Copyright© 2018 by Kraken
We’d been sent to Saudi Arabia as part of a special operations unit, formed specifically to find and retrieve downed airmen from all branches of service, and all coalition countries. It was a mix of special operations forces from the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Air Force contingent, except for twelve Combat Controllers and six snipers including JT and me, were all Pararescue, otherwise known in the Air Force as PJs or Rescue Rangers.
Pararescue is a unique group of special operators. When called for, they carry out retrieval of downed airmen, on their own if they have to, and are fully trained special operators. Their heaviest training though, and their reason for existence, is in initial treatment and stabilization of combat trauma. In most third world countries, they would be qualified as doctors, that’s how good their training is. Their problem, like so many other Special Forces units, is that there are never enough of them. With a two-year training program, known informally as Superman School, and an 80 percent attrition rate, the pipeline for new PJs is a trickle at best.
When the air war started in mid-January we were ready to go. As usual, JT was the designated sniper and I was the spotter on our two-man team, he was consistently a marginally better shooter than I was. We were responsible for providing over watch near the rescue. We were the first in and the last out, usually picked up thirty to sixty minutes after everyone else had left, by a separate chopper. The first week there wasn’t much action. There were aircraft shot down, but there wasn’t a thing we could do, until we knew the vicinity of where the aircrews were.
That first week, JT and I spent most of our days up on the border where the Iraqis were still building berms, digging the large ditches they intended to fill with petroleum and lighting on fire if we attacked, and laying land mines. Our mission was to harass the Iraqis as they went about building their first line of defense, and we did an excellent job.
All Iraqi officers were targets, period. Anyone trying to lay a mine was a target. Well, we weren’t targeting the men laying the mines precisely, they were collateral damage. Our actual target was the mine itself. We were so successful, that an entire half-mile stretch of border berm, ditch, and land mines was never completed. There was a small berm, no ditch, and no land mines. A small victory for the forces of good, but a victory nonetheless as far as JT and I were concerned.
Then things changed.
“Master Sergeant McAllister, reporting as ordered, Sir.” I barked, saluting smartly in the process.
JT and I had just returned from our border harassment assignment and the gate guard told me to report directly to the commander’s office. I gave JT a look, shrugged, and walked off to report. In full combat gear, under arms, I marched smartly into the commander’s office. We don’t normally salute in the field, but this wasn’t out in the open, and in a joint command with an unknown commander I figured better safe than sorry.
Returning the salute, the commander said, “At ease Master Sergeant. I understand you’re a fully qualified weapon smith. Is this true?”
“Yes, Sir.” I responded smiling inwardly at his question. An Air Force weapon smith was a rarity, as the specialty had been phased out by the Air Force less than a year after I completed training shortly before the end of the Vietnam War.
“Good! Our order of silencers has been lost. They are sitting somewhere on the mess they call Riyadh Air Base, and no one can tell us when we’re going to get them. We need silencers, by God, and we need them now. Can you make them, and if so, what materials do you need and how long will it take?” He asked in a highly animated voice.
Nodding my head, I said, “Yes, Sir, I can make them.” After a moment’s thought I continued. “The easiest to make would be the Navy’s ‘hushpuppy’ type. They won’t last for more than a few shots each, but the materials to make them should be readily available at any Air Force base that does more than minor aircraft maintenance. As for how long it will take to make them?” I shrugged. “That will depend on what tools I can get access to.”
“Outstanding, Master Sergeant! Do you think King Khalid Air Base will have what you need?” He asked, and at my nod quickly continued. “Go get cleaned up and report back here. I’ll have a Humvee, orders, and requisitions ready for when you get back. What, specifically will you need, and how long will it take you to get back?”
“Sir, Al’s Garage is much closer than King Khalid, and should have what we need. I’d start there, and then go on to King Khalid if I need to.” At his look of puzzlement, I explained. “Al’s Garage is our nickname for Al Kharj Airfield near Riyadh.”
He nodded, smiling, and we talked about the materials I needed which was really nothing more than two different sizes of titanium tubes, sheets of latex, thread cutting dies, and tubes of graphite. We spent a few minutes talking about logistics and timing, before finally deciding that five days would be sufficient time if I had to go all the way to King Khalid Air Base down near the border with Yemen.
