Retired Staff Sgt. Buster Yates decided to volunteer for the U.S. Army Air Corps before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, launching the United States into World War II.
“I was playing semi-pro baseball and working for Underwood Typewriter Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, where I grew up,” said Yates, now 83. “My boss told me on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1941, if I joined up, then I could get in the Air Force and I’d have clean sheets every night.”
He signed up to be an airman.
Trained as a radio operator aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber, he and his unit were sent to the Canal Zone because the 6th Air Force down there was looking for a unit with a lot of flying time. Their job was to patrol both the Atlantic and the Pacific, searching for enemy submarines.
By the time Yates’ 18 month tour in Central America with the 74th Bomb Squadron, 6th Air Force was over, his plane had been credited with probably sinking three German subs. Flying 900 hours of combat time wasn’t his most interesting adventure in Latin America.
The adventure that captured his imagination during the war started out benign enough. He and his buddy, the late Staff Sgt. Al Simmons of Detroit, Mich., were sitting on a park bench in Guatemala City, Guatemala, watching the girls go by.
“A couple of good-looking, blond German girls walked up. We were sitting there next to a big fountain and the pigeons were strutting around our feet,” he recalled. “We struck up a conversation with the girls and took them to the Americana hotel for a drink. Eventually we invited them to dinner that evening.”
They were apparently college-age girls who were well-educated, spoke English and lived on their own in Guatemala City.
“After dinner they told us they were having a party that night at their parents’ coffee plantation outside town, and they invited us to the party,” Yates recalled. “We took a taxi out to their plantation and the driver waited for us.
“The plantation was situated on a mountainside with coffee trees all around. The house was a brick-constructed home with an interior patio and swimming pool. It was a big place,” he said.
“When we arrived, the party was under way. Well over 100 people were milling around talking in little groups. Ninety percent of the people there were German. You couldn’t believe how nice they were to us.”
The girls’ parents weren’t there. Yates and Simmons found out later that their parents were German spies working as airplane spotters on both coasts.
“Their father was living along the San Jose coastline and, every time we flew out on patrol in our B-24, he would record what direction we were going and report it to the German embassy,” Yates said. “Their mother was on the other coast doing the same thing.”
At that point, neither sergeant realized they had become involved in a German spy nest operating out of a home 20 miles outside Guatemala City. They were talking to the guests as they made the rounds with their dress uniforms on and drinks in hand.
“About midnight they opened these 9-foot-tall wooden doors in an interior room in the house. Inside the room on the wall was a life-size, full length picture of Adolf Hitler wearing a German officer’s uniform with a red, white and black Nazi arm band with a big, black swastika on it,” Yates said. “I have no idea why they opened those doors, unless they wanted to show him to us.
“We decided we had better get back to the base as quick as possible. We slipped out a garden gate and made it to our waiting cab undetected,” he said. “Since the air base was closed to enlisted personnel after midnight we had to climb the fence.
“This alerted the guards and they started shooting at us. I think they were as scared as we were. We escaped through a dry creek bed as bullets began whizzing by us,” Yates said. “When we finally reached the paved road we walked over to Maj. Braden’s barracks and woke him up. He was chief of intelligence on the base and Al’s commanding officer.
“When we told him what happened to us, he said, ‘You guys have got to get back out there.’ He gave us his jeep and we drove through the gate and headed back to the plantation. We went back into the house through the patio gate, the way we had come out,” Yates said. “It was after 2 a.m. and everybody at the party was drunk as hell. I don’t believe they ever realized we had left.
“An hour or so later the party broke up and the girls bid all their guests good evening as we stood around,” he said. “After everyone was gone, the girls took the guest book and handed it to us and told us to take it to our commanding officer.
“We did what we were told and gave the book to the base commander. He called in Maj. Braden to inspect the book and that’s the last we saw or heard about the book. Five days later both of us got a call from the base commander to put on our class A uniforms and report to him,” Yates said. “The base commander explained that he was giving us a letter to take to the general in charge of the 6th Air Force and he was waiting to see us.
“When we met with the general he told us he was going to immediately reassign us, but he didn’t say why. He explained that we could go to Officers Candidate School and take pilot training, navigation, engineering or anything else the Air Force offered that we would be eligible for,” he said. “I decided to go into pilot training and Al went into Special Services. He ended up by taking care of movie stars in Hollywood.”
They were immediately sent back to the States and away from Guatemala. Yates said they suspected it had something to do with their Nazi encounter, but they were never told officially what was going on. After arriving back in California, Yates and Al ran into a service friend they had known in Central America. He told them they were considered heroes back at the base near Guatemala City. Apparently many of the people on the guests list the girls had given them were taken into custody and charged with being Nazi spies.
“The girls were apparently on the Allied side during the war. I suspicion they may have gone to college in the U.S. Their parents were Nazis,” Yates said recently.
Late in the war he graduated from pilot training as the pilot of a twin-engine B-25 bomber. He never got to fly in combat because the war was over about the time he completed his training and he had amassed 165 points, almost twice what was needed to be discharged from the service.
He was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Ala., when he and another buddy, Glenn Turpin of Ravinia, Ky., decided they wanted out. The two young lieutenants were advised by the base commander that the only way they were going to get out of the Air Force in a hurry was with the help of a politician.
” ‘Are you giving me permission to call my congressman?’ Glenn asked the base commander. ‘Sure,’ he replied,” Yates said. “There was a pay phone outside and he called his mother collect in Ravinia, Ky. He asked his mother, ‘Is Alben home?’ She said, ‘No, but he’ll be home by noon.’ He told his mom, ‘Take our names and serial numbers, give them to Alvin and tell him we want out of this man’s Army.’ “
Alben Barkley was President Harry S. Truman’s vice president and their next-door neighbor in Ravinia.
“The next morning they sent me back to Texas immediately, where I was discharged,” he said. “It was Nov. 5, 1945, and I was out of this man’s Army.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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