*VMBB Senior Chief Of Staff*
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Marty Robbins old hometown, Glendale Arizona--a suburb of Phoenix.
Re: Blue Angel Down
SUMMER OF '67.........
‘Well, I’ll be go to hell Chief, I thought they did away with those Navy Seabees---- I was at
Anzio and Normandy’ he stated in a brarsh and rambling manner, ‘I was also with General
McArthur at Inchon----run into a lot of Seabees everywhere I served---good troops they
were’ he mused, ‘hard working bastards---sure liked their beer’.
The old man repeated himself----‘just did’nt know they still had Seabees’. I marveled at
how he seemed to be talking to himself---he was’nt looking my way---just staring off in the
I had introduced myself to this non-descript person a few minutes earlier as I waited in
the small and sparcely furnished anteroom. Quite obviously he was a military veteran,
probably the U.S. Army. A mop bucket and other cleaning supplies stood nearby so I
assumed he was now the building janitor.
I was attired in my Navy dress blues---attention grabbing garb no matter where they took
me. Today my public relations assignments were at the Government Center in Denver
Colorado. I was there doing the advance activity arrangements for a show the Seabees
called OPERATION RECOVERY.
The old Army veteran had surmised correctly---an astounding number of Americans
did’nt know there were still Navy Seabees in the military inventory.
There were comments made by some and thought to be true, that when John Wayne
had punched his big old bulldozer into the Japanese pillbox back in World War II, well that
was the last of ‘The Fighting Seabees’.
Actually, this year the Seabees were commemorating their 25th anniversiary and the Civil
Engineer Corps, the Seabee officers, were celebrating their 100th .
Orders from Washington Headquarters during 1966 had commenced the plan of action
for upcoming events and celebrations. It directed local commands to take the Navy
Seabees and their stories out into Americas heartland and onto its highways and by-ways; to
show and tell and to demonstrate the Seabees and their mission.
Always the Seabees motto ‘WE BUILD - WE FIGHT’, along with a smart ‘CAN-DO’ when
the impossible tasks were mentioned.
Ideally trained and equipped for military construction functions, additional responsibilities
were assigned to the Seabees. Those were tasks involving natural or man-made disaster
recovery operations. Earthquakes, fires, typhoons, and hurricanes, as well as the concepts
of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare----our plate was indeed overflowing. The
Seabees had come to stay----earning and deserving all the acclaim and respect due elite
The black, deep set eyes of the old man had taken on a glazed and distant look as the
shabbily dressed janitor continued his recollections. Although many years had passed by for
him, now memories were as vivid and distinct for him as if those long ago events had
happened only yesterday.
‘Damn Sarge, we sure took our lumps back in the Big War---got our butts kicked many
times but we kicked their’s lots more often---many of my buddies ‘bought the farm’ over
there but I made it back’.
I had’nt corrected the old ‘ground-pounder’ when he called me ‘Sarge’ and I felt an
unexplained tenderness for him as a tear creased down that old warriors weathered cheek.
‘No sir son, I just did’nt know they still had Navy Seabees----I remember a time’----
It must have been going to be a pleasant memory, for a spontaneous grin flushed across
the wrinkled expanse of face and his yellowed dentures chattered like a squirril chattering
when squirrils make their squirril sounds.
‘Yes sir Captain, sure as hell......’!
Just then the adjoining office door opened to the small waiting room where the old war
horse and I were seated. I did’nt correct him on the ‘Captain’ salutation either---sounded
like a compliment to me.
A plump, matronly looking secretary announced that the Mayor and Civil Defense
Director would see me now. I stood up to go, as did the old cleaning man I’d been visiting
I brushed at the invisible specks of lint sailors always think are on their dress blues and
admired the long row of fresh gold hashmarks extending from my elbow down to my wrist.
Holding the grey gloves in my left hand, my hat tucked under my right arm I peered at my
reflection in the nearby mirror. Inspection ready from in here, I mused to myself.
As I turned to go into the Mayors office I almost bumped into the old man who was now
standing in front of me at ridgid attention. That grand old Vet was rendering one of the most
proper looking salutes I had ever seen---in the Old Guard style---jaw squared, eyes blazing,
right eyebrow hidden under his work worn fingers with dirty and raggedy nails----waiting.
I stopped, undecided for a moment what to do and then I proudly donned my cover,
snapped to attention and returned the old warriors salute. As we cleared our honorings for
one another, I stepped off and followed the waiting secretary into the diginataries office, still
covered, and for that very moment feeling so proud to have done what I did. .
