Lt. Louis Curdes was a Purdue University Engineering graduate and wound up marrying one of the nurses on the C-47.
Another bit of WW2 history that’s mostly unknown………….
The Story of “Bad Angel”: Pima Air and Space Museum
On the Saturday following Thanksgiving 2013, Ms. Karen, my 94-year-old father, Bill Gressinger, and I were visiting Pima Air and Space Museum.
We were in Hangar #4 to view the beautifully restored B-29, when I happened to take notice of a P-51 Mustang near the big bomber. It’s name ? “Bad Angel”.
I was admiring its aerodynamic lines and recalled enough history to know that until the Mustangs came into service, the skies over the Pacific Ocean were dominated by Japanese Zeros.
Then something very strange caught my eye. Proudly displayed on the fuselage of ?Bad Angel? were the markings of the pilot’s kills: seven Nazis; one Italian; one Japanese AND ONE AMERICAN. Huh? “Bad Angel” shot down an American airplane?
Was it a terrible mistake? Couldn’t be. If it had been an unfortunate misjudgment, certainly the pilot would not have displayed the American flag.
I knew there had to be a good story here. Fortunately for us, one of the Museum’s many fine docents was on hand to tell it.
In 1942, the United States needed pilots for its war planes lots of war planes; lots of pilots. Lt. Louis Curdes was one. When he was 22 years old, he graduated flight training school and was shipped off to the Mediterranean to fight Nazis in the air over Southern Europe.
He arrived at his 82nd Fighter Group, 95th Fighter Squadron in April 1943 and was assigned a P-38 Lightning. Ten days later he shot down three German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters.
A few weeks later, he downed two more German Bf -109’s. In less than a month of combat, Louis was an Ace.
During the next three months, Louis shot down an Italian Mc.202 fighter and two more Messerschmitts before his luck ran out. A German fighter shot down his plane on August 27, 1943 over Salerno, Italy.
Captured by the Italians, he was sent to a POW camp near Rome. No doubt this is where he thought he would spend the remaining years of the war. It wasn’t to be. A few days later, the Italians surrendered. Louis and a few other pilots escaped before the Nazis could take control of the camp.
One might think that such harrowing experiences would have taken the fight out of Louis, yet he volunteered for another combat tour. This time, Uncle Sam sent him to the Philippines where he flew P-51 Mustangs.
Soon after arriving in the Pacific Theater, Louis downed a Mitsubishi reconnaissance plane near Formosa. Now he was one of only three Americans to have kills against all three Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Up until this point, young Lt. Curdes combat career had been stellar. His story was about to take a twist so bizarre that it seems like the fictional creation of a Hollywood screenwriter.
While attacking the Japanese-held island of Batan, one of Louis wingmen was shot down. The pilot ditched in the ocean. Circling overhead, Louis could see that his wingman had survived, so he stayed in the area to guide a rescue plane and protect the downed pilot.
It wasn’t long before he noticed another, larger airplane, wheels down, preparing to land at the Japanese-held airfield on Batan. He moved in to investigate. Much to his surprise the approaching plane was a Douglas C-47 transport with American markings.
He tried to make radio contact, but without success. He maneuvered his Mustang in front of the big transport several times trying to wave it off. The C-47 kept to its landing target.
Lt. Curdes read the daily newspaper accounts of the war, including the viciousness of the Japanese soldiers toward their captives. He knew that whoever was in that American C-47 would be, upon landing, either dead or wish they were. But what could he do?
Audaciously, he lined up his P-51 directly behind the transport, carefully sighted one of his .50 caliber machine guns and knocked out one of its two engines. Still the C-47 continued on toward the Batan airfield. Curdes shifted his aim slightly and knocked out the remaining engine, leaving the baffled pilot no choice but to ditch in the ocean
The big plane came down in one piece about 50 yards from his bobbing wingman. At this point, nightfall and low fuel forced Louis to return to base.
The next morning, Louis flew cover for a rescuing PBY that picked up the downed C-47 pilot and 12 passengers and crew, including two female nurses, from the C-47. All survived.
For shooting down an unarmed American transport plane, Lt. Louis Curdes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Thereafter, on the fuselage of his P-51 “Bad Angel”, he proudly displayed the symbols of his kills: seven German, one Italian, one Japanese and one American flag.
Here is a bit of most interesting American history which has yet to reach the history books. It’s an interview by Studs Terkel with Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 that dropped the First Atom Bomb on Hiroshima during WWII, fascinating.
Studs Terkel: We’re seated here, two old gaffers. Me and Paul Tibbets, 89 years old, brigadier-general retired, in his home town of Columbus, Ohio, where he has lived for many years.Paul Tibbets: Hey, you’ve got to correct that. I’m only 87. You said 89.
Studs Terkel: I know. See, I’m 90. So I got you beat by three years.
Now we’ve had a nice lunch, you and I and your companion.
I noticed, as we sat in that restaurant, people passed by.
They didn’t know who you are.
But once upon a time, you flew a plane called the Enola Gay over the city of Hiroshima, in Japan, on a Sunday morning – August 6 1945 – and a bomb fell. It was the atomic bomb, the first ever.
And that particular moment changed the whole world.
You were the pilot of that plane.
Paul Tibbets: Yes, I was the pilot.
Studs Terkel: And the Enola Gay was named after…
Paul Tibbets: My mother. She was Enola Gay Haggard before she married my dad, and my dad never supported me with the flying – he hated airplanes and motorcycles.
When I told them I was going to leave college and go fly planes in the army air corps, my dad said, “Well, I’ve sent you through school, bought you automobiles, given you money to run around with the girls, but from here on, you’re on your own. If you want to go kill yourself, go ahead, I don’t give a damn.”
Then Mom just quietly said, “Paul, if you want to go fly airplanes, you’re going to be all right.” And that was that.
Studs Terkel: Where was that?
Paul Tibbets: Well, that was Miami, Florida.
My dad had been in the real estate business down there for years, and at that time he was retired.
And I was going to school at Gainesville, Florida, but I had to leave after two years and go to Cincinnati because Florida had no medical school.
Studs Terkel: You were thinking of being a doctor?
Paul Tibbets: I didn’t think that, my father thought it.
He said, “You’re going to be a doctor,” and I just nodded my head and that was it.
And I started out that way; but about a year before, I was able to get into an airplane, fly it – solo it – and I knew then that I had to go fly airplanes.
Studs Terkel: Now by 1944 you were a pilot – a test pilot on the program to develop the B-29 bomber.
When did you get word that you had a special assignment?
Paul Tibbets: One day [in September 1944] I’m running a test on a B-29, I land, a man meets me.
He says he just got a call from General Uzal Ent [commander of the second air force] at Colorado Springs, he wants me in his office the next morning at nine o’clock.
He said, “Bring your clothing – your B4 bag – because you’re not coming back.”
Well, I didn’t know what it was and didn’t pay any attention to it – it was just another assignment.
I got to Colorado Springs the next morning perfectly on time.
A man named Lansdale met me, walked me to General Ent’s office and closed the door behind me.
With him was a man wearing a blue suit, a US Navy captain – that was William Parsons, who flew with me to Hiroshima – and Dr Norman Ramsey, Columbia University, professor in nuclear physics.
And Norman said: “OK, we’ve got what we call the Manhattan Project.
What we’re doing is trying to develop an atomic bomb.
We’ve gotten to the point now where we can’t go much further ’til we have airplanes to work with.”
He gave me an explanation which probably lasted 45, 50 minutes, and they left.
General Ent looked at me and said, “The other day, General Arnold [commanding general of the army air corps] offered me three names.
“Both of the others were full colonels; I was a lieutenant-colonel.
He said that when General Arnold asked which of them could do this atomic weapons deal, he replied without hesitation, “Paul Tibbets is the man to do it.”
I said, “Well, thank you , sir.”
Then he laid out what was going on and it was up to me now to put together an organization and train them to drop atomic weapons on both Europe and the Pacific – Tokyo.
Studs Terkel: Interesting that they would have dropped it on Europe as well. We didn’t know that.
Paul Tibbets: My edict was as clear as could be.
Drop simultaneously in Europe and the Pacific because of the secrecy problem – you couldn’t drop it in one part of the world without dropping it in the other.
And so he said, “I don’t know what to tell you, but I know you happen to have B-29’s to start with.”
“I’ve got a squadron in training in Nebraska – they have the best record so far of anybody we’ve got.”
“I want you to go visit them, look at them, talk to them, do whatever you want.”
“If they don’t suit you, we’ll get you some more.”
He said: “There’s nobody could tell you what you have to do because nobody knows. If we can do anything to help you, ask me.”
I said, “thank you very much.”
He said, “Paul, be careful how you treat this responsibility, because if you’re successful you’ll probably be called a hero. And if you’re unsuccessful, you might wind up in prison.”
Studs Terkel: Did you know the power of an atomic bomb?
Were you told about that?
Paul Tibbets: No, I didn’t know anything at that time. But I knew how to put an organization together.
He said, “Go take a look at the bases, and call me back and tell me which one you want.”
I wanted to get back to Grand Island, Nebraska; that’s where my wife and two kids were, where my laundry was done and all that stuff.
But I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Wendover [army airfield, in Utah] first and see what they’ve got.”
As I came in over the hills I saw it was a beautiful spot.
It had been a final staging place for units that were going through combat crew training, and the guys ahead of me were the last P-47 fighter outfit.
This lieutenant-colonel in charge said, “We’ve just been advised to stop here and I don’t know what you want to do.. but if it has anything to do with this base, it’s the most perfect base I’ve ever been on.
You’ve got full machine shops, everybody’s qualified, they know what they want to do.
It’s a good place.”
Studs Terkel: And now you chose your own crew.
Paul Tibbets: Well, I had mentally done it before that.
I knew right away I was going to get Tom Ferebee [the Enola Gay’s bombardier] and Theodore “Dutch” van Kirk [navigator] and Wyatt Duzenbury [flight engineer].
Studs Terkel: Guys you had flown with in Europe?
Paul Tibbets: Yeah.
Studs Terkel: And now you’re training.
And you’re also talking to physicists like Robert Oppenheimer [senior scientist on the Manhattan project].
Paul Tibbets: I think I went to Los Alamos [the Manhattan project HQ] three times, and each time I got to see Dr Oppenheimer working in his own environment.
Later, thinking about it, here’s a young man, a brilliant person.
And he’s a chain smoker and he drinks cocktails.
And he hates fat men.
And General Leslie Groves [the general in charge of the Manhattan project], he’s a fat man, and he hates people who smoke and drink.
The two of them are the first, original odd couple.
Studs Terkel: They had a feud, Groves and Oppenheimer?
Paul Tibbets: Yeah, but neither one of them showed it. Each one of them had a job to do.
Studs Terkel: Did Oppenheimer tell you about the destructive nature of the bomb?
Paul Tibbets: No.
Studs Terkel: How did you know about that?
Paul Tibbets: From Dr Ramsey.
He said the only thing we can tell you about it is, it’s going to explode with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
I’d never seen 1 lb of TNT blow up.
I’d never heard of anybody who’d seen 100 lbs of TNT blow up.
All I felt was that this was gonna be one hell of a big bang.
Studs Terkel: Twenty thousand tons – that’s equivalent to how many planes full of bombs?
Paul Tibbets: Well, I think the two bombs that we used [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki] had more power than all the bombs the air force had used during the war in Europe.
Studs Terkel: So Ramsey told you about the possibilities.
Paul Tibbets: Even though it was still theory, whatever those guys told me, that’s what happened.
So I was ready to say I wanted to go to war, but I wanted to ask Oppenheimer how to get away from the bomb after we dropped it.
I told him that when we had dropped bombs in Europe and North Africa, we’d flown straight ahead after dropping them – which is also the trajectory of the bomb.
But what should we do this time?
He said, “You can’t fly straight ahead because you’d be right over the top when it blows up and nobody would ever know you were there.”
He said I had to turn tangent to the expanding shock wave.
I said, “Well, I’ve had some trigonometry, some physics.
What is tangency in this case?”
He said it was 159 degrees in either direction.
“Turn 159 degrees as fast as you can and you’ll be able to put yourself the greatest distance from where the bomb exploded.”
Studs Terkel: How many seconds did you have to make that turn?
Paul Tibbets: I had dropped enough practice bombs to realize that the charges would blow around 1,500 ft in the air, so I would have 40 to 42 seconds to turn 159 degrees.
I went back to Wendover as quick as I could and took the airplane up.
I got myself to 25,000 ft, and I practiced turning, steeper, steeper, steeper and I got it where I could pull it around in 40 seconds.
The tail was shaking dramatically and I was afraid of it breaking off, but I didn’t quit.
That was my goal.
And I practiced and practiced until, without even thinking about it, I could do it in between 40 and 42, all the time.
So, when that day came…
Studs Terkel: You got the go-ahead on August 5.
Paul Tibbets: Yeah. We were in Tinian [the US island base in the Pacific] at the time we got the OK.
They had sent this Norwegian to the weather station out on Guam [the US’s westernmost territory] and I had a copy of his report.
We said that, based on his forecast, the sixth day of August would be the best day that we could get over Honshu [the island on which Hiroshima stands].
So we did everything that had to be done to get the crews ready to go: airplane loaded, crews briefed, all of the things checked that you have to check before you can fly over enemy territory.
General Groves had a brigadier-general who was connected back to Washington, DC by a special teletype machine.
He stayed close to that thing all the time, notifying people back there, all by code, that we were preparing these airplanes to go any time after midnight on the sixth.
And that’s the way it worked out.
We were ready to go at about four o’clock in the afternoon on the fifth and we got word from the president that we were free to go:
“Use me as you wish.”
They give you a time you’re supposed to drop your bomb on target and that was 9:15 in the morning , but that was Tinian time, one hour later than Japanese time.
I told Dutch, “You figure it out what time we have to start after midnight to be over the target at 9 am.”
Studs Terkel: That’d be Sunday morning.
Paul Tibbets: Well, we got going down the runway at right about 2:15 am and we took off; we met our rendezvous guys, we made our flight up to what we call the initial point, that would be a geographic position that you could not mistake.
Well, of course we had the best one in the world with the rivers and bridges and that big shrine.
There was no mistaking what it was.
Studs Terkel: So you had to have the right navigator to get it on the button.
Paul Tibbets: The airplane has a bomb sight connected to the auto-pilot and the bombardier puts figures in there for where he wants to be when he drops the weapon, and that’s transmitted to the airplane.
