Weather took on a new meaning for me when I moved from Oregon to Washington, DC, a dozen years ago. Instead of facing Portland’s constant clouds and drizzle when I walked out the door every morning, the weather in DC brought new surprises each day—and sometimes even within the same day. I got used to looking for the telltale signs of approaching summer thunderstorms, which would produce drenching rains but stop abruptly after ten minutes, leaving sunny skies (and ruined shoes) in their wake. Life on the East Coast contained weather-related phenomena unheard of back home, and I became well-versed in the vocabulary used to describe it; my family still chuckles every time I mention a “wintry mix.”
The changeable Mid-Atlantic weather meant that checking the forecast (and later, reading weather blogs) became a necessary part of my daily routine. Despite this fascination with weather, it wasn’t until I listened to the oral history of Herman Monoschein that I thought to consider the role of weather observers and forecasters during wartime. Describing his experiences serving with a weather squadron in England during World War II, Monoschein describes how critically important it was for pilots to have accurate weather reports, as well as how difficult preparing these reports could be without the benefit of modern technology.
Digging through the Veterans History Project (VHP) archives yields other accounts of those who served with weather units. Air Force Captain Joel Rosenbaum served as Chief Forecaster for the weather detachment at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and kept a diary of the weather from November 1968 to September 1969. Rosenbaum’s journal offers an intriguing twist on a typical military diary: instead of relating thoughts on combat conditions or chow lines, it narrates his day-to-day experience with cumulus and cirrus clouds, wind speeds, and the chinook effect.
Like Herman Monoschein, Paul Yoder Burns worked with weather while serving in the European Theater during World War II. As a weather officer with the 370th
Fighter-Bomb Group, Burns provided weather observations and maps as well as forecasts for use during bombing missions; before pilots departed, he provided 60-second briefings of the most important weather information that might affect the mission. As he explains in his memoir, “I took my job very, very seriously,” understanding that an inaccurate forecast could result in a downed plane or the loss of a pilot’s life. Yoder relates that to their credit, pilots understood the inherent problems of predicting the weather, and didn’t hold forecasters accountable if a forecast went wrong; they affectionately referred to the weather officer as “Cloudy Joe.”
Henry Leckenby, a Captain in the Air Force’s Air Weather Service who served during the Vietnam War, echoes this sense of holding pilots’ lives in his hands. For Leckenby, this realization came early on in his career; while in training at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, he provided a briefing to a pilot who later crashed in a patch of fog. Though the cause turned out to be a lack of fuel rather than the weather, it emphasized the life-and-death nature of Leckenby’s forecasts. This was the case whenever a plane went up in the air, and thus the stress of predicting the weather was not confined to wartime or combat operations. Mary Nagano Salmen, who served stateside with the Air Force during the Cold War, relates that some of her coworkers couldn’t handle the stress of weather operations, particularly during hurricane season in Louisiana.
Servicemen and women who worked with weather sometimes faced even more adverse conditions than simply guiding pilots through poor weather. Petty Office J. Michael Ayres served as a weather observer on a flight crew stationed at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, an assignment that was considered more hazardous than combat—and this was during the Vietnam War. Stationed on Guam, Henry Leckenby was assigned to hurricane reconnaissance, flying straight into the center of storms; he received an Air Medal for doing this 29 times. Leckenby also flew on “rain-making” missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail, dropping silver iodine that would cause rain.
Even under the best of circumstances, predicting the weather means trying to corral the inherently unpredictable (as the recent spring-in-December temperatures around the country made clear). While weather might seem a mundane aspect of military operations, the VHP collections of those who worked with weather units illustrate that their experiences were anything but boring, and convey the passion and dedication that these servicemen and women brought to an intense and oftentimes thankless task.