Howard Rathbun







Jim Sterner and I met and "Buddied" during those first crucial June 1955 US Army Draft Induction days at Infantry Basic Training, Fort Ord California. He, the tall lanky one with horned rim glasses (remember those from the 50's) from Longbeach, CA and me, the usual beach bum from Santa Monica. He was a "top bunker" and me a "bottomer", so no problem there. With an agreed goal to watch each other's back as a way to survive the next ten weeks of hell, we attempted to beat the system daily as best as we could. Right up front, I'll confess it didn't always work, but when it did it was worth the try, especially when we often saw some poor guys getting nailed for extra duty time after time.

Our rules were simple. There were only two. RULE # 1: NEVER VOLUNTEER. RULE # 2: ALWAYS DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO BE INVISIBLE. RULE # 1 is obvious. RULE # 2 required some creativity. Rule # 2 applies (whenever off duty), never- ever make direct eye contact with a DI, any non-com or officer. Indoors, always look busy, i.e., if you're loafing on your bunk, at least be shining your boots or doing something that gives the impression of self improvement for Army's sake. Outdoors, always appear to be going directly somewhere and preferably carrying something that appears important (a box, hands full of papers, a coil of hose, stepladder, etc.,etc..). When in ranks, do your best to avoid appearing obvious.
"Dammit Jim, next time take off those freakin' glasses". Anyway, I'm sure you get the idea and probably had your own schemes.

The 10 weeks eventually came and went. BASIC was finally over and we each headed home for two weeks leave. Next stop for both, NIKE School, Ft. Bliss, Texas. "What the hell is NIKE? They told me, with my aptitude in electronics, I was a shoe-in for duty at Redstone Arsenal?"

Our leave over, we met at LAX for our flight to El Paso, TX and reporting into Ft. Bliss. The plane lands. "So this is Texas! Franklin Mountains? Call those mountains? Where the hell are trees? Alligators in the park, Juarez and Mexico over the bridge". Hey, we got Tijuana at home.
We report in. Told we are NIKE Training Package # 39, we board buses for the trip up to Red Canyon where we will have to pull temporary duty for six weeks until our NIKE School really starts sometime in October. "Where and what the hell is Red Canyon?"

September 14, 1955 (I'll remember forever), our olive drab Army buses pull into Red Canyon Range Camp. NIKE Training Package # 39 unloads and lines up, duffel bags at our side. In front is desolation. Nothing lives here except, maybe, tarantulas and rattlesnakes and they'd probably have a struggle. The sun boils down. We squint to get our bearings. It's tin shacks, waterbags, rocks and more rocks. Loudspeakers on tall poles occasionally blare inaudible announcements and an American flag flaps limply on a pole. "If this is what HELL will be like when I die, I better start shaping up right now", I thought to myself.
"Hey Jim, we better figure this out fast" I whisper out of the side of my mouth to my lanky buddy sweating next to me, salty sweat burning my eyes.
A non-com with his perennial clipboard walks up and down calling out names for assignment to the various tin shacks. Done, he stops, looks at his clipboard and calls out, "I need two men for special duty. ONE WHO CAN FOLD A FLAG. ONE WHO CAN TYPE".
To my amazement, at that moment, for our first time together, Jim (an Eagle Scout from years past) spoke up and broke our unbreakable RULE # 1. Raising his hand he called out, "I KNOW HOW TO FOLD A FLAG AND RATHBUN, HERE ALONGSIDE OF ME, KNOWS HOW TO TYPE".
" O.K., that's it then." the non-com responded as he checked off our names on sheets on his clipboard. And so it was that for the following six weeks of RCRC duty, I alternated 4PM-midnight, midnight-8AM shifts on HQRS- CQ duty with Jim joining me as FIREGUARD.

Not bad duty considering what others pulled. At sundown, turn on the P.A. System. "THUMP, THUMP", the microphone to assure that it was on. Play the worn and scratchy "Retreat" record and watch everyone outside scurry to hide so that they don't have to stop to salute while Jim lowers and folds the flag. Repeat it all again for "TAPS" and again in the morning for "Reveille". The CQ Duty Officer eventually goes to sleep with orders not to wake him except for an emergency. The CQ Master Sgt. says don't bother him unless there's blood somewhere. So that's the duty, all we had to do was figure out how to get some daytime sleep in between duty hours. Generally there's little late night disturbance. Occasionally a New Mexico Highway Patrolman returns some staggering RCRC "late-niter" from Carrizozo, but that's about it unless someone gets really sick, in a fight or hurt. I sit feet on the desk, radio playing western shit-kicking music from Del Rio, Texas. We drink coffee, write letters home or read. Once an hour Jim takes the FIREGUARD JEEP and flashlight to patrol the camp in search of fire or trouble. He often makes the Mess Hall his last stop returning with hot goods for us and the M/Sgt.'s refreshment. Not bad duty at all if you have to spend six weeks in the Hell HOLE called Red Canyon Range Camp.

And so for a few weeks it routinely went, night after night, until one fateful morning. On that morning as dawn was about to break I again clicked on the P.A. System and prepared to thump and play the dreaded "Reveille" record. But before I could do it, the M/Sgt. tapped me on the shoulder and with a chuckle he ordered, "Here play this one instead and play it LOUD".
I grasped the record and to my surprise found it to be a record of the Brazilian Marching Band Drum and Bugle Corps. Confused by the order, I looked at Jim. He shrugged his shoulders. I looked at the M/Sgt. He replied, "Do it and let's have a little fun this morning in this god forsaken place".
I knew I was "Deadmeat", but this was the Army and I was nothing but a lowly Pfc.. So one more time I clicked on the P.A. System. One more time thumped the mike, one more time laid a record on the spinning turntable and gingerly raised the playback head and needle. Holding the needle off the record I looked anxiously at the M/Sgt. He nodded briefly and without actually saying the words, mouthed "DO IT" with his lips.