We always took into account what would happen if we had a failure and the bomb bay doors didn’t open: we had a manual release put in each airplane so it was right down by the bombardier and he could pull on that.
And the guys in the airplanes that followed us to drop the instruments needed to know when it was going to go.
We were told not to use the radio, but, hell, I had to. I told them I would say,
“One minute out,” “Thirty seconds out,” “Twenty seconds” and “Ten” and then I’d count, “Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four seconds”, which would give them a time to drop their cargo.
They knew what was going on because they knew where we were.
And that’s exactly the way it worked; it was absolutely perfect.
After we got the airplanes in formation I crawled into the tunnel and went back to tell the men, I said, “You know what we’re doing today?”
They said, “Well, yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission.”
I said, “Yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission, but it’s a little bit special.”
My tail gunner, Bob Caron, was pretty alert.
He said, “Colonel, we wouldn’t be playing with atoms today, would we?”
I said, “Bob, you’ve got it just exactly right.”
So I went back up in the front end and I told the navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, inturn. I said, “OK, this is an atom bomb we’re dropping.”
They listened intently but I didn’t see any change in their faces or anything else.
Those guys were no idiots.
We’d been fiddling round with the most peculiar-shaped things we’d ever seen.
So we’re coming down.
We get to that point where I say “one second” and by the time I’d got that second out of my mouth the airplane had lurched, because 10,000 lbs had come out of the front.
I’m in this turn now, tight as I can get it, that helps me hold my altitude and helps me hold my airspeed and everything else all the way round.
When I level out, the nose is a little bit high and as I look up there, the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks I’ve ever seen in my life.
It was just great. I tell people, I tasted it.
“Well,” they say, “what do you mean?”
When I was a child, if you had a cavity in your tooth, the dentist put some mixture of some cotton or whatever it was and lead into your teeth and pounded them in with a hammer.
I learned that if I had a spoon of ice-cream and touched one of those teeth I got this electrolysis and I got the taste of lead out of it.
And I knew right away what it was.
OK, we’re all going.
We had been briefed to stay off the radios:
“Don’t say a damn word, what we do is we make this turn, we’re going to get out of here as fast as we can.”
I want to get out over the sea of Japan because I know they can’t find me over there.
With that done we’re home free.
Then Tom Ferebee has to fill out his bombardier’s report and Dutch, the navigator, has to fill out a log.
Tom is working on his log and says, “Dutch, what time were we over the target?”
And Dutch says, “Nine-fifteen plus 15 seconds.” Ferebee says:
“What lousy navigating. Fifteen seconds off!”
Studs Terkel: Did you hear an explosion?
Paul Tibbets: Oh yeah.
The shockwave was coming up at us after we turned.
And the tail gunner said, “Here it comes.”
About the time he said that, we got this kick in the ass.
I had accelerometers installed in all airplanes to record the magnitude of the bomb.
It hit us with two and a half G’s.
Next day, when we got figures from the scientists on what they had learned from all the things, they said,
“When that bomb exploded, your airplane was 10 and half miles away from it.”
Studs Terkel: Did you see that mushroom cloud?
Paul Tibbets: You see all kinds of mushroom clouds, but they were made with different types of bombs.
The Hiroshima bomb did not make a mushroom.
It was what I call a stringer.
It just came up. It was black as hell, and it had light and colors and white in it and grey color in it and the top was like a folded-up Christmas tree.
Studs Terkel: Do you have any idea what happened down below?
Paul Tibbets: Pandemonium! I think it’s best stated by one of the historians, who said: “In one micro-second, the city of Hiroshima didn’t exist.”
Studs Terkel: You came back, and you visited President Truman.
Paul Tibbets: We’re talking 1948 now.
I’m back in the Pentagon and I get notice from the chief of staff, Carl Spaatz, the first chief of staff of the Air Force.
When we got to General Spaatz’s office, General Doolittle was there, and a colonel named Dave Shillen.
Spaatz said, “Gentlemen, I just got word from the President he wants us to go over to his office immediately.”
On the way over, Doolittle and Spaatz were doing some talking; I wasn’t saying very much.
When we got out of the car, we were escorted right quick to the Oval Office.
There was a black man there who always took care of Truman’s needs and he said, “General Spaatz, will you please be facing the desk?”
And now, facing the desk, Spaatz is on the right, Doolittle and Shillen.
Of course, militarily speaking, that’s the correct order: because Spaatz is senior, Doolittle has to sit to his left.
Then I was taken by this man and put in the chair that was right beside the president’s desk, beside his left hand.
Anyway, we got a cup of coffee and we got most of it consumed when Truman walked in and everybody stood on their feet.
He said, “Sit down, please,” and he had a big smile on his face and he said, “General Spaatz, I want to congratulate you on being first Chief of the Air Force,” because it was no longer the air corps.
Spaatz said, “Thank you, sir, it’s a great honor and I appreciate it.”
And he said to Doolittle:
“That was a magnificent thing you pulled flying off of that carrier,” and Doolittle said, “All in a day’s work, Mr… President.”
And he looked at Dave Shillen and said, “Colonel Shillen, I want to congratulate you on having the foresight to recognize the potential in aerial refueling.
We’re gonna need it bad some day.”
And he said thank you very much.
Then he looked at me for 10 seconds and he didn’t say anything.
And when he finally did, he said, “What do you think?”
I said, “Mr… President, I think I did what I was told.”
He slapped his hand on the table and said: “You’re damn right you did, and I’m the guy who sent you.
If anybody gives you a hard time about it, refer them to me.”
Studs Terkel: Anybody ever give you a hard time?
Paul Tibbets: Nobody gave me a hard time.
Studs Terkel: Do you ever have any second thoughts about the bomb?
Paul Tibbets: Second thoughts? No. Studs, look…
Number one, I got into the air corps to defend the United States to the best of my ability. That’s what I believe in and that’s what I work for.
Number two, I’d had so much experience with airplanes… I’d had jobs where there was no particular direction about how you do it and then of course I put this thing together with my own thoughts on how it should be because when I got the directive I was to be self-supporting at all times.
On the way to the target I was thinking:
I can’t think of any mistakes I’ve made. Maybe I did make a mistake: maybe I was too damned assured.
At 29 years of age I was so shot in the ass with confidence I didn’t think there was anything I couldn’t do. Of course, that applied to airplanes and people. So, no, I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we’d be doing that I thought, yes, we’re going to kill a lot of people, but by God we’re going to save a lot of lives. We won’t have to invade Japan.
Studs Terkel: Why did they drop the second one, the Boxcar [bomb] on Nagasaki?
Paul Tibbets: Unknown to anybody else – I knew it, but nobody else knew – there was a third one. See, the first bomb went off and they didn’t hear anything out of the Japanese for two or three days. The second bomb was dropped and again they were silent for another couple of days.
Then I got a phone call from General Curtis LeMay [Chief of Staff of the Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific]. He said, “You got another one of those damn things?” I said, “Yes sir.”
He said, “Where is it?” I said, “Over in Utah.” He said, “Get it out here. You and your crew are going to fly it.” I said, “Yes sir.” I sent word back and the crew loaded it on an airplane and we headed back, to bring it right on out to Tinian and when they got it to California debarkation point, the war was over.
Studs Terkel: What did General LeMay have in mind with the third one?
Paul Tibbets: Nobody knows.
Studs Terkel: One big question. Since September 11, what are your thoughts? People talk about nukes, the hydrogen bomb.
Paul Tibbets: Let’s put it this way. I don’t know any more about these terrorists than you do; I know nothing. When they bombed the Trade Center, I couldn’t believe what was going on. We’ve fought many enemies at different times. But we knew who they were and where they were.
These people, we don’t know who they are or where they are. That’s the point that bothers me. Because they’re gonna strike again, I’ll put money on it. And it’s going to be damned dramatic. But they’re gonna do it in their own sweet time.
We’ve got to get into a position where we can kill the bastards. None of this business of taking them to court, the hell with that. I wouldn’t waste five seconds on them.
Studs Terkel: What about the bomb? Einstein said the world has changed since the atom was split.
Paul Tibbets: That’s right. It has changed.
Studs Terkel: And Oppenheimer knew that.
Paul Tibbets: Oppenheimer is dead. He did something for the world and people don’t understand. And it is a free world.
Studs Terkel: One last thing, when you hear people say, “Let’s nuke ’em,” “Let’s nuke these people,” what do you think?
Paul Tibbets: Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe ’em out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people.
If the newspapers would just cut out the s**t: “You’ve killed so many civilians.” That’s their tough luck for being there.
Studs Terkel: By the way, I forgot to say Enola Gay was originally called number 82. How did your mother feel about having her name on it?
Paul Tibbets: Well, I can only tell you what my dad said.
My mother never changed her expression very much about anything, whether it was serious or light, but when she’d get tickled, her stomach would jiggle.
My dad said to me that, when the telephone in Miami rang, my mother was quiet first.
Then, when it was announced on the radio, he said: “You should have seen the old gal’s belly jiggle on that one.”
Paul Tibbets was born in 1915 so the interview was conducted some time in 2002.”
Subject: A U-2 Spy Plane Fiasco – Or In Military Parlance “F U B A R”
This story brought back memories. At the time no one knew what was going on, however; we knew ‘something was up’. I remember being handed a white envelope and being instructed not to open it until we were airborne.
All my instructions were contained in the envelope. We were also called to attend an Officers meeting in the Officers mess. I remember discussing the Base Security. At CGAS San Diego we had a Gate House with a Sentry. At the time our Sentry was an older gent, Seaman Apprentice, with service stripes up his entire arm.
The question of arming the sentry was raised. We all agreed that that would be a good idea, so he was issued a standard 1911 service pistol. Next question: should we give him ammunition. All the senior officers in unison yelled, “No Way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I accused them of worrying that they may be his first targets.
This story is the first time that I’m aware of what was going on during that time These were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis a year after the Bay of Pigs fiasco-
Long but absolutely fascinating! Don’t Miss It This is the
Lost in Enemy Airspace
It became known around the Kennedy White House as “Black Saturday”: the closest the world has ever come to nuclear annihilation. On October 27, 1962, at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, with Strategic Air Command at defcon 2 and Soviet nuclear weapons in ﬁring position 15 miles from Guantánamo Bay, an American U-2 spy plane blundered deep into Russian airspace.
In an excerpt from his new book, Michael Dobbs mines newly uncovered government documents, as well as the unpublished journals of the plane’s 36-year-old pilot, to reveal for the first time the full story of that 10-hour, white-knuckle flight.
· MICHAEL DOBBS
Excerpted fromOne Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War,by Michael Dobbs, to be published this month by Knopf; © 2008 by the author.
Image removed by sender.
Returning from his midday swim, Kennedy passed by the Oval Office before heading up to the residence for lunch. The phone rang at 1:45 p.m. It was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the news he reported could hardly have been worse: an American U-2 spy plane had gone missing off Alaska and may have strayed into Soviet territory.
This was more than just an unfortunate incident: the intrusion into Soviet airspace by an American military plane at the height of a nuclear showdown between the two superpowers was a dangerously provocative act.
October 27 was the day that would come to be known around the White House as “Black Saturday.” Five days had gone by since Kennedy’s televised address to the nation revealing the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, and events were spinning out of control.
Earlier that day the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, had upped the ante in the diplomatic negotiations by demanding the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey.
An American U-2 spy plane had been shot down over eastern Cuba. The island had been sealed off by an American blockade, and U.S. warships were challenging nuclear-armed Soviet submarines in the Caribbean.
A few minutes after McNamara’s call Roger Hilsman, the chief of intelligence at the State Department, came running up the stairs from the basement office of McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national-security adviser.
Hilsman had just learned that the Soviets had scrambled MiG fighters to intercept the missing U-2, and that the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was scrambling American fighters in response.
After two days without sleep, Hilsman was exhausted, but he fully understood the significance of what was happening. The Soviets might well perceive the U-2 incursion as a harbinger of an American nuclear attack.
Hilsman expected a furious outburst from the president, or at least some sign of the panic he himself was beginning to feel. Instead, Kennedy responded with a short, bitter laugh.
“There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
J.F.K.’s calm exterior belied a deep frustration. His experiences in World War II, as the skipper of a P.T. boat in the South Pacific, had taught him an abiding lesson about modern warfare: a commander in chief, however well informed, however powerful, cannot possibly exercise complete control over the battlefront.
Mistakes were an inevitable consequence of warfare, but in previous wars they had been easier to rectify. The paradox of the nuclear age was that American power was greater than ever before—but it could all be jeopardized by a single, fatal miscalculation.
The historian turned Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. would later describe Black Saturday as “the most dangerous moment in human history.” The Strategic Air Command had increased its readiness level to defcon 2—one step short of nuclear war—and nearly 3,000 American nuclear warheads were targeted on the Soviet Union.
Fidel Castro had gone to the Soviet Embassy in Havana to urge Khrushchev to consider using nuclear weapons to “liquidate” the imperialist enemy once and for all.
Unbeknownst to Kennedy, the Soviets had dispatched nuclear warheads to two missile sites in Cuba, ready to destroy American cities.
And at dawn on Saturday morning, also unknown to Washington and reported here for the first time, Soviet troops had moved nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to a “firing position” 15 miles from the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
While it has long been known that an American U-2 blundered over the Soviet Union at the height of the crisis, the full story of this mission has never been told before. The U.S. government’s investigation into the incident remains secret.
The story is reconstructed here from a handful of newly uncovered official documents, from interviews with U-2 pilots and SAC command staff, and from the unpublished journals of the 36-year-old air-force captain who could have inadvertently triggered a nuclear war.
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska Saturday, October 27, 1962; 4 a.m. E.D.T. (12 a.m. Alaska)
Charles W. Maultsby fervently wished he were somewhere else. He could have been racking up combat experience over Cuba like many of his fellow U-2 pilots.
Or the brass might have sent him somewhere warm, like Australia or Hawaii, where the 4080th Strategic Wing also had operating locations. Instead, he was spending the winter in Alaska, where it was bitterly cold and you rarely saw the sun.
He had tried to get some rest before his long flight to the North Pole, but had managed only a couple of hours’ fitful sleep. Pilots had been entering and leaving the officers’ quarters all evening in their heavy snow boots, laughing and slamming doors.
