William Chick, 78, forgot to attend the 12th grade. And when the magistrate offered him the option of either finishing high school or enlisting in the Air Force, Chick chose the military option.
Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Chick grew up picking cotton. He said his job on the farm kept him busy and heading back to school had simply slipped his mind. And unfortunately, his mother wasn’t around to remind him.
“My mother died in 1954; She was a cancer guinea pig. She was burned alive with the new X-ray machines,” the Indian Land resident said. “She had burn spots all over her body when she died. My father died five years later.”
On Oct. 3, 1957, Chick joined the Air Force and left for San Antonio, Texas. By the New Year, he was stationed at Montauk Air Force Station, a military base on the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y., where he studied radar operation.
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Once he passed the test, he was moved to Cherry Point, N.C. and soon transferred to Iceland, where he stayed 11 months and 18 days – not that he was counting, he said.
“In Iceland, we were not allowed to visit with the local people and we had to stay right there on the mountaintop,” Chick said. “It was like a prison without any walls around it.”
At that time, the Air Force was phasing out manual radar and moving toward electronic. So several years after returning to stateside duty, Chick worked his way into the position of radar inputs and counter-measure technician at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama. A very technical job, he said, especially for a country boy from Mississippi who didn’t graduate high school.
“It was quite a ways from where I was – picking cotton one day and dealing with electronic counter measure 10 years later,” Chick said.
When an aircraft flew into U.S. airspace, the radar site sent out a signal to hit the aircraft and transmit back the distance. Chick said the signal is like a handprint when it hits the aircraft. However, the aircraft can regenerate the signal, creating a different handprint. And the enemy would often attempt to clutter the radar returns.
“He could try to jam the radar site, meaning he could regenerate it faster to make it seem like he’s closer or he can repel things from his airplane that make it look like 10 airplanes instead of one,” Chick said. “If you had 10 enemies coming in, you’d send out 10 fighters and waste eight or nine of your aircrafts on one airplane. So my job was to figure that out and counter his action.”
During his 11 years of service, he moved nine times – which took a toll on his marriage. His first wife left him. He said most civilians don’t understand that when someone signs on to the military, they have to go where they’re told to go when they’re told to go.
“If you have a family reunion or a PTO meeting on Friday and the military says you’re leaving on Thursday, then you’re leaving on Thursday. You don’t have any choice,” Chick said. “There was a story not too long ago in the military papers that a large majority of military families get divorced because it’s too much living apart.”
Serving as a civilian
Chick couldn’t stay away from the military life for too long. He joined the Navy Reserve for a short stint and then returned to the Air Force, but this time in the Reserve. In 1990, he finished up his military career as an Air Force Advisor to the Civil Air Patrol.
Chick said the Air Force is responsible for all downed aircraft in the country and the Civil Air Patrol is an auxiliary of the Air Force, much like a local volunteer fire department.
“If a Boeing 747 went down with 300 people, the Air Force is going to be there,” he said. “But if a Cessna 172, which is a two (to) four-seater, crashes in the local area, then the Civil Air Patrol would go out and find the downed aircraft.”
Chick’s patrol in central Virginia was assigned a downed aircraft in the Shenandoah Valley. With 12 passengers aboard, the plane had flown into a dense fog and crashed into the mountainside.
“The pilot’s compass had failed him and he thought he was landing, that happens quite often,” Chick said. “I saw one in the military in North Carolina once. The guy thought he was landing, but he was two miles short of the runway.”
Air Force Master Sgt. Chick retired from the military at the age of 53, receiving the Meritorious Service Medal, the highest honor given for noncombat service. He said only eight to nine percent of the military ever serve in combat.
“I’ve seen the enemy, or what we called the enemy at that time. I was more or less a soldier of the Cold War,” Chick said.
“Even in the Army, behind every man there’s the dining hall, medical, housing, transportation, supply and all these people supporting him. I never was in (a shooting) war, but I served a purpose for someone on a frontline. We were protecting America.”
Stephanie Jadrnicek: email@example.com