March 29, 2008

The Home Front: Ex-airman seeking buddies from '50s tour in England

Once upon a time, a GI named Bill Smiley passed out in an English pub's restroom, but his colleagues were watching his back. They carried Smiley out of the pub and drove back to the base. When he awoke, an agitated Smiley demanded: "Where's my teeth? Where's my teeth!"

The GIs finally took him back to the pub, where Smiley's careful search found them at the bottom of a commode. Smiley cleaned and reused the teeth, but Modesto's Richard Thatcher said nothing ever would rehabilitate the stain on his name.

Old soldiers' stories bring a twinkle to Thatcher's eyes, unforgettable moments from a bygone and brash youth.

Thatcher, 71, wants to recapture his past, find his old mates from the 1950s and compare notes. He also wants a chance to say goodbye, something he missed when he had a motorcycle accident just before most of his unit was transferred in late 1958. Thatcher was recuperating while his friends scattered to the four winds.

He's going to a Sept. 18-22 reunion in Branson, Mo., and Thatcher's hoping some old friends hear about his story and contact Air Force buddy Willie Miller, one of the organizers of the reunion, at wmiller35@zoominternet.net or 740-886-6393.

Miller said about 35 of 50 known former squadron members planned to come this year.

Thatcher had been an Air Force crew chief for an F-84F, a turbojet fighter-bomber commanded by a single pilot, in the 78th Squadron of the 81st Fighter-Bomber Wing based in Shepherds Grove near Suffolk, England.

"We worked hard and played hard," recalled Thatcher. With a smile, he added, "If mothers (then) could have seen what their 19-year-old sons were doing, they would have marched on Washington."

Thatcher said he had wondered about his friends for years and found some of them last year. His son had done an Internet search for one name and, within a day, Thatcher and Dick Hipke were talking on the phone.

Thatcher said talking to his buddy reminded him of another story. Thatcher was one of two green American GIs taking their first liberty in 1950s London. Their guide was a savvy 20-something comrade called Chico who had been to London before. They checked into a hotel and climbed a staircase to their room.

Coming down the stairs was a beautiful blonde wrapped only in a sheet that concealed nothing from the male imagination. The young GIs were nearly dumbstruck. Swallowing hard, Thatcher finally squeaked out a questionable greeting, "Are those for real?"

The blonde turned, dropped her sheet a strategic 12 inches and responded, "What do you think?"

The trio retreated slowly to their room.

The renewed pace of conflict in Iraq is reflected in messages from local soldiers. Gaylene Ramos passed along this e-mail from son Phillip on Wednesday:

"Hey, things are heating up out here again. The IP (Iraqi police) station we stay at has been under attack yesterday and today. So send a prayer request that we all are protected under our Father ... and for our safety. They had an ambush set up for our guys when they came back ... one of our guys shot and killed a bad guy in national police uniform. ... I have been saying they are corrupt for a while now."

Connie Bernasconi's son Robert of Escalon and a friend of Phillip Ramos sent a message home from Iraq that he was going on special mission and couldn't be in contact for a while. "It's high maintenance time for me," admitted Connie. She hasn't heard from Robert for two weeks.

Theresa Villareal of Modesto offered a mother's lament about her son Steven in Afghanistan, his recent marriage and mom's change in status from next of kin. "I love my daughter-in-law," she began, "but I was his mother for 23 years. That should count for something." Villareal is second on the Army's next-of-kin pecking order now, and she worries she might read about something happening to Steven before she gets a call or visit.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, has a new liaison for military and veterans affairs. Trevor Albertson, a captain in the National Guard, works out of the lawmaker's Merced office, 383-4455. Albertson said he prefers letters or e-mail to phone contacts. His e-mail is trevor. albertson@mail.house.gov.

Albertson said there was plenty to keep him busy. "I probably get more calls in a day than I can clear in a month."

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.

Related content