The more he tried to sleep, the more awake he felt. In the end, he gave up and went down to the operations building, where there was a vacant cot. He set his alarm for eight p.m. on Friday night Alaska time, four hours before takeoff.
The mission was to collect radioactive samples from the Soviet nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya. Compared with flying a U-2 over hostile territory and taking photographs of missile sites, the assignment lacked glamour.
The participants in Project Star Dust did not usually fly anywhere near the Soviet Union. Instead, they flew to some fixed point, such as the North Pole, to inspect the clouds that had drifted there from the nuclear-testing site, more than a thousand miles away.
They collected the samples on special filter paper. Often there was nothing, but sometimes, when the Soviets had conducted a big test, the Geiger counters clicked away furiously.
Maultsby was used to the routine. As the pilot of a single-seater U-2, he would be on his own for nearly eight hours. He had plotted the route ahead of time with navigators.
For most of the way, he would take bearings from the stars, with the help of a compass and sextant. A search-and-rescue team, known as Duck Butt, would tag along for part of the trip, but there was little they could do if something went wrong.
It was impossible for them to land on an ice cap. If Maultsby had to bail out, he would be alone with the polar bears. “I wouldn’t pull the rip cord” was the advice he got.
The pre-flight ritual was always the same. After waking up from his nap, he went to the officers’ mess for a high-protein breakfast of steak and eggs.
The idea was to eat something solid that would take a long time to digest, thereby avoiding trips to a nonexistent bathroom. He changed into long underwear, put on a helmet, and started his “breathing exercises,” inhaling pure oxygen for an hour and a half. It was important to expel as much nitrogen as possible from his system.
If the cabin depressurized at 70,000 feet, nitrogen bubbles would form in his blood, causing him to experience the bends, like a deep-sea diver who comes to the surface too quickly.
Maultsby climbed into his flight suit. It was designed to expand automatically in response to a sudden loss of cabin pressure, forming a corset around the pilot and preventing his blood from exploding in the rarefied air.
A half-hour before takeoff, Maultsby was attached to a portable oxygen canister and transported to the U-2 in a van. He settled into the cockpit and strapped himself in.
A technician hooked him up to the internal oxygen supply. The canopy closed above him. Neatly sewn into the seat cushion was a survival kit, which included flares, a machete, fishing gear, a camp stove, an inflatable life raft, mosquito repellent, and a silk banner proclaiming, in a dozen languages, I am an American.
Maultsby’s compact build—he was only five feet seven—was a plus for a U-2 pilot. The cockpit was exceptionally cramped. To build a plane capable of soaring to a height of 14 miles, the designer, Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” project, had ruthlessly cut back on both the weight and size of its fuselage.
He dispensed with many of the features of a modern airplane, such as conventional landing gear, hydraulic systems, and structural supports. The wings and tail were bolted onto the fuselage rather than being attached with metal sheets. If the plane was subjected to too much buffeting, the wings would fall off.
There were many other unique design features. To gain lift at high altitude, the plane needed long, narrow wings. Maultsby’s U-2 was 80 feet wide, wingtip to wingtip—nearly twice the distance from nose to tail. The sailplane-style wings and light airframe would allow the plane to glide for up to 250 miles if its single engine ever lost power.
Flying this extraordinary airplane required an elite corps of pilots. Training was carried out at “the ranch,” a remote airstrip in the Nevada desert. Also known as “Area 51,” the ranch was already becoming notorious as the site of numerous alleged U.F.O. sightings. Most likely, what people were seeing were U-2 spy planes, glinting in the sun.
At midnight Alaska time—four a.m. eastern daylight time—Maultsby roared down the runway. He was an hour out of Eielson when he flew over the last radio beacon on his way to the North Pole.
It was on Barter Island, on the northern coast of Alaska. The Duck Butt navigators wished him luck and said they would “keep a light on in the window” to guide him back on his return, six hours later.
Aurora Borealis 6 a.m. E.D.T. (2 a.m. Alaska)
After 11 years in the air force, Chuck Maultsby was known to be an outstanding pilot. He had served two years with the Thunderbirds, the air-force aerobatic team, maneuvering his F-100 Super Sabre through a series of spectacular loops, rolls, and corkscrews.
Prior to that, he had survived 600 days as a Chinese prisoner of war after being shot down in combat over North Korea. With his trim mustache, darkly handsome face, and amused eyes, he looked like a shorter version of the British actor David Niven.
After Barter Island, Maultsby would be relying solely on the age-old techniques of celestial navigation—the methods used by Magellan and Columbus—to keep himself oriented.
Prior to his departure, navigators had prepared a stack of celestial charts for various points along his route. Maultsby kept them by his seat. When the clock indicated that he should be halfway to the North Pole, he pulled out the stiff green card that showed his assumed position and the precise alignment of the stars for this particular time of night.
If he was on track, the soft orange light of Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, should have been visible to the right of the plane’s nose. Another bright star, Vega, would be located slightly higher in the sky, toward the northwest.
The North Star, Polaris, would be almost directly overhead, indicating that he was getting close to the North Pole. The constellation Orion, the Hunter, would be behind him, toward the south.
He tried to shoot several of the brighter stars with his sextant, but “streaks of light dancing through the sky” made it difficult. The farther north he got, “the more intense” the lights became. He had run into the phenomenon known as the aurora borealis.
In other circumstances, he might have enjoyed the spectacle, which was unlike anything he had ever seen. The dark night sky outside the cockpit was alive with flashes of orange and violet and crimson, twirling and twisting like streamers in the wind.
Dazzled by the aurora, Maultsby found it hard to distinguish one star from another. His compass was no help. In the vicinity of the North Pole, the needle would be jerked automatically downward, toward the earth’s surface, and north and south became impossibly confused.
Unable to obtain a proper fix on the stars, he had only a vague idea where he was located or where he was headed. The last few fixes before reaching what he thought was the North Pole seemed “highly suspect” to him, but he stubbornly held his course.
Flying a temperamental plane like a U-2 was difficult enough at the best of times. There were so many variables to consider and calculations to make. Designed to soar to extraordinary heights, the U-2 was one of the flimsiest planes ever built.
He was flying at an altitude known to U-2 pilots as “coffin corner,” where the air was so thin that it could barely support the weight of the plane, and the difference between maximum and minimum permissible speeds was a mere six knots.
If he flew too fast, the aircraft would fall apart. If he flew too slow, the plane would stall, and he would nose-dive. He could not allow his eyes to stray too long from the airspeed indicator in front of him.
As he flew north, Maultsby activated a giant filter-paper mechanism to scoop up radioactive dust. He also collected air samples in bottles that would be sent away to a laboratory.
After reaching what he thought was the North Pole, Maultsby decided to execute a 90-270-degree turn, the standard procedure for reversing course.
As he explained in his journals: “Turn left for 90 degrees, and then immediately reverse the turn for 270 degrees until you are heading back along your same track, only in the opposite direction.”
A sea of pack ice and snow stretched out below. It felt strange and disorienting to be flying over terrain that was pitch-dark from horizon to horizon, even as the sky was ablaze with dancing lights.
According to the flight plan, Maultsby should now be on his way back to Alaska. But he was growing increasingly uncomfortable. Stars kept popping up in unexpected places.
Had he strayed off course? Maultsby began to entertain the possibility that something had gone terribly wrong.
The Chukotka Peninsula 11:59 a.m. E.D.T. (7:59 a.m. Alaska)
Had Maultsby kept to his assigned flight track, he should now have been landing at Eielson Air Force Base after a seven-hour-fifty-minute round-trip. Instead he was apparently somewhere else.
The northern lights had disappeared, but the stars had changed positions, and he had no idea where he was.
An hour before the scheduled landing at Eielson, Maultsby was supposed to rendezvous with the Duck Butt planes circling above Barter Island. But there had been no sign of them at the appointed time.
He was unable either to reach Duck Butt or to pick up the radio beacon on Barter, though both should have been within range. He began broadcasting uncoded messages hoping someone would steer him in the right direction.
Perhaps he had never reached the North Pole at all. Dazzled by the aurora borealis, he may have based his fixes on “wishful hoping” rather than accurate sightings of stars.
Suddenly, Duck Butt came on the line, over sideband radio. The pilot said he would fire flares every five minutes, starting immediately. Maultsby strained his eyes, but he could see nothing. Duck Butt fired more. Still nothing.
Duck Butt asked Maultsby to identify a star. On the horizon ahead was the familiar shape of Orion. It was easily recognizable by the three bright stars in the middle that made up Orion’s belt.
A little higher up in the sky, on Orion’s right shoulder, was the large red star Betelgeuse. Farther down, on the constellation’s left foot, lay Rigel, one of the brightest stars in the sky.
“I can see Orion about 15 degrees left of the nose of the aircraft,” Maultsby radioed back.
There was a pause as navigators aboard Duck Butt and at Eielson consulted almanacs and star charts. After some hurried calculations, the Duck Butt navigator called back with an order to steer 10 degrees left.
Shortly after receiving this instruction, Maultsby got another call over his sideband radio. This time the voice was unfamiliar.
Whoever it was—and the presumption must be that the Russians were trying to lure him in—used his correct call sign and told him instead to steer 30 degrees right.
Within the space of a few minutes, Maultsby had received calls from two different radios, ordering him to turn in opposite directions.
Maultsby did not know it yet, but at 7:59 a.m. Alaska time he had crossed the border of the Soviet Union.
He was now flying above one of the most desolate places on earth—the northern shore of the Chukotka Peninsula. Maultsby was more than a thousand miles off course.
As he crossed into Soviet airspace, at least six Soviet interceptor jets took off from two different airfields in Chukotka. Their mission was to shoot the intruder down.
Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska 12:30 p.m. E.D.T. (8:30 a.m. Alaska)
General Thomas Power, the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, was on the golf course when he received the news that a U-2 pilot on an air-sampling mission to the North Pole was dangerously off course.
Tracking data intercepted from Soviet air defenses indicated that the spy plane was over Soviet territory, and that Soviet MiGs had been scrambled. Power rushed back to his office at Offutt Air Force Base, passing a large billboard emblazoned with the words peace is our profession.
Despite the deepening crisis over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, nobody at sac headquarters had stopped to consider whether the air-sampling missions up north ought to be put on hold. Now one of Power’s subordinates called the commander of the 4080th Strategic Wing,
Maultsby’s unit, to find out “what the hell you are doing with a U-2 over Russia.” The man he reached, Colonel John Des Portes, was unaware of what had happened to Maultsby.
He had his hands full with another crisis: 71 minutes earlier, a U-2 piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson had been shot down over eastern Cuba while on a reconnaissance mission.
The loss of a U-2 over the Soviet Union would be even more disturbing than the loss of a plane over Cuba. The Kremlin was likely to interpret the penetration of Soviet airspace as a provocative and even bellicose act.
Power found SAC intelligence officers plotting Maultsby’s flight path on a giant screen, along with the tracks of the Soviet MiGs.
The Americans were in effect looking over the shoulders of Soviet military flight controllers as they followed the U-2 over Chukotka. The security-conscious Soviets were unable to use a very strong encryption system for their air-defense radar net, because the information had to be made available in real time to tracking stations all over the country.
The data from the Soviet high-frequency radio transmissions skipped off the ionosphere and was then picked up by American listening posts thousands of miles away.
Power was in a quandary. The ability to “read the mail” of the Soviet air defenses was a jealously guarded national secret. If SAC commanders openly alerted Maultsby to the magnitude of his navigational blunder, they risked tipping off the Soviets to America’s possession of a prized intelligence tool.
They had to find a way to steer Maultsby back to Alaska without revealing how they could pinpoint his precise location. For the moment, SAC kept the details of what it knew to itself.
But others were coming to the same conclusion by other means. Lieutenant Fred Okimoto was the navigator who had plotted Maultsby’s intended flight to the North Pole.
After sending Maultsby on his way at midnight, Alaska time, he had retired to bed in the officers’ quarters at Eielson. He was awakened several hours later by the operations commander, Lieutenant Colonel Forrest Wilson, with the news that the U-2 had disappeared.
The two men walked through the pre-dawn darkness to the U-2 hangar. Okimoto went over all his calculations again, checking for mistakes. Everything seemed in order.
There were occasional squawks from the sideband radio channel that Duck Butt was using to contact Maultsby. Navigational charts and almanacs were spread out all over the office.
The fact that the U-2 pilot reported seeing the belt of Orion off the nose of his plane suggested that he was flying south.
Looking out the window, Okimoto noticed a faint red glow on the eastern horizon. The sun was beginning to rise in central Alaska. He got on the radio and asked Maultsby if he could see the sun coming up.
“Negative,” came the reply.
The inescapable conclusion was that Maultsby had to be hundreds of miles west of Alaska, which meant over Soviet territory. The solution was to get him to swing around to the left, until Orion was off the tip of his right wing. Then he would be heading home.
Maultsby was still getting strange calls over his sideband radio. This time, the unfamiliar voice told him to turn right 35 degrees, a course that would have taken him deeper into the Soviet Union. Maultsby challenged him, using a code that “only a legit operator would know.” There was no response.
The transmissions from Alaska were getting weaker by the minute. The last instruction Maultsby was able to hear was “Turn left, 15 degrees.”
Maultsby knew he did not have much fuel left—in all likelihood not enough to get back to Alaska. He would probably have to attempt an emergency landing.
The transmissions from the unknown source were still strong, but he ignored them. Instead he selected the emergency channel and began calling, “mayday! mayday! mayday!”
Moments later he picked up the signal from an ordinary local radio station on the ground; it originated somewhere in front of him, off the nose of the aircraft.
The station was playing music, and the strains of Russian balalaikas were unmistakable. For the first time, Maultsby understood where he was. He turned left until the signal was directly behind him and Orion was off his right wingtip.
At last he was heading in the right direction, but as records would later show he was at this moment 300 miles inside Russian territory.
Pevek Airfield, U.S.S.R. 12:44 p.m. E.D.T. (8:44 a.m. Alaska)
The industrial town of Pevek, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, is one of the most northerly and isolated outposts in Russia. In winter, temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero. To the Soviets, the region was of interest mainly for its rich deposits of tin and gold, as a winter refuge for the ships that patrolled the Arctic Ocean, and as a remote military station.
A squadron of MiGs was stationed at an airfield by the edge of the sea.
When military radar spotted the intruder aircraft heading toward the Chukotka Peninsula, the MiGs were ordered aloft.
