CHAPTER TWO

 

My orders directed me to report to the Naval Receiving Station in Washington, DC, where I would be processed to report for duty. The orders stated that I would be assigned to something called COMIDEASTFOR. Bless the military and their predilection for acronyms. I got halfway around the world before I was able to find out what it meant. It stood for Commander Middle Eastern Forces. I also found out that I was to be the Flag Photographer. In other words, I worked for the admiral in charge of the whole shebang. The good news was that it meant sea duty, at last. The flagship of the Middle Eastern Forces was a seaplane tender. The bad news was that the Middle Eastern Forces fleet operated in the Persian Gulf out of the Arab Emirate of Bahrain. It really didn't matter a Tinker's Damn though, because I never got there, as you will read.

I packed up all of my belongings and threw them in the back of my car and reported to the Receiving Station. I was told that I'd be there for at least a month, getting my shots and a passport which was required, even for servicemen in the Middle East. I told them that I already had a passport from the abortive South American goodwill tour that I never went on. They said that this bit of good news would cut my stay there to two weeks or less while they got a visa for the passport.

In about ten days, I was called to the office and handed several bulky packages which were closed with a wax seal.

"Don't break open those seals," I was told. "Just hand them in when you get to where you're going. Those are your health, pay and personnel records."

I got an additional envelope which I could open and that held my orders and travel vouchers.

I was told to go home for two weeks leave and then report to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts for the flight overseas.I spent two weeks at home enjoying myself. By then, the Korean War had ended and the world was a fairly peaceful place. The problems that are plaguing the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East as I write these words were unimagined at the time.

I spent the time hanging out with my old high school buddies and soaking up the sun at Jones Beach. It was early summer and as the song says, "the living was easy."

I asked my parents to put my Merc' up on blocks till I returned and I was off to Westover AFB on the first leg of my journey.


Mom prepares a barbecue. We were living at the Lucille Street address at this time.

Mom relaxes on the patio.

I boarded a huge, four engined troop transport that was carrying servicemen to their destinations. It also carried a good number of military family members, including babies and children, who were joining their husbands at their overseas posts. And, sacks and sacks of mail. Planes in 1953 didn't have the great range that today's jets have and we had to fly in stages. The first stop was the Azores, off Portugal. It took almost the whole day to get there and by that time, everyone was tired. Those military transports weren't luxury airliners. They were drafty and noisy. And there were no plush, reclining seats with in-flight meals and movies. Everyone sat on canvas benches bolted to the sides of the aircraft and we ate box-lunch sandwiches in our laps. I guess the entertainment consisted of watching the military brats chasing each other through the cavernous interior of the plane. On the next leg of the flight, I climbed atop of a pile of mail sacks and tried to sleep. Some poor GI probably got a squashed angel food cake from his Mom. Next was a refueling stop in Rome and we couldn't even get off the plane to stretch our aching legs. And then across the Mediterranean Ocean to North Africa and on to Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya, where, after two and a half days, everyone de-planed.

A street in Tripoli, Libya. 1953
 

Bread being sold in a Tripoli marketplace. 1953
 

The plane crew opened the doors and we struggled to our feet. As soon as I reached the door I walked into a brick wall of heat; hot, dry, Libyan Desert heat, the like of which I had never experienced. Our bags were being tossed to the tarmac and I gathered up my sea bag from the pile. An Air Force Lieutenant with a clip board came up and started barking orders to military and civilian alike.


An alley where artisans make pots and pans. 1953

"All those staying in North Africa, line up on my right. Those of you continuing on to the Middle East, line up on my left."

I joined a handful on the left. The Lieutenant came over and read names from his clip board. I was one of them. As he spoke, his body seemed to waver in the heat waves reflecting from the tarmac, like a movie mirage.

He told us to have our orders ready as well as our passports. I hadn't seen my passport since I turned it in at the Naval Receiving Station in Washington. So, I assumed that it must be one of the bulges in the sealed envelopes that were given me with the admonition not to break the seals. I broke the seals. One envelope held my health records. The other, my pay records. Neither contained a passport. I explained this to the Lieutenant when he reached me.

"Impossible!" he snorted. "You could never have left the States without it."

I explained to him that I was producing everything that had been handed to me in Washington.

"Impossible," he repeated. "You couldn't have gotten this far and you can't go any further without that passport. You must have sold it."

"Sold it! Sold it?" I sputtered. "I've been on this @!!*&#% plane for the past three days. Where the Hell was I going to sell it?"

He placed me under confinement to the base, pending an investigation. There was a small Navy communications detachment on the Air Force Base that handled the communications for the American Embassy in Tripoli. He called over some MP's and had me handed over into their custody. But, first he assured me that owing to the gravity of the situation, I would hang when they found out where I had sold my passport. Gee, I was really feeling good about this whole thing.

The MP's brought me over to the Navy unit at the far end of the sprawling Wheelus Air Force Base and swapped me to them for a couple of cups of good Navy Coffee. The weasely looking Ensign who was the Commanding Officer of this group of about twelve sailors took an instant dislike to me. He hated anything that created waves in his little fiefdom. Obviously, I was a wave maker.

