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Up until five nights previously, my home had been the cozy little two-bedroom apartment that the recently married Mrs. Jailer and I had been assigned at Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines. Clark was about 30 miles–as the indigenous F-4 Phantom flew–southwest of Subic Bay.
But that was before the vulcanologists showed up in April and said we had a problem.
Strangely enough, this particular “problem” was not Mount Arayat, that very volcanic-looking dormant volcano that dominated Clark’s western skyline. Rather, Mount Pinatubo was all but hidden within the comparatively modest Zambales Mountain range to our east, where it had sat quietly dormant for the past 500 years or so–planning our doom.
So when the experts showed up, pointed at the steam coming off that range, and explained we might need to evacuate this massive American military base, we the unwashed masses mostly responded with, “Whatever, dude.”
Just two months later we found ourselves frantically executing emergency-destruct protocols–burning, shredding, and mulching reams of classified documents in anticipation of an imminent bug-out order.
That order came on June 9. We gathered around our televisions as the base commander explained over a Far East Network broadcast how 15,000 people would pack up our essentials and drive our private vehicles from Clark to Subic in the morning. So began Operation Fiery Vigil, the evacuation of US forces from the Philippines.
The following day, at our appointed time, Mrs. Jailer and I climbed into our car and drove to the flight line, where we joined the procession out the little-used Mabalacat Gate and down the road toward Subic Bay. On a normal day, the trip might have taken a couple of hours, but the two-lane roads were not built for the wholesale relocation of a small city in a single day.
We crawled slowly along from morning to evening. All the while, MH-53 helicopters patrolled overhead to watch for mundane problems like vehicle breakdowns, as well as far more serious threats like the “Sparrow” units from the communist New Peoples Army which had recently killed two Airmen outside Clark.
We were pretty exhausted when we finally rolled through the gate at Subic, where we then faced the next logistical challenge: where would they put 15,000 people? We stood patiently in long lines waiting for someone to tell us where we could go.
While waiting, I have a vivid memory of a guy walking by us with one of the common “I Survived Clark Air Base” t-shirts that listed the myriad calamities we’d grown used to over recent years: typhoons, earthquakes, general strikes, assassinations, coup attempts, etc. I said to him, “Now you’ll have to get a new t-shirt!” He said, “Nah, they took care of it” and turned around. On the back was a picture of a volcano.
The text read, “Now what?“
After spending our first night in a movie theater, Mrs. Jailer and I were finally placed with a Navy couple with a spare bedroom, where we settled in to see what would happen next. We didn’t have to wait long, as the mountain began to belch plumes of ash the very next day. It was almost beautiful from a “safe” distance.
On the morning of 15 June, Sergeant Jailer awoke and prepared to take a four-hour shift on the 6922nd Electronic Security Squadron desk at the Sampaguita Club, where the Clark-based squadrons had set up their command posts at Subic. As I walked out to the car I could see a very large plume forming in the distance. Still pretty oblivious, I drove down the hill to the Club. Along the way the first drops of muddy rain struck my windshield, causing my wipers to smear the glass with wet ash. This was the leading edge of Typhoon Yunya, meeting the leading edge of Pinatubo’s major eruption.
Because in the Philippines, we couldn’t have just one natural disaster at a time.
The guy I was replacing at the Club took just enough time to say, “Thank God!” before heading straight out into what remained of the morning sunlight–the last sunlight I would see until the next morning, it turned out, as the typhoon pulled the 100,000-foot-high ash cloud over and rained it down on us.
The next several hours were a confusing mess. Wet ash heavily layered the base, turning the landscape into a moonscape and collapsing several buildings. The ground began to shake constantly, and I edged myself ever closer to the nearby pillar which helped support the roof of the Sampaguita Club. The beige phone rang intermittently with questions about what was going on (How the hell should I know?) or requests for help (What do you mean your car is stuck at the Shoppette? What are you doing there? Can’t you see the world is ending?).
I’m afraid I don’t recall the intrepid Sergeant Jailer being much help to anyone.
Eventually, whoever was in charge of our motley crew decided that we couldn’t simply sit and wait for our own roof to collapse. We were assembled and sent out into the lunar landscape to find the necessary tools: ladders, shovels, flashlights, goggles, and surgical masks. These last two turned out to be a waste, as wet ash does not get into your lungs, but it does cake up on goggles quite nicely.
We shoveled the roof in teams of four, with one holding flashlights while three tossed ash over the sides of the building. The roof shook continuously as lightning bolts struck on base (which is too damn close when one is wielding a metal object on top of a building).
When my turn on the roof was over, I climbed down the ladder, crawled under my little folding table, and fell into the sleep of the exhausted.
The next morning the sun rose, a sight almost as glorious as the face of the dude who came in to replace me after I’d spent 24 hours on my planned four-hour shift. I walked out to try to identify which lump of ash was my car and was eventually able to extract it. When I arrived back at our temporary home, Mrs. Jailer’s face was streaked with tears of anxiety.
Over the next several days, several things became clear: we couldn’t go back to Clark, we couldn’t stay at Subic, and no aircraft could fly into that mess to get us out. So they called the Seventh Fleet. My wife and I were embarked on the U.S.S. Roanoake, a replenishment vessel that was not used to passengers, but nonetheless celebrated its first-ever delivery of a baby during our voyage.
Upon reaching the island of Cebu in the central Philippines, we went via amphibious landing craft to the beach, then on to Mactan airfield where a C-141 Starlifter took us to Guam, where my Philippine-born wife officially immigrated into the United States. Contract commercial aircraft then ferried us to Hawaii and then McChord Air Force Base, Washington.
We arrived at McChord on June 22, which also happened to be my little brother’s wedding day. I managed to sweet-talk my way through to the front of the processing queue, where they cut orders so that we could go on leave before our follow-on assignment, and then put us on a flight down to San Jose. After a quick stop at Sears for some presentable clothes and then to Papa Jailer’s house for a shower, the two Ash Warriors arrived just in time to upstage the wedding.
Mount Pinatubo was the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, ejecting 10 billion tons of magma from as much as 20 miles below the earth’s surface. Over 800 people died in the eruption, typhoon, and subsequent pyroclastic mudflows–a number which would have certainly been far higher without some really heroic work by those vulcanologists, whose quick and accurate predictions led to the evacuation of more than 60,000 people from harm’s way.
Including your humble correspondent.
Note: The above is my contribution to the October Group Writing Theme, “It was a Dark and Stormy Night…“.Published in