They flew upward in sudden bursts of speed, but the intruder remained tantalizingly out of reach. Using their supersonic speed, the Soviet pilots could ascend to 60,000 feet in a matter of minutes, but they could climb no higher.
That still left them 10,000 feet below the U-2. The interceptor jets kept up with the intruder for 300 miles and then turned off in a westerly direction in search of fuel.
Another group of MiGs took off from the airfield at Anadyr, on the Bering Sea. They flew north to take over the chase from the Pevek-based interceptors, and followed Maultsby as he turned toward Alaska.
The interception attempts were being tracked 3,500 miles away, in the operations center of the Strategic Air Command. By monitoring the Soviet air-defense radar net, SAC intelligence officers could follow the MiGs in the same way that they had followed Maultsby’s U-2 once it entered Soviet airspace.
They plotted the movements of the MiGs with little tick marks on an illuminated screen. As the MiGs turned eastward, SAC asked the Alaskan Air Command to scramble a pair of F-102 fighter-interceptors to provide protection.
Earlier in the week, after the Pentagon went to a state of heightened alert, technicians had removed the conventional weapons from the F-102s stationed at Galena Air Force Station, in western Alaska, and loaded nuclear missiles onto the interceptors.
This was standard procedure when the squadron moved to the condition of heightened alert. Armed with a nuclear-tipped Falcon air-to-air missile, a lone F-102 could wipe out an entire fleet of incoming Soviet bombers.
In theory, nuclear weapons were to be used only on the authority of the president. In practice, an F-102 pilot had the physical ability to fire a missile by pushing a few buttons on his control panel. Because he was alone in the cockpit, no one could override such a decision.
One of the interceptor pilots was Lieutenant Leon Schmutz, a 26-year-old pilot only recently out of flight school. As he climbed into the skies to search for the U-2, he wondered what he would do if he ran into Soviet MiGs.
His only means of defense was a nuclear warhead. To use such a weapon was virtually unthinkable. But to fail to respond to an attack by a Soviet fighter went against a pilot’s basic instincts.
Above the Bering Strait 1:28 p.m. E.D.T. (9:28 a.m. Alaska)
Maultsby took a quick mental inventory of his situation. The main plus was that he could no longer hear the Russian radio station. The principal minus was that his plane carried only enough fuel for nine hours and forty minutes of flight. He had been airborne for nine hours and twenty-eight minutes. He had 12 minutes of fuel remaining.
To have any hope of making it back to Alaska, Maultsby knew he would have to make full use of his plane’s extraordinary gliding capabilities.
He needed to save some fuel for an emergency, and also wanted to conserve battery power. He made a final call in the clear to announce that he was going off the air. “A sense of despair set in” as he reached out to the control panel in front of him and shut down the single Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine. The U-2 settled into a gentle glide.
By switching off the engine, Maultsby also disabled the cockpit pressurization-and-heating system. The capstans in his flight suit inflated with a whoosh to compensate for the loss of cabin pressure, preventing his blood vessels from bursting. He looked like the Michelin Man.
The Pentagon 1:41 p.m. E.D.T. (9:41 a.m. Alaska)
Robert McNamara was tired. The past two weeks had been an ordeal. He slept on a cot in the dressing room of his Pentagon office, and had managed to get home for dinner only once, on Friday evening.
He rose by 6:30 a.m. and worked as late as 11 p.m. or midnight. His sleep was often interrupted by calls from the president and his senior advisers.
He was losing some of his trademark sharpness and no longer dominated White House strategy meetings with his crisp analyses and multi-point options.
The defense secretary was jerked back to the here and now by an urgent message handed to him by General Curtis LeMay, the chief of staff of the air force, with whom Kennedy clashed repeatedly throughout the Cuban missile crisis. McNamara looked at the message.
“A U-2 has been lost off Alaska.”
The secretary of defense was furious: it had taken SAC commanders an hour and a half to report the loss of the plane to civilian authority—to him—despite strong evidence that Maultsby had strayed over the Soviet Union.
The initial reports were fragmentary. According to a declassified White House memo, the initial Pentagon report was that the pilot “got off course” after developing “gyro trouble,” and was picked up by a “high frequency direction finder” off Wrangel Island.
“Then seems to have overflown, or came close to, Soviet territory. Not clear at this time exactly what cause was. Russian fighters scrambled—ours too.” By now, the reports concluded, the U-2 had almost certainly run out of fuel.
McNamara left the room to call the president.
Not long afterward he learned to his consternation that, despite all that was happening in the Soviet skies, another U-2 had been allowed to take off on an air-sampling mission to the North Pole, on the same route followed by Maultsby.
What were these generals thinking? He ordered the U-2’s immediate recall, and soon halted all U-2 flights until the air force provided a full report on Maultsby’s overflight.
Kotzebue Sound, Alaska 2:25 p.m. E.D.T. (10:25 a.m. Alaska)
Worried about shutting down his engine, Maultsby had neglected to pull the cord that prevented his helmet from rising after the pressure suit inflated. The lower part of the helmet was now blocking his vision, and he was having difficulty seeing the instrument panel directly in front of him. He struggled with the helmet until he finally got it back in place.
Then the windshield fogged up. Soon condensation appeared on the faceplate of his helmet. He pushed the faceplate as close to his mouth as he could. By sticking his tongue out, he was able to lick away enough of the condensation to see his instruments.
The altimeter continued to show an altitude of 70,000 feet. Maultsby assumed that the needle had gotten stuck, but eventually realized that the aircraft was in fact still flying at that altitude, even without power. It took at least 10 minutes for the U-2 to start its slow descent.
Maultsby told himself that all that remained for him to do was “keep the wings level, maintain a rate of descent for maximum range, and hope my guardian angel wasn’t taking a nap.”
The throbbing noise of the engine had given way to an otherworldly silence. The only sound that Maultsby was able to hear was his own labored breathing.
His most pressing physical need after so long in the air was to relieve himself. Under normal conditions in a U-2, this involved laboriously unzipping his pressure suit, peeling away several layers of undergarments, and aiming into a bottle.
A maneuver that was complicated at the best of times became virtually impossible when the pressure suit was inflated, almost filling the cockpit.
A faint glow appeared on the horizon off the nose of Maultsby’s plane. His spirits rose for the first time in hours. He now knew for certain he was heading east. He decided to hold this heading until he had descended to 20,000 feet.
If there were no clouds, he would go down to 15,000 feet and look around. If there were clouds, he would try to maintain his altitude as long as possible. He did not want to crash into a mountain.
At 25,000 feet, his pressure suit started deflating. There were no clouds and no mountains in sight. By now, there was just enough light to permit Maultsby to see the ground.
Two F-102s with distinctive red paint on their tails and fuselage suddenly appeared on either wingtip. Maultsby had just enough battery power left to contact them on the emergency frequency. An American voice crackled through the ether.
The nearest airfield was a primitive ice strip at a place called Kotzebue Sound, a military radar station just above the Arctic Circle. It was about 20 miles away. The F-102 pilots suggested that Maultsby try to land there.
Maultsby made an initial pass over Kotzebue airstrip at a height of 1,000 feet. It was on a snow-covered peninsula jutting into the sea. A truck marked the beginning of the runway.
Beyond the airstrip were a few Eskimo shacks and a military radar installation. There was barely any crosswind. This was a relief, as even small gusts could blow his delicate plane off course.
He lowered his wing flaps. Everything looked good, except that he was approaching the runway with more airspeed than he wanted.
As he passed 15 feet over the truck, he deployed a parachute out of the back of the plane and kicked the rudder back and forth to slow down. The U-2 “did not seem to want to stop flying, even without an engine.” It finally did the required belly flop onto the runway, skidded along the ice, and came to rest in the deep snow.
Maultsby sat trance-like in his seat, unable to think or move. He was startled by a knock on the canopy. He looked up to see “a bearded giant” wearing a government-issue parka.
He tried to climb out of the cockpit, but his legs were numb. Seeing that he was in difficulty, the man in the parka “put his hands under my armpits and gently lifted me out of the cockpit and placed me on the snow as if I had been a rag doll.”
Radar-station personnel and half a dozen Eskimos gathered round. The two F-102s bid farewell by buzzing the airfield and rocking their wings, then flew off in an easterly direction.
Exactly how Maultsby came to overfly the Soviet Union, and the precise route he took on his way to and from the North Pole, would remain mysterious for many decades.
Although the U.S. government admitted to a “serious navigational error” by the pilot that took him over Soviet territory, it did its best to hush up the incident.
Among the official documents that have now surfaced are two charts showing Maultsby’s route over the Soviet Union. The charts turned up in unexpected places, suggesting that they may have been declassified inadvertently.
The Cuban missile crisis is an endlessly mysterious episode whose secrets will likely emerge for some time to come.
Another previously undisclosed chapter was the Soviet plan to destroy the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Late on Friday night, a Soviet missile unit was ordered to the village of Filipinas, 15 miles from the American base.
A series of foul-ups ensued—including a shoot-out between Soviet and Cuban troops over a jumbled password. While Maultsby was lost over the Chukotka Peninsula, Soviet troops were targeting their missiles on the U.S. naval base, waiting for an order from Moscow that fortunately never came.
The Maultsby incident had one salutary result: it reminded both superpower leaders of the growing risk of an accidental nuclear war. The following day, October 28, Khrushchev announced that he would withdraw his missiles from Cuba.
But in a private message to Kennedy he expressed alarm at the American overflight: “One of your planes violates our frontier during this anxious time we are both experiencing when everything has been put into combat readiness.
Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step?”
Khrushchev’s climbdown averted the threat of nuclear exchange. In return for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, Kennedy agreed not to invade the island, a promise that helped to ensure Fidel Castro’s grip on power down to our own time.
For his part, Maultsby was prohibited by the U.S. Air Force from ever again flying anywhere north of southern Alaska.
In 1998, at age 72, he succumbed to prostate cancer, a disease that some U-2 pilots link to spending a good portion of their professional careers flying into radioactive clouds.
Maultsby died in relative obscurity, celebrated mainly within the air force simply as the pilot who set the record—with this mission—for the longest-ever flight in a U-2, at 10 hours 25 minutes.
According to his written reminiscences, Maultsby went to his death angry at the air force for failing to “give me a steer” as soon as it found out that he was off course.
His bosses never told him how they knew that he had penetrated Soviet territory: the fact that the National Security Agency was able to intercept the communications of Soviet air defenses remained a closely guarded intelligence secret for many decades.
The former U-2 pilot was also upset with the president for referring to him as the “son of a bitch” who never got “the word.”
He blamed his navigation error on the aurora borealis. “I wish that S.O.B. was sitting in my lap during that whole ordeal,” Maultsby grumbled to his wife, Jeanne. “It wasn’t a stupid mistake on my part. It was an act of nature.”
Nearly half a century later, the U.S. government has yet to provide a full explanation for Maultsby’s overflight of the Soviet Union. Robert McNamara demanded “a complete and detailed report” on what went wrong, but the report has never been made public.
The official air-force history of Maultsby’s unit describes his flight as “100 percent successful.”
Buy; ‘One Minute to Midnight’: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Dobbs, at Amazon.com
I like this story, posted it before and now re-posted it, with a few details at the end.
This 1967 true story is of an experience by a young 12 year old lad in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. It is about the vivid memory of a privately rebuilt P-51 from WWII, and its famous owner/pilot.
They said it had flown in during the night from some U.S. Airport, on its
way to an air show. The pilot had been tired, so he just happened to
choose Kingston for his stop over. It was to take to the air very
soon. I marveled at the size of the plane, dwarfing the Pipers and
Canuck’s tied down by her. It was much larger than in the movies. She
glistened in the sun like a bulwark of security from days gone by.The pilot arrived by cab, paid the driver, and then stepped into the pilot’s
lounge. He was an older man; his wavy hair was gray and tossed. It
looked like it might have been combed, say, around the turn of the
century. His flight jacket was checked, creased and worn – it
smelled old and genuine. Old Glory was prominently sewn to its
shoulders. He projected a quiet air of proficiency and pride devoid
of arrogance. He filed a quick flight plan to Montreal (“Expo-67 Air
Show”) then walked across the tarmac.
After taking several minutes to perform his walk-around check, the tall, lanky man returned to
the flight lounge to ask if anyone would be available to stand by
with fire extinguishers while he “flashed the old bird up, just to be
safe.” Though only 12 at the time I was allowed to stand by with an
extinguisher after brief instruction on its use — “If you see a fire,
point, then pull this lever!”, he said. (I later became a
firefighter, but that’s another story.)
The air around the exhaust
manifolds shimmered like a mirror from fuel fumes as the huge prop
started to rotate. One manifold, then another, and yet another
barked — I stepped back with the others. In moments the Packard
-built Merlin engine came to life with a thunderous roar. Blue flames
knifed from her manifolds with an arrogant snarl. I looked at the
others’ faces; there was no concern. I lowered the bell of my
extinguisher. One of the guys signaled to walk back to the lounge.
Several minutes later we could hear the pilot doing his pre-flight run-up. He’d taxied to
the end of runway 19, out of sight. All went quiet for several seconds. We
ran to the second story deck to see if we could catch a glimpse of the
P-51 as she started down the runway. We could not. There we stood,
eyes fixed to a spot half way down 19. Then a roar ripped across the
field, much louder than before. Like a furious hell spawn set loose —
something mighty this way was coming. “Listen to that thing!” said the
In seconds the Mustang burst into our line of sight. It’s tail was already off the runway
and it was moving faster than anything I’d ever seen by that point on
19. Two-thirds the way down 19 the Mustang was airborne with her
gear going up. The prop tips were supersonic. We clasped our ears as
the Mustang climbed hellishly fast into the circuit to be eaten up by the
dog-day haze. We stood for a few moments, in stunned silence, trying to
digest what we’d just seen.
The radio controller rushed by me to the radio. “Kingston tower calling Mustang?” He looked back to us as he waited for an acknowledgment. The radio crackled, “Go ahead, Kingston.”
“Roger, Mustang. Kingston tower would like to advise the circuit is clear
for a low level pass.” I stood in shock because the controller had
just, more or less, asked the pilot to return for an impromptu air
show! The controller looked at us. “Well, What?” He asked. “I
can’t let that guy go without asking. I couldn’t forgive myself!”
