Don Mooney didn’t get the opportunity to learn how to fix helicopters, but he left the Army with some vivid experiences — including sailing across the Atlantic during the Cuban missile crisis.
Mooney grew up in northern California, but he has family roots in Oregon. He had started community college and was 18 when he joined the Army in 1959, enlisting for three years. His goal was to learn about helicopters.
“They asked me for my second option, and I put down heavy equipment repair,” he said. “That’s how I ended up in truck driving school.”
Mooney attended boot camp in Fort Ord, California. He had played football in high school, so he was physically fit, but accepting Army discipline wasn’t automatic.
“They try to get into your head,” he recalled. “It took me a week to bend to their will.”
Mooney had also been a hunter while growing up, so unlike other green troops he knew how to handle a rifle. The soldiers trained with an M1 Garand, and Mooney recalled a black soldier from Los Angeles, California, who’d never fired a rifle, becoming the top marksman in the company.
At one point, Mooney considered enlisting in the elite 10th Mountain Division, which could have led to a tour in Vietnam in the early years of conflict there. But the Army required him to reenlist, and Mooney wanted to return to the states.
Following eight weeks of truck training, Mooney traveled to Fort Dix, New Jersey, arriving just a few days after Elvis Presley returned from service in Europe. Mooney boarded the USNS General Simon B. Buckner in New York in April 1960, bound for West Germany, but the smells and vibrations of the troop ship proved too much.
“I was sick before we left the harbor,” he said.
One of the merchant mariners on board advised him to find work in the galley. Mooney said he hauled sacks of potatoes to a mechanical peeler and soon felt better. A train took the troops from the West German port of Bremerhaven to a military base near the city of Kaiserslautern.
Mooney said he was assigned to drive truck for the 520th Transportation Battalion, but an officer saw that he had typing experience from high school and assigned him to battalion headquarters.
He was given secret clearance status and ran the mail room, which included a jeep, a weapons carrier truck and a deuce and a half truck to pick up mail in the city. The large base at Kaiserslautern was home to several battalions, including artillery and tank battalions.
U.S. soldiers in West Germany faced dire circumstances if the Soviet Union invaded. They knew the resulting war could quickly escalate from conventional weapons to chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons as the outnumbered NATO forces faced superior communist numbers.
Mooney shared a barracks room with seven other soldiers. Winters were pretty cold, but the barracks were in good shape, he said. Officers and NCOs with families typically resided off base. The base PX and commissary sold food and other items.
Mooney said he ate military food in the mess hall, which wasn’t always the best. He recalled drinking powdered milk on occasion because the German civilians hired for KP duty were stealing the real milk.
The German economy had recovered from the devastation of World War II and was booming by the early 1960s. He recalled older Germans who had lived through the war being “standoffish,” and Germans in smaller rural towns were more friendly than city residents.
“There were places U.S. soldiers just didn’t go,” he said.
Mooney injured his tail bone after slipping on ice and spent a month in the hospital. When he got out, he was reassigned as a battalion motor pool clerk, performing spot checks to ensure truck drivers regularly inspected their vehicles.
It was in that capacity that Mooney had the opportunity to travel with supply convoys through communist East Germany to Berlin. The city was surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany and had been supplied in 1948-1949 by DC3 aircraft during the Berlin Airlift. East German troops continued to harass NATO troops as they delivered supplies to Berlin, Mooney said.
During his time in Europe, Mooney traveled to Holland, Spain, Austria and France, but not Paris. He bought a new Volkswagen Bug for $995 from a second lieutenant who had owned it only a month.
“His wife refused to ride in it,” he said.
Mooney recalled sightseeing in Europe with two friends from Los Angeles and a “whiskey runner” from Virginia. The soldiers traded their cigarette ration coupons for gasoline coupons to keep their cars fueled.
Granted three-day passes, the soldiers drove through beautiful farm country and visited spectacular castles, he said. One thing that stood out was seeing young children picking up beer for their fathers. The older teenagers, he recalled, partied hard and generally didn’t like U.S. soldiers.
Mooney later shipped his Volkswagen back to the U.S. on a troop ship and gave it to his mother.
As the Cold War heated up, President John Kennedy extended the tours of duty for overseas troops, and Mooney’s time in Germany went from six months to 30. In October 1962, he boarded a troop ship in Bremerhaven and began the 10-day trip back to the U.S.
On the sixth day, Mooney was standing on the fantail watching the ship’s wake when he noticed a peculiar pattern. He asked a merchant mariner what was going on and was told that the Cuban missile crisis was in the news and all U.S. ships were instructed to sail in a zigzag pattern.
Back in the U.S., Mooney followed his father, who was the police chief in Redmond, into a law enforcement career. Mooney served with the Oregon State Police from 1968 to 1993, stationed in Bend, Government Camp and John Day, retiring as a senior trooper.
“I liked working on crime, traffic and game,” he said.
Following his retirement, Mooney worked for six years with a surveying company. He also served several terms as a city councilor and mayor of Canyon City. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children, four grandchildren, two step grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way.
He and Jennifer have helped with youth activities for the Elks Lodge, and Mooney has served as president of the Bear Creek Shooting Sports Club and as the local chapter chairman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation banquet.