"They's Gold in Them Thar Hills!"

By Joe Talbot Jr. | Jun 28, 2018

It was 1961 when I arrived at my new assignment, McClellan Air Force Base, in Sacramento, Calif., and the 55th Air Weather Service. I was reasonably surprised; the barracks I was assigned was fairly new, modern, and very clean, and I had a private room, with my own bathroom.  Wow, I thought, I've moved up in the world.  My across-the-hall-neighbor was a fellow named Billy E. Jackson.  Billy was very difficult to understand at first, because he was from the mountains of Tennessee, and his accent was a lot different from the Deep South counterparts, but it wasn't long before I got hold of what he was trying to say on a regular basis. Even though we were worlds apart from a cultural standpoint, we hit it off pretty quickly, and he started showing me all the places around Sacramento, as he'd been there two years.  He even had a car!  Well, sort of.  It was a tiny English-model two-door, which when we both sat in the front seats, our shoulders touched, and I had to move my left leg when he wanted to shift gears.  But it was a fuel sipper rather than a gulper, and we got around just fine.

Our outfit, the 55th Air Weather Squadron, was comprised of WB 50's that looked like a bigger B29, with four blade propeller's on each of four engines on the wings, and a round glass nose.  The Air Weather Service “Hurricane Hunters” logo was on the fuselage, but in truth, it was a bit of a misnomer.  Our real job was not to mess with the weather in any way, but to fly into nuclear fallout around the world when one of the countries that had nuclear weapons testing going on. We flew missions to Fairbanks Ala.; Yakota, Japan; Enewitok, in the Pacific; Bermuda and a large parcel of the South Pacific Ocean, where a lot of the testing by the U.S. and others was going on in the 6os.

Billy and I went to Hickam Field, in Hawaii, on TDY (Temporary Duty).  We put our fingers in some of the bullet holes in the outside wall of the dining hall, left as a reminder during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.  There was something very strange about doing that, which gave me shivers, trying to imagine what it would have been like for the airmen who took part in that event. Billy and I borrowed a model A Ford convertible with a rumble seat from one of the permanent duty guys, and we saw all that we could for the time we had.  One of the things we didn't see in person was the memorial to the U.S.S. Arizona.  However, I flew over it a few times, and I could actually see the ship's shape at the bottom of the ocean through the very clear water. That too gave me goose bumps, just like the bullet holes.

Our group mission was to fly south and do our thing all day, and then come home.  I learned that the reason we were there was a bit unusual.  It had nothing to do with A-bomb fallout testing, but for another purpose.  This was the very early stage of preparing for our trip to the moon.  Some of the rocket nose cones after re-entry into the earth's atmosphere were projected to land at a certain latitude/longitude, but if a button was pushed a split second early or later than the desired plan, the landing would take place miles away from the projected landing target.  So the Air Force was commissioned to send out a fleet of "Flying Box Cars" (C-119 transport).  The idea was to open the rear bay doors, deploy two long cables with a cross bar between, and snag the parachute of the nose cone as it was drifting down toward the ocean.  It seems that the nose cone was designed to float in the water upon splash-down, but they had lost several of them when they sank and couldn't be recovered.

For many months, a squadron flying at different altitudes could never put themselves in exactly the right place to affect the recovery. The Air Force figured the reason might be because atmospheric conditions affected the accuracy of the radar signals on that little tiny dot of a nose cone, thus giving wrong information as to "miles to target,” "azimuth" and altitude.  They also learned that the cone was drifting downward, and to windward as it floated down, so adjusting airplane speed and altitude to intercept the chutes of the cone in the time allowed was a nightmare, and they never could perfect it.   Virtually millions of gallons of high octane gas, hours on the engines, and time spent for the crews was a total failure, with no chance of success from the beginning.  So what did the Air Force come up with? A simple fix indeed!  They put an auto-deploying flotation collar in special compartments around the nose cone.  When it hit the water, the collar would surround the nose cone and keep it afloat.  Genius!

Billy told me that we were smack dab in the middle of the area where the California Gold Rush took place in 1849. Over 300,000 millionaire wannabe’s flooded the area! We rushed out and bought some scuba gear, and we went looking for gold in the Yuba, Sutter and the Feather rivers around Sacramento, Auburn, and Placerville. We learned how to pan the river-bottom materials we brought up in a bucket, and we started to build a stockpile of “color,” (gold dust) and when we could fill up a glass one-half pint milk bottle, we’d sell it for a whopping $27.50 an ounce. We ran across a rather weird-looking guy one day, and for a six-pack, he showed us his “sluice box.” He even showed us how to use it, and we got excited and built one. Our production quadrupled rather quickly. We learned that if we had a “floating dive-air station” (an air-compressor mounted on a yellow inner tube with a small diving flag on a short flagpole) we no longer had to lug heavy compressed-air tanks, or buy air, but we could both dive up to a 30-foot depth and all we needed was a small can of gasoline which would last us four days. In two years of doing this regularly, we never hit the mother load, or found a vein, or large nugget. The best we could do was dust. I wish, oh I wish, we had saved our dust until now. Go figure.

Joe Talbot is a former columnist for Peterson Publications’ Off Road Magazine” and “Four Wheeler Magazine.” He lives in Belfast.


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