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
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
"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
"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
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."