Airman revisits first assignment after 53 years
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- The tropical island of Okinawa is known to many for its crystal blue waters, beautiful beaches and historic sights. But to some Airmen, the island holds memories that will forever remind them of their Air Force career. More than 50 years ago, retired Maj. Jim Bailey was first stationed at Kadena Air Base to begin his Air Force career as an airman basic.
He enlisted straight out of high school into the U.S. Air Force, Sept. 7, 1960. At the time the world's greatest Air Force was a little more than twelve years old and the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War.
As a 17-year-old from the hills of West Virginia, Bailey knew little about the world outside the U.S.
"I didn't graduate from high school," Bailey said. "I started my junior year and I enlisted in what would have been my senior year."
Air Force Basic Military Training was a rude awakening for him.
"It was kind of funny," Bailey joked. "When we got to Lackland I heard a guy yelling what I thought was, 'get over here Herman!' I was looking around for this guy named Herman and then I realized he was saying Airman and he was hollering at me."
After completing BMT and graduating air traffic control school, Bailey was assigned to the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kadena AB as a junior air traffic controller.
"Compared to today, Kadena was very bare bones, especially when you look around at all the construction today and all the improvements," Bailey said. "We had hundreds of motor scooters on the road instead of cars and most of the roads up and past Nago were all dirt. We drove on the right hand side when I was here."
While stationed here, the ATC worked for the test flight section of the 18th TFW. With conflict in Southeast Asia brewing, fighter jets had to be tested and certified mission ready.
"They had ATC from test flight communicate to birds that were up for tests after major maintenance," Bailey said. "We were able to maintain communication from those aircraft to the test flight crews. So if they encountered any difficulties then they had immediate access to someone in the test flight unit."
Today, Kadena AB is known as the keystone of the Pacific and provides regional alliances through joint, bilateral, and multilateral engagement and ambassadorship.
"The mission was no less important than today," Bailey said. "In the early 60s the world was still involved deeply in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We had Southeast Asia brewing and I believe as early as '61 we had activity in Vietnam."
Today's Airmen often push themselves to further their professional education during their time of service, just as Bailey did while here at Kadena. He received his general education development degree and then proceeded to take classes with the University of Maryland.
"Even back then, I had made the commitment to stay in the AF and I was doing everything I could do to work toward that," Bailey said. "Of course you couldn't do anything without an education and the opportunity was there."
He served for 27 years, nine months and 24 days on active duty and retired as a commissioned officer at the rank of major.
"It's extremely important for every member of the Air Force, whether you are officer or enlisted, to know what the Air Force is all about and know what your unit is about," Bailey said. "When you get assigned to a unit the first thing you should do is find out what it's done in the past and be proud of it."
With decades of service under his belt, Bailey attributes much of his career's achievements to the leaders who supported him.
"I found that the SNCOs that I worked with and the officers I worked for, if you just showed initiative and a willingness to do things then they were all behind you," he continued.
As a testament to that, Bailey won the Airmen of the quarter award for the second quarter in 1961. He received a money clip as a prize and has carried it ever since for more than 53 years as a memento to his first assignment.
"This is my beginning," Bailey said. "I always look back to what happened here and what folks had done for me."
Photo: Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Jim Bailey visits Kadena Air Base, Japan, Oct. 20, 2015, for the first time since 1962. Bailey’s first assignment in the Air Force was as an enlisted air traffic controller for the 18th Tactical Fighter wing in 1961. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Omari Bernard)
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