A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: After stint in military (and Presidential Protection Force ) it’s back to the DELTA QUEEN


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The events of the past two weeks in Washington D. C. with the assault on the Capitol Building and the ensuing increase of military security forces reminded me of a similar situation during August 1968 and my participation as a constituent of the Presidential Protection Force of the United States Secret Service.

After bouncing around in the USAF the first year, I found myself a “Special Agent” in the primary investigative agency of the nation’s foremost military aviation service.

That year was nearly as tumultuous as this past year. 1968 opened with the January Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King’s April assignation in Memphis, nationwide unrest on college campuses, anti-war demonstrators battling in the streets, and the murder of Robert F. Kennedy in June after winning the California primary for the nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency following incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson’s withdrawal from running for re-election.

That summer found me in my third year of active duty in the U. S. Air Force since I’d left the DELTA QUEEN in St. Louis in the autumn of 1965. After bouncing around in the USAF the first year, I found myself a “Special Agent” in the primary investigative agency of the nation’s foremost military aviation service. My duties at the Little Rock Air Force Base, near Jacksonville, Arkansas, were generally more comfortable than could be expected in the military at that time. While the war raged in ‘Nam, I spent most of my duty-hours driving all over some 55,000 square miles of investigative area assigned to our unit collecting information for background checks on airmen entering the service or for whatever other purposes the data was required. Before getting married, I usually drove like a madman across the sparsely-populated rural Arkansas terrain to get back to the base and the Officers’ Club in time for “Happy Hour” featuring half-priced drinks and a complimentary block of cheddar cheese we lonely bachelor officers whacked on for chunks to nibble with crackers and olives impaled on toothpicks.

August of 1968 found me comfortably at home outside the base and hosting my little brother Jeffrey and our only sister Mary, seen here our parents, Jesse and Anna Margaret.

The beginning of August of 1968 found me comfortably at home outside the base and hosting my little brother Jeffrey and our only sister Mary. Joyce Sanders and I had several big surprises in store for our company: there was the museum at the Arkansas Art Center, the ancient Cypress trees in the nearby swamp, our secret, sandy beach on the Arkansas River, and perhaps even an airplane ride as I had an FAA license to carry passengers. Then on my next trip to the detachment, the Major called me into his office with this news:

“Sorry, but here are your orders to leave in the morning for Miami for TDY (temporary duty) at the Republican National Convention…”

“Say what? My youngest brother and our sister are here… they flew down from Cincinnati to spend some time with me… we have plans.”

Major Knox explained that I had to leave in the morning because, as the orders read, each office had to send at least one agent who “did not wear eyeglasses,” and I was the only one who didn’t wear glasses. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing… “didn’t wear glasses?”

The next morning, I was packed, sad-eyed, and heading to Adams Field, the Little Rock municipal airport. Before leaving the office, I signed for a Smith & Wesson, K-38 Combat Masterpiece six-shot Revolver, Model 15, with no ammunition and a letter of authorization to carry the weapon in a “concealed location on my person.” Aboard the plane, I informed the aircrew I was armed with a gun but no ammo. The pilot asked me to stow the weapon in the cockpit, which I did, but now, I wonder why I even disclosed that I was carrying. Perhaps it was the size of the large pistol making an obvious bulge in the side of my gold-colored, lightweight summer jacket. In a way, I guess it was a blessing the gun wasn’t on me… imagine what would have happened had a highjacker commandeered the aircraft and I whipped out the pistol with no bullets.

The ancient Cypress trees in the nearby swamp.

After landing at the Miami International Airport, a taxi carried me to a seedy dock hidden behind a warehouse somewhere near the southern end of Miami Beach. After showing my orders to the attending security personnel, I walked around the warehouse to find a U. S. Navy ship that would be my home for the next several days. On the bow, large letters painted in white proclaimed, “APA 44,” — the USS FREMONT, an attack transport still in service since the Second World War.