The radio crackled once again,
“Kingston, do I have permission for a low level pass, east to west, across
the field?” “Roger, Mustang, the circuit is clear for an east to west
pass.” “Roger, Kingston, I’m coming out of 3,000 feet, stand by.”
was subtle at first, a high-pitched whine, a muffled screech, a distant
scream. Moments later the P-51 burst through the haze. Her airframe
straining against positive G’s and gravity. Her wing tips spilling
contrails of condensed air, prop-tips again supersonic. The burnished bird
blasted across the eastern margin of the field shredding and tearing the
air. At about 500 mph and 150 yards from where we stood she passed with
the old American pilot saluting. Imagine. A salute! I felt like laughing;
I felt like crying; she glistened; she screamed; the building shook; my
heart pounded. Then the old pilot pulled her up and rolled, and
rolled, and rolled out of sight into the broken clouds and indelible into
I’ve never wanted to be an American more than on that day! It was a time when many nations
in the world looked to America as their big brother. A steady and
even-handed beacon of security who navigated difficult political water
with grace and style; not unlike the old American pilot who’d just flown
into my memory. He was proud, not arrogant, humble, not a braggart,
old and honest, projecting an aura of America at its best.
That America will return one day! I know it will! Until that time, I’ll just send off this
story. Call it a loving reciprocal salute to a Country, and especially to
that old American pilot: the late-JIMMY STEWART (1908-1997), Actor, real WWII
Hero (Commander of a US Army Air Force Bomber Wing stationed in
England), and later 1959, awarded USAF Reserves Brigadier General, (B-36, Peacemaker under SAC, B-47, and B-52) who wove a wonderfully
fantastic memory for a young Canadian boy that’s lasted a lifetime.
There are a number of great stories from WWII days. This is one. It is a great story, about a boy from Ennis, Texas , who went on to pilot Aircraft #13 off the deck of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet. In all the annals of wartime bravery, what those pilots did on April 18th,1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor ) may be one of the greatest feats ever. Picture yourself at the controls of a B-25 bomber, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, running up your engines prior to takeoff – a takeoff that had never before been accomplished from the deck of a carrier with a bomber, knowing you were on a one way flight and would not be returning – If they were not shot down as they bombed Japan, they would then be in God’s hands. They would have to find obscure airfields in China (assuming they were not under Japanese control), or Russia or crash land or they would have to jump.
This is one of these stories – this one, the boy from Ennis lived to fly again to pilot C-47’s over the Burma Hump and later would return to the sky’s over Japan to bomb them again as a pilot of a B-29. But, I am getting ahead of the story.
Read and enjoy.
Aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid
—-My name is Edgar McElroy. My friends call me “Mac”. I was born and raised in Ennis , Texas, the youngest of five children, son of Harry and Jennie McElroy. Folks say that I was the quiet one. We lived at 609 North Dallas Street and attended the Presbyterian Church.
My dad had an auto mechanic’s shop downtown close to the main fire station. My family was a hard working bunch, and I was expected to work at dad’s garage after school and on Saturdays, so I grew up in an atmosphere of machinery, oil and grease. Occasionally I would hear a lone plane fly over, and would run out in the street and strain my eyes against the sun to watch it. Someday, that would be me up there!
I really like cars, and I was always busy on some project, and it wasn’t long before I decided to build my very own Model-T out of spare parts. I got an engine from over here, a frame from over there, and wheels from someplace else, using only the good parts from old cars that were otherwise shot. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was all mine I enjoyed driving on the dirt roads around town and the feeling of freedom and speed. That car of mine could really go fast, 40 miles per hour!
In high school I played football and tennis, and was good enough at football to receive an athletic scholarship from Trinity University in Waxahachie. I have to admit that sometimes I daydreamed in class, and often times I thought about flying my very own airplane and being up there in the clouds. That is when I even decided to take a correspondence course in aircraft engines.
Whenever I got the chance, I would take my girl on a date up to Love Field in Dallas. We would watch the airplanes and listen to those mighty piston engines roar. I just loved it and if she didn’t, well that was just too bad.
After my schooling, I operated a filling station with my brother, then drove a bus, and later had a job as a machinist in Longview, but I never lost my love of airplanes and my dream of flying. With what was going on in Europe and in Asia, I figured that our country would be drawn into war someday, so I decided to join the Army Air Corps in November of 1940. This way I could finally follow my dream.
I reported for primary training in California. The training was rigorous and frustrating at times. We trained at air-fields all over California. It was tough going, and many of the guys washed out. When I finally saw that I was going to make it, I wrote to my girl back in Longview, Texas. Her name is Agnes Gill. I asked her to come out to California for my graduation, and oh yeah, also to marry me.
I graduated on July 11, 1941. I was now a real, honest-to-goodness Army Air Corps pilot. Two days later, I married “Aggie” in Reno, Nevada. We were starting a new life together and were very happy. I received my orders to report to Pendleton, Oregon and join the 17th Bomb Group. Neither of us had traveled much before, so the drive north through the Cascade Range of the Sierra Nevada’s was interesting and beautiful.
It was an exciting time for us. My unit was the first to receive the new B-25 medium bomber. When I saw it for the first time I was in awe. It looked so huge. It was so sleek and powerful. The guys started calling it the “rocket plane”, and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I told Aggie that it was really something! Reminded me of a big old scorpion, just ready to sting! Man, I could barely wait!
We were transferred to another airfield in Washington State, where we spent a lot a time flying practice missions and attacking imaginary targets. Then, there were other assignments in Mississippi and Georgia, for more maneuvers and more practice.
We were on our way back to California on December 7th when we got word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We listened with mixed emotions to the announcements on the radio, and the next day to the declaration of war. What the President said, it just rang over and over in my head.
“With confidence in our armed forces, with the un-bounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph; So help us God.” By gosh, I felt as though he was talking straight to me! I didn’t know what would happen to us, but we all knew that we would be going somewhere now.
The first weeks of the war, we were back in Oregon flying patrols at sea looking for possible Japanese submarines. We had to be up at 0330 hours to warm up the engines of our planes. There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, and it was so cold that our engine oil congealed overnight. We placed big tarps over the engines that reached down to the ground. Inside this tent we used plumber’s blow torches to thaw out the engines. I figured that my dad would be proud of me, if he could see me inside this tent with all this machinery, oil and grease. After about an hour of this, the engines were warm enough to start.
We flew patrols over the coasts of Oregon and Washington from dawn until dusk. Once I thought I spotted a sub, and started my bomb run, even had my bomb doors open, but I pulled out of it when I realized that it was just a big whale. Lucky for me, I would have never heard the end of that!
Actually it was lucky for us that the Japanese didn’t attack the west coast, because we just didn’t have a strong enough force to beat them off. Our country was in a real fix now, and overall things looked pretty bleak to most folks. In early February, we were ordered to report to Columbus, South Carolina. Man, this Air Corps sure moves a fellow around a lot! Little did I know what was coming next!
After we got settled in Columbus, my squadron commander called us all together. He told us that an awfully hazardous mission was being planned, and then he asked for volunteers. There were some of the guys that did not step forward, but I was one of the ones that did.
My co-pilot was shocked. He said “You can’t volunteer, Mac! You’re married, and you and Aggie are expecting a baby soon. Don’t do it!” I told him that “I got into the Air Corps to do what I can, and Aggie understands how I feel. The war won’t be easy for any of us.”
We that volunteered were transferred to Eglin Field near Valparaiso, Florida, in late February. When we all got together, there were about 140 of us volunteers, and we were told that we were now part of the “Special B-25 project.”
We set about our training, but none of us knew what it was all about. We were ordered not to talk about it, not even to our wives.
In early March, we were all called in for a briefing, and gathered together in a big building there on the base. Somebody said that the fellow who was head of this thing is coming to talk to us, and in walks LCol Jimmy Doolittle. He was already an aviation legend, and there he stood right in front of us. I was truly amazed just to meet him.
Col Doolittle explained that this mission would be extremely dangerous, and that only volunteers could take part. He said that he could not tell us where we were going, but he could say that some of us would not be coming back.
There was a silent pause; you could have heard a pin drop. Then Doolittle said that anyone of us could withdraw now, and that no one would criticize us for this decision. No one backed out! From the outset, all volunteers worked from the early morning hours until well after sunset. All excess weight was stripped from the planes and extra gas tanks were added. The lower gun turret was removed, the heavy liaison radio was removed, and then the tail guns were taken out and more gas tanks were put aboard. We extended the range of that plane from 1000 miles out to 2500 miles.
Then I was assigned my crew. There was Richard Knobloch the co-pilot, Clayton Campbell the navigator, Robert Bourgeous the bombardier, Adam Williams the flight engineer and gunner, and me, Mac McElroy the pilot. Over the coming days, I came to respect them a lot. They were a swell bunch of guys, just regular All-American boys.
We got a few ideas from the training as to what type of mission that we had signed on for. A Navy pilot had joined our group to coach us at short takeoffs and also in shipboard etiquette. We began our short takeoff practice. Taking off with first a light load, then a normal load, and finally overloaded up to 31,000 lbs. The shortest possible take-off was obtained with flaps full down, stabilizer set three-fourths, tail heavy, full power against the brakes and releasing the brakes simultaneously as the engine revved up to max power. We pulled back gradually on the stick and the airplane left the ground with the tail skid about one foot from the runway. It was a very unnatural and scary way to get airborne! I could hardly believe it myself, the first time as I took off with a full gas load and dummy bombs within just 700 feet of runway in a near stall condition. We were, for all practical purposes, a slow flying gasoline bomb!
In addition to take-off practice, we refined our skills in day and night navigation, gunnery, bombing, and low level flying. We made cross country flights at tree-top level, night flights and navigational flights over the Gulf of Mexico without the use of a radio. After we started that short-field takeoff routine, we had some pretty fancy competition among the crews. I think that one crew got it down to about 300 feet on a hot day. We were told that only the best crews would actually go on the mission, and the rest would be held in reserve. One crew did stall on takeoff, slipped back to the ground, busting up their landing gear. They were eliminated from the mission. Doolittle emphasized again and again the extreme danger of this operation, and made it clear that anyone of us who so desired could drop out with no questions asked. No one did.
On one of our cross country flights, we landed at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, and I was able to catch a bus over to Longview to see Aggie. We had a few hours together, and then we had to say our goodbyes. I told her I hoped to be back in time for the baby’s birth, but I couldn’t tell her where I was going. As I walked away, I turned and walked backwards for a ways, taking one last look at my beautiful pregnant Aggie.
Within a few days of returning to our base in Florida we were abruptly told to pack our things. After just three weeks of practice, we were on our way. This was it. It was time to go. It was the middle of March 1942, and I was 30 years old. Our orders were to fly to McClelland Air Base in Sacramento, California on our own, at the lowest possible level. So here we went on our way west, scraping the tree tops at 160 miles per hour, and skimming along just 50 feet above plowed fields. We crossed North Texas and then the panhandle, scaring the dickens out of livestock, buzzing farm houses and a many a barn along the way. Over the Rocky Mountains and across the Mojave Desert dodging thunderstorms, we enjoyed the flight immensely and although tempted, I didn’t do too much dare-devil stuff. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was good practice for what lay ahead of us. It proved to be our last fling.
Once we arrived in Sacramento , the mechanics went over our plane with a fine-toothed comb. Of the twenty-two planes that made it, only those whose pilots reported no mechanical problems were allowed to go on. The others were shunted aside.
After having our plane serviced, we flew on to Alameda Naval Air Station in Oakland. As I came in for final approach, we saw it! I excitedly called the rest of the crew to take a look. There below us was a huge aircraft carrier. It was the USS Hornet, and it looked so gigantic! Man, I had never even seen a carrier until this moment. There were already two B-25s parked on the flight deck. Now we knew! My heart was racing, and I thought about how puny my plane would look on board this mighty ship.
As soon as we landed and taxied off the runway, a jeep pulled in front of me with a big “Follow Me” sign on the back. We followed it straight up to the wharf, alongside the towering Hornet. All five of us were looking up and just in awe, scarcely believing the size of this thing. As we left the plane, there was already a Navy work crew swarming around attaching cables to the lifting rings on top of the wings and the fuselage. As we walked towards our quarters, I looked back and saw them lifting my plane up into the air and swing it over the ship’s deck. It looked so small and lonely.
Later that afternoon, all crews met with Col Doolittle and he gave last minute assignments. He told me to go to the Presidio and pick up two hundred extra “C” rations. I saluted, turned, and left, not having any idea where the Presidio was, and not exactly sure what a “C” ration was. I commandeered a Navy staff car and told the driver to take me to the Presidio, and he did.
On the way over, I realized that I had no written signed orders and that this might get a little sticky. So in I walked into the Army supply depot and made my request, trying to look poised and confident. The supply officer asked, “What is your authorization for this request, sir?” I told him that I could not give him one. “And what is the destination?” he asked. I answered, “The aircraft carrier, Hornet, docked at Alameda.” He said, “Can you tell me who ordered the rations, sir?” And I replied with a smile, “No, I cannot.” The supply officers huddled together, talking and glanced back over towards me. Then he walked back over and assured me that the rations would be delivered that afternoon. Guess they figured that something big was up. They were right. The next morning we all boarded the ship.
Trying to remember my naval etiquette, I saluted the Officer of the Deck and said “Lt. McElroy, requesting permission to come aboard. “The officer returned the salute and said “Permission granted.” Then I turned aft and saluted the flag. I made it, without messing up.
It was April 2, and in full sunlight, we left San Francisco Bay . The whole task force of ships, two cruisers, four destroyers, and a fleet oiler, moved slowly with us under the Golden Gate Bridge. Thousands of people looked on. Many stopped their cars on the bridge, and waved to us as we passed underneath. I thought to myself, I hope there aren’t any spies up there waving.
Once at sea, Doolittle called us together. “Only a few of you know our destination, and others have guessed about various targets. Gentlemen, your target is Japan!” A sudden cheer exploded among the men. “Specifically, Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Nagasaki, and Osaka . The Navy task force will get us as close as possible and we’ll launch our planes. We will hit our targets and proceed to airfields in China.”
After the cheering stopped, he asked again if any of us desired to back out, no questions asked. Not one did, not one. The ship’s Captain then went over the intercom to the whole ship’s company. The loudspeaker blared, “The destination is Tokyo!” A tremendous cheer broke out from everyone on board. I could hear metal banging together and wild screams from down below decks. It was quite a rush! I felt relieved actually. We finally knew where we were going.
