Camp Luna and the Tarantula

I sat down today to write a story about the First Congregational Church but my thoughts kept drifting to my father who died one year ago today – December 1, 2019.  So I decided to write down one of the stories he told me about his time in the Army during World War II.

Dad was born in Herington, Kansas to Milton and Maudie Debus Wade.  He was the youngest of six children and Grandma Wade expected him to take care of her and remain unmarried, so he did not enlist.

After graduating high school in 1942, he went to work for the Rock Island Railroad as a telegrapher.  Grandpa Wade worked as a mechanic on the steam engines in the Roundhouse.

In July 1943, dad was drafted and sent to basic training at a camp in Illinois.  After completing basic, he was assigned to a communications unit and sent to Camp Luna located in the foothills outside Roswell, New Mexico (Yes home of the little gray men.).

Camp Luna served as a communication hub between the War Department in Washington D. C. and the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.  White Sands was the development site for the Manhattan Project – the development of the atomic bomb.

Encoded messages from the War Department were received at Camp Luna.  If the messages were for the commander of Camp Luna, they decoded them and took them to headquarters.  If the messages were for White Sands, they were encoded a second time and sent on to White Sands.  It wasn’t until 1947 or 1948 that dad knew what was happening at White Sands.

One day, dad and another Staff Sergeant were manning the Communications Hut during the night shift.  The Communication Hut was the end hut in a row of Quonset huts.  Quonset huts were sheet metal structures that could be erected quickly.  The other huts in this row were troop barracks.  Not much happened on the night shift, especially with the time difference between Washington and New Mexico.

A little after midnight, dad and the other sergeant were discussing plans for the weekend, when a Lieutenant came in with a message that needed to be sent.  As they encoded the message, they talked with the Lieutenant.  The Lieutenant stayed until the message had been sent.  As the Lieutenant left, he stopped in the doorway and asked to be awoken when the reply came.  As they were finishing their talk, a tarantula with an abdomen a little smaller than a softball, walked in through the open door.

Dad and the other sergeant went back to their chat.  Out of the corner of their eyes, they saw the tarantula crawling up the front of the file cabinet against the side wall of the hut.  Tarantulas will jump toward loud noises or rapid movements.  Dad slowly got up from his desk and headed for the door.  He intended to open the door and then bang on the screen to get the tarantula to jump toward the door.  If he was successful, he could close the door and have the tarantula out of the hut.  However, the other sergeant had a phobia about tarantulas and drew his 45-caliper service pistol.  As dad got the door open, the other sergeant aimed and fired at the tarantula.  He missed.  The tarantula jumped from the cabinet to the office’s counter.  Dad banged on the screen and the tarantula leaped to the door and dad closed the door.  He then banged on the screen to get the tarantula off the screen.

The shot woke most of the camp.  The Camp’s commander and all of his aids came running to the Communication Hut.  The commander was not happy.  He heard their story and inspected the hole in the side of the hut.  They then went and looked at all of the huts in that row.  The bullet had passed through all of the six or seven huts in that row.  Fortunately, no one was struck.

The Staff Sergeant’s punishment was to be part of the Reveille Crew.  Each morning he had to get up before everyone else, go out to the Reveille cannon, load it, and when the bugler arrived, he fired the cannon to awaken the camp.  The bugler then played reveille.  He had to do this for about three months, which meant he was getting up in the middle of the winter and often having to go out into the snow to get to the cannon. 

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