This story goes a looong way back, folks, to about the time that Russian Leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the United Nations headquarters and hammered his shoe on his desk there! Your parents or grandparents might remember that story! Certainly, it was in the Cold War era. At that time (latter 1950's) I was working as an Air Traffic Controller at Sewart AFB, outside of Smyrna, Tn. Those times remain most vivid and clear in my mind!
One afternoon on my "day" shift in the control tower, we received word from the Memphis Control Center that a small C-45 aircraft was inbound to our base - and it had the special encoded indication that someone was on board the inbound plane who was only ONE level below the President of the United States! That encoded information did not give any name or other explanation of who might be on board, and the other two controllers on duty with me all shared total consternation as to whom this unexpected visitor would turn out to be.
It would be upwards of two hours before the plane was due to arrive, so we had plenty of time to scratch our heads and banter our personal theories around about what was about to happen.
We could not imagine why the Vice President would be traveling on such an old and unpretentious craft as a C-45 - or how "Protocol" could have allowed such an oversight to occur. We also wondered just WHY so high-ranking a person would be visiting our medium-size base. Anyway, certain special alerts had to be made when any high-ranking individual's aircraft first established contact with the tower, and we wanted no goof-ups.
The pilot's ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) was on the money; all other traffic was cleared out of the way to allow the small C-45 to be number one for landing. Rescue squads were standing by to deal with any emergent eventuality, and the flight deck, already cleared of extraneous vehicles or equipment, was waiting. Our high-ranking party's plane touched down on runway 32, and only used about half of the 6,000-foot length to make its turnoff and head toward Base Ops where our tower was located. The base's highest-ranking officers had all been alerted as a greeting committee for the important visitor...
The plane's pilot requested permission to pull up on the tarmac to the tower's side; NOT the front. From that side approach, a square of lawn separated tarmac from the Base Ops, and a narrow concrete walkway led into the side door.We could see better looking toward the side, rather than the front view, so we had an excellent bird's eye view of everything that took place. A door opened on the plane, and instead of the usual rolling stairs and red-carpet treatment, the high-ranking individual simply hopped out of the plane and onto the ground, shunning any kind of special fanfare. It was Corporal Desmond Doss!
He, as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, was entitled to such free hops on a "space available" basis; only requirement was that he had to wear a "Class A" military uniform. In this instance he was wearing his complete WWII uniform with combat boots, Overseas cap, and carrying one of those little olive drab-colored "AWOL Bags" as a suitcase. Small, and of wiry build (as my fading memory recalls), he threw a snappy salute to the pilot and dashed away to a waiting civilian car nearby.
Some might ask or wonder just why Mr. Doss could only be accorded use of an old WWII aircraft for his vehicle of transportation, and I would just venture the guess that he simply took it as the "next" available aircraft - just like any other waiting soldier. He wanted no special favors, and so opted for the aging C-45. That attitude would fit his total belief system.
So, folks, although I was only privileged to see Corporal Desmond Doss for less than a minute on that bright, pleasant afternoon back in the '50's, it still remains a high point of my Air Force career. I only write this as a tribute to him, after his having led an exemplary life. He was the only Conscientious Objector to have ever won the Congressional Medal of Honor. The current popular movie, Hacksaw Ridge, was based on his life. Corporal Desmond Doss was from Lynchburg, Va., originally, but lived much of his life here, near Chattanooga. His body was recently interred in the National Cemetery in our city. Corporal Doss was truly a HIGH-RANKING fellow American.
(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )