It was early February 1971, and the Vietnam War was raging. I had just returned to active duty from the Air Force Reserves. This particular time I was assigned to fly a mission to Vietnam and return; I was the primary Loadmaster. I had an assistant this time, a young Airman Second Class, (E-3) fresh out of tech school. The crew was made up of two pilots, two flight engineers, and us two loadmasters. The mission would take us to Vietnam, with stops at Travis AFB, Hicham AFB Hawaii, Wake Island, Kadena AB Okinawa, Vietnam and back.
Our alert call was very late at night; it was just before midnight, which meant that our departure would be around 3:00 am. Some of our pre-departure duties included load briefing, planning and sequencing, plus ordering meals and beverages for the crew. We lucked out and didn't have passengers for this leg. That meant we'd be able to rest at some point.
Since it was my assistant's first trip overseas, I briefly explained to him what he could expect as far as crew duty day length and responsibilities. I figured, that we would have plenty of time later on the flight to get into more detail about what he could expect and what was expected of him. I also explained to him that most of the time, our duties would require us to remain at the aircraft during our ground times, while the rest of the crew would go inside, file a flight plan and eat at the snack bar. We would not have that luxury and couldn't count on anyone bringing us any food either. I had already been through that myself.
After checking in at the squadron and our Mission Control office, we made our way to check with Passenger Service to make sure and cover our required stops. We also stopped and ordered the coffee for the crew and a snack for my young assistant.
At Travis AFB, as predicted, we both had to remain at the aircraft to supervise the loading, since it was fairly complicated. Besides, there were several other aircraft ahead of us, so it would take a while. The loading went as advertised, without a hitch. When the other crewmembers returned, one of the flight engineers, the one who I had asked to bring me back a hamburger and a coke, didn't do it and claimed that he forgot. Since I didn't have time to go in myself, I went hungry.
A couple of hours later, halfway over the Pacific Ocean, my assistant decided to eat his snack. Imagine his surprise, when he reached into the icebox and found it empty. His meal was nowhere to be found. I knew that a meal had been brought to the aircraft, because I signed for it before we left Norton AFB.
We set out to find his meal and started looking in the galley area and vicinity, to no avail. I then went up to the flight deck and asked the engineers first, they hadn't seen it. I looked around thinking that maybe someone else might've put it in the flight deck for safekeeping or something. As I looked toward the pilot's seat, there lo, and behold, against the wall next to him was a white cardboard box, just like the missing meal. I knew immediately what it was; it didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. I also noticed that it was empty already.
I went back to the cargo compartment and told my assistant where his box lunch was. I suggested that he go and ask the pilot why he ate it, and that he demand payment from him. He decided against it, he said that it wasn't that big a deal.
I knew better and explained to him the ramifications; this man had to be stopped. This behavior couldn't be allowed to continue unchecked. I pointed out to him that he couldn't even claim the pilot as a dependent. The young airman refused, he didn't want to match two stripes against two silver bars. However, I didn't have that problem, since I had four and was not afraid to make waves. I decided to take charge of this situation; a change had to be made.
I went back up to the flight deck and slid onto the seat between the pilots, commonly known as the jump seat. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and said to him, "Sir, we need to talk."
He slid his headset off the right ear, leaned over toward me and asked, "What's up, sergeant Lomeli?"
I asked him if he'd ordered a meal out of Norton and he said he hadn't. I told him that my assistant had planned his activities accordingly and had ordered a snack out of home station and now it was gone. I explained to him that the box next to him was the only thing in the aircraft that resembled a box lunch and if he hadn't ordered a box lunch, how did that box get so close to him and so empty?
His reply really angered me, but I tried not to show it. He said, "Well, I was hungry. I didn't have anything to eat and then I found that box in the crew galley, so I took it."
I was angry and expressed my displeasure and dismay at his inconsiderate actions. I mentioned to him the effects of his behavior on his subordinates' morale. Hell, he wouldn't dare do it to one of his peers, or would he? This conversation took less than two minutes. I figured I better quit before I said something that might get me in trouble.
I went back to the cargo compartment and further lectured my assistant on his options, and I stressed the fact that a stop at Mac Donald's was not one of them. I again stressed the fact that he had to stand up for his rights and that if he let this man get away with it, he would just keep on doing it, but he didn't want to do anything about it. He said he didn't want to make any waves. I knew then that it would be up to me to do something, in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
The following day, on the next leg, wouldn't you know it, history repeated itself; the pilot ate the young loadmaster's meal again. We were halfway to Wake Island, when my assistant loadmaster decided to eat his meal, imagine the shock; his meal was gone again. This took me aback; I didn't expect it to happen again, especially after all the commotion the previous day. As soon as we discovered it missing, I went to the flight deck and spotted the empty box next to the pilot; just like the day before. This jerk was a slow learner and getting good at it. I knew I really had to do something about it; this could not be ignored any longer. I went and tapped the pilot on the shoulder. He slid his headset off the right ear, cocked his head and asked, "What can I do for you, sergeant Lomeli?"
I told him in a solemn and controlled tone of voice, "Sir, please take off your headset, so we can talk. I want to have your full attention and I don't want the radio or intercom to interrupt us, before I say what I need to say."
He took the headset off and put it over his right knee as he looked at me with a puzzled look. I asked him about the meal and he came out with the same lame excuse from the day before. I didn't like it the day before, and I liked it even less this time. I mentioned the fact that his actions were highly detrimental to the morale of the enlisted in the unit, and that it wasn't enhancing his standing with his peers either. I didn't see the slightest hint of remorse during our discussion.