The large and robust mayor of Denver rounded his desk, arm and hand already outthrust
in a typical politicians fashion. His flushed and florid face seemed friendly as he spouted
greetings and something about his ‘being at the Navys disposal’.
Just wait until I ‘would rain on his parade’ and tell him about the simulated atomic
explosions my unit would be conducting in his fair city.
Almost an after thought on the Mayor’s part he remarked ‘oh, by the way, this is our Civil
With that kind of an introduction, I surmised that this office holder was just a
‘seat-warmer’ in the Mayors opinion. As I shook hands with the CDD, he commented in a
subdued manner that he would assist me in whatever way he could. I liked the mild
mannered young man---he was sincere.
‘We noticed you were talking to Ole Charlie Raintree before you come in----good ole
Indian if you can keep him outta the bottle’, the Mayor gushed.
Right at that very moment I made up my mind that I did’nt like the Mayor of
Denver---and further that I would’nt try real hard to understand his convictions, whatever
they might be---if he had any.
‘I did’nt get overseas in either war like Ole Charlie did’, the Mayor stated in a defensive
sounding voice--- ‘I headed up the OPA office’ he added as if I thought that it was a job like
the the CIA ----’somebody had to do it’, the overweight executive remarked, still sounding
Yes your honor, I thought to myself..... I was around back in those years and I remember
the Office of Price Administration was indeed a distasteful battle of sorts---fighting with the
American housewife for how much butter and eggs her family would get under a
government rationing program.
Our OPERATION RECOVERY show could not be scheduled as planned in Denver. The
Mayor was too cautious and could’nt make decisions that needed to be made on short
order. I think the Navy Blue Angels and the Army Golden Knights did their shows in the
Denver area but I was not provided with any follow-up details.
I would remain in Denver for 5 days and then return to my base at Port Hueneme,
Before I left the Denver area, I visited a former Seabee buddy who lived out in Boulder.
His name was Joe Zeren---Joe and I were just boys when he and I had served in the
Philippine Islands during the Korean War. We had helped to shove a mountion out into the
salty depths of Subic Bay. The stories were told the Seabees moved more earth on that job,
Cubi Point it was called, than all the earth that was moved building the Panama Canal. Joe
still lives in the community of Boulder.
I left my California base the following week and travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana.
There I appeared at local radio and television stations where I expounded on the values
and virtues of the Navy Seabees.
Some listeners requested verification that the Seabees could truly ‘walk on water’. They
assured me whatever documentation I would provide could be submitted at a later date.
Also met with the city fathers and city planners. Nearby military installations gave me
tours and I experienced true southern hospitality.
Belle Chasse, Louisiana, a few miles south of New Orleans was to be our show site. The
Blue Angels and the Golden Knights were scheduled also.
I remember the local Navy recruiter had tickets for the New Christie Minstrels show one
night. He and I attended and we were introduced to members of the group after the
show---I remember a red faced guy who grinned a lot---I recall him being from somewhere
in Texas---name of Kenny Rogers.
It was the summer of ‘67----it was the highlight of many shows we would do all over the
country for our Seabees birthday---it was to be our very best show---our crowning
acheivement---like Ole Charlie Raintree from Denver and his memories---I remember those
long ago times like they were only yesterday.
The thunderous roar of the jets engines, were not unlike the arrival sounds of an
elevated train into a train station, as the swept-winged fighters blasted toward one another
with a combined air speed of more than a thousand miles an hour.
Upturned faces, red and flushed from the hot delta sun----wide, unblinking eyes, darted
from right to left, attempting to keep the flashing aircraft in view.
Not more than five hundred feet off the airfields tarmac surface, directly over the viewing
stands, the bright blue navy jets screamed by each other. At a speed so great that the
golden script markings on the crafts fuselage could not be recognized, even with the
quickest of eyes. Every one in that crowd of one hundred thousand ‘delta-dwellers’, knew
it read BLUE ANGELS. More quickly than those wide, unbelieving eyes could blink, two of the
fighter planes performed barrel-rolls, as the pilots engaged the crafts after-burners, and
blasted their marvelous machines straight up into the azure blue and cloudless, Louisana
heavens. The generated shock wave reverberated off the damp green earth as the
invisible forces reached out and touched everyone in that assembled throng --- it made
clothing flap and hair ruffle not unlike a sudden summer breeze.