During the war, the “Fightin’ Freddie,” built by Ingall’s Shipyard in 1943, carried Marines into battle and launched them onto beaches at Saipan, Angaur Island, Guam, and Iwo Jima. At the Miami landing, the FREMONT hosted more than 200 Federal security agents, including me, supplementing the Secret Service to maintain security at the 1968 Republican National Convention.

According to the USS FREMONT APA 44 memorial webpage:

“During the summer in between cruises, the Fremont steamed to Miami Florida where it served as a floating hotel for the Secret Service covering the Republican National Convention. The agents were quartered in the regular berthing compartments. The USAF assigned Donald J. Sanders to this detail as a Special Agent. He provides us with the following personal account of his experiences:

Before leaving the office, I signed for a Smith & Wesson, K-38 Combat Masterpiece six-shot Revolver, Model 15, with no ammunition and a letter of authorization to carry the weapon in a “concealed location on my person.”

‘As a guest aboard the USS FREMONT in the fall of 1968 in Miami Beach, FL, I was a Special Agent in the USAF and received orders to report to the vessel. To we Air Force and other service agents assigned to the Secret Service for protection of the Republican National Convention, the ship was a special experience that I recall as one of my military career highlights. I remember the Navy Seals arriving by helicopter, jumping into the water, and sweeping the ship for mines. Not too far away in the bay, anti-Cuban terrorists sank a ship while we were there. The officers and crew of the FREMONT did everything possible to make us feel welcome and as comfortable as possible under crowded conditions.’”

More realistically, my assignment was standing guard on a lonely overpass God-knows-where on a lane of Interstate highway leading into Miami whenever the presidential candidates passed in a heavily armed motorcade. Early before the daily activities began at the convention center, a van dropped me off at the isolated overpass for the remainder of the day. Carrying my Combat Masterpiece with five rounds of .38 Special ammo for the six-shooter, I kept out of sight until the absence of traffic on the highway informed me the highway was closed and secured to all but official traffic. After the passage of several minutes, a commanding voice from inside a mysterious-looking black sedan slowly driving by my post always announced:

“They’re coming… get ready… stand by.”

With that forewarning, I knew to stand on the middle of the overpass with my back to the highway and carefully watch for assassins coming from the woods in front of my post, knowing full well that I had my trusty revolver and five rounds of ammunition to hold off any trained and heavily-armed intruders. Luckily, none ever assaulted my position. All the Republican presidential hopefuls passed within several feet of my backside. Still, I never caught a glimpse of any, including the chosen candidate, former Vice-President Richard Milhous Nixon, who defeated Minnesota Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr. and Independent, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, Jr., to become our nation’s 37th President.

After showing my orders to the attending security personnel, I walked around the warehouse to find a U. S. Navy ship that would be my home for the next several days.

Hanging out underneath the overpass for hours on end would have driven me bonkers had I not found lumps of dried clay beneath the concrete structure perfectly suited for writing on the cement walls. I just started doodling absentmindedly, and as the hours passed during the next several lonely days of isolation, wherever I could reach comfortably were filled with my scribbles. None of the doodles were political, sexual, or otherwise controversial; merely examples of what a somewhat restless mind might concoct during hours of maximal apathy. For better or worse, my doodlings went undiscovered by my superiors, and I’ve often wondered how long they graced the undersides of that remote belly beneath the concrete overpass along the expressway. Perhaps, remnants may yet remain of my art.

After the passage of another year, I found myself serving in the Republic of Korea. Although I was a Captain in the Air Force and invited to become a Regular Officer instead of a Reservist, I could hardly wait until my time was over in the ROK so I could get discharged to return to the DELTA QUEEN and the Mississippi River.
 

After the passage of another year, I found myself serving in the Republic of Korea.

My immediate supervisor was a Major Braun, as I’ll call him, although, at the time, many of his subordinates preferred to call him “Major Numb Nuts” when outside his range of comprehension. Our unit commander was a newly-minted “full-bird colonel,” I will call “Colonel Marin.” Though my duties were boring and routine, I enjoyed Korea, its people, several Army enlisted friends and a few of my co-workers. Besides, the 8th U. S. Army, our hosts, as we lived and worked on Army property, had a great airfield on Yeouido Island with a fully-equipped aeroclub that possessed a Cessna-150, a Piper Cub, and a T-6 Texan high-performance aircraft.

