Operation Starlift

Recently I saw one of the myriad of cable TV interviewers do a Q & A with one of my all-time favorite celebs, Debbie Reynolds.  Flashbacks of a “hick” away from home delighted this old mind to no end. I had talked with Debbie at Radio Station  KTAB at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, it seems a lifetime ago.  I met quite a few of the folks from Hollywood in the short time I was involved in Operation Starlift and she was one of the sweetest and easiest people of all of the ones I ever met. 

This little snippet began on February 12, 1951 when Air Force Colonel Joe W Kelley, Base Commander at Travis, at 0630 hours officially launched a new radio station that would broadcast from studios in the base hospital and would be heard on base and in all the surrounding areas in Northern California.  It would be operating on the Starlift frequency, 24 hours daily and 7 days a week

A little history on the base hospital and Starlift; The Korean War for the United  States began on June 25 1950.  I enlisted in August 1950 and by October, I had finished basic training and was assigned to a B29 Bomber Group at Travis.  Casualties by the thousands were pouring out of Korea and a location in the US was needed to receive them on their first step back into the country and hopefully back to health.  Travis was selected and a “good” base hospital was transformed into a world-class facility.  Planes, full with hanging beds and accompanying nurses, dropped off loads of GI’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Special Services Officers decided that better care had to be taken of the minds of the wounded warriors as well as their bodies while they awaited re-shipment out of our facility to a specialty hospital for burns, shock, etc. or a hospital near home for their healing and re-hab. The first and easiest thing was a radio station that would play the latest music for them, give them some upbeat news and weather and could be located right in the new hospital area.  They needed volunteers, I loved the idea and did all sorts of fun things  from working the mic boom to just playing records and later on, talking to celebs.

That's Don on the right, working the boom.

All my off-hours were spent at KTAB.

Hollywood saw what a bloody war it was becoming and something called The Hollywood Coordinating Committee decided to get with Special Services and in late 1950, some money was scrounged up, some Starlets and some well-known Stars, headed up by Ruth Roman (who was in that original movie that they wanted to forget) and they created Operation Starlift. The title was kind of lifted from that “cornball” movie called Starlift.

Every Saturday morning, the Air Force had a passenger plane waiting at the Burbank airport and a load of Stars and Starlets would come to Travis and for a bumpy ride and a couple of so-so meals.  They would put on two shows, lasting five or six hours…sleep ‘til Sunday morning and fly back to Burbank. 

Saturday afternoon’s show took place in the terminal building where planes full of Privates were awating their wings to Korea.  Then, in the evening, they performed that same show for the wounded in the hospital who were trying to get strong enough to get home.  I did everything from going for tea or coffee, to getting  bowls upon bowls of our famous chili from the main mess, I carried luggage,  swept the stage, took costumes to the 1 hour cleaners and sometimes just sat and talked with some young Starlet who was just in from Ohio and scared to death.

I got to meet Jane Russell who came up often.  Keenan Wynn, Shelley Winters, Donald O’Conner and Carlton Carpenter were there frequently and I also got to speak with them. There were a lot of  others, like singer Margaret Whiting and Bob Hope who just  showed up and  performed and left.  Shirley Temple and Claudette Colbert were also there a few times but I never had the opportunity to meet them.  But my favorite of them all was Debbie Reynolds, no pretense no fuss , like the girl next door.

Operation Starlift actually began in late 1950 and ended in November 1951 when it ran out of money under tight budget constraints.  I volunteered at KTAB and also with the Operation

 Starlift program until my Commanding Officer, Major Mullins, sent me to several schools to help my chances for promotion. In July 1951 I went to Francis E Warren AFB in Cheyenne Wyoming and by the time I got back to Travis, the Operation Starlift was history. 

There's Don, with his best 3-Star smile (first row, second from the left)

Extra duties at Base Ops and a third stripe kept me from going back to KTAB. We  suffered 37,000 fatal casualties in that “Police Action” and 92,000 wounded…some of whom are still suffering and 3700 plus who are still missing . I hope that sometime during my short involvement in the program, I  helped ease the burden a little for at least some of them.    

Don Langrehr

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8 Responses to Operation Starlift

  1. Dona says:

    What a cool story. It is so well written, I feel as if I am right there. Keep up the great work!

  2. mike says:

    Great piece of work. Having been on the receiving end of USO shows in Korea and Viet Nam it is hard to overestimate their value to the troops they helped get through some tough times.

  3. Keith says:

    What a great story, a real piece of history and an important service for our troops you seldom hear about. Thanks for sharing those memories.

  4. Brett says:

    Didn’t realize you met so many celebrities in your service days. Interesting that they all went there for the troops. Great story

  5. Kurt says:

    Wow seems there is so much we do not know about our own family member experiences and the services they rendered as members of oru Armed Forces. Some interesting folks you met as well. You can be assured your efforts did indeed bring some peace and solace to the many returning front Korea. Thank you.

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  8. David Meek says:

    I think my dad was at Travis around this time… did you know a Morris Meek?

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