Walter Egbert entered the U.S. Border Patrol at El Paso, Texas as a member of the 60th Academy class which was in training from June to August 1955. Other members of his class included Jack Gorman, and Clarence Cooper. Interview was conducted at the National Border Patrol Museum on May 14, 1987 by Ms.Terrie Cornell.
WE – I started in the Border Patrol because I had been working in San Antonio and a friend of mine who was in Security for Sears Roebuck knew about the Border Patrol exam and suggested that I try it. He thought it was one of the finest jobs that a person could get, and if he at the time, hadn’t been too old for the entrance qualifications, he would have gone to the Border Patrol himself. He talked me into going down and taking the exam. Shortly thereafter I was called into the Patrol in May of 1955 and went the usual route to El Paso for training and then Laredo for my first station.
TC – Where was the school at that time?
WE:Out near Fort Bliss, in that area. McClaren was in charge of the school at that time. Some of my instructors included Mike Maffeo, Jones, and then they had several civilian instructors, too, who taught Spanish and some of the other subjects that we studied. After serving part of my probation in Laredo, they started me on the flying program. While I was in Laredo, I worked with Charlie Henderson as an observer in his plane and he tried his best to check me out in the Super Cub, but the last plane I had flown prior to coming into the Border Patrol was an Air Force B—29. It was a little bit difficult for me to drop down from the B—29 into the Super Cub. But later on that same year they sent me to Brownsville to work on the airlift, C—47 and C-46’s.
TC: Before we get into that, let’s back up. You learned to fly in the Air Force during World War II.
WE:That’s true. I was in normal cadet training. I went in the Air Force in 1942 and finished my training in ‘43 — class of ‘43K — and immediately went to Fort Worth for B-24 training. The crew was made up in March Field, California, and from California we went to Miami and then South America, Africa, and on over to India. I flew approximately half of my missions bombing in Burma with the B-24’s. When the weather was too bad to do any bombing in Burma, we carried gas. We transported gasoline across the Hump into China for the fighter pilots and the night radar planes, P—61, P—51, and P-40’s.
They had a regular Hump transport division that carried gasoline and supplies across the Hump in C-47’s, C-46’s, and DC—6, but they would call upon the bombers to augment that service when we couldn’t do anything else. After I returned from India in ‘45, I went into several different lines of work and many places before coming into the Border Patrol in 1955.
PC: When did you get married? After the War?
WE:While I was a cadet in 1942, and we had our first child at the end of ‘43. I came back from overseas in ‘45, got out in ‘45 and our daughter was born a little later and then quite a bit prior to coming in the Border Patrol, our second son, and third child was born. We had three children and normal World War II veteran experiences —just run of the mill.
TC: So in Laredo they had already put you in as a Pilot?
WE:No, in Laredo I was on probation as a Patrol Inspector, a Probie, and went through regular on—the-job training and tried to learn Sign—Cutting, Spanish, and Law. Sign—Cutting was easy but Spanish and Law weren’t so easy. I didn’t have too much trouble with Law, but Spanish was extremely hard for me for some reason. So, I guess in order to get their money’s worth out of me, they made a Pilot out of me.
PC: Where you wouldn’t have to speak too much Spanish?
WE:Wouldn’t have to speak too much Spanish! Going on the airlift was a break for me because I understood the larger planes and I could handle them better than I could the Cub. I stayed on the airlift until I got my regular rating, pilot’s rating, and then I alternated between the airlift and Sector flying the rest of my career.
PC: Did you ever fly the Super Cub?
WE:Yes, later on I flew in Sector in the Super Cub, the DeHavilland Beaver, the Cessna, the cessna on floats, the C—45, and the Mooney. we tried out a Mooney for a while and several other planes. The Patrol tried out and bought various and sundry brands of observation planes trying to develop the best. Super Cub Is still the best observation plane as far as a standard, conventional plane is concerned. I am sure the helicopters are much more efficient in certain areas.
PC: But you went in on the airlift when it started?
WE:I think it had been running at least a year, possibly two years, and prior to my entry.
PC: You went in what year?
WE:In 1956, April of ‘56 I went to Brownsville. Then in January of ‘58 I went to Richmond, Virginia, and flew the C—45 out of Richmond for a while.