I set up quarters with two Navy pilots, putting my cot between their two bunks. They couldn’t get out of bed without stepping on me. It was fairly cozy in there, yes it was. Those guys were part of Torpedo Squadron Eight [Later Torpedo 8: only Ens George Gay survived from the Midway raid] and were just swell fellows. The rest of the guys bedded down in similar fashion to me, some had to sleep on bedrolls in the Admiral’s chart room. As big as this ship was, there wasn’t any extra room anywhere. Every square foot had a purpose… A few days later we discovered where they had an ice cream machine!
There were sixteen B-25s tied down on the flight deck, and I was flying number 13. All the carrier’s fighter planes were stored away helplessly in the hangar deck. They couldn’t move until we were gone. Our Army mechanics were all on board, as well as our munitions loaders and several back up crews, in case any of us got sick or backed out. We settled into a daily routine of checking our planes. The aircraft were grouped so closely together on deck that it wouldn’t take much for them to get damaged. Knowing that my life depended on this plane, I kept a close eye on her.
Day after day, we met with the intelligence officer and studied our mission plan. Our targets were assigned, and maps and objective folders were furnished for study. We went over approach routes and our escape route towards China … I never studied this hard back at Trinity.
Every day at dawn and at dusk the ship was called to general quarters and we practiced finding the quickest way to our planes. If at any point along the way, we were discovered by the enemy fleet, we were to launch our bombers immediately so the Hornet could bring up its fighter planes. We would then be on our own, and try to make it to the nearest land, either Hawaii or Midway Island.
Dr. Thomas White, a volunteer member of plane number 15, went over our medical records and gave us inoculations for a whole bunch of diseases that hopefully I wouldn’t catch. He gave us training sessions in emergency first aid, and lectured us at length about water purification and such. Tom, a medical doctor, had learned how to be a gunner just so he could go on this mission. We put some new tail guns in place of the ones that had been taken out to save weight. Not exactly functional, they were two broom handles, painted black. The thinking was they might help scare any Jap fighter planes. Maybe, maybe not.
On Sunday, April 14, we met up with Admiral Bull Halsey’s task force just out of Hawaii and joined into one big force. The carrier Enterprise was now with us, another two heavy cruisers, four more destroyers, and another oiler. We were designated as Task Force 16. It was quite an impressive sight to see, and represented the bulk of what was left of the U.S. Navy after the devastation of Pearl Harbor. There were over 10,000 Navy personnel sailing into harm’s way, just to deliver us sixteen Army planes to the Japs, orders of the President.
As we steamed further west, tension was rising as we drew nearer and nearer to Japan. Someone thought of arming us with some old …45 pistols that they had on board. I went through that box of 1911 pistols, they were in such bad condition that I took several of them apart, using the good parts from several useless guns until I built a serviceable weapon. Several of the other pilots did the same. Admiring my “new” pistol, I held it up, and thought about my old Model-T.
Colonel Doolittle called us together on the flight deck. We all gathered round, as well as many Navy personnel. He pulled out some medals and told us how these friendship medals from the Japanese government had been given to some of our Navy officers several years back. And now the Secretary of the Navy had requested us to return them. Doolittle wired them to a bomb while we all posed for pictures. Something to cheer up the folks back home!
I began to pack my things for the flight, scheduled for the 19th. I packed some extra clothes and a little brown bag that Aggie had given me, inside were some toilet items and a few candy bars. No letters or identity cards were allowed, only our dog-tags. I went down to the wardroom to have some ice cream and settle up my mess bill. It only amounted to $5 a day and with my per-Diem of $6 per day, I came out a little ahead.
By now, my Navy pilot roommates were about ready to get rid of me, but I enjoyed my time with them. They were all right. Later on, I learned that both of them were killed at the Battle of Midway. They were good men. Yes, very good men.
Colonel Doolittle let each crew pick our own target. We chose the Yokosuka Naval Base about twenty miles from Tokyo. We loaded 1450 rounds of ammo and four 500-pound bombs… A little payback, direct from Ellis County, Texas! We checked and re-checked our plane several times. Everything was now ready. I felt relaxed, yet tensed up at the same time. Day after tomorrow, we will launch when we are 400 miles out. I lay in my cot that night, and rehearsed the mission over and over in my head. It was hard to sleep as I listened to sounds of the ship.
Early the next morning, I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, expecting another full day on board. I noticed that the ship was pitching and rolling quite a bit this morning, more than normal. I was reading through the April 18th day plan of the Hornet; there was a message in it which read, “From the Hornet to the Army – Good luck, good hunting, and God bless you.”
I still had a large lump in my throat from reading this, when all of a sudden, the intercom blared, “General Quarters, General Quarters, All hands man your battle stations! Army pilots, man your planes!!!” There was instant reaction from everyone in the room and food trays went crashing to the deck. I ran down to my room jumping through the hatches along
the way, grabbed my bag, and ran as fast as I could go to the flight deck. I met with my crew at the plane, my heart was pounding. Someone said, “What’s going on?” The word was that the Enterprise had spotted an enemy trawler. It had been sunk, but it had transmitted radio messages. We had been found out!
The weather was crummy, the seas were running heavy, and the ship was pitching up and down like I had never seen before. Great waves were crashing against the bow and washing over the front of the deck. This wasn’t going to be easy! Last minute instructions were given. We were reminded to avoid non-military targets, especially the Emperor’s Palace.
Do not fly to Russia, but fly as far west as possible, land on the water and launch our rubber raft. This was going to be a one-way trip! We were still much too far out and we all knew that our chances of making land were somewhere between slim and none. Then at the last minute, each plane loaded an extra ten 5-gallon gas cans to give us a fighting chance of reaching China .
We all climbed aboard, started our engines and warmed them up, just feet away from the plane in front of us and the plane behind us. Knobby, Campbell, Bourgeois, and me in the front, Williams, the gunner was in the back, separated from us by a big rubber gas tank. I called back to Williams on the intercom and told him to look sharp and don’t take a nap! He answered dryly, “Don’t worry about me, Lieutenant. If they jump us, I’ll just use my little black broomsticks to keep the Japs off our tail.”
The ship headed into the wind and picked up speed. There was now a near gale force wind and water spray coming straight over the deck. I looked down at my instruments as my engines revved up. My mind was racing. I went over my mental checklist, and said a prayer? God please, help us!
Past the twelve planes in front of us, I strained to see the flight deck officer as he leaned into the wind and signaled with his arms for Colonel Doolittle to come to full power. I looked over at Knobby and we looked each other in the eye. He just nodded to me and we both understood.
With the deck heaving up and down, the deck officer had to time this just right. Then I saw him wave Doolittle to go, and we watched breathlessly to see what happened. When his plane pulled up above the deck, Knobby just let out with, “Yes! Yes!” The second plane, piloted by Lt. Hoover, appeared to stall with its nose up and began falling toward the waves.
We groaned and called out, “Up! Up! Pull it up!” Finally, he pulled out of it, staggering back up into the air, much to our relief! One by one, the planes in front of us took off. The deck pitched wildly, 60 feet or more, it looked like. One plane seemed to drop down into the drink and disappeared for a moment, then pulled back up into sight. There was sense of relief with each one that made it. We gunned our engines and started to roll forward. Off to the right, I saw the men on deck cheering and waving their covers! We continued inching forward, careful to keep my left
main wheel and my nose wheel on the white guidelines that had been painted on the deck for us. Get off a little bit too far left and we go off the edge of the deck. A little too far to the right and our wing-tip will smack the island of the ship.
With the best seat on the ship, we watched Lt. Bower take off in plane number 12. I taxied up to the starting line, put on my the brakes and looked down to my left. My main wheel was right on the line. Applied more power to the engines, and I turned my complete attention to the deck officer on my left, who was circling his paddles. Now my adrenaline was really pumping!
We went to full power, and the noise and vibration inside the plane went way up. He circled the paddles furiously while watching forward for the pitch of the deck. Then he dropped them, and I said, “Here We Go!” I released the brakes and we started rolling forward As I looked down the flight-deck you could see straight down into the angry churning water. As we slowly gained speed, the deck gradually began to pitch back up. I pulled up and our plane slowly strained up and away from the ship. There was a big cheer and whoops from my crew, but I just felt relieved and muttered to myself, “Boy, that was short!”
We made a wide circle above our fleet to check our compass headings and get our bearings. I looked down as we passed low over one of our cruisers and could see the men on deck waving to us. I dropped down to low level, so low we could see the whitecap waves breaking. It was just after 0900, there were broken clouds at 5,000 feet and visibility of about thirty miles due to haze or something.
Up ahead and barely in sight, I could see Captain Greening, our flight leader, and Bower on his right wing. Flying at 170 mph, I was able to catch up to them in about 30 minutes. We were to stay in this formation until reaching landfall, and then break on our separate ways. Now we settled in for the five hour flight. Tokyo, here we come!
Williams was in the back emptying the extra gas cans into the gas tank as fast as we had burned off enough fuel. He then punched holes in the tins and pushed them out the hatch against the wind. Some of the crew ate sandwiches and other goodies that the Navy had put aboard for us … I wasn’t hungry. I held onto the controls with a firm grip as we raced along westward just fifty feet above the cold rolling ocean, as low as I dared to fly.
Being so close to the choppy waves gave you a true sense of speed. Occasionally our windshield was even sprayed with a little saltwater. It was an exhilarating feeling, and I felt as though the will and spirit of our whole country was pushing us along. I didn’t feel too scared, just anxious. There was a lot riding on this thing, and on me.
As we began to near land, we saw an occasional ship here and there. None of them close enough to be threatening, but just the same, we were feeling more edgy. Then at 1330 we sighted land, the Eastern shore of Honshu. With Williams now on his guns in the top turret and Campbell on the nose gun, we came ashore still flying low as possible. We were surprised to see people on the ground waving to us as we flew in over the farmland. It was beautiful countryside.
Campbell, our navigator, said, “Mac, I think we’re going to be about sixty miles too far north. I’m not positive, but pretty sure” I decided that he was absolutely right and turned left ninety degrees, went back just offshore and followed the coast line south. When I thought we had gone far enough, I climbed up to two thousand feet to find out where we were.
We started getting fire from anti-aircraft guns. Then we spotted Tokyo Bay, turned west and put our nose down diving toward the water. Once over the bay, I could see our target, Yokosuka Naval Base. Off to the right there was already smoke visible over Tokyo. Coming in low over the water, I increased speed to 200 mph and told everyone, “Get Ready!”
When we were close enough, I pulled up to 1300 feet and opened the bomb doors. There were furious black bursts of anti-aircraft fire all around us, but I flew straight on through them, spotting our target, the torpedo works and the dry-docks. I saw a big ship in the dry-dock just as we flew over it.
Those flak bursts were really getting close and bouncing us around, when I heard Bourgeois shouting, “Bombs Away!” I couldn’t see it, but Williams had a bird’s eye view from the back and he shouted jubilantly, “We got an aircraft carrier! The whole dock is burning!” I started turning to the south and strained my neck to look back and at that moment saw a large crane blow up and start falling over!… Take that! There was loud yelling and clapping each other on the back. We were all just ecstatic, and still alive! But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. We had to get out of here and fast!
When we were some thirty miles out to sea, we took one last look back at our target, and could still see huge billows of black smoke. Up until now, we had been flying for Uncle Sam, but now we were flying for ourselves.
We flew south over open ocean, parallel to the Japanese coast all afternoon We saw a large submarine apparently at rest, and then in another fifteen miles, we spotted three large enemy cruisers headed for Japan. There were no more bombs, so we just let them be and kept on going.
By late afternoon, Campbell calculated that it was time to turn and make for China. Across the East China Sea, the weather out ahead of us looked bad and overcast. Up until now we had not had time to think much about our gasoline supply, but the math did not look good. We just didn’t have enough fuel to make it!
Each man took turns cranking the little hand radio to see if we could pick up the promised radio beacon. There was no signal. This is not good. The weather turned bad and it was getting dark, so we climbed up. I was now flying on instruments, through a dark misty rain. Just when it really looked hopeless of reaching land, we suddenly picked up a strong tailwind It was an answer to a prayer. Maybe just maybe, we can make it!
In total darkness at 2100 hours, we figured that we must be crossing the coastline, so I began a slow, slow climb to be sure of not hitting any high ground or anything. I conserved as much fuel as I could, getting real low on gas now. The guys were still cranking on the radio, but after five hours of hand cranking with aching hands and backs, there was utter silence. No radio beacon!
Then the red light started blinking, indicating twenty minutes of fuel left. We started getting ready to bail out. I turned the controls over to Knobby and crawled to the back of the plane, past the now collapsed rubber gas tank. I dumped everything out of my bag and repacked just what I really needed, my .45 pistol, ammunition, flashlight, compass, medical kit, fishing tackle, chocolate bars, peanut butter and crackers. I told Williams to come forward with me so we could all be together for this. There was no other choice. I had to get us as far west as possible, and then we had to jump.
At 2230 we were up to sixty-five hundred feet. We were over land but still above the Japanese Army in China. We couldn’t see the stars, so Campbell couldn’t get a good fix on our position. We were flying on fumes now and I didn’t want to run out of gas before we were ready to go. Each man filled his canteen, put on his Mae West life jacket, parachute, and filled his bag with rations, those “C” rations from the Presidio.
I put her on auto-pilot and we all gathered in the navigator’s compartment around the hatch in the floor. We checked each other’s parachute harness. Everyone was scared, without a doubt. None of us had ever done this before! I said, “Williams first, Bourgeois second, Campbell third, Knobloch fourth, and I’ll follow you guys! Go fast, two seconds apart! Then count three seconds off and pull your ripcord!”
We kicked open the hatch and gathered around the hole looking down into the blackness. It did not look very inviting! Then I looked up at Williams and gave the order, “JUMP!!!” Within seconds they were all gone. I turned and reached back for the auto-pilot, but could not reach it, so I pulled the throttles back, then turned and jumped. Counting quickly, thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, I pulled my rip-cord and jerked back up with a terrific shock.
At first I thought that I was hung on the plane, but after a few agonizing seconds that seemed like hours, realized that I was free and drifting down. Being in the total dark, I was disoriented at first but figured my feet must be pointed toward the ground. I looked down through the black mist to see what was coming up. I was in a thick mist or fog, and the silence was so eerie after nearly thirteen hours inside that noisy plane. I could only hear the whoosh, whoosh sound of the wind blowing through my shroud lines, and then I heard a loud crash and explosion. My plane!
