While many of my peers were celebrating at Woodstock, from August 15 to August 17 of 1969, I was defending America from Communism, irony intended, and more specifically, preparing our squadron of T-28 trainer aircraft for the arrival of Hurricane Camille, “the strongest hurricane to strike the mainland of the United States in the 20th Century.”
We started to get early warnings on Friday, August 15 that a tropical depression was forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Keesler Air Force Base’s Flight Operations Chief immediately ordered all the aircraft flown to Barksdale Air Force Base outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. The grounded planes and nearly everything else that wasn’t nailed down were moved into the hangars.
This was before forecasters had the benefit of satellite imagery. Nevertheless, forecasters, basing their predictions primarily on hurricane-watch C-130s that flew to and into the eyes of hurricanes as they formed in Caribbean, first expected that the storm would make landfall on the Florida panhandle. But as Camille moved north it veered westward and the eye finally came ashore about 20 miles west of Biloxi near the Mississippi/Louisiana border.
When the people of Biloxi went to bed Saturday evening, we blithely assumed that the brunt of the storm would be to the east and all we’d see was some high winds.
But Saturday night, by the time people realized where Camille was coming ashore, sea levels had already risen several feet, swamping low level bridges and making last minute evacuation difficult if not impossible.
When Camille made landfall overnight from August 16 into August 17 it had reached sustained winds of almost 200 mph, with “gusts” well over that. The storm also produced a huge night-time tidal wave that few people saw. Some reports said the initial monster wave was well over 20 feet, destroying everything in its path on or near Biloxi’s beach, along what the local tourism bureau called the “Golden Gulf Coast.”
The accompanying storm surge raised sea-levels by 15-20 feet, inundating nearly everything but the highest elevations on the Biloxi peninsula (on which most of Keesler Air Force Base sat).
Biloxi is on the east end of a narrow west-to-east peninsula which forms the Back Bay of Biloxi. The highest elevation on the peninsula is around 20 feet, so the rising water accompanying the storm surge flooded almost all the area’s buildings to one degree or another.
A motel perched on a rickety wharf out into the Gulf was destroyed right away to where only its piers remained. Rumors persisted that people who didn’t believe how big the hurricane could be were holding a drunken “hurricane party” and died on their bar stools as the huge storm surge came ashore. Later most of those stories were debunked as urban legends.
All the boats in the various marinas, piers and docks were lifted by the wave surge and deposited hundreds of feet inland. In one case, a huge white yacht sat nearly intact in a swimming pool behind what had been a home which had been leveled to its foundation.
Waterspouts, aka tornados, spun off the main body of the hurricane, and were thrown inland, taking huge swaths out of the landscape, leaving 10 or 20 foot wide clearcut paths of destruction further inland.
I spent a sleepless night in Hangar Five, unable to sleep as the fierce winds got stronger and louder. The hangar’s side windows near the top of the walls had protective metal flaps that were supposed to have been closed, but due to the velocity of the wind, some of the flaps came loose and were banging on the windows and walls. Around midnight, one flap banged so hard that it broke the window it was supposed to cover, sending shards of glass down onto the aircraft and vehicles below.
At this point I decided to try to secure the loose flaps to prevent further damage. I climbed up a ladder to the narrow catwalk along the inner hangar wall below the windows to secure any flaps that I could.
I closed as many and climbed back down to the hangar floor and laid down on three padded chairs where I got a little sleep in fits and starts.
I had been living in a rented room in a single-wide trailer owned by Luis Escanila, a Filipino lieutenant from Hawaii. My old Volvo had survived the night in the hangar with scratches from falling glass. So I drove it off-base to Luis’s trailer to see what was left, swerving onto lawns, dodging roofing and building materials that had been blown off nearly every building on the base and in town.
When I got there, Luis had just arrived too. The trailer park wasn’t directly on the beach but inland a few hundred yards so it wasn’t destroyed. As far as we could tell our trailer had been lifted up by the rising water, torn loose from its utilities and banged into several other trailers in the park like rubber ducks in a bathtub, causing predictable dents, holes and torn up sheet metal here and there. We didn’t see a single trailer that had escaped damage. Everything in our trailer was soaked either from the rising waters or the rain that had blown in. (We had been told the day before that with the predicted high winds, it was best to open all the windows and let it blow through which, if the winds had been simply gale force, might have worked well. Instead, it just blew the sheets of rain in, soaking everything.)
Luis and I walked down to Highway 90 which ran along the Biloxi beach. The devastation was complete. As far as the eye could see everything was flattened. Junk and trees and random pieces of construction materials laid scattered around on top of bare foundations.
