Friday, October 16, 2015

US Army Norway

Chapter Five

Wherein I learn to ski, become a troglodyte, help avert a Cold War crisis, meet some interesting locals, get married and generally have a great (but cold) time

BJ and I landed at Fornebu in September 1970. Located on one of the many islands in Oslo fjord, Fornebu was the airport serving Oslo in the 1970's. We landed and were met in the terminal by a GI, Jose Carasco. We grabbed our kit bags and drove to Kolsas, a pleasant suburb about 10 miles from down-town Oslo. The major feature in Kolsas is the mountain, which rises steeply from the main road from Sandvika. It was inside this mountain I was destined to spend the next 18 months (sorry, not all the time – just working hours!).

Kolsas held the HQ of Allied Forces Northern Europe. Very impressive sounding – the reality was slightly different. 

 Backtracking slightly, Norway is a member of NATO, but also has a long tradition of “seeming” neutrality. Therefore, we were there - but not really there. We were “encouraged”, for example, not to wear our uniforms when off the base.

Norwegian independence was sorely tried in WWII when the Germans invaded and, in the process, helped to introduce a new word into the English language – quisling. A quisling is a traitor and is so named after one Vidkun Quisling. “He was put on trial during the legal purge in Norway after World War II and found guilty of charges including embezzlement, murder and high treason. He was executed by firing squad at Akershus Fortress, Oslo, on 24 October 1945. The word quisling has since become a synonym for collaborationist, an allusion to the very poor light in which Quisling's actions were seen both at the time and after his death.” - Wikipedia

Consequently, the Norwegians are somewhat suspicious of foreign military forces being stationed on their soil. Low profile was the watchword.

The NATO base at Kolsas contained an interesting blend of the various NATO forces. There was the Norwegian Army and Air Force. The Norwegian Army took care of the base security and consisted mostly of young Norwegians doing their national service. The Norwegian Air Force personnel were more career-armed-forces orientated. The Danes were out in force, Army, Navy and Airforce. The UK was well-represented with a full complement of the three services. Our happy band consisted of the US Army Element, AFNORTH (about a dozen), some US Airforce (again about a dozen) and one or two US Navy personnel. Total (minus officers) - about 30. In short it was like being in the Army, but not really. The officers and NCO's of the US Army Element had no real contact with us on a day to day basis.

The Communications Center was located inside Mt Kolsas. Those friendly Germans had tunnelled it out during WWII and the Norwegians simply took it over. It was a ideal spot for a Com Center. Buried under a mountain of rock with enormous blast doors to get through, we were much better placed to withstand a Cold War nuclear fry-up than most. Fortunately, we were not tested in this regard during my tenure – though we did have quite a hairy time during the Prague Spring of 1969. All in all it was an extremely pleasant place to work – deep in the mountain it was a constant temperature (outside it might be 20 below!) we had a canteen which served light meals during office hours, complete with beer for the Danish and Norwegian contingent - who subscribed to the theory that life without beer is not worth living.

We worked a shift system. Days – 08:00-16-00. Swings 1600-22:00 and Mids – 22:00-08:00. So, you did two swings, then two days then two nights and then had 4 days off. And by off I mean actually off – for their were no military duties whatsoever. Months could, and did, go by without seeing a US Army NCO or officer. Even the mail was delivered to your mailbox outside the US Army Element AFNORTH office so you could pick it up at a convenient time, i.e. when no-one was about!

So, what did we do? We relayed messages to the various NATO commands all over Europe. We received a message, logged it and sent it on to its destination. Simple.

In addition to the easy working hours with plenty of time off, we always had more than enough people to cover each shift adequately. Each shift had an NCO in charge of the Com Centre and he (usually it was a UK Army Sergeant) would assess their shift needs and offer “stand downs” to personnel that were not really needed. Everyone did the day shifts. Swing shifts and night shifts could be subject to a “stand-down”. In a lucky month you might get the first swing shift and the last mid shift off. Therefore, you actually worked 4 days and had 8 off in that cycle. Not bad – and the pay was good as well, for we received COLA (cost of living allowance) on account of Norway being such an expensive country to live in. Our barracks were comfortable with two or three man rooms, the food was good in the main base canteen, the work was not difficult – repetitive and boring but not difficult, we received a duty-free allowance of 1000 cigs and 4 bottles of spirits a month – and I mean real duty-free – not the airport type – but the real thing. Ciggs at a dollar a carton and whiskey at two bucks a fifth.

We were about half an hour by trikk (train) from down-town Oslo, which had the usual capital city style entertainments. For local entertainment we had the Junior Ranks Club – basically a bar with seating for about 50. Let's face it, when it is very cold and very dark there isn't much else to do other than hang out in the Club and have a few drinks. The added bonus came in the form of local girls who would gladly be our guests for the evening. Anyone could go to the main gate and sign them in (so much for security).

