4th Missile Bn
517th Artillery
Canal Zone


MSG Al Garrett, Bn S3 (Sgm. Ret.)

(SGM [Ret.] Al Garrett passed away April 13, 2014)


1968-1970 MSG Al Garrett served at Bn S3.  On October 5, 1969 MSG Garrett was reenlisted by Lt. Col. Alvin R. Gorby the last Bn CO of the 4/517.  Below is a photo taken as  Lt. Col. Gorby presented the discharge given to MSG Garrett as part of the ceremony.  
(Among those present at the ceremony were CSM Clifton D. White and Sp4 Tom Ethier of Bn S2 whose pictures are found on this site.  The photographer was F.W. 'Bill' Cole of HHB.)

Al Garrett as a MSG in dress whites.  Panama and Hawaii were the only duty stations where dress whites were authorized.  Photo c.a. 1968

Elusive Target  By Al Garrett

Back in the ‘60’s, Army Doctrine required all guided missile units to fire two missiles per year. Units would use their own equipment and the unit commander would pick out of his basic load of HAWKs the two missiles he wanted to fire. The idea was to reinforce the crew member’s confidence in the equipment by seeing it successfully "kill" a target. This was called Annual Service Practice (ASP).

Anyone who has ever participated in one of these "scheduled" firings quickly learned that a scheduled missile firing is the most difficult thing to pull off without a hitch.

The 4/517 conducted these live firing exercises at the Piña Beach Range which was located just below Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River.

The Ryan Firebee-Towbee system was the target employed. The Firebee was an air-breathing jet drone that was launched from a short rail with RATO (Rocket Assisted Take Off). It was quite impressive to watch one being launched. I always felt seeing this was worth the trip across the isthmus. Once airborne and at the proper range and altitude the Firebee would play out behind it on a very long thin cable a smaller target called a "Towbee". It had radar enhanced lenses to make it look as big as an airplane on a scope. It also tracked off to the side of the Firebee so there was no problem with the HAWK radars discriminating between the two.

In August 1969, Battery C from Fort Amador (Flamenco Island) was on ASP and anticipated being ready to fire around 1300 hours on the selected date so the Firebee was launched at about 1245 hours that day. It was tracked outbound (receding target) by the HIPIR until the Firebee dropped off the scope at about 20 km from the beach. The Firebee controllers lost contact with it and it was determined that it had splashed down in the Caribbean.

It was decided to send the LCM out to look for the Firebee. The LCM was used to ferry vehicles across the Chagres River and it did not have a radio on it. So the S3 Jeep, HQ-3, with radio, was loaded onto the LCM and off they went with a couple of the troops.

The weather was extremely bad when the LCM got about five miles out. The waves were running high and the LCM was beginning to take on some water. The jeep was getting tossed around like a toy and when they got back the jeep looked like it had been in a roll over accident. So much for the firing that day. The next day everything came off without a problem and the exercise was concluded.

But what about the Firebee? It was nowhere to be seen for about a month. Then a luxury liner reported to its home office that they had spotted a downed pilotless aircraft and gave the grid coordinates. That information was relayed through the Department of State and eventually down to the USARSO Commander.

The Navy was sent out to look for it but had no luck. The Air Force sent a couple of fighter jets to look for it and sink it if at all possible. Still no luck. In about another week the Firebee was spotted again by a commercial aircraft who provided the grid coordinates of their sighting. The two plots formed a straight line to the southern coast of Cuba. Now it had gotten serious. If that Firebee had fallen into Castro’s hands there would be all hell to pay because everyone knew that the Firebee also had a reconnaissance capability. Cuba would have a big propaganda tool to shake in our governments face. So the people who worry about those things sat back and worried.

A full two months after the Firebee was lost, an urgent message came into J3, SOUTHCOM, from the US Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. The Firebee, fully intact, had floated to shore and beached itself at Bluefields, Nicaragua. The Nicaragua Police had taken possession of it and were holding it for our retrieval.

At this point let me explain why a Caribbean port city in Nicaragua has a name like "Bluefields", commonly called "Bloof" by the residents, most of whom were second and third generation dependents of US Marines that frequented the port since 1894. It was a port of entry of American forces to keep a lid on Nicaragua’s political affairs.

Things in the Canal Zone began to happen fast. The word went out that someone was needed from the 517th, who could speak Spanish and knew enough about which end of a tool to use to break the Firebee down for air shipment back to the Canal Zone. I am not sure who volunteered me but I was chosen. Very quickly, LTC Price, the brother of opera star Leontyne Price, and the USARSO Secretary General Staff (SGS) called me and asked me to report to Building 1, 2d floor. When I got there he explained that I had the rest of the day to get things in order to go to Bluefields. That meant getting a passport which needed pictures at the Signal Office. Then to the US Embassy for the passport, then to the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama for the proper visa. LTC Price gave me a driver with a late model sedan to accomplish all of this. He also gave me a thick envelope which contained a stack of Nicaraguan Cordobas. I counted out 27,000 of them and to this day I still have no idea how much money I was carrying. Believe it or not by 1630 that day I was ready to go.

