Military News

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Airman finds niche, family history in EOD career

by Chris McCann
JBER Public Affairs

5/28/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- May 16, 1965 dawned a quiet Sunday morning in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. A skeleton crew prepared aircraft for weekend missions; jets for weekday missions were already loaded with fuel and ordnance. Like many Sunday mornings in forward-deployed environments, the tempo was slower than usual.

As a B-57 Canberra taxied through the parking area, one of its 500-pound bombs exploded.

Fully laden planes parked wingtip-to-wingtip meant the explosion started a chain reaction across the parking area, as ground equipment, trucks and ordnance blew up. 750 pounds of napalm and 250 500- and 750-pound bombs turned entire aircraft into shrapnel; 10 B-57s, two A-2 Skyraiders, 15 A-1 Skyraiders and an F-8 Crusader. Five 50,000-gallon bladders of JP-4 jet fuel went up in smoke.

Twenty-seven U.S. service members were killed, and more than 100 were wounded.

Among the dead was Air Force Capt. Ernest McFeron, an explosive ordnance disposal technician. Born June 6, 1934, he was the first Air Force EOD officer killed in combat.

On June 6, 2014, McFeron's grandson, Chase McFeron, graduated from the Air Force's EOD technical school. Because his father had never known his own father, he knew only that his grandfather had been killed in Vietnam.

Carrying on a tradition
The close-knit EOD family provided a way to find his own history.

"Dad said his dad was EOD," said Senior Airman Chase McFeron. "But Dad thought he had stepped on a land mine."

After finding the EOD "Master Blasters" Association, McFeron got in touch with a man named Dick Takahashi, a Navy EOD technician who had been friends with Ernest through Navy Officer Training School. He was slated to be in Bien Hoa in May of 1965 too, but was delayed; someone else went in his place. He was, however, able to tell McFeron about his grandfather - about going to school together, how Ernest made the move from the Navy to the Air Force, and much that Takahashi had learned about the Bien Hoa disaster from other EOD personnel who were there. In such a small career field, few things go unknown.

"I feel like I'm carrying on a tradition," McFeron said. "I feel almost like I do know him now, because I read the story and know what actually happened. He was the second person on the Wall."

The EOD Memorial Wall at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, commemmorates the fallen. The Air Force's cenotaph lists only Airman 2nd Class Nelson L. Sanderson, killed in December of 1957, before Capt. McFeron - but technical sergeants David Hubbard Jr., Aaron Fidiam Jr., and Claude Bunch share the designation for May 16, 1965.

'Something more challenging'
McFeron grew up in College Station, Texas, as something of a prankster. His best friend's father owned a construction company; one day they commandeered some equipment and placed the parking-lot monitor's golf cart on the roof of the high school, and decorated it with pink streamers.
"I wasn't a bad kid," he said. "I just like having my adrenaline up."

The military seemed like a good choice.

"I joined the Air Force for school," he said. "I was working a dead-end job, and I was looking for something more challenging."

Actually, he said, it was more like three dead-end jobs - he split his time between a nearby ranch, the Texas Department of Transportation, and an electronics company. It was no way to make ends meet.

He first spoke to an Army recruiter, but didn't like the style.

"It felt like he was selling it to me," he said. "So I went across the hall to the Marines." A friend cautioned him about the possibility of being at sea for long stretches, so he nixed that idea as well.

His next trip was to the Air Force recruiter, and he looked at job possibilities. He'd found a match.

"EOD was actually my third choice, at first," he said. "I looked at pararescue, [survival, evasion, resistance and escape], and EOD.

"SERE seemed like being more of a teacher," he said. "And with the war winding down, it looked like PJ s weren't doing too much, and I'm into thrill-seeking, really. Dad told me about my grandpa, and I knew EOD was right."

"The toughest part was school - and then training all the time. I'm at the shop most weekends, just staying up on things. You have to put in a lot of work to get your five-level (certification); there's so much to learn."

EOD training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, is ostensibly a nine-month course. In practice, McFeron said, it tends to be a year, as students repeat portions they didn't get the first time around. School is necessarily as unforgiving as the reality, although the repercussions are less dire.

'That's the payoff'
He joined JBER's 673d Civil Engineer Squadron in July of 2014, and hasn't yet had the opportunity to deploy - though he wants to, he said.
"I've gone to India and Burma," said McFeron. "I was doing personal security - clearing vehicles, checking the runway for explosives."
The temporary duty assignments have provided a chance to see some of the world.

"I saw the Taj Mahal; that tops what I've seen. Burma was interesting too; we were in this palace full of gold and diamonds, and then right outside there were slums, as third-world as it gets. It was fun."

McFeron's co-workers were generous with praise.

"He's a great, great kid," said Master Sgt. Andrew Adrian. "He took charge of our munitions accounting as an Airman first class - keeping track of all of our training and operational explosives. He's really enthusiastic. ...One of our robots had a broken part, so he took it to the communications squadron, and had them fix the fiber optic cable to get it back to fully mission-capable. That saved us a lot of downtime and saved the Air Force about $23,000."

Most of the tasks are not so glamorous; one of his unit's next tasks is clearing ranges at Eielson Air Force Base, McFeron said.

"They do test drops, so we'll go check," he said. "Mostly, that's walking and looking for anything suspicious on the ground."

The sort of hands-across-the-desert cleanup that evokes groans from flightline cleanup crews and 'Operation Clean Sweep' troops elicits an infectious smile from McFeron.

"We'll be blowing up a lot of stuff," he said. "A lot of detonations. That's the payoff - the hazardous duty and demolition pay too, but at least once a month, we go to the range."

EOD is a close-knit group, he said, and he felt it as soon as he arrived at JBER, his first assignment.

"Once you're through school, you're part of the family. Whether we like each other or not, we still love each other."

That love extends across the career field and through generations and across the community - from his grandfather's friend, and to McFeron's brother, Connor, who also hopes to earn his 'crab' - the EOD badge.

"My twin brother graduated from Basic Military Training May 8," he said. "Then he's going to Sheppard. He'll be in the family." He has applied to be stationed at JBER.

What started as a way out of having to work three jobs has become a way of life.

"I wasn't going to make it a career," he said. "But I kind of fell in love with it."

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