It was October of 1959 and I was standing on the tarmac of Idlewild airport in New York, on my way to a tour of duty with the Air force on the island of Crete. The huge propellers of the aircraft in front of me were the remnant of troop transports to England in World War ll. Soon to be retired, the military was still using the beasts to move peacetime troops across the Atlantic. The Constellation or “Connie” as they called them, were huge, noisy and cold to ride in.
Later in life, I would read that the pilots of these aircraft had a “point of no return” on their gas gauges that warned them of the impending turn around mark to safely return to the mainland. The roar of the four engines lulled me to sleep until I was awakened by turbulence over Greenland. Looking down, I witnessed a panorama of ice and water that startled me. We were getting closer to the finger of land in Scotland that would be our welcoming point to Europe.
Prestwick, Scotland marked the first refueling station for Atlantic flights that continued on to various airports in Europe. After stepping off the beast for a breath of fresh air in Prestwick, which smelled wet and was foggy and green, we continued on our journey to Frankfurt, Germany. The airport was the hub for transport activity to Berlin in the war and was freshly painted and clean.
The 150 troops disembarking in Frankfurt had the same puzzle of departure points and long distance concourses of modern airports. I had been told that I would fly a Greek Airlines, French “Caravelle” to Zürich and on to Athens. This was my first introduction to jet flight and the beautiful aircraft with its engines tucked tight to the fuselage had been plagued with incessant mechanical failures. We had no awareness of problems and enjoyed the look and smell of the new aircraft. Today, I think about the arrival of the jet age and how incredibly smooth and fast the early jets were, considering their lack of time in the sky. Even the German fighter jets that never played a role in the war were studied by our engineers and found to be relatively sophisticated.
Feeling eager and proud to be in the military headed south to the Mediterranean we began our journey to the hedge-rowed farms of Switzerland. I can clearly recall flying at less than 12,000 feet before our descent into the airport at Zürich and marveling at the lush, green countryside below me. Our approach was quick and accurate and when we were on the tarmac, I noticed an aircraft I had been trained to recognize, a Russian Il-14 cargo plane. I took pictures and would later use them in my work as an analyst for the Security Service.
Our Alpine crossing into the airspace of Greece went smoothly except for one thing. This was a time of “Smoking Allowed” on commercial aircraft and the stewardesses passed out complimentary Turkish cigarettes. What a stench! Little wonder we don’t all have lung damage from those years!
Imagine my excitement at finally arriving in Athens. Our moments at the airport were short before boarding a military C-47 for the short hop to the island of Crete. My assignment had come about through a series of miscues in my testing ability. I had failed a complicated 3 day test that involved reading intercepted Russian radio messages and determining troop movements around the country. We had been taught to speak limited Russian, memorizing the mountain ranges and major cities across the vast country.
On test day before receiving our assignments, I looked incredulously at the volume of material I was going to have to digest. Aircraft movements, potential missile installations and railroad and truck traffic were piled high on the desk in front of me.
Working through the material hour after hour, I felt I was developing a correct solution for the test but I had unknowingly turned a troop train south instead of north and the rest of the problem was totally wrong. I left the classroom thinking I was o.k., but when the scores were posted, I had failed and would have to retake the test as my buddies received their assignments to Japan, the South Pacific and Alaska.
My instructor called me into his office and told me that I had done a good job on the test except for the wrong turn and that he would provide me with a correctly completed test to study before redoing the exam.
I immediately found the mistake and started the exam confident I could correct the mistake. I was successful, exhausted and ready for the excitement of assignment. Posted on the board were the current destinations. Several were headed to Shimya, Alaska, a rock outcropping within spitting distance from the Siberian shoreline, others to Hawaii, etc. I stopped in my tracks as I found my name and a posting to THE ISLAND OF CRETE, GREECE! I cried! How incredibly fortunate that the angel on my shoulder had seen fit to send me to a lush island in the Mediterranean. My test failure could have found me on a storm lashed Arctic rock cropping!
As we approached the airport at Heraklion, Crete, I saw an incredible coast line with sandy beaches, little or no development and scruffy olive orchards dotting the country side. Mountains on the inland spine of the island were dotted with villages and small farms and I would soon explore all of it.
We were directed to a bus for transport to our base as I noted the variety of aircraft at this small airport. The C-119 aircraft used for paratroop and cargo transport were present as were the popular C-46 smaller transports. In a few months, the C-124 would arrive and on its heels, the C130..
As we rolled westward to our base, the tiny villages we traveled through were full of whitewashed stucco homes, a tavern and bicycle rental shops. Our route took us through the flanges of mountains, protecting beautiful bays of blue Mediterranean water and past a Greek Army base. A short Japanese airman and a burley supply Sargent were to be my new family. They helped me understand the procedures for entering the compound and we were ready to go to work!