On particularly boring evenings someone (inevitably) would go to their room and bring back a fifth of whiskey and we would share it. We went to Oslo to the bowling alley. We shopped a Steen & Strom ( ). We organised ski trips to Geilo and Lillehammer – where the Olympics were held in 1994. There was a very nice, but very expensive, restaurant at Hollmenkollen just next to the Olympic ski jump. We skied cross-country style on the numerous ski trails which dot the Norwegian countryside near Kolsas. There was lots to do.

In the summer it was surprsingly warm. We sailed on Oslo fiord. We camped at Horten and took the ferry across Oslo fiord to Moss.

The truth is It was an eighteen month holiday in beautiful surroundings with excellent companions and plenty of money. Eventually I rented one-fifth of a large house in Jar with some buddies and only went to the base to work. I managed to source an abandoned Volvo from someone who was rotating back to the US for a song and drove it everywhere.

In November of 1969 we went to Weisbaden AFB ( ) to play in a basketball tournament. It was not like the NCAA Final Four, but it was a kind of vacation courtesy of AFNORTH. Teams from small commands like ours from all over Europe were invited.

We flew to Rhine-Main AFB ( ( in one of the last surviving DC3's in the US Airforce. What a trip! There were no seats, just benches along the sides. The door consisted of a canvas screen you could pull back and watch the Baltic slide by from about 5000 feet. When we hit the ground at Rhine-Main one of the engine cowlings fell off. It was a gas. We played some basketball games and did some extreme partying. At the end of the ten day vacation we were scheduled to fly back to Fornebu. Unfortunately, replacing the missing engine cowling was more than problematical – it meant making a new one! So, when we got back to Rhein-Main we found a “backup” of personnel waiting for transport back to Norway. Someone had to stay behind and wait for the next flight – which was a week away. We drew straws. I lost.

I had no money left so they took up a collection and gave me about $25 for the week. I was ok for barracks and food ( AF canteen was very good ); but I had nothing to do and didn't know anyone. I did get the bus into Weisbaden once for a look-around. Exciting?

The highlight came one morning as I was standing in the mess hall waiting for breakfast. As I got closer to the front of the line, I noticed that the lady who was serving was an enormous, horse-faced German hausfrau. I glanced at her name tag. It read Kauffman. I quickly took mine off and stuffed it in my pocket. What a lucky guy I am.

Eventually, I got back to Oslo and the warm bosom of AFNORTH.

In my absence my (eventual) wife had arrived. She was a Wren (Women's Royal Naval Service). Essentially she was a secretary. There were two Wrens on the base. They lived in a hotel in Oslo. Not a bad life.

Winter in Norway is cold, very cold. It is also dark, very dark. Some respite came when the NATO fleet sailed into Oslo harbour and hundreds of matelots arrive at the JRC for one almighty booze-up. I distinctly remember the carpet being under about two inches of beer.

The long Norwegian winter moved into spring and the vacation continued. In the autumn of 1970 I drove from Oslo to Kristiansand and took a ferry to Harwich to meet my prospective in-laws. My first view of England was from the deck of a North Sea ferry. It looked grey, dark and dreary. I was not far from being wrong.

I got leave to go to England for the wedding in December 1970. Unfortunately before I left, I had my first run-in with the US Army since I had got to Norway. I applied for leave, which was granted, but I foolishly went to collect my mail at a particularly inopportune time. The First Sergeant saw me and shouted at me to get in the office.

I should explain. Owing the the complete lack of military supervision, we had gotten used to leaving our hair quite long, which was the fashion in 1970. My buddy BJ actually looked like he would not have been out of place at Haight and Ashbury. Mine was equally long. The First Sergeant was not amused, so he put me in a chair and gave me a haircut. It was a particularly inexpert job. She who must be obeyed was not amused.

Winter turned into spring 1971 as my service lurched towards its conclusion. I was offered an E5 (Sergeant) post if I would sign on again and stay in Norway. I declined, not entirely respectfully. We packed up, having first sold most of my duty free allowances (which I had been hoarding since my new responsible as husband and provider had ensued), and headed for Fornebu for the flight to New York.

Pan Am had the craziest pilots I've ever seen. (Perhaps, that's why they went bust?) I'm not the greatest of flyers at the best of times, but these guys were something else. Cruising along in the stratosphere over Greenland, the Captain spied a small Inuit village. Whilst carrying on an interesting commentary on the PA, he stood the 707 on its wing tip and announced that we were going to drop down and say hello. I swear I could count he hairs on the eskimo's luxurious fur coat as we passed by. Lovely.

We landed at JFK and a typically surly and unhelpful New York taxi driver took us to the hotel in a typically circuitous and roundabout way to jack up the fare. (I've never liked New York and never will) I reported to Ft Hamilton for processing. I received my Good Conduct Medal and my Honourable Discharge from the US Army. My illustrious military career was over. We hopped a plane to KC to be met by my Dad, my sister Lynne and my brother Jim.