As I was leaving the office I told the commander JT and I would be ready to go in thirty minutes.
“Ah, Master Sergeant, it will be just you on this trip,” the commander replied.
I stopped and slowly turned back to the commander with a raised eyebrow.
The commander looked at me and I could tell that I’d raised his ire by my actions. He swallowed down his anger and deigned to reply. After all, pissing off an E7, even one from another branch of service was not a recommended practice.
“Master Sergeant, like many other things, we don’t have enough sniper teams. I’ve got an Army spotter without a sniper right now. The fool sniper broke his leg playing soccer, of all things. I’ll pair up the spotter with your sniper while you’re gone, and use them as a reserve. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is,” he explained.
I didn’t like the explanation, and I knew JT would like it even less, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it. I nodded and left.
Just as I expected JT wasn’t any happier than I was with the turn of events. His exact words were, “Do what? To whose dog?” We both bitched and complained about the situation, but in the end, orders were orders. I left him sitting in our tent looking forlorn. That was the last time I saw JT alive in person. The image has haunted me ever since.
I made the 200 plus mile trip to Al Kharj in a few hours, arriving in late evening. I checked into billeting, had dinner, and sacked out on a cot in the transient NCO tent. The next morning, I arrived at Base Supply, found the head shed, and went straight to the top. No, not the commander. That route was political suicide in the world of NCOs. No, I found the Chief Master Sergeant and once I was in his office, with the obligatory cup of coffee, I enlisted him in my mission.
“Chief Hodges, I’m temporarily assigned to a joint outfit with a bunch of Rescue Rangers. Our mission is to retrieve downed aircrew from all services and coalition partners. One particular item we need didn’t make the trip with us, we have no idea when or if they will arrive, and we are in desperate need of them. The commander has asked me to make them, which I can do with the right materials. I’m hoping you have the materials,” I explained and handed him the list.
The Chief’s eyes got big at the amount of titanium tubing and washers I was after. After looking at the complete list he said, “I think we can get you the titanium tubing, washers, and graphite but I’m pretty sure we don’t have the latex and dies you want, here. What exactly is this piece of equipment you’re going to make?”
“Silencers, Chief. Among many other things, I’m a qualified weapon smith. I can make the silencers we need. They won’t be as good or last as long as the commercially manufactured ones, but they’ll do the job even if it’s only for a few rounds each,” I replied.
With a surprised look on his face the Chief gave a brief nod of understanding and then stared off into space for a few moments in thought before saying, “Now that’s not something I see requests for every day. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen a requisition for silencer materials. How are you going to get all these machined if you don’t mind me asking?”
I laughed. “That’s the next part of my quest. Once I get all the parts, I’ll go over to one of the maintenance hangars and ask around until I find someone who can do it. If I can’t find anyone with the tools or manpower to do it, I’ll have to do it by hand back at the camp up north. It’ll be a bear as titanium isn’t the easiest thing to cut by hand, especially with the tolerances I need but it can be done.”
As I expected, once the Chief was fully on board with the mission, and mention of the Rescue Rangers virtually assured that, he wasted no time going all in. He promptly picked up the phone, dialed a number, and when it was answered said, “Tom? Mike here, if you have a few minutes how about swinging by my office for a cup of coffee? I have a Sergeant here who needs your expertise.” He listened for a few seconds before saying, “Good, see you in ten.”
Hanging up the phone he looked back over at me and said, “I think we can help you out here, Sarge. Give me a second to check and see what we have in stock, and then we can shoot the breeze for a few minutes until Chief Daniels gets here.”
He walked out of the office returning with a huge binder of ‘fan fold’ computer paper and started looking through it at his desk. Quickly finding what he was looking for he wrote some numbers down on a piece of paper. Looking over at me, he gave me a wink, and picking up the phone, made two calls.
“Joe? This is Mike. Do you have any latex sheets in stock down there? Supply number is 53489327M. Yeah, I’m looking for a full box of three by three sheets. You do? Great. Put one aside for me please. I’m sending Master Sergeant Paul McAllister down to pick them up as soon as he can get there. Thanks, Joe.” The Chief flashed the phone plunger and made his next call.