We walked quite a distance down the highway noting the destruction which continued as far as we went. Oddly, a few things remained randomly upright. A bar stool stood standing in the middle of a concrete pad as if it alone had survived the destruction of whatever bar it had been in. Luis climbed onto it and, as if drunk, asked me for a drink. There was a remnant sign of a drive-in theater which I’ll never forget which announced the showing of, I swear, “Gone With The Wind.” We also came across several hand-lettered signs with various versions of “The South Will Rise Again.” On one of them someone had taken a small felt-tip marker and written below it, “And so will the Gulf.”
When we got back to Luis’s trailer we started going through the soggy contents, salvaging what we could.
This was well before FEMA was formed in 1979. So we were largely on our own at first. As I recall, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army started organizing relief efforts along with various military operations, particularly the Navy Seabee construction station in Gulfport about 20 miles west. Displaced civilians from the worst damage were taken in to live with families in the remaining structures which were mostly wet, but still intact, as everybody chipped in with clean-up, repairs and recovery.
For the next few days most of the military people stayed on base in barracks, offices, or in housing compounds; most of the on-base damage was roofing that had been blown off and strewn all over. As bad as the physical devastation was, almost everyone I spoke to was most upset about the loss of family photos. Inability to shower in the oppressive, humid heat in the power-less days that followed was also mentioned a lot.
When I walked back to the hangar the next day it was obvious that the first task was to clear the roofing material off the roads so vehicles could move. I hailed an unmarried staff sergeant I knew from our sheet metal shop who seemed to be wandering around and we commandeered one of our maintenance bread trucks and started driving around where we could, picking up loose pieces of roofing debris. Soon we encountered other young airmen from the other half of the base who were in electronics training walking around gawking at the destruction. After the first few were “ordered” to join us, more and more climbed in enthusiastically as each new one helped to “recruit” the next and before long we had two bread trucks being driven by the sergeant and myself, each with its own trash collection crew either in the truck or walking alongside picking up debris. As we picked up more and more debris and dumped it in a parking lot, the crews became even more enthusiastic and by evening our two truck crews had cleaned up most of roads on the aircraft side of the base.
In the following days, hundreds more airmen in the electronics training group volunteered to help with the clean-up and restoration both on the base and in town. As heavier equipment was brought in, significant progress was made.
In time, of course, things slowly returned to a version of normal. The planes at Barksdale were ferried back, buildings and equipment were brought back into operations. Construction crews arrived. And salvage operations began.
A couple of weeks later, Chief Master Sergeant Caldwell, Colonel Slaughter’s top enlisted superintendent in his Chief of Maintenance office who was just a few weeks away from retirement, told me that he and some of his retired friends off base had organized a salvage operation of damaged house-trailers and asked me if I wanted one. Talking it over with Sergeant Johns, he mentioned that our Field Maintenance sheet metal shop crew might be able to do some repairs, so I told Caldwell I’d buy one for $800.
The next weekend, a pickup with four journeyman techs from my sheet metal shop came over to the trailer park where my “new” trailer stood with a smashed-in rear end where it had banged into another trailer during the storm, otherwise it wasn’t badly damaged. They told me that if I bought the materials and a few cases of beer, they’d be happy to fix it up. Of course, I agreed and after a run to a downtown hardware store and the base salvage yard, by the end of the day I owned my first home, a somewhat rundown but livable 10 x 40 trailer that I lived in for my next three years in Biloxi.
After a couple of weeks, things had returned to something approaching pre-Camille normal, on base at least. One afternoon Colonel Slaughter’s secretary called to say I had been ordered up to the Chief of Maintenance’s office without explanation.
When I got there, Colonel Slaughter and an array of fellow officers were standing at attention around his conference table and Colonel Slaughter handed me what looked like a fancy blue padded folder with an Air Force Seal. I was being awarded my first Air Force Commendation Medal! Before I had a chance to open it and look at the certificate, Colonel Slaughter had pinned a medal on my shirt, taken a step back and saluted me along with the other officers in the room. I smartly saluted them all back.
But I had absolutely no idea why I was getting such an award. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done that was remotely “commendable.” I opened the folder and read the text on the certificate — “…for outstanding leadership and initiative in assembling a base clean-up crew to allow Keesler Air Force Base to return to operations…”
Oh that! Hardly award-worthy. I later found out that Keesler was giving out hundreds of awards to anybody who had anything to do with the clean-up and recovery effort. I also found out that “commendation medals” were pretty ordinary and were awarded for little more than just doing your job without major screw-ups.
By the time I was reassigned to Vietnam in December of 1972 — a story for another day — I had made several more improvements to my trailer and ended up selling it for $3500 to an newly arriving officer for a nice profit.