PC: Can you tell me more about that?
WE:Well, it was a combination job, mainly to fly personnel from Richmond down into the Southeast Region for inspection trips that was the main purpose.
PC: What kind of personnel?
WE:Immigration and Border Patrol personnel, Central Office personnel, Southeast Regional personnel. Instead of trying to charter planes for flights that would come up unexpectedly we would use our own planes, and at times, it saved the men quite a bit of time, and in some cases, money. But most of the time it was a matter of convenience and time saving.
TC: who did you fly around, any VIP’s?
WE:Yes, a few. Commissioner Jackson was there when I was there, and Tommy Ball and George Klemke were in the Region at the time.
TC: How long were you in Richmond?
WE:Just a year and from there I was transferred to New Orleans.
PC: Didn’t you mention yesterday something about Jimmy Hoffa?
WE:Well, that was later on, that was 1961.
PC: All right, let’s go in chronological sequence.
WE:When I was in Richmond, that was part of the Cuban revolution, and I flew down into Florida quite a bit. Our attempt was to control any flying that came from the United States to Cuba illegally, dropping leaflets and smuggling arms.
TC: These were anti—castro?
WE:Anti—castro forces, yes.
PC: Were they Cubans living in this country?
WE:Some were and some were Americans sympathetic to Batista or sympathetic to anti—Castro forces. But I wasn’t nearly as involved in that as the people stationed in Florida. Most of the Border Patrol and Customs people stationed in Florida were more involved.
PC: How would you prevent them? Intercept them in some way?
WE:We tried to contact the rental agencies at the airports and ask them to let us know if they were renting an airplane to certain types of individuals, and maybe we could intercept them before they took off and keep them from dropping the propaganda leaflets. It was just a hit or miss proposition, but we stopped some of them. It was partly to stem the publicity of any involvement that we might have had. I didn’t know all the politics at the time, but I’m sure it was quite involved
Occasionally I would work with the people in Florida even though I was stationed in Richmond. I would work in that area attempting to show the men on the ground how to prevent illegal aliens from being smuggled in by air. We had some aliens being smuggled in by air all along the Southern border, and they attempted to set up an interception program, and were successful in many cases, but it was again pretty hit and miss because our radar system — Air Force radar — wasn’t too good in those days and the Border Patrol had no radar at all.
PC: What do you mean by intercepting them?
WE:Find out the airport they intended to land and try to intercept them and arrest them, smuggler as well as the illegal aliens. Occasionally we would try to follow them in the air, but usually the smuggler’s plane would out—run us. Later on during our Operation Intercept we found out just how fast some of the smuggler’s planes were, because quite a few of our intercept planes were Beech Barons which were relatively fast for executive—type planes, but we couldn’t keep up with some of the Aero Commanders and some of the faster smugglers’ planes.
TC: They weren’t using jets yet?
WE:I think they were. I don’t think we ever captured any jets during that time, but my personal opinion was that they were using jets. In the New Orleans Sector, I flew the Dehavilland Beaver on floats, it was a combination, an amphibious plane. Even though it was slow, it was a very fine airplane, easy to fly and very sturdy. I could patrol in New Orleans Sector and land at any of the smaller airports or large ones — it didn’t matter. I could land on the canals or occasionally out in the Gulf. It was an interesting year in New Orleans.
TC: How many Sector pilots were in New Orleans?
WE:Just me. In New Orleans, when I wasn’t flying, I worked with the men on the ground by inspecting ships and looking for deserted seamen and stow-aways.
Pc: Did you land out in the water to look at ships?
WE: I would land to check certain areas. I had to be careful about landing. Most of the time I was flying by myself and the canals were full of tree stumps, wires, and so forth, so I had to know where the other pilots on float planes landed. Most of the canals were fairly free, but the float plane could be damaged if you hit an under—water obstacle of any kind. It was vulnerable. The floats were fairly tough, but if you hit something like a tree stump, you could puncture the float and damage the airplane. I did land occasionally at shrimp platforms and some of the oil well rigs to check workers.
TC: All by yourself?