Suddenly in the 5AM cold, before dawn, morning darkness of Red Canyon Range Camp, out from every large speaker on every tall pole throughout the camp the robust and rollicking marching music of the Brazilian Marching Band Drum and Bugle Corps boomed and blared, crashing cymbals and all echoing in and out of every mountain, valley and ridge in northern New Mexico.
It took only a matter of seconds before the headquarters phone rang. I answered. On the other end was the CQ Duty Officer yelling, "Who the HELL did that?" I answered meekly, " I did, Sir". He yelled back, "Private, I order you to stand at attention and stare at the door in the back of headquarters because in a matter of minutes I'll be coming through to prepare your Dishonorable Discharge papers".
I was frozen in time and space. My military career had ended and in all places, that Hell- Hole called Red Canyon Range Camp. Jim was wide-eyed and white faced. The M/Sgt. rolled with laughter and all I could do was stand at attention, stare at the back door and wait for the firing squad to arrive.

However, amazingly it all ended quickly and not the way I feared. When the young CQ Duty Officer entered fuming, "How the Hell did that happen", the wise old (hash marks up to this elbows) M/Sgt. immediately intervened with a smile on his face. "Sorry Sir, it really wasn't that rookie's fault, I guess it was my own fault for accidentally handing him the wrong record when we were supposed to play Reveille". Turning to me the M/Sgt. said, "Next time we'll both be more careful, won't we Private?" I nervously stuttered, "Yes, Sergeant".
"You both better do that from now on" the young Duty CQ Officer responded sternly", Well, goddammit, don't ever let that happen again". "Consider that to be an order" the officer continued with a serious nod toward the three of us. "YES SIR", the M/Sgt., Jim and I responded in unison.
It was over. The CQ Duty Officer headed out the door for breakfast in the Mess Hall, the M/Sgt. waited a minute before following him and then as he left, smiled back at Jim and me and said, "NOW WASN'T THAT FUN?"

Everyone gone, Jim and I collapsed in our chairs with a "Holy Shit, that was a close one" comment as we waited pretty much in silence for the next two hours to pass and our 8 AM relief to take our place.
Six weeks of Night CQ and Fireguard duty for us meant no other duties and, whenever not attempting to catch up on sleep, offered free time to occasionally get a pass for a good steak and brew at the Cactus Bar & Grill in Carrizozo. It also provided time to explore that historic Billy-the-Kid country, old cemeteries and ghost towns like White Oak and famous sites like Trinity Site where the first atom bomb was detonated. Looking back now, I'm proud to be one of us RCRC-ers and still relish many memories of that once-in-a-lifetime experience, but never again hope to hear any music played by the Brazilian Marching Band Drum and Bugle Corps.

Our six weeks up, our replacements arrived and Jim and I headed back to Ft. Bliss for NIKE Ajax School training. He became an IFC MTR operator and I, an IFC Computer Operator (MOS 227.10). He was in one Battery and I in another. Besides schooling it was back to the real Army with drills, guard duties and spit and shine details from October 1955 to March of 1956 when we returned to RCRC for live firing and graduation. (That included the famous February 2,1956 Ft. Bliss blizzard when we missed guard duty during the storm by one day).
A one-week technical problem allowed Jim's Battery to complete RCRC live firing before my Battery and ship back before we finished. Problems solved, our Battery completed two record RCRC NIKE Ajax "KILLS" on Monday, March 12,1956 and again on March 13th. It was time to leave RCRC forever, but not its memories.
Now came the real shocker. Where would we be assigned? Seattle, Chicago, Okinawa? Those and more were rumored as possibilities, even Los Angeles (but for two Southern California boys, well better to forget that one)

Miracle of miracles, to my surprise my Battery became Battery C, 551st AAA Msl Bn assigned for LA88 duty atop Oat Mountain in Chatsworth, California and Jim's Battery D, also 551st, was assigned as LA98 atop Magic Mountain just across the way from my Battery. We all became fully operational with underground missiles in late summer of 1956 as the last of sixteen NIKE Ajax missile sites that ringed Los Angeles during that Cold War Era. As a matter of history my LA88 site also became the first LA to convert to Hercules and also to first to go canine guard dogs, but all that after I departed.
Jim and I served our remaining two year draft time in full duty atop our respective mountains. We once again joined together during our last week of separation at Ft MacArthur, CA and each of us separated into our six years of Inactive Army Reserve commitment, me on June 19, 1957 and he on June 20, 1957.

Jim returned to Longbeach, married, raised a family and retired after a career in Insurance.
I returned to Santa Monica, began a career with IBM and spent 45 years in the computer industry, finally retiring at the age of 69. My wife Pat and I raised four children, three girls and a boy all well established on their own now with two grandchildren. We enjoy travel, especially cruising and have taken every opportunity to see as much of the world as possible. I enjoy writing and am currently working on several novels for publication. A member of the NIKE Historical Society, I've also compiled an extensive NIKE Memorabilia Binder as my family's and my own personal book of memories.
As for Army buddy Jim, we still stay closely in contact and often enjoy lifting a healthy brew together while re-living memories of those RCRC days (before and after) we happily shared together.

Best to all of you! And CHEERS!!!

San Jose, CA
NIKE Ajax Missileman Site LA88