The babble of excited and overwhelmed voices of the grown ups, blended with the
screeches and squalls of babies and small children--- little ear drums probably hurting ---that
added to the din and noise as everyone expectantly awaited more thrills and awe inspiring
events to come. They surely would-------
Observing an air show, such as the BLUE ANGELS, can be compared to watching a
fireworks display on the 4th of July. Human attention span is definately measurable and it
turns out to be a very short duration----a few ‘ooohhhs’ and a spattering of ‘aahhaas’ and
very quickly that bored, hairy-legged person, goes in search of other excitment.
The NAVY BLUE ANGELS were conducting their typical air show that Saturday
afternoon---it was about thirty minutes duration, with another event scheduled same time
next day, weather permitting. It was getting close to the Gulf Coasts hurricane season and
the oppressive, all encompassing humidity, made for unpredictable weather.
Nothing however, seemed to dampen the spirits of that large and friendly, southern
crowd. Craned necks would protest tomorrow, some of those ‘good ole boys’ would have
hang-overs from guzzling too much beer, and the children would be cranky from sunburns,
but life today was to enjoy---- little else to compare with the festive events of this lazy
summer day in 1967.
The Army’s crack paratrooper team, THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS would conduct their
performances immediately following the BLUE ANGELS finale. Near the end of every ANGEL
show, in fact while the handsome jet fighters were still performing, you’d hear and
sometimes see the KNIGHT’S old prop-driven C-54, lumbering to get up to the proper
altitude for the troopers to do their jumps.
What a contrast, the most powerful nation on the planet and their newest jet fighters
teamed up with an ancient relic of yesteryear. Those old ‘war-horses’ had been used to
haul food and animals and war supplies over ‘the Hump’ of India into China early the
l940’s--another time--another war---remembered nowdays as the “Flying Tigers” war.
There were no announcements or program narration for the Golden Knights portion of
the show---the crowd would just suddenly sense others looking up into the sky and pointing
fingers and finally with a degree of concentration, specks could be seen---- like tiny distant
birds, hurtling downward at fantastic speeds.
Suddenly the rapidly falling dots would begin to emit streams of colored smoke---now the
spellbound viewers could discern the specks as being human and that the colored smoke
was coming from somewhere on their plummeting bodies. The red, white and blues would
spiral and twist and interlace not unlike braids or strands of string as the Golden Knights did
their thing. Professional army paratroopers---the elite, the cream of the crop.
Not a single American viewing that spectacle could refrain from feeling a gut-wrenching
sense of pride as those orange and black chutes snagged out behind the falling troopers---
snapping open like a Mary Poppins parasol and floating down gracefully to God’s green
There must have been twenty or thirty paratroopers jumping that day---passing batons in
the air, some forming up and joining hands. Sometimes as many as five to a group and
looking much like falling starfish, as the unfurled flags and battle pennants were proudly
dispayed in that aerial extravaganza. It was a glorious show but over too soon.
The sky was still filled with streaks of the colored smoke when a terrific explosion occurred
about one thousand feet in front of the viewing stands.
A brilliant orange fireball the size of a hot air balloon rose out of the grassy areas between
the divided runways. Appearing as if it had a life of its own, the giant fireball seemed to
grow as it bumped and rolled into and onto itself, evolving like some hellish monster as it
tumbled upward. Then a searing hot flash slapped at the horrified and screaming
The swirling red fireball disappeared just as quickly, leaving behind a mushroom shaped
cloud of greasy looking black smoke.
Scattered screams, gaping mouths, wide terrorized eyes, unbelievable feelings of
increadibility as the viewers tried to structure what had happened to their day---to their little
spot of the world.
The rapidly rising swirl of black smoke looked so much like the ghastly mushroom clouds
associated with nuclear detonations--the stinking and smoky mass blotted out the afternoon
sun, making the dreaded unknown, even more threating to the petrified onlookers.
GOOD AFTERNOON LADIES AND GENTLEMAN----WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES NAVY
SEABEE’S OPERATION RECOVERY SHOW.
The voice, clear and crisp, emanated distinctly from the public address system---- as if
right on cue, sounding almost spiritual. My voice----
The horrified spectators needed more of something--- anyone or anything to take away
this unmitigated terror that they were experiencing. I waited, script in hand, letting things
My friendly announcement was puncuated by the flop-flop noise from the rotors of an
approaching army helicopter, arriving and hovering over the area where the fireball had
been born---then the wail of a siren as an olive drab ambulance with a large red cross
emblazoned on either side, roared up, braked to a halt and discharged litter bearers
wearing gas masks and strange looking protective uniforms.
