Former 512th member offers glimpse into 1950's Reserve life

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Veronica Aceveda
  • 512th AW Public Affairs
(Editor's note: The 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office frequently receives requests for unit patches. One of those requests was from someone who said he was a proud Air Force veteran who served in the 512th AW decades ago. This is his story.)

The 512th Airlift Wing was flying C-46 transport aircraft when a 17-year-old from Philadelphia joined the Reserve unit which was then located at New Castle County Airport, Del.

At that time the 512th AW was named the 512th Troop Carrier Wing Medium, and Richard Staley signed the standard enlistment contract of eight years.

He said he credits his time in the Air Force Reserve to his uncle Fred Stopper, who was an Army combat soldier during World War II.

"I always remembered this one talk we had when I was about 10 years old," said Staley. "He told me, 'when you get old enough and the time comes, be smart and join the Army Air Corps.' He went on to say, 'anytime we were walking out of the mud, we'd see the (Army Air Corps) barracks, which had curtains; they sure looked like they had it better than us.'"

With that in mind, Staley took his advice and enlisted into the Air Force Reserve in 1954.

"It was still in its beginning stages and wasn't very organized," said Staley. "You could tell there were some growing pains trying to break away from the Army, but the 512th was thriving.

"I chose to work in the 512th's motor pool. I was a product of the 50s, a hot-rodder. I liked cars and getting greasy."

The motor pool was a centrally managed group of motor vehicles for the use of government personnel. The 512th, which is now located at Dover Air Force Base, Del., no longer has its own motor pool. The Reserve wing accesses government transportation through the host wing's logistics readiness squadron.

Jay Robinson, a Dover AFB vehicle management technician, said there's a big difference between now and then.

"We lease the majority of our vehicles from major automotive manufacturers including Dodge, Ford and Chevy," he said. "They include electric hybrid and alternate fuel vehicles. We manage the maintenance and repair of them through local vendors."

Before, the Air Force used to own and repair its own vehicles.

Staley said he mainly worked on Fords, which were all painted dark blue.

"I was a snot-nosed kid who didn't know anything, but thought I did," said Staley who initially reported for drill weekends wearing olive-colored coveralls and later in two-piece olive drab fatigues.

He was actually among a group of young enlistees from the Lancaster-Columbia, Pa., area, whose duties included painting, body work and fender repair.

"We were the new kids," said Staley. "So, the old guys, a bunch of World War II vets, took us under their wing and brushed off the newness and taught us how to operate in the military; and, that included parties and everything else."

Something they all took turns learning was kitchen police, known as KP duty. The 12-plus hour detail involved chores such as scrubbing pots and pans and food preparation.

"There really was a room with a mountain of potatoes that had to be peeled," said Staley. "However, there was a machine to help get the job done. It had sandpaper-like bumps on it, and every once in a while for a joke, we'd leave the potatoes in too long. You could get an Idaho-sized tater down to the size of a pea. But, you didn't do that too often, or you'd be cleaning the grease trap for sure."

The grease trap was a big concrete box in the ground, located behind the chow hall, which collected all the grease from the kitchen, said Staley.

"It was only cleaned once a month," he added. "You had to lay on your stomach and scrape it out. It took at least five showers before you were convinced the smell was off of you."

In addition to unit training assemblies, which were once a month, his unit occasionally performed annual tour duty out of state.

During one of those trips, prior to the nation's civil rights movement, Staley spent two weeks in Savannah, Ga., where he learned he was a Yankee.

After landing on the tarmac, Staley said a sergeant briefed his unit on three things to be aware of: black widows; rattlesnakes; and the population of the area, but not to be too concerned about the spiders and snakes.

"It's just the way the times were then," said Staley. "There were signs everywhere saying black and white this and that. When we would walk down the sidewalk, black people had to get in the street. It blew us away and tore me up inside. We certainly didn't agree with it."

Things have changed since then. Today's Air Force provides equal opportunity and treatment for all of its members regardless of their race, color, religion, national origin and gender.