WE:Not too often — those places were checked mostly by our boats. We had a crew working either by boat or they would check the workers as they left the airport to go to the rigs, so that wasn’t much of a problem. Mainly just patrolling and checking the airports in New Orleans. From there I went back to the airlift in Brownsville for a short stint — two years, I believe. I was in New Orleans one year. In 1960, I went back to Air Operations and flew in the Brownsville area the C—47’s and C—46’s and DC—4, C—54.
PC: Where did you fly them, chiefly?
WE:Mainly from Brownsville to El Paso to El Centro and back, or Brownsville to Chicago and back. Brownsville to New York or New Jersey. Newark, New Jersey, was a turn—around spot and the Investigators and Border Patrol people in that area would bring the aliens out to the airplane and we would take them back to Brownsville for processing and deportation to Mexico. Sometimes we would take Canadians north on our flight. Deportation from Brownsville to Canada.
TC: Did you fly into Canada?
WE:No. But probably the most Canadians I recall have been ten or fifteen on one flight, usually one or two or maybe a half dozen.
PC: They got all the way down to Brownsville?
WE:They would go all over the country. They were like the snow birds — they go south for the winter and north for the summer. When it gets too cold to be a con artist in Canada, Canadians come south and they become con artists in Texas and New Mexico. Quite a few of them were running away from Canadian law and some were just out for a lark, just hitch—hiking around over the country. Some had criminal records, but quite a few were paper hangers, they just wrote checks all over the country and just lived on their methods of existence. That trip my wife was telling you about — the female Canadian had her believing that she was mistreated and such a fine, upstanding young lady. She had a record a page long. She was a hot check artist. I don’t know what all she had on her record, she was a little bit of everything.
TC: This was when your wife went along as a Matron?
WE:Right. She was on a trip one time from Brownsville to Chicago. Any time we had female prisoners on board, we had to have a Matron on board for the protection of the prisoner as well as protection of the officers on the airplane – just rules and regulations.
TC: Certainly. If she was a con artist, there’s no telling what she will do.
WE: Thy come up with all kinds of stories.
PC: Your wife wasn’t paid to do that?
WE:No, I believe she was paid per diem to cover her expenses, but no salary of any kind, just volunteer work.
PC: Did she enjoy it?
WE: Yes. She found out that she got airsick real easily, but she enjoyed the trip. We ran into a little weather, it got a little bumpy. The C-46’s, the C—47’s, and the DC-4’s, none of those were pressurized, so you couldn’t fly above the weather. You had to just barrel on through. Normally our flights were around 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 feet and that’s where the rough air is most of the time.
PC: Did you have some real bad flights — real bumpy?
WE:Yes, I could really say that we had quite a few bumpy flights. After we got the Convairs and the DC—6 – then we could fly on up to 15, 16, 20,000 feet, no problem then.
TC: When did you get those?
WE:In 1965 or 1966.
PC: Quite a bit after the airlift had started. When did you fly to Europe?
WE:That was on the C—54.
PC: Was that one pressurized?
WE:No. It was approximately the early 60’s and some of the pilots made numerous trips: John Landry, I think Ed Parker, I believe Phil Pring made some trips. But Paul Green was on almost all of the overseas flights because he was Flight Engineer. The bad part about Paul’s job was that he had to be on duty on every take-off and every landing, and also the refueling. So for example, we would leave New York at 3 or 4 o’clock Sunday morning and wouldn’t get to Athens, Greece, until the following Tuesday. We would be in the air except for landing and deplaning passengers, and refueling. We weren’t allowed to stay overnight anywhere because we had other aliens from other countries on board. So Paul was on duty on the original take-off, every landing, and every take—off from then on until we got to Athens. So he could cat—nap, but he couldn’t really get any decent sleep for about two or two and a half days.
PC: You had two crews?
WE:We had two full crews, generally speaking, we only had one Engineer. Quite often the other pilots would spell him if they could, so he could get some rest. But the two years that the overseas flights went on, in my own opinion, took five or ten years off of Paul’s life.
PC: It was only two years that they went overseas?
WE:To my knowledge, the DC—4 flew only for two years.
PC: But it was physically draining.