THE OPERATION RECOVERY SHOW IS BEING CONDUCTED THIS AFTERNOON FOLKS FOR YOUR
INFORMATION AND WE HOPE FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT. YOU ARE ENTIRELY FREE FROM ANY
DANGER OR HARM. MY NAME IS JOHN WILBORN. I AM A SENIOR CHIEF PETTY OFFICER IN THE
UNITED STATES NAVY. I WILL SERVE AS YOUR NARRATOR. PLEASE ENJOY WHAT WE HAVE TO
SHOW AND TELL YOU.
The sounds from the crowd had suddenly quieted---it was as if that entire assembled throng
was saying ‘okay you, whoever you are---wherever you are---you promised us , now you
better tell us what happened’!
There was a cluster of buildings and structures randomly positioned along side of the
grassy area that separated the runways---in fact those structures very much resembled the
quaint make-believe houses and buildings seen at various amusement parks such as
Disneyland or Magic Mountion. Unnoticed until now, that area and those structures was to
become an important part of the Seabees OPERATION RECOVERY show this day.
All of the structures were constructed in such a way that they were collapsible. When
exposed to a certain forces, explosive or otherwise, they would either fall down, scatter from
internal forces, appear to burn or all of the aformentioned and everything else. Back at our
California base we had started fabricating the movie-type sets and action training
paraphernalia throughout most of 1966. In preparation for our shows and demonstrations,
the experts from Hollywood were sought out for advice, assistance, and guideance. The
explosions and all the explosive devices were right out of Paramount, Universal, and MGM
studio stunts. The fire fighting operations were with the compliments and training from the
Los Angeles Fire Departments finest and best. The rescues and casualty handling were our
own finely tuned skills.
We had dry runs on top of dry runs at our own well equipped training facility in
California--- so many times we did re-take after re-take. We could almost do the action
routines in our sleep.
THE SEABEES ARE NAVAL CONSTRUCTION BATTALIONS. FOUNDED IN 1942 THEY WERE TASKED
TO SUPPORT MILITARY OPERATIONS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. OPERATIONS WERE EXPANDED
IN PEACETIME TO ENCOMPASS RECOVERY PROCEDURES BE IT FROM NATURAL OR MAN-MADE
DISASTERS. EARTHQUAKES IN ALASKA OR MOROCCO, TYPHOONS IN THE PACIFIC,
HURRICANES IN THE ATLANTIC, OR FOREST FIRES AND VOLCANOS----WE GO WHERE THE NEED
ARISES. TODAY LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, WE’D SPOIL EVERYONE’S DAY IF WE HAD A REAL
DISASTER SO WE’LL JUST MAKE BELIEVE.
Now, other similarally dressed personell arrived onto the scene in military trucks, jeeps, and
half-tracks. The helicopter hovered then darted back and forth across the area like a
THE HELICOPTER IS CONDUCTING AERIAL SURVEYS OVER THE DISASTER AREA. RADIATION
INSTRUMENTS ARE MONITORING AS WELL AS AIR SAMPLING FOR UNKNOWN HAZARDS. IT CAN
BE ACCOMPLISHED MORE RAPIDLY FROM THE HELICOPTER PLATFORM THAN BY PERSONNEL
RESCUE OPERATIONS FOR INJURED PERSONS MUST BE DONE AS RAPIDLY AS POSSIBLE, NO
MATTER WHAT THE RISKS. THOSE RESCUE PERSONNEL ARE PROTECTED BY CLOTHING AND
In rapid succession, there were three more detonations, though much smaller than the
attention grabbing first explosion. The houses and buildings seemed come apart like houses
of cards as they scattered and fell or were buffetted apart---almost simutaneously, billowing
clouds of smoke arose out of the disaster area. A siren began to shrill in the distance---a fire
truck---or a bomb disposal vehicle----what.
FIREFIGHTING BY PROPERLY TRAINED FIREFIGHTERS USING THE PROPER TOOLS AND DEVICES AS
WELL AS PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT IS ESSENTIAL FOR THE RESPONSE TO ANY DISASTER.
The screaming siren of the approaching airport crash truck litterly overwhelmed my
narration over the PA system. It roared in like a juggernaut-----as the black clad firefighters
bailed off the bright red pumper, dragging hoses throughout the scene like oversized strands
of spagetti. There were really no actual fires but smoke pots used in training situations to
ALL DISASTER SCENES MUST BE DEALT WITH AS UNKNOWN DANGERS. AS INFORMATION IS
GATHERED, IT MUST BE ACTED ON BY APPROPRIATE PERSONNEL. THEN BY USING ACCEPTED
METHODS AND PROCEDURES, SUCCESS IS ACHEIVED, THEREBY HUMAN PAIN AND SUFFERING IS
An unexplained quiet prevailed throughout the crowd --- only the sounds of the circling
chopper, a few engines running on the military vehicles, and sounds of radio transmissions
from the scene of destruction.
