wanted before it was put out where the enlisted personnel could buy it.

I think I started the base's first camera club. WO Harold Pritchard, my CO, handed me the requisition catalog for military photo supplies one day and told me to order my next six months' photo supplies and equipment. I did, ordering 'by the box' as per the instructions in the catalog. A few months later we got a call from Massawamy ship had come in, a whole freighter, unloaded into a whole warehouse. Somehow, in the military's infinite wisdom, my 'by the box' order had been converted to 'by the CASE.' I have no idea how many trucks it took to bring all that to Asmara, but they were many. Pritchard screamed. I showed him the book and my order. There was nothing he could do.

I knew right away it would never be used officially, so I got permission to form a camera club and let them help use supplies that would have otherwise been ruined by time and wasted. We gave away free film, B&W and color, and let them use all the chemicals and paper they wanted. If they wanted to make 16x20 prints I told them to use 16x20 test strips. There was never any limit on what they used. The only requirement was that they clean it up when they were finished. I never had a single problem with anyone leaving the lab in a mess.

We would occasionally get trucks from the motor pool and go on field trips. I've slept a few times since then and have forgotten where we went on most ov them, but one trip still stands out in my mind. Somehow we ended up on the rim of a great canyon, as I recall at least as beautiful as the Grand Canyon in this country, although not as big. When I first saw the expanse Chaplain Edwin Gomke was standing at my side. I exclaimed in a rather loud voice, "Good God!" Chaplain Gomke, very softly, said, "Yes."

During my time there I hooked up with Jack Herron of the US Point IV program. He and a group of others were there to teach the Eritreans and Ethiopians better methods of agriculture and animal husbandry. They needed photographs to illustrate their reports to Washington and to Oklahoma A&M University (now OSU) in Stillwater, OK. I was elected and, as a result, got to see places and people all over both countries. It was a ball, because I also got to do a lot of hunting on the trips. I would later run into Jack in Norman, OK during my 30 years there as director of the photography and audio visual department at the OU Research Institute. I spent a lot of time with him and his lovely wife, Mickey.

It was great duty, it was a great place and I'll remember it fondly for the rest of my life. There was only one great sour note to the whole thing. I took thousands of photographs of Asmara and the two countries in places most people will never see, in places where they had never seen white men. I stored all of these negatives, printing only a few from time to time even with unlimited access to more photo supplies that most people will ever see. I wanted to wait until I got back home to print them. But I stored them in a new kind of clear plastic sleeve. When I was packing to leave for home in November of '54 I pulled out boxes and boxes of negatives and found that the plastic sleeves had welded to the emulsion of the film and then shrunk and wrinkled, pulling great globs of the emulsion off the film base. Every single negative and slide was beyond any salvage of any kind. I sat on the floor of the lab and cried like a baby as I threw them into the trash can. Only those few that were not stored in those new sleeves are still in my collection.


All materials, pictures, whatever, except where noted.
©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved