Chief Master Sergeant John Prien
Accounting and Finance – United States Air Force
Korean War, Vietnam War, Career Air Force
Where were you when you enlisted, or were you drafted?
I was graduating from the university in Huron, South Dakota — a church school. They were calling me in for the draft — for the army. I wasn’t about to go in the army, so I got my draft notice [and] I went over to the county court house. There were eight of us that had our draft notices.
The Air Force recruiter was standing with his door open and he said, “You guys going in to be drafted?”
“Well,” he said, “Come on in here.”
So five of us went in and four of us joined the Air Force. That would have been 1951. So, I had to report to San Antonio–the basic training unit. I didn’t hurt anybody through that. [He chuckles]
But I had enough education — so that after the physical training they would determine [if I] would have enough education to go out and perform without going to Sheppard [Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas] and receive training.
So I had one stripe and was being sent to Greenville, South Carolina. And I stayed there until I had to go to Guam [during the Korean War].
I was married then so I had to get her back to South Dakota. Then I took a trip to Guam and served in the finance office for all the Air Force people — we weren’t too involved with [the] Army. Air Force is mostly support activity — like the bombers. That is what we were there [for] — to support the bombers in whatever capacity we had. I was involved in getting the travel vouchers when they returned from bombing Korea.
I came back from Guam and then I was released. I could have been out of the service, but they gave me a 90-day vacation more or less. I could do what I want to, but I have to be back within 90 days. I got word I made staff sergeant.
Well, [while I was out] I tested teaching. They wanted me to coach basketball at one of the local high schools.
“How much can you pay me?”
“About 240 dollars a month.”
Closest to South Dakota was Minneapolis, Minnesota. They had a fighter squadron local there for Minneapolis. I figured, well they have to have people to pay them.
Well, when I got there, there were, eight or twelve staff sergeants and I said, “Gee whiz!” The payment responsibility was from Minneapolis down to some base in, I don’t know — I will say Alabama. [The responsibility] was through the entire [middle of the country] — we were paying the guys that are Civil [also]! They got their weapons and stuff and their pay was paid out of Minneapolis. We had a two-story building and finance officers!
So then I got an assignment out of there. I went to Bunker Hill Air Force Base. I thought they gave you notice of assignment a month in advance, and Bunker Hill — what in the heck? So I went to Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Indiana and it was a SAC base [Strategic Air Command]. [Bunker Hill AFB is located in Peru, Indiana and was renamed Grissom Air Force Base in 1968 to honor the late astronaut and Indiana native, Virgil I. Grissom.]
But I hated Strategic Air Command because all the promotions went through the flight line. (I don’t know how much dirt you want to hear.)
Tell me whatever you want to tell me. [He chuckles]
I was ready for promotion, but I knew I wasn’t gonna get it out of SAC. But I had a buddy at Sheppard Air Force Base teaching accounting and finance classes. So in ’65, I believe it was–well, I called him and said, “Do what you can to get me transferred.” He got a few buttons pushed, and they needed me really, so I got transferred to Sheppard Air Force Base.
I got there and I had to take a class so I would be qualified to teach [classes]. It came around so quickly that they needed supervisors. I was staff sergeant, but looking for tech sergeant.
They said, “Oh, we haven’t had tech sergeant for a couple years.”
So I became supervisor and that was 1965 – [that] is when I moved there and I stayed in — it was an automatic four year tour in technical training area. And I had that four years all planned out, too. That was 1965 to ’69 – well, you know what is going on over in Vietnam. [In] ‘68, I got called.
I had to go to Vietnam. I didn’t like that at all. I went over there at the tail end of ‘68. You know, in Vietnam in ‘68–there was one heck of a battle. I figured, “What am I getting into here?” Well, the battle had quieted down in ‘68 and ‘69. [In] ‘69, I went back to Sheppard.
Were you doing accounting work in Vietnam? You weren’t in harm’s way, exactly, or were you?
It was a finance office and they had military pay sessions, civilian pay, and that kind of stuff. I am usually in the military pay area. I was in a little town where the higher up air force people were. Their office was right off the base.
So, in ‘69 I went back to Sheppard and after supervising for a while and having Vietnam out of the way, they figured that it was, why they figured they’d keep me at Sheppard and promote me to master sergeant. [He chuckles]
So I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.”
Well, we were short of people. So the civilian and I went to headquarters down in San Antonio and told them we have to have more people. So, the sergeant says he would do all the work he could. And we finished up there and he said, “Prien? Is your name Prien?”
“Well, you got an assignment.”
I could just see it. I would be gone and wouldn’t have the family there. I said, “Can I take my family?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Would you mind telling me where that is?”
He said “Hickam Air Force Base.”
Wow! Sure take the family! Yes!
So we were to stay there the greater part of — well, four years — three years, extended a year.
Well the Air Force was so broke they [didn’t have the money to pay people]. [They’d say,] “Stay where you are, stay where you are.” If you have people overseas, which Hawaii is overseas, they authorized people overseas to stay where they are – volunteer to stay one [more] year, or two. I stayed another tour — 4 more years!
If you are gonna do it, Hawaii is the place to do it!
So my wife got awful tired of it. It was a little over 7 years.
She didn’t like being land-locked?
No, she was sick. She smoked from the day I met her until the day she died. We were at the bowling lanes and she threw the ball and came back and said I don’t feel good. Well, I put my arm around her and she kept right on going and her heart stopped. She was dead before she hit the floor.
The medics came over and couldn’t revive her. They couldn’t get the heart started. So it was a blow to me with her not being there, but I still had two girls there. The third girl went into the Washington DC area.
So that was in Hawaii that your wife died?
Then [I] pretty much finished up the most you can stay in. So we finally moved back to Sheppard to retire. Then just kind of stayed there.
So tell me some particular stories about your time during these different assignments.
Some of the things there at the higher command — the base finance office who handles all the payments was not providing enough service to the eight generals in the command section.
So my lower boss colonel said, “You get over there and get yourself authorized to carry money and you provide service to all eight generals.”
That became my job. Most of them had problems financially and I had an answer.
So you were their financial adviser.
I said, “No, I have never had a divorce. I never studied up on it.”
“Oh, shucks,” he said.
You were telling me about the two star general who was retiring and ran into some financial regulation issues with you.
Oh yeah, he was retiring and his accrued leave, they could cash that in. That was one of the nice things they could do. If they didn’t take the leave, they would build up a balance and the day they retire, they could get that cash.
Well, for some reason in his paper work, he was going to retire the second or third of January. Well, he can do that, but his pay had to be paid by the end of the month — the 31 of December.
Well he didn’t know that the colonel of the finance center was my boss in Hawaii for seven years. So I told him in flat words that it’s paid when it’s earned and this is earned by the 31 of December — it’s in the books.
Well, he made a trip to the finance center [to complain]. Because he wasn’t really sure [that what I said was right].
So, [the colonel] asked the general, “Who was that? What was his name?”
The colonel laughs really hard. So he said, “You know, it can’t be done, it is actually laws [regulations]. It is not us saying yes or no.”
That is just the way it is?
Yep. So he left and I think he used it for tax money.
So he didn’t get his way.
Then the colonel up there called me in Hawaii and said, “General so and so, ‘What can I do for you today?'” He started laughing and he told me the story.
I said, “Well, Colonel, they think they’re invincible — in more ways than one. But there are more ways they aren’t!”
Talking about the higher ranking officers, I understand that you had some interesting golfing partners.
Then a sergeant said, “Oh, there’s a woman who just teed off not too long ago. You could catch her maybe at the third or fourth hole.”
I said, “I don’t mind. I just want to play.”
I think her first name was Margaret, and I said, “My name is John, so okay, let’s go. Hit the ball.”
We finished and I went in and got a cold brew and she stuck her head around the corner and said, “Are you gonna be here next Thursday?”
I said, “Yes ma’am.”
So that is how it got to be regular. The fourth or fifth day came around, and she said something about she has to go do something for her husband. I don’t know, she didn’t say what it was.
I said, “Well, you got to take care of the men folk.”
She said, “Yeah, He is a four star general, but he still needs taking care of.”
Then your mouth dropped open.
We were moving along, and I stopped. She said, “Yeah, my guy is all right. We get along.”
So, another story, another little secret — in my rank, thirty years is the most I could stay in, but the base commander, a colonel was having a once-a-week golf contest with his buddies — and I was playing golf waiting to be discharged.
And he called me up and said, “Be at the first tee at 12:00.”
I said, “Colonel, I can’t do that. I got stuff here I got to do.”
He said, “Well, you are gonna retire and they’re gonna miss you then! So be there.”
So I became his golfing buddy. We kinda beat his two colonels — yes, they didn’t like me.
So, you were a good golfer.
So, he said, “You want to stick around another year?”
I said, “Colonel, I can’t.”
He said, “I will write a letter that [you are] the only one in the Air Force that can get this [new] program started in accounting and finance.”
They already had the actual cash transactions being paid out of Denver. They were working it so that all the branches of service [were to] be paid out of some place in Kentucky and all this takes a lot of putting together.
So he wrote a letter and said I “was the only one locally that could be on that and I need him for another year.”
He signed it and said, “You got to get it in the mail and get it down to the place.”
He was determined that it was to be done. So I stayed 31 years.
I retired as chief master sergeant and still lived in the Wichita Falls area.
Thank you so much, Mr. Prien for taking the time to talk with me. And thank you for your service!