“Memorial Day is the one time a year we reflect on what the military did,” said Al Wolter, an Air Force Veteran from Cloverdale. “The public appreciates veterans more now, not like when the Vietnam Veterans came home.”
Wolter, 84, joined when he was 17 years old and served from 1954-1958 as an Airborne Radio Mechanic on fighter jets. After one year of training, he was deployed to Soesterberg Air Force Base in Holland.
Wolter said he was overseas during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The men practiced to stay prepared in case fighting broke out. Wolter worked on day fighters, which were aircraft equipped to fight only during the day. Night fighter aircraft had special equipment allowing them to fight in the dark.
In 1956 he was sent to the Landstuhl Air Force Base in West Germany, then to Hahn Air Force Base with the 496th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron where he worked on the radios of the F-86D Sabre interceptors. He was surprised how quickly the United States switched from fighting Germany in World War II to working with them later.
“After we pounded the hell out of them, the next moment we’re helping them,” Wolter said, shaking his head. “ We were the first line of defense against Russia.”
He remembered practice scrambles at 3 a.m.
“We didn’t know if the Ruskies were coming or not,” Wolter said.
He said the pilots trained over the Caribbean and in Libya. He explained that World War II Boeing B29 Superfortress planes towed a metallic banner for the pilots to shoot rockets at. Each plane left a different color on the banner. Wolter said the pilots flew blind and relied on their radar. Once in a while he heard an excited pilot call out to another pilot that they were locked on a plane instead of the intended target and not to shoot.
He said his scariest moment was when they were flying to Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya with a plane full of soldiers. He looked out of the window and saw oil from an engine streaming past. The pilot shut down one engine and the plane tilted sideways. Wolter said it was only five minutes until the pilot made a perfect landing and they moved to another plane to continue on to the training.
“We were a little apprehensive on the second try,” Wolter said.
In Libya, the men slept in tents during the intense, month-long training. They set the tent poles in buckets of water to discourage the scorpions from climbing up the walls of the tent. During their down time, the men relaxed on the beach.
Wolter missed Minnesota and his family. He decided to go back home to attend college and get a degree with his G.I. Bill.
“The military opened my eyes to the world,” Wolter said. “It was a great experience for me.