When I was promoted to master sergeant in 1960, my boss picked me to go the NCO Academy in Orlando, Fla., for the five-week course where only the top 5 percent of the Air Force personnel are sent. I knew I was not in the top 5 percent, and I had my doubts of passing this course. I was told that it was very tough.
My boss told me not to worry, that I would come out smelling like a rose. That was easy for him to say.
I drove cross-country to Florida, worrying all the way about what I would say to everyone who thought I was so smart in my printing career if I failed this course. I drove into the large parking lot in front of the academy at McCoy Air Base, Orlando, Fla., where all the new members of this class of 155 men and 1 lady were greeting each other.
Standing in the middle of the parking lot with his instructors was a major who was in my outfit overseas in 1955, and he was now a colonel.
He came over and took my hand and said to his men, “Guys, I want you to meet Sgt. Vanover, the best printer in the Air Force.”
He took me aside and said, “ Van, you see those 25 men standing over by themselves? They are the crewmembers of Air Force One, and are said to be the smartest and sharpest airmen in the Air Force. My men tell me they think they are better than anyone else, and think they will give us trouble. I am making you their flight leader. I have seen how you marched our troops overseas in parades, and I think you’re the man for the job.”
I almost passed out. He said, “You will fall them out every morning for roll call, march them to the mess hall, then back to class, and march them everywhere we go during the day.”
I went over to them and told them who I was, the base I was stationed, and my career field as the NCOIC of printing for all the military Air Transport bases west of the Mississippi River. I thought this would impress them, but I could not tell.
We would have two men to a room, and I picked the only southern man in the group to be my roommate, a T/Sgt Fields from West Virginia. I knew only about two percent of all Air Force personnel would understand marching or the commands I would be giving them.
I had a list of all their names and I read it over many times that night so as not to look bad in the morning at roll call.
At 5:00 the next morning, I rang the bell in the wing that my flights were quartered for them to start the day, shave, bathe, clean their small rooms and fall out for roll call.
Everything went smoothly until I asked them if anyone had marched in formation lately. No one raised a hand, and I found out that this elite group had not marched since basic training years ago, and I knew I was in big trouble.
I asked the tall men to be in the front and the shorter men to go to the rear. I gave them some easy commands, and we started off to the mess hall.
They looked really bad, most were not in step, and they were bobbing up and down while marching. I’ve never seen anything like it. I knew I had to do something to get them to march better. The other four flights were making fun of us.
My flight did not understand the command of marching anywhere, let alone in parade, which we would have almost every day. I thought this would be my hold over them.
The first day in class was short. I got my flight together and told them I could teach them to be good marchers if they really wanted to be. They did not want the other flights to make fun of them.
I took them to the parade grounds and worked with them for a couple of hours until dinnertime. As we marched to the mess hall they were all in step and did not bob up and down for the first time.
The second morning roll call, they were all happy and obeyed my commands every time. We looked pretty good marching to the mess hall, and the other four flights could not understand what had happened to our flight. Now they were looking bad, and my men were eating it up.
We did extra marching every day from then on.
My flight and I were getting along great. I was helping them out with military marching. Each man would be graded in his marching of our flight. I had different men marching us to the mess hall, and then to class.
My men were loving it, and all this time they were helping me with some of the classes I had a little trouble with.
We had a softball game every week, and this was my area. We played 5 games. I pitched for my team and had 13 RBIs and 4 homeruns.
The last week there the best players from the five flights were picked to play against the instructors, and I was picked to pitch for our team. I was batting clean up, the bases were loaded, and I hit my fifth homerun, and we won the game 17 to 7.
My flight won the award for having the best marching flight.
Our last couple of hours on base, as we were saying out good-byes, my flight called me over to them, and the sergeant in charge told me he had never seen such a change come over a group of men in such a short time.
He said they would never forget what I did for them, and they all gave me a hug. The commander of the academy was watching us saying our good-byes and came over to me.
He said, “ Van, I did not tell you, but your boss called me before you got here and told me you did not think you were good enough for the academy. He told me to give you the hardest task that I could find for you, and that’s the reason you got Air Force One’s crew.
“My instructors thought they would give you a hard time. I want to thank you for the way you handled them, and I want to say you guys really kicked our butts in softball.”
In my next 12 years before I retired, I ran into a lot of these men all over the world. I wrote to T/ Sgt. Fields, my roommate from West Virginia, until he passed away last year.