When Staley wasn't working UTAs, he worked for Sears and Roebuck Philadelphia, first in the warehouse and then in the automotive shop, where he worked as a garage mechanic for $1.03 an hour, netting about $40 a week.

Staley said he left Sears in search of higher pay as he was planning to get married. He said he settled for a job the furthest possible from his skill set - a window decorator for a downtown department store.

"I didn't tell anyone, especially my Reserve buddies," said Staley. "But, I did get the girl, and that's what was important."

He's been married to Fran for 53 years now. If it wasn't for the 512th, Staley would never have met his wife as she was the sister of one of his Reserve co-workers in the motor pool.

Eventually, Staley quit his job as a window dresser. Faced with the dilemma of telling his new bride about his abrupt resignation, he said he opted to find a new job before he got home.

Passing by city hall on his way home, Staley said there was a sign in the window, advertising for the Philadelphia Police Department.

"I didn't want to be a cop," he said. "But, I turned the application in, because it was something to tell the wife."

A couple of days later, Staley was called in for a physical and was hired as a police officer, earning an annual salary of $3,940.

"Even at the police academy, I told myself this gig was only temporary," he said.

In 1986, Officer Staley retired from law enforcement, having worked 28 years in various capacities, which included patrolman, paddy wagon detail and dispatcher.

Following retirement, Staley had more time to dedicate to one of his favorite past times, attending air shows. In his home state, he has attended airs shows in Lancaster and Smoketown and is a frequent visitor of the annual World War II Weekend in Reading, Pa.

Around 2008, the Quarrysville, Pa., resident traveled to Maryland and was one of thousands who entered the gates of the Andrews Air Force Base Open House, the largest in the Department of Defense.

Staley recalled how the gate guard commented on his Air Force-themed t-shirt and ball cap.

"The guard said to me, 'Air Force guy huh?'

"Well, it's been an awful long time I replied," said the veteran who completed his Reserve time in 1962. "Then, that guard uttered, 'Once blue, always blue.'

"He made me feel so good that I was considered a piece of the action," said Staley. "It made my day; it made my week; I told my son about it - I told so many people about it.

"For so long, I still had it in my head the old perception of how people viewed reservists. I was just amazed."

Five decades ago, reservists were considered one step above a draft dodger - not looked at with a whole lot of respect, said Staley.

"We were looked down upon, because we didn't want to go full-time," he added. "I always resented that, because I was packed-up and ready to go everyday for eight years."

Staley never saw combat but came close once.

With a brand new baby, Staley said he was a little worried when President Kennedy unexpectedly came on TV. That same Saturday night between 2-3 a.m., Staley answered the call in support of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

"We were told to 'grab your socks; be at the base at 0700; and, once on base, you'll be incommunicado,'" said Staley, who reported for activation with his bluish-grey duffel bag.

Incommunicado was a term used to describe no off-base communications with anyone, including family.

"They essentially told us what was going on - as much as we needed to know, which wasn't a lot being mechanics and all," said Staley. "So, we put our stuff in the barracks and were on standby."

He recalled how rumors of invading Cuba circulated as well as the possibility of his unit becoming front-line armed forces for the invasion.

"We were totally in the dark; but, for certain, we noticed a lot of the orange and red paint schemes on the aircraft were gone," said Staley. "The planes on the tarmac were plainly painted with the Air Force insignia and a star on them. We learned the plain anti-collision planes meant we were leaving the country."

Members of Staley's chain of command tasked his unit to take their gear to an assigned plane for loading.

"The plane was gassed-up and ready; we were just waiting for the word to go," said Staley. "There was a lot of hurry up and wait."

"The good Lord saw to it that I never left that day," said Staley. "But, I am proud to have been part of that call-up. Every time I see someone with a 512th patch, I go right up to them and start talking. I'm just so proud to have been a part of it all. Even though we were packed up and ready but never left, I kind of like to think (Fidel) Castro knew the 512th was coming."

At 74, Staley can still recite his Air Force service number and still carries his dog tags on his key ring.

He said he doesn't march so well anymore, but he's not too old to cherish the memories he has of his time in the 512th.