WE:It was very tiring, very tiring for even the relief crews. It’s difficult to get any real decent sleep on board. I remember after we would get there, usually everyone would sack out for sometimes as much as twelve, fifteen, or twenty hours before they really felt like doing any walking around or sight—seeing or anything. Generally, we had two days at the end of the line before we started back. The return trip wasn’t quite as tiring. Sometimes we would bring refugees back with us so that the plane wouldn’t come back empty. I remember one time Yul Bryner had a program about bringing refugees back to this country. Then we flew several plane loads of refugees sponsored by him.
PC: Would these be Hungarian refugees?
WE:Hungarian and I think some Polish. I am not sure of the details, but I remember he was quite involved in that program and he met the airplane once or twice in New York as the refugees off loaded.
These flights were very interesting but they were awfully tiring. The plane had quite a bit of room and it was very well equipped -it had bunks and medical facilities, and we always had interpreters from the New York office. Some of the ladies spoke six or seven languages and were extremely well—qualified. We always had a doctor on board. Some of the doctors were unqualified in my opinion but they took care of the sick aliens.
TC: You said you were first a co—pilot?
WE:Yes. Normally speaking, when the Sector pilot was assigned to the airlift, he would work as a co—pilot. If he didn’t have commercial or twin engine rating, he would perhaps go through on the job training in order to work into a regular First Pilot or Pilot Commander position. But I had had twin—engine and four engine training so it was fairly easy for me to convert from the little bit of Sector flying that I had in Laredo over to the airlift flying. It wasn’t any problem going to the twin engine or the four engine flying, but I had to get my civilian commercial license in order to qualify as a regular airlift pilot and also to get my Border Patrol pilot training, Something like two years or three years after I came into the Patrol, I got my pilot training and I was checked out in C-47’s and C-46’s and eventually the DC— 4 and the Convair and the DC-6. If they needed extra pilots or somebody retired or if someone went from the airlift back to being a Border Patrolman or back to Sector, then they would choose from the other pilots, either the most qualified or the one who wanted to be on the airlift. They would try to find somebody who thought he might like the large planes or might be real well—qualified to fly the larger planes.
PC: How many times did you fly over to Europe?
WE:I think I made two trips into Athens, Greece; two trips into Vienna, Austria; and I made several trips down into Central America; and Guatemala.
TC: Did you take that Mafia man down there?
WE:No, I wasn’t on that flight. Some of my friends were on it. I think Paul Green and John Landry. I think they left from New Orleans.
PC: Where did you fly into Central America?
WE:One time we went into Cuba after Castro had taken over. Bob Walker and I flew into Havana with some Cuban deportees. We were in uniform and the people who met the plane were, or appeared to be sixteen to twenty years old with sub—machine guns and that was kind of a nervous flight for me. I didn’t care for it.
TC: Were you the pilot?
WE:No, Bob Walker was the pilot and I was the co-pilot on that flight.
PC: How long were you in Havana?
WE:Just long enough to file a flight plan and come back.
PC: You did that once?
WE:Just one time to my knowledge. That was the only time I was there.
TC: You didn’t fly into Guantanamo?
WE:I never have been there. We have been into Guatemala, El Salvador, and some of the men flew into Tegucigalpa.
PC: Did you ever fly into South America?
WE:Not with the Patrol. When I went to South America, I was in the Air Force.
TC: You didn’t fly to the Orient with the Patrol?
WE:No, some of the other fellows did. Some of the landings on our over—seas flights included Iceland and Shannon, Ireland; London, England; Frankfurt, Germany; Paris, France. Some of the flights even went up into the Iron Curtain countries, but that was a special flight and I don’t recall who took that but I am sure Paul was on it — at least one or more of those flights. Athens was usually a turn—around — that would be the end of the line. Craig Moltzen and I took one flight down into Mexico and to Central America. Bob Walker and I flew an iron lung, I think that’s in the history. We flew an iron lung to Compeche one time to try to save the life of a Mexican boy who was partially paralyzed, but I don’t think the iron lung helped him.
TC: Did he have polio?
WE:They thought he did, but I think later on they decided it was some other type of paralysis.
TC: Did that fill the whole plane?