Thousands of eyes stared, gaping mouths scarcely daring to breath, hearts forgetting to
All the while the events in the disaster area were being played out, I was continuing the
narration by reading from the prepared script.
My script delivery was correlated to the on-scene activities and I had to constantly
watch those operations. I could sense the crowd listening attentively to my words. I was the
I stood on a small platform as I narrated our show. I was dressed in summer whites--- not
at all flashy, but comfortable in the summer heat.
It was a while before the enormous crowd sensed where the announcements were
coming from and then when they did, it seemed to have a more quieting effect on them.
The movement of personnel clad in the protective clothing and the firefighters were all
the onlookers could observe. Their specific missions seemed to be casualty rescue, for the
litter-bearers came and went with their burdens. Medical personnel with red-cross arm
bands attended to the collection of injured that were laid out on the strechers.
A triage (injury determination) area could be readily detected and the simulated injured
looked very real and believable. Gauze wrappings, blood-colored, around heads and
limbs---intra-tubes trailing above and around the strechers.
Some of the simulated injured were coming out of the disaster scene on foot---limping
along and bundled up---- truly ‘playing their roles’---they knew they would be on local
The casuality players were usually members of local schools, military reserve units, or
sometimes the radio and television celebraties. Never had a scarcity of able volunteers.
ANY CALAMITY OR DISASTER IS UNPREDICTABLE ----WE CANNOT PLAN WHEN THEY ARE GOING
TO HAPPEN BUT WE CAN PREPARE FOR THEM WHEN THEY DO HAPPEN. WE COULD NOT BEGIN
TO COVER EVERY CONTIGENCY THAT MAY OCCUR IN YOUR LIVES OR OUR LIVES, BUT WE
CAN BE PREPARED TO HELP WHERE NEEDED AND ASSIST THOSE LESS FORTUNATE.
The smoking firepots had gone out. The rescue teams seemed satisfied that all the injured
had been rescued and the fireman dragged their hoses out of the disaster site toward the
big red response vehicle.
The crowd seemed to sense a closure---they seemed to be at ease with what had been
presented to them....first there was a few spatterings of applause in the large mass of
humanity and then it swelled to a thunderous roar of clapping, cheers, and shouts.
Don Lewis, one of the more crustier crew members who had today served as the shows
blast and safety man, touched off the final prepared explosion.
Again the rolling and tumbling fireball formed up as it had in the initial blast--the immense
conflagration rose into the air, extinguished itself, and leaving behind, like a horrible
signature, the mushroom shaped cloud.
The tumult and the shouting and the cheering was just without description---what a
climax---what a finale. The pounding of hands and the shouts seemed to ebb and flow like
it would go on forever.
Finally the crescendo slowed and the sounds from the crowd bled off---lingering still, but
subsiding to a level the public address sound might be heard.
ON BEHALF OF THE NAVY SEABEES LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, THANK YOU FOR BEING SUCH
GRACIOUS HOSTS AND HOSTESSES---WE HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED OPERATION
RECOVERY----THANK YOU FOR HELPING THE ‘BEES CELEBRATE THEIR 25TH BIRTHDAY. WE HAVE
ENJOYED YOUR SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY VERY MUCH. MAY GOD BLESS YOU ALL.
g toward the end of 1967 I would receive my orders for transfer. I had been with the
Seabees ‘dog and pony show’ (that’s what Old Don Lewis called it) for almost 4 years.
My new tour of duty would take me to Viet Nam twice. Then before I would retire in 1971,
I would be reassigned back to the Disaster Recovery Training Department. Talk about
coming home---different now though----but does’nt war make everything different?
Never took the shows on the road again----the fond memories just lingered---still do.
It was later in my life I heard a catchy little ‘whing-ding-thing’ that I liked---think it was
from a New York stage show----it went like this---
THE ROAR OF THE GREASE PAINT----THE SMELL OF THE CROWD
My wife gave me a personal Seabee video in 1992 on the 50th birthday of the
Seabees---nice gift---good choice--womans touch.
Over the years I have often remarked, and not always in a kind way, how the old sailors
and veterans would bore me with their tales of yore and their salty old sea stories---I would
attempt to hide from them.
Who was the wise person who further commented, ‘what goes around comes around’.
Maybe a Seabee------
John H. Wilborn Sr. U.S. Navy (Retired)