Looking for my flashlight, I groped through my bag with my right hand, finally pulled it out and shined it down toward the ground, which I still could not see. Finally I picked up a glimmer of water and thought I was landing in a lake. We’re too far inland for this to be ocean. I hope! I relaxed my legs a little, thinking I was about to splash into water and would have to swim out, and then bang. I jolted suddenly and crashed over onto my side. Lying there in just a few inches of water, I raised my head and put my hands down into thick mud. It was rice paddy! There was a burning pain, as if someone had stuck a knife in my stomach. I must have torn a muscle or broke something.
I laid there dazed for a few minutes, and after a while struggled up to my feet. I dug a hole and buried my parachute in the mud. Then started trying to walk, holding my stomach, but every direction I moved the water got deeper. Then I saw some lights off in the distance. I fished around for my flashlight and signaled one time. Sensing something wrong, I got out my compass and to my horror saw that those lights were off to my west. That must be a Jap patrol! How dumb could I be! Knobby had to be back to my east, so I sat still and quiet and did not move.
It was a cold dark lonely night. At 0100 hours I saw a single light off to the east. I flashed my light in that direction, one time. It had to be Knobby! I waited a while, and then called out softly, “Knobby?” And a voice replied “Mac, is that you?” Thank goodness, what a relief! Separated by a wide stream, we sat on opposite banks of the water communicating in low voices. After daybreak Knobby found a small rowboat and came across to get me. We started walking east toward the rest of the crew and away from that Japanese patrol. Knobby had cut his hip when he went through the hatch, but it wasn’t too awful bad.
We walked together toward a small village and several Chinese came out to meet us, they seemed friendly enough. I said, “Luchu hoo megwa fugi! Luchu hoo megwa fugi!” meaning, “I am an American! I am an American!” Later that morning we found the others. Williams had wrenched his knee when he landed in a tree, but he was limping along just fine. There were hugs all around. I have never been so happy to see four guys in all my life!
Well, the five of us eventually made it out of China with the help of the local Chinese people and the Catholic missions along the way. They were all very good to us. Later they were made to pay terribly for it, so we found out afterwards. For a couple of weeks we traveled across country. Strafed a couple of times by enemy planes, we kept on moving, by foot, by pony, by car, by train, and by airplane. But we finally made it to India .
I did not make it home for the baby’s birth. I stayed on there flying a DC-3 “Gooney Bird” in the China-Burma-India Theatre for the next several months. I flew supplies over the Himalaya Mountains, or as we called it, over “The Hump” into China. When B-25s finally arrived in India, I flew combat missions over Burma, and then later in the war, flew a B-29 out of the Marianna Islands to bomb Japan again and again.
After the war, I remained in the Air Force until 1962, when I retired from the service as a Lt. Colonel. We then came back to Texas, my beautiful Texas. First moving to Abilene and then we settled in Lubbock, where Aggie taught school at MacKenzie Junior High. I worked at the S & R Auto Supply, once again in an atmosphere of machinery, oil, and grease.
I lived a good life and raised two wonderful sons that I am very proud of. I feel blessed in many ways. We have a great country, better than most folks know. It is worth fighting for. Some people call me a hero, but I have never thought of myself that way, no. But I did serve in the company of heroes. What we did, will never leave me. It will always be there in my fondest memories. I will always think of the fine and brave men that I was privileged to serve with. Remember us, for we were soldiers once and young.
With the loss of all aircraft, Doolittle believed that the raid had been a failure, and that he would be court-martialed upon returning to the states. Quite the contrary, the raid proved to be a tremendous boost to American morale, which had plunged following the Pearl Harbor attack. It also caused serious doubts in the minds of Japanese war planners. They in turn recalled many seasoned fighter plane units back to defend the home islands, which resulted in Japan’s weakened air capabilities at the upcoming Battle of Midway and other South Pacific campaigns.
Edgar “Mac” McElroy, Lt. Col., U.S.A.F. (Ret.) passed away at his residence in Lubbock, Texas early on the morning of Friday, April 4, 2003.
Thor’s Hammer, ‘Thud’ Memories
A Requiem – by Thomas R. Carlson
I was looking through a spreadsheet that summarized the disposition of the Air Force’s F-105 fleet. Little did I know that what I discovered would start me on a journey into the past that I didn’t really want to make. I had been more or less content with leaving the past where it was and had long since come to grips with memories of decisions and deeds, some right and some fearfully wrong. “Don’t look back unless you want to go there” is usually good advice, and still I was drawn into a place where I imagined that I heard the sounds, smelled the smells and felt the old gut feelings from times past. There was a near physical presence of machines, places and people from the now long ago.
When I found the tail number that I sought, the message was terse, unequivocal and final. “1984 June Scrapped.” That meant that my faithful old #246 had been chopped into pieces and melted down to make beer cans! 246 had been the warhorse of my youthful days, my ride, my big afterburning, supersonic heavy metal. The aircraft had been a proud old war veteran that had once carried the name “Thor’s Hammer” and had met its end at the hands of scrappers, rather than a foreign enemy. A line from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ epic poem about the ship “Old Ironsides” came to mind. “The harpies of the shore shall pluck the eagle of the sea.”
Enemies had tried to bring about its demise, and it wasn’t for their lack of trying that it survived the Vietnam War only to meet its end at the hands of scavengers. The war in Southeast Asia had raged for years and Republic F-105D Thunderchief, tail number 62-4246 had been there from the beginning of the air war until the end and had survived against incalculable odds.
246 belonged to the American taxpayers and was posted to the outer frontier of the country’s sphere of influence. In keeping with tradition, pilots were allowed to have their names painted on the canopy rail and, with that done, it was “their” airplane. With my name on the left side of the canopy and Staff Sergeant Myers, the crew chief’s name on the right, 246 was properly adopted.
Other names would occupy those same rails over the years as pilots, crew chiefs and airplanes rotated from unit to unit or pilots were lost to accidents or combat. My good fortune was to be first. Fresh from the Republic factory on Long Island it still had the distinctive new car smell and the crisp, clean look of a new machine. In Cold War livery, it was painted silver and had a dark blue stripe around the nose, just aft of the radar dome.
The new fighter was ferried from Republic Field to Mobile Alabama to Okinawa with the ultimate destinations of the forward bases of Korat and Takhli Thailand.
By comparison with other fighters of the day, the Thunderchief was a giant of an airplane and incredibly more complex. My contemporaries and I had originally viewed it with suspicion and admittedly some trepidation. For such a machine to be powered by a single engine and operated by a single pilot seemed optimistic at best. Twenty- five tons of machine when fully loaded gave some credibility to term “Fighter, Heavy.” This was almost comically noted in the designation FH that preceded the buzz numbers on the side of the sixty-four foot fuselage.
The Thunderchief name would give way to the universally adopted term “Thud”. What was originally meant to be a put-down would eventually become an accepted and revered name. The term “Thud Driver” would be a badge of honor and respect that would be worn with pride.
246 was assigned to the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron on Okinawa. The 44th was a unit with a proud tradition dating to the attack on Pearl Harbor where it’s pilots in P-40s rose to meet the Japanese attackers. During the course of World War II, the Vampires, as they were known, earned many battle honors, including the Distinguished Unit Citation. Then equipped with the F-100 Super Sabre and a legacy of excellence, the 44th would be among the units in the Pacific Air Forces to be the recipient of the F-105 aircraft in 1963.
This would be a proper home for 246. It would be more than a year before the war in Southeast Asia became heated up to the point that the authorities committed the unit to action and posted the 44th to Korat Thailand on temporary duty. This time interval had been an opportunity for pilots and ground crews to become familiar with the new machine. Maintenance and operations schedules didn’t always match, but when they did, it was squadron policy that pilots flew their own aircraft.
Far from being my personal chariot, 246 was a warplane. The existence of the machine and its presence in that part of the world was for a grim purpose.
The Cold War mission was well defined and far too terrible for most to even contemplate. Much of the time, aircraft and pilots were on alert and loaded with the deadliest weapons ever devised. Republic had built the craft to carry and deliver those weapons and the pilots had been trained to carry out the nuclear mission. The alert duty was never taken lightly and yet, I doubt that most pilots, myself included, thought that such madness as a wholesale exchange of such weapons would ever happen. Carried to a logical conclusion, there was no logic to it.
The warplane role of the Thud would play out in quite a different direction. The twenty millimeter Gatling gun in the nose of the craft fired projectiles at a hundred per second. The destruction wrought by such a stream of exploding shells was a new dimension in firepower. A one second burst, fired into a truck, a structure or an aircraft would tear the target to shreds. Hard points on the belly and wings carried the bomb load of a B-17 bomber from another era. Missiles of several types were carried, intended for airborne and ground targets alike. All the conventional weaponry available was to be employed by the Thud drivers in the years to come.
Modifications were made to the aircraft over time. Hydraulic lines were re-routed and other changes made to enhance survivability. Introduction of the two-seater models to combat expanded the role of the aircraft even more. Wild Weasel, a concept started using the F-100, was soon transferred to the F-105F, later designated the G model. The Weasels tormented the enemy missile sites and destroyed them when their radar came up on the air sometimes even after the missiles had been launched.
The Soviets reportedly believed the Weasel crews were on marijuana or other stronger drugs. The more traditional Thud drivers simply thought that the definition of an optimist was a Weasel crew that quit smoking. The Weasel pilots and their “Bears” (Electronic Warfare Officers) earned a revered and special status in the hearts of all who knew that they had performed the most dangerous task in an environment where all faced grave danger. No tale of the Thud could be told without acknowledging the role of the Weasels.
The spectrum of pilots sent to Asia to fly the Thud would be broad. Initially, the Wing and Squadron Commanders, Ops Officers and some Flight Commanders would be the veteran warriors from the skies of Europe and the Pacific in World War II and From MiG Alley in the Korean War.
The younger pilots would be the Cold War era trainees from the fighter pipeline. The Thud drivers would be West Point, Air Force Academy and Annapolis graduates, from The Citadel and VMI as well as those from the ROTC programs and Aviation Cadets. Most would give a good accounting of their time in the airplane.
There would be Medal of Honor recipients, MiG killers, 200 mission survivors, former astronauts and future General Officers. As the war dragged on, and fighter pilot ranks thinned, there would be transport and other multi-engine pilots as well as some staff officers who were hurriedly trained to fly the Thud.
While many of them distinguished themselves in their new role, they were, after all, in a new and far different element for which their previous training and experience had done little to prepare them. In training and in combat, they would die in numbers disproportionate to the long-time fighter pilots but nobody would ever question the courage of those who flew. Thor’s Hammer would respond to the hands of pilots from all these backgrounds.
246 was transferred to Takhli Thailand after my return to the States. It was a successor of mine, Capt. Nels Running, a future Thunderbird Pilot and future Major General, who named it. The legend of the Norse God who brought down thunder from the skies as he wielded his mythical hammer, was a well-chosen and appropriate nom de guerre. Memphis Belle, Old Ironsides, Glamorous Glennis, Enola Gay, Protestor’s Protector and Thor’s Hammer. Some of these names would be remembered in aviation and naval history and some forgotten.
The little-known names of ships and aircraft would be remembered only by the generation that flew or manned them. The Thud would be legendary among aviators, aviation enthusiasts and historians as the workhorse of the Vietnam War. Museums, memorials and pedestals would be home for many of the retired fleet. Memories of Thor’s Hammer and those who flew it would grow dim and eventually disappear as the passage of time relegated them to history’s margins.
Unlike most other fighters, in addition to a conventional pneumatic engine starting system, the Thud had one that utilized an explosive canister much like an over-sized, slow-burning shotgun shell. Pilots and ground crews became accustomed to the acrid smell of burning cordite as the coffee can sized powder cartridge spun the big turbine engine to life. Since Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder in the ninth century, that smell had been the essence of war.
To the doughboy in the trenches of World War I it was his constant companion, bearing witness to the incessant artillery fire that took friend and foe alike by the hundreds of thousands. To the sailor on a battleship, it signaled the firing of the big guns, sending huge projectiles toward the enemy. To the Thud driver and his crew chief it usually meant a successful engine start. In many ways, it was a hint of things to come.
With the tachometer indicating idle speed, there was a high-pitched whine as the small air turbine motor was brought on line to power the hydraulic and some electrical systems.
An almost imperceptible movement of the machine could be felt as compressors and turbines came up to speed, pumps and generators came on line and the start sequence was completed. The smells of hydraulic fluid and burned jet fuel mixing with the dissipating gunpowder aroma completed the sensory inputs and told the pilot that the machine had come to it’s form of life.
Whether in combat or on a routine training mission, flying the Thud was always an adventure. It wasn’t trepidation as much as anticipation of the adrenalin rush which was sure to come. The culmination of boyhood dreams and fantasies of one day being a fighter pilot had been fulfilled. There was the thrill of advancing the throttle to full power for take-off. The landing gear struts which stretched nearly eight feet from their mounting point in the wing to the surface, bent slightly aft as the power was advanced and sprung forward as the brakes were released.
Feeling the gear “walk” was a uniquely Thud experience. The throttle was moved outboard to the afterburner detent and, when needed, water injection was selected by a toggle switch forward of the throttle. With that done, 26,500 pounds of thrust accelerated the Thud along the runway and into the air. The painful decibel level reached by the shrieking afterburner and the continuous thunderclap of the engine exhaust were not heard by the pilot. The tight canopy and special fluid-filled, snug fitting headphones in the helmet left the painful noise to torment those on the ground.
In a combat environment, details such as aircraft numbers appeared on scheduling boards and mission cards but were not recorded in the pilot’s log. I don’t know how many times I flew 246 in that role. What were called “good” missions during that early phase of the war were hard to come by and eagerly sought after by most pilots. Nobody much cared about the aircraft number. Escorting unarmed RF-101s on their low-level photo missions, interdiction sorties to Laos, armed reconnaissance along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the real plums, the initial “Rolling Thunder” strikes north of the DMZ, were considered good.
There was a “Bitch Board” in squadron operations where missions were tallied in grease pencil to insure that no pilot got more “good ones” than someone else. It wasn’t as though they relished war and the possibility of dying. They were Fighter Pilots who lived on the edge even in peacetime. Going in harm’s way is what they had been trained for, what was expected of them. It was who they were and what they were there to do.