I thought I'd better end this discussion quick, so I said to him, "I'll tell you what, you owe my assistant loadmaster for two snacks at seventy cents each, which is a dollar and forty cents. And while we are at it, I have nominated you, to pay for the crew coffee for the whole trip.
He said to me, "Why seventy cents per snack? He only paid thirty-five cents each that's half. I don't see why I should have to pay seventy cents, when he only paid thirty-five cents each."
I told him, "You are right sir, he didn't pay that much, but you would have. That will be $1.40, cash, and I will take it now."
He grudgingly reached into his flight suit pocket and pulled out his money. He counted two dollars and fifty cents and put it in my cupped hand. I turned toward my second loadmaster and gave it to him. Now, for the coffee, that will be two dollars more, please. I got the money and put it in my pocket. The young loadmaster couldn't believe what he had just seen, a staff sergeant getting the best of a pilot.
The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful, and this situation did not repeat itself for the rest of the trip. All the way home, I kept wrestling with my thoughts...Should I forget the whole thing? Should I file a complaint? It was a tough decision to make and I kept toying with the idea.
It was early morning when we got back to Norton, our home station, I decided to finish the job; it was almost too easy. While finishing up our duties prior to going home, the Operations Officer walked up to us enlisted crewmembers and asked how it had gone. It was almost like he already knew, but wanted me to say it, because he sure seemed to be very interested in me and me and my young assistant. I couldn't hold it anymore, so I said to him, "I need to talk to you in your office."
As soon as we walked in, he asked what the problem was and I told him. I went into great detail about the pilot's actions and how I responded to them. I thought I could detect a hint of a smile, but he just nodded and said that he'd take care of it without delay. He also told me that this pilot had been known to do this kind of thing from time to time. He said that he was impressed with the way I handled it. He liked my ingenuity and daring, since not too many people would've handled it the same way. He thanked me for my input, and now it was time to go and finish the job.
I walked out of his office and he followed me out to the hallway and in a fairly loud voice called the pilot into his office. We all knew what was to follow, some good old-fashioned butt chewing; we were not disappointed.
The building was at the end of one of the hangars and the hallway went forever, it seemed like. The ceilings were very tall, but the walls were no higher than the ones in the average house; that left a lot of room for sound to travel, and travel it did. We all got an earful of the one sided conversation. The pilot could only say, "Yes, sir." " No, sir." "I am sorry, sir." "It won't happen again, sir.""
As soon as the Operations Officer finished with him, the Squadron Commander, Lt. Colonel Bailey took over. Man, this man could do some butt chewing, he was a real pro at it; we all enjoyed the show. I left before the whole thing was over and went home.
I don't know if he ever ate anyone else's meal again, but if he did, I never heard about it. Our paths never crossed again and I never missed him anyway.
I must add in closing, that this was an extremely rare incident. For the most part, the officers that I had the pleasure to work with, both on the ground and in the air were outstanding individuals. I had the distinct pleasure to serve with some of the finest officers and enlisted personnel that I could've asked for.
My assignment to the 14th MAS, (Military Airlift Squadron) at
Norton, was one of my most enjoyable assignments. It was a class organization
and didn't have too many people like the one mentioned in this story. This
anecdote is true, as are all the facts. Some of the names involved escape me,
after all, it has been thirty years plus, and names and faces do get clouded by
Father Time. However, the facts remain vividly engraved in my memory bank.
While we are on the subject of box lunches, check out Chris
Behren's great pages at this link:
There's a bunch of pictures of lunches from all over the world.
Here's a couple of Letters to the Editor from Airman magazine, February
2001. To read the original article that inspired these two letters see Booms Know What's Cookin, October '00.
IT WAS VERY BRAVE of Senior Airman Martin to call his flight meal a 'box nasty'.
He may want to make a close inspection of his next flight meal. I find it unfortunate 'services bashing' is so popular this magazine would actually think it's OK to print such comments. It's hard enough to motivate and retain quality services airmen without them reading derogatory comments about the job they do in a magazine that should be supportive of all Air Force members. While 'Airman' may not share Martin's views on the quality of meals provided, printing his comment was unnecessary and added nothing to the article. You could have said he preferred his cooking to the flight meals. I hope you exercise a little editorial license next time, and Martin learns to respect and appreciate the people who work hard to support him.
Tech. Sgt. Don Bowles
Kadena Air Base, Japan
I WAS PLEASED to see boom operators are being creative at 32,000 feet with their ovens. However, some of my staff and I were slightly tweaked at the article, which could have just focused on the creativity of two aircrew members baking sweet rolls on long flights, but instead chose to play the 'box nasty' card. Wouldn't it have been easier to refer to your high-flying cooking skills as an alternative or supplement to the great flight meals from the food service folks at Fairchild Air Force Base? This might seem frivolous, but frankly, when you perpetuate terms like 'chow hall' and 'bag-nasty,' it shows no respect for the services professionals who bust their tails to make sure you don't go hungry. If the meals are really that bad, then it might be worth a visit to the flight kitchen manager with some ideas for improvement.
Senior Master Sgt. Owen Davies
Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska
At Microsoft they have a saying, "We eat our own dog food.", which seems
especially relevant in this discussion. The phrase refers to the idea that they
actually use the software they foist off on the rest of us computer users.
I wonder how many box lunches these two guys actually ever ate at 0300 in a cold C-141 at 35,000 feet over who-knows-where?
Please contact me via email if you know.