WE:No, we were in a C—46 and we carried other people down with us, so we had lots of room. It was quite large, but a C—46 is designed to carry jeeps and jeep trailers and barrels of gasoline. It was a real good cargo plane during World War II. The other interesting airlift flights would be a combination of immigration and deportation flights and VIP flights. They would carry aliens in one direction and VIP’s the other. During the integration conflict in the southern states, and also the Jimmy Hoffa trial, occasionally we would carry along reserve newspaper people or U.S. Marshals. On one occasion Bob Walker and I flew a wounded U.S. Marshal to a hospital during the integration conflict.
TC: Can you go into the Old Miss incident in more detail?
WE:Well, the Border Patrol agents flew in the U.S. Marshals who were downtown probably know more details than I do.
TC: Where did you come from, Brownsville?
WE:Yes. We flew out of Brownsville. We were shuttled out pretty fast. I think I had one extra set of clothing with me. But some of the men were rousted out so fast they had no razor blades or anything else, so they got in on that detail needing clothing, shaving cream, and everything else. Most of the people sent on that detail had some notice so they could pack a bag. Quite a few of the people on the ground had to drive none—stop.
We flew from Brownsville to a little airport just north of Oxford. I don’t remember the name of the airport but it was a gravel strip, quite short, and I remember the runway was not lighted. It had a control tower of sorts, but it was pretty primitive for a little airport and not a whole lot of parking room. We would land and then park off to one side as far off the runway as we could and try to scrounge some C rations or K rations or something — they didn’t bring any.
TC: What plane did you fly?
WE:I believe I was in the C-46 going in there and then I flew up to the hospital in a C-47 with Walker. But we had some C—46’s and C—47’s at the same airport.
TC: And it was only the Border Patrol pilots who dared to land there, is that correct?
WE:I am not real sure about that. It seems to me some of the Air Force planes, some of the smaller planes, were landing there later on. If I remember right, I think they had some twin-engine Cessna’s.
TC: Did you take a load of men from Brownsville?
WE:We had men on board, yes. In the C—47’s we landed the first one I was on——one landing——I recall when I opened the door, there were some local rabble—rousers waiting for me and I was in civilian clothes and one of them asked me what I was there for. I didn’t say anything to him. I just walked on out of the plane and put the control locks on the airplane, and he turned to his buddy and said, “You know that he knows he’s here illegally or wrongly because he won’t talk to us.’ That’s all they said to me. They were out there to cause trouble, if they could.
PC: And when were you deputized as a Marshal?
WE:Before we left Brownsville. They had a program to deputize everybody before they got into the conflict.
PC: Was that a long procedure, or just a swearing in, or what?
TC: They issued you the arm bands there in Brownsville?
WE:I’m not sure where the arm bands were issued. I believe they were issued later on. During some of the riot training, some of the men were issued arm bands.
TC: But you were deputized you said to guard the planes?
WE:Well, we were left at the airport mainly to be ready to fly the planes out and to guard the planes also. My idea of the main reason for deputizing everyone was so there wouldn’t be any conflict as to who was a Marshal and who was not.
TC: And you did fly one of the wounded out?
WE:Yes. He was either a Prison Bureau officer or a U.S. Marshal, and was wounded in the neck. We took him to the hospital to be taken care of. He was in pretty bad shape.
TC: Shot in the neck?
WE:Shot in the neck, but I think he survived. We were in Birmingham, we were in Oxford and on various details during that whole set up. Some of the men stayed longer than others. I would have to check my log to recall exactly which flights I was on. some of the pilots stayed there. When they had the Freedom Riders, they had Border Patrol planes above each bus with radios to keep in touch with people on the ground. Some of the Sector pilots could tell you about that. If you have a chance to talk with Ed Woods, or Tex Ewing, or maybe McCumber. I’m not sure whether he was on that detail or not.
TC: What was the other thing you mentioned? Oh, Jimmy Hoff a.
WE:Oh, yes, during the Jimmy Hoffa trial – He was tried in the South. It seems to me it was in Atlanta, but I’m not positive. But anyway, when the trial was over, we flew some of the reporters and some of the lawyers back to Washington, and on one flight, we flew Bobby Kennedy a short distance. I came through Washington
PC: By ‘we’ do you mean I — you
WE:I was on one of the flights. I was on one flight that flew the reporters.
TC: Were you the pilot?
WE:I was one of the pilots, and then I was co-pilot on a DC—4 when Bobby Kennedy was on board, and he personally came up and thanked us for the flight. He was very cordial and later wrote a letter thanking us for our services.