Early one morning, I received a summons to the Colonel’s office where the Major was standing awkwardly about. I feared something was about to happen, and I was surprised when Colonel Marin revealed:

“The 8th Army is expecting a distinguished visitor soon – U. S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Mr. David Packard. As you are the only person in-country who has any experience on assignment protecting VIPs, you have the task of coming up with a comprehensive plan to protect Secretary Packard. Besides the Air Force and the 8th US Army, the ROKs and the Korean Nation Police will be involved. With less than two weeks before Mr. Packard’s arrival, you better get cracking.”

Like I outlined earlier, my job during the Miami assignment was relatively minor and low key, but as I was the only one in the entire nation with any experience in what is called “Distinguished Visitor Protection,” I had a huge job before me in a minimal amount of time. Fortunately, I have an instinct whereby I can look at a situation or problem and figure out a solution in a reasonable amount of time, a flair I’m sure I learned from Captain Ernest E. Wagner during our time together on the Steamers AVALON and DELTA QUEEN. Working practically around the clock, even staying overnight at the office for several nights at a stretch, my DVP Plan quickly began to take form.

Our agency’s Washington D. C. headquarters sent a high-level GS-14 official to critique my plan at a preliminary meeting of the operation’s combined participants. His only suggestion was I allow the agents fifteen more minutes during their lunch period. When the Washington individual asked the crowded room for suggestions, Major Braun raised his hand and uttered:

“I’d like to recommend that there’s a five-gallon bucket in each car.”

“A five-gallon bucket, Major… what for?”

“Well, you never know when you might need to take a dump…”

At the beginning of 1970, the following year, I was back aboard the steamboat, but still wearing an Air Force Flight Jacket.

Long-story-short. The operation to protect Secretary Packard was flawless and went off without a hitch with me directing the exercise. Delighted, the 8th US and ROK Armies adopted the plan as the Republic of Korea’s official program. After being passed over twice for Lt. Colonel, Major Braun was again being considered for the promotion. He was facing being “RIF’ed” out of the service with eighteen years of active duty if he failed another time. Worst of all, the Major would lose his government retirement pension after nearly two decades of service.

It wasn’t too much longer until the Major summoned me to his desk. Once again, I knew something strange was afoot when he nervously  began:

“No one’s ever goin’ a believe a mere Captain (me) was responsible for this-here plan — so I’m puttin’ my name on it.”

I didn’t care. All I wanted was to serve the rest of my time and get back to the DELTA QUEEN. For claiming my DVP Plan’s authorship, the Major received the U. S. Air Force Commendation Medal, was promoted to Lt. Colonel, and awarded his Air Force pension after he retired. I was glad I could be of service.

At the beginning of 1970, the following year, I was back aboard the steamboat. Within six more months, I became the licensed First Mate of the DELTA QUEEN, and a year-and-a-half-later, I shared command of the historic steamer with Captain Wagner.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.  


Related Posts

5 Comments

  1. B says:

    Who is the author? I can’t find his name anywhere.

    • Judy Clabes says:

      So sorry — editor’s error. Byline and bio have been added. The River is a regular feature at NKyTribune, so regular readers knew who was writing — but it should always be there. Thanks for reading.

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Another great tale bringing people and places to life. Personal and National life told in such a way one feels they were actually there.. Thanks Capt Don.

  3. Juanita Locke Hogg says:

    Yet another wonderful story from our Delta Queen captain! PLEASE keep them coming! I cannot fathom how interesting your life has been! (Here I thought I knew all from the riverbank of Rabbit Hash! lol)

  4. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks, again for the comments. So far, a black sedan has not pulled up in front of my house in the middle of the night for “spilling the beans.”

Reply to Judy Clabes Cancel Reply