He listened to the MP's report and then he sneered at me. "Kraus, you're gonna hang."

Hmmm. That's twice already that I heard those words since I landed in this God forsaken armpit of the world. And, the temperature was now over 100 degrees. I was starting to sweat, but probably more from the trouble that I seemed to be in than from the heat.

I was assigned to an empty bunk in the large dormitory that housed the enlisted crew, and given a locker to stow my sea bag. The enlisted crew turned out to be a bunch of regular guys who sympathized with my plight and gave me their friendship for the duration of my stay. There was little to do there for recreation. During duty hours, I was ordered by the weasely Ensign to copy electronic schematics of the teletype machines that they used, by hand drawing them. They had no need for a Photographer's Mate so I guess the weasel figured he'd keep me from selling anymore documents by occupying my time with inane tasks. In off-duty hours we played endless games of Monopoly. But, you've never played Monopoly like this. There were no rules. You were expected to cheat and connive at every opportunity. God protect the fool who didn't count his money twice, each time a transaction was made. When a player's piece was moved around the board, his hand would usually sweep off houses and hotels from the properties he was traversing and they would be deposited on his own properties. No one ever came to blows, but loud arguments were part of the fun. My shipmates also took me to play golf on the sand pit that passed as a nine hole course on this desert base. I had never played before and the clubs that I rented were designed for shorter men than me. In order to hit the ball, I had to lean over so far that I was in danger of falling on my face. Between that and the fact that the course was really one big sand trap (IT"S A DESERT, FOR CRYIN' OUT LOUD!) my scores were abysmal. But, I was grateful for the break in the routine and the camaraderie of my fellow men.


Tripoli, Libya. 1953
When Ensign Weasel was off somewhere, the guys would make room for me in the jeep when they had to leave the base to deliver a dispatch to the embassy. So, I got to see a bit of this desert kingdom. If I had to describe what I saw in one word, that word would be "poverty." On the way to the embassy in the capitol city of Tripoli, we would drive through villages where people lived in straw huts. The kids would stand at the roadside with their hands cupped in front of them, begging for whatever. They were so emaciated of body and spirit that they didn't even bother to brush the hordes of flies that covered their mouths looking for moisture in this arid climate.

Village huts constructed of palm fronds, alongside the road leading to the capitol city, Tripoli.


Libyan men on the road to Tripoli.

 


Village children.
There were oxen and camels everywhere. There were more animals on the roads than vehicles. They pulled carts and hauled firewood. They pulled up buckets of water from wells and they tilled the hard dry sandy earth.

One of the first things that I did when I landed in this Hell-hole was to send telegrams inquiring about my missing passport. The first one was sent to the Naval Receiving Station in Washington, from whence I was shipped without the required passport. An answer was received a few days later. The message was a terse, "According to our records, Kraus has passport in his possession." Ugggh! I could feel the noose being slipped around my neck. I sent wires to my former Commanding Officer and another to the CO where I was supposed to go. And I wired my parents asking them to go through my car and all my belongings in the hope that the bloody passport might have slipped through the cracks. All to no avail.

Months slipped by in an endless succession of cut throat Monopoly games and hand copied schematics. I was becoming an expert draftsman and real estate magnate. I wasn't much of a photographer, at this point. I couldn't even take any more photos. The desert sand had worked it's way into the shutter mechanism of my personal camera, rendering it useless.

And then, one blistering hot afternoon, the intercom in the room where I labored over my schematics blared out, "Now hear this! Photographer's Mate Kraus report to the Commanding Officer's office." I was being summoned before the exalted Ensign Weasel.

With mounting trepidation, I knocked on his office door. I was told to enter. There he was, The Weasel, sitting behind his desk, holding a telegram. What was it? Orders to be shot? Where? On the Libyan Desert? Aboard some ship in the Persian Gulf or maybe back in the States?

Ensign Weasel smiled and opened the telegram. "Here it is, Kraus. What you've been waiting for." He read from the paper in his hands. It said, "Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Richard S. Kraus's passport located at State. STOP. Unable to get visa for Mid East due to lineage. STOP. Further orders forthcoming. STOP"

Jeez! It took me awhile to figure out the meaning, but it was eventually explained to me. They found my passport in the desk drawer of some State Dept. flunky. When my passport crossed his desk, he looked at it and realized that the government wasn't sending Jewish personnel to the Arab countries of the Middle East. Instead of sending it back to the Naval Receiving Station, he threw it in a drawer where it sat for over three months.

Lineage. For crying out loud. They just discovered that I was Jewish. I never kept that information secret. My dog tags are stamped with a "J;" my records all note than I am Jewish. The State Department and the United States Navy made a monumental error in not only assigning me to duty in the Middle East, but for shipping me more than half way there.

Ensign Weasel smiled weakly at me. "I'm glad it worked out for ya, Kraus. I knew ya didn't sell yer passport."

(Up yours, you creep!!)

Within the week I possessed new orders and was boarding a plane for Rome, Italy.

 

The adventure enters another phase.