Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Robert Fisk: Grand old warbirds in a graveyard of dark memories

Castle Air Force Base has a dark memory for a lady I meet in Fresno. "You could see the draftees in San Francisco, crying and holding on to their mothers and fathers," she tells me. "They didn't want to go to Vietnam. They were very unhappy. And if they refused to get on the bus to Castle AFB, they were dragged on board and chained to the seats."

They went by bus, but I took the train, heading for Fresno in the heat of the San Joaquin Valley to lecture Americans on their iniquities in the Middle East. My usual paint pots.

A bad start at Sacramento station. To buy my ticket, I have to show my passport. The 9/11 attacks meant ID for rail tickets in America. "Why, you're a senior, sir," says the clerk. "For you, it's only $17." Stunned, I am. I've never been a "senior" before. But then, 40 miles from Fresno my eyes catch sight of the wing of a B-24 Liberator bomber to the left of the train. Behind it is a massive B-52 standing in a garden of dried grass. Planes almost rivalled steam locos in the youthful Fisk pantheon of obsessions. But it took 24 hours in Fresno to discover that this desolate museum of war was once Castle Air Force Base, the place of the weeping soldiers.

So in return for three two-hour rants on the Middle East, I blackmailed my (liberal) American host to drive me back via this sandy garden, and we found it outside the one-horse town of Atwater; "Global Power Through Airpower," it said at the gate. "Preserving History for Generations." Headquarters - long ago - of the 93rd Bombardment Wing.

"Grand old warbirds," the museum pamphlet calls this hot metal graveyard with its Cold War fighters and bombers, the bleak, dark green and grey B-52, used to bomb the Iraqis in the 1991 Desert Storm liberation of Kuwait. And yes, I remembered the dead they left on the ground, the corpses we found north of the Basra "highway of death", civilians as well as Iraqi soldiers, blown to bits; I watched the desert dogs tucking into them one bleak morning 19 years ago. I told my Fresno listeners about all this. Silent, they were. I didn't mention that one of these same planes blitzed a suburb of Kandahar in 2001, the survivors later taking out their fury on me.

I noted down the aggression of these aircraft. A few of them were my private albatrosses, like the F-14D which was "over the skies of Baghdad in 2004" and the F-15 which, dressed in the colours of America's Greatest Ally in the Middle East, has, before my very eyes, killed an awful lot of civilians in Lebanon. There was even a Soviet MiG-17. But it was in desert camouflage and carried Egyptian markings. No explanation, of course.

The museum itself was infinitely sad; a clutch of looted Nazi memorabilia, an aero-engine, uniforms and model aircraft and an illustrated poem by a former pilot who participated in the 1991 air raids which pulverised not just Saddam's army but the entire civilian infrastructure of Iraq.

Then in Palo Alto, I get my office mail package, and there's a letter from Geoff Jones, retired comic illustrator, to tell me that he refused to work for the Second World War comics about which I wrote last month. In that war, he lived near Malvern, son of a 1914-18 Flanders veteran, a schoolboy watching the 1944 D-Day casualties brought back to the military hospital next to his home. His own words should end this grim column of mine.

"Many had bits of limbs missing, others were blinded and helped by their 'mates'. Probably the worst thing was the way they used to transport 'shell-shocked' patients in open cages on the backs of trucks between the various camps! They would be screaming and yelling... one managed to escape, climbed an e lectricity pylon on my uncle's farm and fell to earth, a charred corpse..."

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