COLONEL PIET LETLEY
(Once OC AFS Langebaanweg)
I will try to kick off with the man who remains, to me, the epitome of a badass military man. I never served under him, although my everyday life was at his mercy to some extent. He was Colonel Piet Letley, then OC AFS Langebaanweg. He was every inch a soldier - any RSM could inspect him at any minute of the day or night and he would pass the most diligent scrutiny.
I remember him best as I used to go to school while he would come marching down the road in the opposite direction, stopping every hundred yards or so to chew out some poor petrified airman for a supposed infringement in dress, a button a 1/4 inch off-centre, a hair 1 mm out of place - that sort of thing. He had a marvellously cold and cynical delivery that would leave the most hardened veteran shaking in his shoes. I once saw him rattle the RSM so badly that the latter saluted him with the wrong hand. Talk about the excrement hitting the air-conditioning! Even us schoolkids were expected to yell a "Good morning Colonel, Sir!" as we passed him while keeping ramrod straight. He was a gaunt man who marched everywhere at double time. Not for him an official car to take him to work in the mornings. He had served in WW2 and was one of the pilots who flew the Coelacanth back from the Seychelles - a fact to which a plaque prominently displayed on his desk and awarded by the JB Smith institute attested.
When he took over as camp commandant things had been rather lax - but he soon put an end to that. Even the poor daisies lining the roads and struggling to lend a splash of colour to the camp were taken in hand and neatly uprooted and replanted in straight lines. Anybody caught walking across the "lawns", and anyone who has been to Langebaanweg will remember these sad plots of sand with a few straggling weeds desperately trying to exist in the arid semi-desert sandy soil of the Sandveldt will know what I am talking of, was immediately punished by being made to work on the "gardening detail" after hours. Ignore a stop street and you found yourself spending your weekends with a bucket of paint and a brush repainting all the STOPs in the roads of the camp. Speeding in camp? No problem - the permit for your vehicle would be withdrawn and you would have to park your car outside the camp gates for 6 months. And quite a walk it could be to get to it. He made the pupil pilots double everywhere instead of the slow amble that had previously been their gait of choice. He also instituted the infamous bicycle wheels. Should a pupil pilot attempt a "wheels up" landing he would be issued with a pair of bicycle wheels which were his constant companions wherever he went from that day forth while he was at Langebaanweg. It would be amusing to see the squad of pupil pilots doubling to work from the officers mess and watch, as time passed, the number of bicycle wheels increasing.
I say he held power over even the humble likes of myself. When one of us brats was caught out in a misdemeanour you would be hauled up in front of either the colonel or the adjudant and told your fortune, while your poor father would get a strip torn off him as well for not disciplining his unruly offspring. Fortunately this happened to me only once during the reign of Colonel Letley - and it left psychological scars that still have not healed!
And like all of his ilk he had an Achilles heel and an endearing peculiarity. His Achilles heel came in the shape of Major (Sister) de Witt. She was a large-bosomed lady, the distillation of all the terrifying nurses you ever knew. She did *not* take any shit from trumped-up little Air Force colonels. And Piet Letley feared only one thing on God's green earth. A hypodermic syringe. Sister de Witt would issue orders for men to report to sickbay for the sundry injections the military seems to think it has to continue giving men for their well-being. All of a sudden the colonel would find important business elsewhere. He would just have to inspect the bombdumps, the radio station or the sewage farm - anywhere that was decently removed from the sickbay. I suspect that sometimes he probably hid under his bed. A grim-faced Sister de Witt would set off in hot-pursuit, armed with a kidney bowl full of needles and syringes. She would run him to earth and literally order him to bare his arm or bum wherever he happened to be and set to work. He always meekly complied. A pathetic spectacle for such a tough man!
His endearing peculiarity? He smoked "Cameo" brand cigarettes. Widely advertised and touted as the smoke of choice for the discerning lady.
When he left everybody heaved a collective sigh of relief - and within two weeks was missing him like hell. He was tough, cold and cruel even. But painstakingly fair. You knew exactly where you stood with him and if you were in the right he would back you to the hilt. The new man did not, paradoxically, stand a chance with his more relaxed regime!
Eugene L Griessel (21 February 1998)
Published:1 July 2000.
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