PC: He was traveling in connection with the Hoffa trial?
WE:Yes, he was the Attorney General at that time. They worked
real hard putting Jimmy Hoffa behind bars and finally succeeded. After that — that was in the early 60’s – then I requested to go to El Paso in ‘65 as Sector Pilot.
TC: Why did you request that?
WE:I was getting a little tired of the transport planes and at the time our maintenance was, I thought, going down hill. So I requested to go to El Paso and give them a chance to revise their maintenance program, try to improve it. I was hoping that maybe they would get later model airplanes, pressurized airplanes, something that was safer to fly and also a little better equipped. The radios were deteriorating and I just felt like the airlift needed to be upgraded, so I requested to go to El Paso and took a demotion from GS-l2 back to GS—ll in order to go back to Sector flying. Then after I got to El Paso, I flew as Sector pilot until the airlift was moved to El Paso. At that time, they were improving their maintenance and upgrading the airplanes to such an extent that I went back to the airlift then, and flew on the airlift until it was closed down.
PC: You mentioned Bill Turner.
WE:Yes, Bill Turner trained me in El Paso when I came back to Sector flying. He gave me the benefit of his experience and it helped me considerably in trying to learn to cut sign from the air and how to fly the Border Patrol Super—Cub to my best ability.
PC: You had never really cut sign from the air before?
WE:A little bit in Laredo, but not to the extent necessary for daily flying. Bill and the other pilots here in El Paso helped me in that regard. I flew with Lee Peters, Clarence Townsend, Bill Turner, Dale Burt, Noel Williams, and Sector pilots who came through on detail.
TC: How long were you a Sector pilot before you went back to the airlift?
WE:Approximately two or three years. A couple of years, and then I went back to Air Operations. Then I was on Operation Intercept at Tucson, Arizona. I was on detail to Tucson in 1968.
TC: Tell us more about that.
WE:operation Intercept was put into operation to try to curtail some of the smuggling, alien smuggling as well as drug smuggling across the border. We used twin—engine Beech Barons and Border Patrol single—engine planes, anything we could get into operation to try to curtail the smuggling. The Air Force and the Army set up some of their radar systems to try to help us intercept the airplanes. We were on duty twelve hours and off duty twelve hours.
That was the usual procedure, but we were not flying all that time. In fact, most of the time we only flew three to six hours during any one shift. But they would try to notify us at the airport that something was crossing the border without a flight plan. Then we would try to either intercept it or ascertain where it was to land and keep in touch with units on the ground and notify them where we thought the plane might land. Sometimes we would fly in the area where the plane was spotted at night and most of the smuggling planes would be without lights, so we would fly without lights and try to pinpoint the plane with our observers on the information coming from the radar stations. I found that the radar stations weren’t too accurate in their spotting of these planes and quite often we would just be following ghost signals. Radar in those mountainous areas around there would evidentially have false signals, so quite often we would be circling around looking for an airplane and we would be the only ones in the neighborhood.
TC: You didn’t have radar on your own planes?
WE:Not on our planes, no.
PC: That was dangerous!
WE:Oh, it was a little touchy at times, but usually we had at least one or sometimes two, sometimes three observers on the airplane as well as the pilot and they were watching for the other airplanes.
TC: How long were you detailed over there?
WE:Just two months, and then I went back to El Paso.
PC: Did you catch a lot of drug smugglers?
WE:Very few. I don’t know the exact statistics. There were some caught. Some were with aliens and some with drugs.
TC: Do you think the technology just wasn’t up to the point where you could effectively do it?
WE:I think so. I think it was lacking in coordination between the Army and the Air Force and the Border Patrol. Sometimes there were breakdowns in communications. They were on different radio frequencies, so that the message had to be relayed and it was, at times, a trial and error situation. Everybody tried, tried real hard, but it just didn’t work out very well. They’re doing much better these days. And after operation Intercept, after they closed the airlift completely down, I went to Del Rio as Sector pilot and flew there until I retired in 1974. I have been enjoying retirement ever since.
TC: Were there any remarkable incidents in Del Rio after you went there?
WE:Just run of the mill Sector flying.
END OF INTERVIEW