If you can imagine a climate warmed by the North African desert and cooled by the Mediterranean breezes, this picturesque 120 mile long finger of what was once a land bridge to the mainland of Greece. had not yet been discovered by the travel industry. Today, in an effort to provide the “Greek Experience,” you can spend time in a vineyard, stomp some grapes, dance the circle dances of the culture, enjoy lamb on a spit and visit the Palace of Knossos (the birthplace of European Civilization). We explored the interior and coastline of the island, stopping for espresso in village coffee shops and visiting Greek Orthodox chapels that dot the roadside. Nothing was staged, nothing spruced up for the camera. A village elder would usually appear at the coffee shop to visit about his time in the U.S. Many found work abroad after the war and returned to spread their new-found wealth around and become the elder spokesman for the community.
My first day at work was confusing and exciting. I worked alongside linguists who were generally very bright college graduates and willing to show off their language skills. The warned me of the potential for long hours and the need for rest and relaxation on the beach, etc. It wasn’t long before I was put to the test in an interesting fashion. I have always been a fast typist and I think it something to do with the analyst training I received. I would daily prepare perforated tapes for transmission back to Washington D.C. but that was the extent of my typing. A fellow analyst had fallen off the wagon and been missing from work for several days so the work was piling up. They tapped me for the job of getting back to a normal level of processing so I sat down and went to work. The first twelve hours got me half way through the material. By the second shift I was exhausted and headed back to my room for some badly needed sleep. Tossing and turning in fits of restless sleep, apparently I began to talk in code in my sleep! My room mates woke me up and proceeded to tell me that I would have to report to the base commander because my babbling might be a breach of security.
Sitting at the desk of the commanding officer, I explained what had happened. He looked at me rather strangely and said, “I think we have two options here. The military code requires you to report your behavior, which you have done. You can either be shipped back to the U.S. or we will change your roommates to the same level of clearance as you!”
By the time I returned to the barracks, the bedding and personal belongings of both men were moved to another room and two new individuals with the same level of clearance as me were moved in. The theory was, that if I continued to talk in my sleep, these two men could listen to me. The project that had been so tiring was over and I was permanently assigned to a desk where I would analyze traffic and write reports of my findings.
The work became boring so I volunteered for truck driving duty to meet the aircraft and boats bringing supplies for the base. I had to be trained in driving the freight trucks and learning to fit into tough spaces at the airport and the dock in the harbor. There was an interesting risk navigating the mountain roads and villages. Cab drivers believed they would save their batteries if they drove without lights and the villages had flocks of chickens darting in front of the trucks and becoming road kill. You now had to pay the owner the sum he demanded. The price included the cost for the meat, the eggs and the off spring of each bird. I literally crawled through the village for fear of sending someone’s kid to college!
My leisure time included motorscooter trips to historic sites and unique villages. I visited the Church of St. Titus which had 3 walls remaining at the front of the church and I recall thinking about St. Paul preaching from this very spot as he traveled to the island to condemn the bad behavior of the residents of Crete. The biblical reference calls them, “mischievous liars and thieves”, but I didn’t find that to be true today. The newer version of the church stands in Heraklion and has wonderful colored glass windows and precious icons of the Greek Orthodox faith.
I loved the visits to the villages where I could enjoy an espresso with the village elder who acts as official greeter . Many of them had worked in the auto factories of Detroit after the war and brought substantial earnings home to share with their families.
We also contracted with a local fisherman to take several of us to Dragon Island, due north of Crete. One of our group had chosen to consume copious amounts of vodka the night before our trip and couldn’t be found in the morning. Someone found him sitting, fully dressed, in the shower with the cold water bringing him back to life! The journey to the island would prove his undoing as he spent the entire time in the hold thinking he had died and was on his way to hell!
When we reached the island, we found German land mines in the sand along the beach area and knew that they could still be exploded after all these years, so we stayed alert for rusted metal land mines. Among our discoveries, was a cave with a large opening and plenty of light for exploration. Because of the mines, we remained vigilant but discovered several pieces of pottery, one of which I took and shipped it home when we returned to the base. I didn’t survive the trip but I still have shards of what may be an ancient cooking pot.
My experiences on the island of Crete have remained vivid in my mind over the years and were certainly reawakened when my grandson and his wife visited the island for their honeymoon. They asked me for a CD of my slides from 50 years ago and they used this on their computers to visit the same spots. They did an amazing thing when they located one of the marble corner stones at the Acropolis that I had posed near in 1961. Each were photographed the same way and now the 3 photos stand together where I can see them each morning.
The time on Crete was a milestone for me and remains a favorite travel subject. I encourage readers to make plans to visit this marvelous gem in the Mediterranean. Resorts now dot the shoreline but the interior of the island remains free of development. The local liquor favorite is called “Ouzo” and should be treated with respect but is a nice addition to a dinner of lamb and vegetables. I’ll be thinking of you!