The next morning the driver took me to the Army side of Albrook AFB where I boarded an Otter with a Major for pilot and a specialist for crewman. We were buzzing the airstrip at Bluefields at about 1030 looking for some sort of direction on landing. The little airport was unattended. In a few minutes we saw a light green pick up truck barreling down a dusty road toward the airstrip and we went ahead and landed.

The Major and I went into town on that truck and the Specialist stayed with the Otter. We were escorted into the quarters of the local police commander. His name was Capitan Obregón and he asked me if I had a ball point pen with "US Government" on it. I did and then he did. He was quite pleased with my gift.

After coffee and sweet rolls the Capitan took us across the street to the Police station. He had me escorted down several flights of stairs into an area that obviously was a dungeon. There it sat, the Firebee, with its wings removed so it could fit in the cell. I pretended to be wise and very interested in looking it over and said we were ready to take it with us.

In a few minutes, the fuselage and wing assemblies were loaded into the bed of the light green truck. About 1300 we put the Firebee on the floor of the Otter and took off for home.

No one asked for my passport. I did not spend a dime, and everybody I talked to spoke good English.

About 1530 we were back with the prize, which was temporarily stored in a hangar at Albrook. We had radioed ahead and the driver and sedan were waiting for me when we landed. I was home in my quarters at Fort Clayton about 1630 having a beer. Mission accomplished.


The Battalion EMMO Team By Al Garrett

I arrived at the 517th in July, 1967, following an inter theater transfer from Korea. I was a Master Sergeant and was assigned as the Battalion Operations Sergeant. (S-3) Also assigned to the S-3 was the Battalion EMMO Team which kept the Batteries on their toes. The team consisted of an officer (Lt Duran), Warrant Officer (CWO Columbus Floyd), and the following technicians: SFC Stradley (CWAR and HIPIR), SFC Paul Dunne (PAR and BCC), and the principal character of this story, SFC "Frenchie" St Pierre (Lchr & Msl).

I had known St Pierre since I was in the GM School at Fort Bliss in late 1958. We were in a couple of courses together. He was a very likeable guy, always ready with a quip, and had an engaging French accent riding on his broken English.

St Pierre had an interesting story. He came to the US as a 17 year old runaway from French Canada. He had hitched a ride to New Orleans with two business ladies who were relocating their business to New Orleans. To hear him tell it was every young man’s dream. Eventually, he left the business ladies and thumbed his way out to El Paso, Texas.

He woke up one morning in the public park and was very hungry. So he joined the Army and started to eat regularly again.

Fast forward to 1967. St Pierre was married to a German gal and had a cute little daughter named Monica. We lived in the same housing area and my daughter, Delsa, and Monica became very close friends. They were both 12 years old. They played with Barbie dolls, went swimming and to the movies together. Monica was in my quarters as much as Delsa was in hers.

Eventually we all rotated from Panama and watched our careers play out until retirement. And I forgot all about the St Pierre’s.

In late 1978, Delsa was now 24, married and a mother of two children. One day she called me from Tacoma and asked me if I still subscribed to Playboy. I said that I had let my subscription expire. She told me to run out quickly and get the November issue. She said her friend Monica had gone to Chicago, met a guy named Hugh Hefner, who suggested she change her name to Monique. She was on the cover of the November issue of Playboy and was the featured centerfold. WOW!

A year later Monique St Pierre was chosen as the Playmate of the Year for 1979. All because her father had spent some time in the 4/517th.


The Oozlefinch by Al Garrett

1905 the U.S. Army Coast Artillery adopted as it's mascot, the mystical and legendary bird known as the Oozlefinch. Over the years this bird became the beloved mascot of the Field Artilleryman, the Anti-Aircraft Artilleryman, and eventually, in 1956 the Air Defense Artilleryman. The Oozlefinch is a bird of obscure orgins and is the only such creature known to exist. His eyes are large, all seeing, unshaded by lids or eyebrows, and rather seriously bloodshot. He is therefore forced to fly backwards to protect his powers of observation. He may have one feather or no feather at all. Since no one has actually seen him he is represented in a variety of ways. Since 1956 he has had a missile tucked under one leg.

The Oozlefinch was brought to Fort Bliss, Texas by it's newly assigned Commander in 1956. He was Major General Sam C. Russell and he had a low tolerance for alcoholic beverages, a deficiency he worked hard on every night. One of his policies was to inspect every unit on his post at least once annually. He liked to flit around on Fort Bliss in a helicopter. Once on a very windy and dusty day, he stepped out of the helicopter while it was still 12 feet in the air. He also had a hard time remembering to zip up his fly. He was determined that the Oozlefinch would enjoy lots of popularity.

The marketing was incredible. The official individual name tag had a likeness of the Oozlefinch on it. It appeared on every vehicle post sticker. In the Post Exchange and the Air Defense School Book Store you could find all kinds of items dedicated to the bird: Ashtrays, coffee mugs, cigarette lighters, T-shirts and baseball hats. Every graduate of the Air Defense School received a certificate designating the graduate as an Honorary Gunner Oozlefinchling.

When Sam Russell retired in 1960, the oozlefinch disappeared from Fort Bliss.