The Definition of a Veteran

This is an excerpt from a book by Dean Keller, the first of several

The definition of a veteran:  A veteran is a person who, at one time in his or her life, signed a blank check to the government of the United States for an amount up to and including his/her life.

Dean Keller, Airman


On August 1, 1949, three buddies, Mac (Dean) Keller, Charles Gardner and Eddie Newchurch, from New Orleans, enlisted in the United States Air Force. Since my 18th birthday was on January 7, 1950, I must have had to obtain my parents permission.  With my Dad in WWI and my brother in WWII, it was a natural choice for me. This was the peace time Air Force, and there seemed to be all good with not problems.  Although we were in a war within a couple of years, I still believe that it was the best training a young man can have.

Basic training was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. This was uneventful, involving taking tests, marching, tear gas training, firing weapons, exercise and other basic training tasks. After a short while, Eddie had to leave the service on a hardship discharge because of problems in his family and Charles, after being sick for a short time, transferred to the paratroopers.  So much for the buddy system.

After about three months of preparation, members of the “Flight” (64 + men) went our separate ways for specialized training.  My choice was Radio Operator training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. The primary reason for this was to be near home and my girlfriend in New Orleans.  These objectives proved to be of minor consequence but some skills learned at Keesler did help in the further development of my life.  One, believe it or not, was learning to type, in Morse code, up to 30 words per minute.  The typing skill was necessary at ground stations in the Air Force, very important in college and tremendously important in my career as an engineer.  This typing skill is still with me and has allowed me to put into words  – thoughts, concepts, magazine articles and other products of the mind.  The other great benefit was the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of being a radio operator which allowed me to be assigned to flying status, to go to Japan and the consequential educational, religious and personal benefits which followed decisions made over the years.  This was a life changing decision, but not for the reasons that I made it.

Following Radio Operator training at Keesler, on August 9, 1950, I was assigned to a ground radio operator post at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.  That work was not very interesting, but the people I met and my attendance at a Baptist Church in Tampa were rewarding.  Life was good in Tampa.  I had friends at the Church, had a girl friend whom I had met there (her father had a Packard which he allowed me to use for dates) and this was a chance to mature a bit more at a less hectic pace than in basic training.  However, an event that took place while I was in radio operator training caused everything in my life to change.  On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea and the United States was participating in a “Police Action” to stop the aggression in cooperation with many other United Nations members.

In the first part of October, 1950, while I was still 18 years old, I requested a meeting with my squadron commanding officer.  I went into his office, saluted smartly, and stated, “Sir, I respectfully request a transfer to flying status.”  This is just a few months after the invasion of South Korea by North Korea and the 307th Bomb Wing had already left MacDill Air Force Base for Okinawa for combat. There were bulletins on the bulletin board requesting airmen to serve on B-29 Bombers. He looked at me and asked “Do you realize that you will be sent into combat?”  I replied “Yes sir!” and a new adventure started.  My dad had served during WW I, my brother in WW II and this was my turn.  Back then, duty, honor and country were considered precious by most.

I have records of all flights that I was privileged to serve as a crew member on during my Air Force career.  We started out slowly with my first flight being on October 19, 1950.  This was a training flight of 1 hour and 5 minutes just to see if I would fall apart from fear, disgust or overwhelming joy by being enclosed by aluminum at 20,000 feet above the ground.  It was fun.  My thirteen flights at MacDill were training flights, except for two.

On October 20, before I even knew how to operate the radio equipment on the aircraft, I was told I was the radio operator on a B-29 flying out of MacDill AFB to Biggs AFB in Texas, just ahead of a hurricane. I told the aircraft commander that the radio equipment was still a mystery to me, and there was nothing that I could do.  He said that they needed a radio operator for this short flight, and I was it.  So, I had nothing to do except to enjoy the ride for six hours and fifty minutes, most of it after dark.  On the 21st we returned to MacDill, also late in the day and at night.

On December 15, 1950, I was a qualified radio operator on a B-29 and we were ordered to fly to Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico with empty bomb bays and empty gun turrets.  We came back with a complete booze load for the men on the base.  Rum and other adult beverages were very cheap at Ramey and they loaded boxes in the bomb bays and bottles were stored in the cavities within the gun turrets.  While on the base, cleaning up before going to bed, in walked Airman Maurice Olivier, a friend of mine from Brooklyn Ave, one street east of my home in Jefferson Parish, LA.  We had a great time talking about his duty in the Air Force and where I was going.

After my last training flight on January 15, I was transferred from the 20th Air Force, 367 Bomb Squadron, Medium, to ATRC (Combat crew training) 1510 PTW at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas. No, I still don’t know what a lot of these acronyms mean. I underwent 83 hours of flight training and many hours of ground school. This is where I met Stan Fluharty, Leroy Hudson and Gerry Johnson.  We became the best of buddies although Stan and Gerry were ‘darn’ Yankees. I was from the old south.  These three went on to Okinawa with the 307th Bomb Group while our crew was transferred on April 17 to the 15th Air Force, 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (Later the 91st SRS) for more training at Travis Air Force Base in California.  We received an additional 48 hours of air time and transferred out on May 22, 1951.  From Travis AFB we flew to Hickum Field in Hawaii, to Midway Island, to Wake Island and landed at Haneda AFB near Tokyo Japan on June 8.  We flew our first combat mission lasting nine hours on June 13, 1951. About nine months from conception to birthing a new combat crew member.

Flying across the Pacific was interesting.  We were passengers in a DC-4, a four engine propeller military aircraft.  Our first stop was in Hawaii where I was met at the airbase by my uncle, William M. Dean.  Note the middle initial.  He also dropped the “unmentionable” name and being a lawyer changed his name around.  My namesake was my hidden namesake.  We had met before when he came to New Orleans in the 1940s to visit with my mother and his other sister, my Aunt Ethel (Ethel Ashmore of Baton Rouge), and my grandmother (his mother), Nan Fenn Dean, who lived with us in Jefferson Parish.

After a short visit and an overnight rest stop we boarded again to travel to Midway Island.  Midway was a beautiful island back in 1951. A few years before we arrived, it was the center of a clash of giants; the Japanese Navy and the United States Navy assisted by ground and air forces stationed on Midway.  It was the turning point of the war, with the Japanese losing many of their most qualified pilots. They also lost aircraft carriers and other ships, and their ability to mount a large offensive was greatly diminished.  This battle, and the naval battle in the Philippines later in the war, were the final blows to the Japanese advances in the Pacific.  On Midway I took some pictures of “Gooney birds,” birds which were no longer capable of flying and thrived on Midway, a bird sanctuary. Their only bad habit was to be on the runway when planes were landing or taking off.  I also took a picture of a small Japanese cemetery in which were interred the only Japanese to land on the Island.  I understand, from some of my Japanese friends in Japan, that the inscriptions are honorable.

Also on our aircraft were some ground soldiers from Columbia who were part of the UN contingent being sent to resist the invasion from the north.  We talked and laughed and spoke in our broken Spanish and English, and discussed things, as best we could with the language barrier. What did we discuss?  The same things that teenagers the world around, who were going to war would think of.  Girls, Señoritas, etc.

Landing on Wake Island was different.  There was no smell of death, but you knew that many died on this tiny, barren island just a few years ago.  At this time there was still burned-out military equipment around the island.  We gassed up, ate and took off for Japan.

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