“Steve? This is Mike. I have a Sergeant here who needs a down and back to King Khalid on a priority run. Do you have space on this afternoon’s flight and the return tomorrow morning? He’ll be bringing back a medium sized package, probably a box,” the Chief said into his phone.
After listening for a moment, he picked up my orders and said, “That’ll be Master Sergeant Paul McAllister. I have his orders here and he’s authorized for travel to King Khalid. Alright, thanks, Steve. I’ll have him there by 1530 today.”
Hanging up the phone, he turned to me. “We have everything you need here except the latex. Chief Maguire at King Khalid has a box waiting for you to pick it up at Supply. Chief Nichols over at Air Trans has you listed on this afternoon’s 1630 flight to King Khalid as a Priority 1A passenger returning tomorrow morning at 1000. We’ll find out how much more Al Kharj can help you when Chief Daniels gets here in a few minutes.” He leaned back in his chair and took a long drink of coffee making a sour face as he forced down the cold mouthful.
He dumped his cold coffee and refilled both our cups before settling in and asking how someone in Security Police came to be working with the PJs. I explained that I was part of a sniper team who also happened to be a weapon smith. We talked about the Security Police career field and all the things they did for a few minutes before another man with an armful of stripes walked into the room asking where his coffee was.
While pouring the newly arrived Chief a cup of coffee Chief Hodges introduced me to Chief Daniels, the senior NCO assigned to the Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. I listened as Chief Hodges briefed Chief Daniels about me and my mission. Chief Daniels listened intently and smiled around his coffee cup when he heard the part about making silencers.
“So, let me get this straight. You are making silencers from scratch for the PJs. You’d prefer to have the machining done here but if you can’t then you’ll do it by hand when you get back to your camp?” He asked.
I nodded. “Yes, Chief, I can do everything by hand but making three hundred of them will take a lot longer than I have, if I can’t get the machining done here.”
Chief Daniels looked at me with a smile. “It just so happens I have an entire hangar full of machine tools and a bunch of hot shot machinists twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to do. Let’s go over there, you can explain what you need done, and we’ll get started. We should have you all set to go by tomorrow morning,” he said raising up out of the chair.
Chief Hodges interrupted him at that point. “Just one problem with that plan, Tom. Sergeant McAllister has to be over at the terminal at 1530 so he can get on a flight to King Khalid to pick up the last component he needs to make the silencers. He won’t get back until around noon tomorrow, so assembly will have to wait until then.”
Chief Daniels nodded and thanked Chief Hodges for the coffee, before waving me outside. I thanked Chief Hodges for all his help and walked out with Chief Daniels.
I spent the next hours, including a short lunch break, in a makeshift hangar full of industrial machining tools and machinists. I drew up the design of the silencer on a chalk board, providing an exploded view of each section and listed the appropriate specifications. By the time I left for the passenger terminal, almost half of the parts were complete. I caught the flight to King Khalid, got a bunk for the night, and picked up the box of latex the next morning. I was back at Al’s Garage just before noon the next day. By 2000 I was driving back to base with two boxes, each containing 150 completed silencers. As I left Al Kharj Air Base, I couldn’t help but think what a powerful thing the Chief’s network was, when combined with the mystique of the Rescue Rangers.
Strolling into the head shed in the wee hours of the morning carrying the first box of silencers, I expected to find all the offices empty except for the night duty CQ. Instead, I found the place hopping. I walked into the commander’s office, and put the box down on his desk. Without a word, I returned to the Humvee for the second box. When I came in carrying the second box, the commander was holding one of the silencers, smiling as he looked it over. I set the second box down and waited for him to get done.
Finally, the commander looked up at me and with a smile, asked, “Where the hell did you find these Master Sergeant?”
I waved a hand at the boxes. “These are compliments of the Al Kharj Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Wing Sir. Al Kharj had everything I needed except the latex. While I flew down to King Khalid and got it, the maintenance folks machined all the parts and we spent this afternoon assembling all 300 of them. I left there about 2000.”
The commander’s eyes bugged out of his head. “You mean these are field made?”