No more scrimmage. It was time to get in the deadly contest. This time frame in the war is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling who made an observation that the “Old Sarge” was usually a bit more circumspect about going into battle than the young recruit.
Each pilot has his own indelible list of remembered places, previously known only to cartographers and locals. The Plain of Jars, Vinh, Than Hoa, Sam Neua, Mu Gia Pass, Dong Hoi and Route 1 were the locations of early targets and were on my list. Those pilots who were there as the war intensified would be exposed to a far more dangerous and foreboding environment of air defenses and a new set of names.
Thud Ridge, Downtown, Hai Phong, the Paul Doumer Bridge, Kep, Phuc Yen, the Red River, most of these in what was known as Route Pack Six, would be imprinted in their memories. A hundred times they were required to go where missions were no longer “good.” Surviving one hundred missions to those places, however unlikely that was, would earn those pilots a special status in the aviator’s pecking order.
While they might have reveled that their skill and a measure of luck carried them through the ordeal, like soldiers throughout history, they would grieve for their comrades whose fortune was not as good as theirs.
Every combat mission was permeated with risk and, a predictable adrenalin overdose. Even though one was in the company of other flight members and usually part of a larger effort, there was a feeling of aloneness. One engine, one seat, one pilot, one set of thoughts. Dryness in the mouth and the hint of the taste of bile were the signs of trepidation, however slight or well concealed from the others. The mission would be flown and even the slightest thought to the contrary immediately put aside. If a pilot didn’t fly his assigned mission, someone else would have to go in his place.
Surviving one phase of flight was only a set-up for the next phase. There was always the heavyweight take-off where every available foot of runway was needed. The bomb laden Thud gained speed slowly at first. It seemed to have feet of clay as the afterburner and water injection were selected. Further along the take-off roll, the pilot became committed to flight, since there was no stopping once refusal speed and distance had been reached.
Clearing the arresting barrier at the far end often seemed in question. Having survived that, the struggling Thud felt as if it remained airborne only by virtue of the downward thrust vector of the blazing afterburner and the extra boost of water injection. As speed was gained and the water injection depleted, the flaps were retracted to the subsonic flight position. The pilots breathing rate returned to somewhere near normal as the speed increased to a comfortable 400knots or so.
A join-up with other flight members into normal four-ship formation preceded the tanker rendezvous. Fuel loads were usually topped-off prior to entering the target area.
The refueling was generally a routine matter, but there were notable exceptions. One pilot, Gary Barnhill, suffered an internal aircraft fuel system failure. His Thud exploded in a giant fireball as he backed off the tanker’s boom. At the urging of John Betz his wingman, who observed a massive fuel leak, he ejected a split second before the fireball would have engulfed him. Miraculously, he survived.
The bombs on Ned Miller’s aircraft were thought to have detonated because faulty proximity fuses sensed the density of the tanker. Ned perished in the blinding flash that left only bits and pieces of his Thud fluttering and tumbling earthward. George Sasser, flying Ned’s wing, saw the Gatling gun propelled forward out of the fireball as if it had been fired out by a larger cannon. He saw Ned’s limp form descending toward the undercast in his parachute.
The tanker guys always seemed to be where they were supposed to be. They hung around to refuel any post strike fighters that may be low on fuel. This was done at great peril to themselves and with the everlasting gratitude of the fighter pilots, especially the ones they saved.
The heavy weight of the Thuds soon after takeoff made refueling more difficult than usual. There were times when the bomb load and considerable weight of fuel already on board taxed the ability of the engine output, making it difficult to hook-up. Being late on the tanker or not getting a prompt hook-up was undesirable since that may require following the tanker around a racetrack circuit and arriving late on the target. It was better to get there first.
Flying Col. Bill Craig’s wing one day, we arrived late on target because of a circuit with the tanker. Predictably, the flight scheduled to follow us was already there. A B-57 pulling off the target went between the leader and me going straight up. He didn’t miss either of us by more than what seemed like inches. I know that he didn’t see us and there wasn’t even time to tense. The episode was over in a fraction of a second but the image remains.
With the refueling done, the target area was next. Time seemed to switch to fast-forward between tanker and target. Lurking somewhere in the recesses of the mind was the knowledge that one could instantly be propelled from the comfort and familiar sounds of the cockpit into the unknown. From the tip of a high-tech spear, into the silent void of nothingness would only take a fraction of a second. Transition to a grim and uncertain future in a primitive cage, far from home and far removed from the thin veneer of civilization, would take a bit longer.
On a dive bomb run at some long forgotten place, I marveled at the countless projectiles heading my way. There were bright colored tracers and those that were less visible shades of gray. The anti-aircraft guns usually focused on the plane presenting the most immediate threat and all of them seemed to be firing directly at me. It looked as if each round was destined to come through the center of the windshield. That none of them had hit me yet seemed impossible. At a speed close to 600 knots, I glanced out the side of the cockpit and it seemed as though tracers were actually arcing up and over my right wing, following the airflow around it. I dismissed this as an optical illusion and concentrated on the delivery of the bomb load.
The ripple of the six thousand pounds leaving the aircraft meant that it was time for afterburner and lots of back stick. Vision grew narrow then dim as the G load increased, in spite of the functioning of the G suit and the tightening of body muscles. Acceleration to maximum speed and heading for relative safety away from the target followed. This same drama was to be repeated thousands of times by hundreds of pilots over the next seven years.
Surface to air missiles (SAMs), MIG fighters, 37,57, 85 and 105 millimeter anti-aircraft shells and small arms fire filled the airspace where the Thud lived. According to the data contained in the article where I learned of the fate of my airplane, by rough count, some 423 Thuds were lost to combat or related accidents.
Too many pilots and crews died in their prime and too many of them suffered and languished in the fetid torture camps of another culture. One could debate the Vietnam War to infinity. Good war, bad war or no war at all. Wars throughout history represented the failure of diplomacy and were waged as instruments of national policy. Some wars were fought with final victory as the goal, and some weren’t. In my experience, they were neither initiated nor relished by the soldier since it was always the soldier who bore the heaviest burden. Those pilot soldiers who were ordered into battle and flew 246, always made it safely back to their base. On other days and in other aircraft, many of them were not so fortunate.
The heavy losses of aircraft and people were less due to any deficiency attributable to the Thud than because of the incredibly hostile environment where these aircraft and pilots were sent, day after day for some seven years. Against almost incalculable odds, Thor’s Hammer was a survivor, as were those pilots who flew it on each individual mission. Perhaps a thousand times it went to war and a thousand times returned safely. It would be impossible to estimate the number of SAMs and the countless rounds of artillery and small arms that had been fired at this aircraft and failed to bring it down.
246 spent semi-retirement with a reserve unit at Oklahoma City where systems were upgraded, war scars and blemishes repaired and where it continued to serve in the nation’s arsenal. The reservists would have known the airplane’s history since some of them had probably flown it in combat.
The old fire horse had found a new, quieter fire station and waited for the bell. The bell, when finally heard by the keepers, would have been a death knell from a distant five-sided steeple. It would have appeared on the daily scheduling board in the squadron simply as “246, ferry, DMA (Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson).
I would have wanted to be there to fly Thor’s Hammer on that last ferry flight to Tucson when it was time to go, much as a saddened owner would take a beloved dog on that dreaded last trip to the vet. It might be logical for Gen. Running to make the flight, but I’ll have him occupied elsewhere (after all, it’s a fantasy). Besides, Generals didn’t usually engage in anything so mundane.
With a knowing wink and nod, a Master Sergeant assisting in the pre-flight inspection would remove the cover plates on the outboard wing pylon stations, leaving a pair of round voids that worked much the same as blowing across a bottle. They would be off for the traffic pattern at destination so the familiar shriek would be heard as the Thud approached. As a young airman he would have done this in the past.
He would have remembered the days of sweating-out the mission on a distant flight line, counting the Thuds as they returned. His contribution would be noted and appreciated.
I would have been aware that many better men than me had challenged fate and survived, strapped in the seat of 246. It would be for them that I would advance the throttle, release the brakes and feel the gear walk for the last time. The afterburner would bark a final defiant insult to the earth-bound’s ears as we lifted off and headed west. In aviator’s jargon, “Gone West” means that one has flown the last sortie to that final and uncertain destination. The irony of geography dictating the direction of flight would not be lost. This would be Thor’s Hammer’s judgment day but there was no uncertainty.
It would have been tempting and so easy to let the speed build and slip through the Mach to supersonic flight. The strike of Thor’s hammer would have brought down thunder from the heavens once more, just as in the Norse legend. Windows would have shattered and dishes rattled along the route of flight. Officialdom would not have allowed such a transgression.
I would have to have been content with the memories of other days when supersonic flight had been effortlessly attained in the same cockpit, hand on the same throttle, looking through the same windscreen. Pushing eight hundred knots on the airspeed tape wouldn’t be necessary on this day. After all, we wouldn’t be headed out of the chaos and carnage of battle, or outrunning a pursuing MIG, but bound for a vast graveyard for old, un-needed war machines. Guns that had once fired at the stiletto shape were far away and long silent. The scrappers patiently waited, assured of success where the enemy’s guns had failed. No need to hurry.
A New Mexico rancher astride his horse, who except for his clothing, might have looked like a knight or a cavalryman from another time, would have looked up briefly at the long thin contrail in the stratosphere and the barely perceptible dot pulling it along. He and his mount would return to their earthbound chores without knowing the meaning of the melancholy wisp.
The Captain of an eastbound 767 would have nudged his co-pilot and pointed upward as his airliner passed underneath the old fighter. With his face pressed to the glass, he would have recalled to his captive audience other days and times when he too had been strapped in the cockpit of the magnificent Thud. It wouldn’t have had much of an impact on his younger colleague who was most likely a new-age child of the magenta line. To him, old fighters would probably have been a historical footnote, of some significance to the old guys who lived in the past.
The unmistakable silhouette of the needle nose and the forward sweeping intakes would quickly pass from view but not from The Captain’s memory, which would have been instantly at flood tide. He would watch until the contrail left by the Thud dissipated then vanished. He would turn again to the relatively mundane yet important matters at hand. After all, he would have thought, that was then and this is now.
Of course, a good solid 4 G pitch-out to downwind from a 500 knot initial approach would be in order for the last overhead traffic pattern. To hell with it, make it 650! In for a penny, in for a pound! Stay just under the mach so I wouldn’t end up in jail for destroying the place with a sonic boom. .
“Black Matt” Matthews, a legendary Thud driver, former Thunderbird pilot and genuine good guy had already paid a price for slipping through the mach during a flyover at the Air Force Academy. Much of the glass construction was reduced to rubble. Matt’s good name was cleared of any blame but still, no need to repeat that. Unlike Matt, I wouldn’t have been blameless.
The massive speed brakes, idle power and 6Gs would combine to slow to the 275 knot gear down speed. The voids in the outer wing panels where the cover plates had been removed would shriek their high-pitched wail. Dogs for miles around would howl and the ground-bound folk would look up and take notice. Some of them would have known immediately without even seeing it. that this wasn’t just another aircraft in the pattern, this was a Thud!
Approach control would already be on the phone to the Airdrome Officer, making note of the speed violation to be filed. Screw ‘em. The plastic colonels who would revel in violating this rogue pilot’s transgression didn’t matter. Neither would a violation matter. Thor’s Hammer’s last traffic pattern would not be one of the post-modern era but from another day, now far in the past when airplane and pilot were at the top of their game.
Anything less could not be done nor would it be acceptable. To wimp out at this point would result in a well-deserved chorus of “You don’t have a hair on your ass!” rising in crescendo from legions of Thud drivers living and dead. Beyond that, the old war horse deserved no less than a full gallop to the ignominious end of a metaphorical glue factory.
Gear down, flaps down then the 200 knot final approach to a touchdown on the numbers. A few knots on the fast side perhaps, but a good comfortable speed and there would be plenty of runway. The abrupt deceleration of the drag chute would hasten the slowing process for the turn off the runway.
The canopy that had completed the cocoon of the familiar cockpit would open slowly, once clear of the runway. Even the sudden blast of hot Arizona desert air would feel good against the accumulated sweat and the deep imprint on the face that had been tightly covered by the now dangling oxygen mask. Time to jettison the drag chute and follow the yellow pickup with the “follow me” sign on a serpentine route to the storage facility and journey’s end.
The brakes would be set at the ground handlers stop signal and wheel chocks inserted. As a final, defiant and time-honored obscene gesture in the Thud driver’s repertoire, the refueling probe would be extended then retracted. The device, located in the nose of the aircraft forward of the cockpit, was not visible in the stowed position. When extended, it had the look of a large finger.
The absolute last mechanical movement called for from within the guts and soul of the still viable machine would be a gesture to the unseen jury that had imposed the death sentence and those who would carry it out. The meaning of this would probably be lost on the intended audience, the toothless scrappers with their cutting torches at the ready.
The well- worn throttle, made shiny by the thousands of leather- gloved hands that had caressed it for two decades, would be slowly and reluctantly moved to the cutoff position. The clatter of compressor blades, as the engine wound down would be the death rattle of a warrior who had fought well but lost the last battle.
An official notation, entered in the logbook, “Flight # 1 OK” would be recorded. Between the lines allotted for commentary would be added: “So long, old timer, well done.” A few minutes would be devoted to checklist items then, a couple of more minutes seated there with arms resting on the canopy rails.
The new car smell would be only a memory from the distant past. The sweat of a thousand pilots, the decades of cordite, hydraulic fluid and jet fuel would have permeated the molecules of the metal, paint and fabric of the cockpit. The smells would hang heavy in all the recesses and voids. The familiar odor of hot titanium and stainless steel would combine with the others and enter the nostrils and consciousness.
The silence would be broken only by the “tink tink tink” sound of cooling metal.
We can all appreciate this one.
Old Guy and a Bucket of Shrimp
This is a wonderful story and it is true. You will be pleased
that you read it, and I believe you will pass it on. It is an important
piece of American history.
It happened every Friday evening, almost without fail, when the
sun resembled a giant orange and was starting to dip into the blue ocean.
Old Ed came strolling along the beach to his favorite pier.
Clutched in his bony hand was a bucket of shrimp. Ed walks out to the end
of the pier, where it seems he almost has the world to himself. The glow of
the sun is a golden bronze now.
Everybody’s gone, except for a few joggers on the beach. Standing
out on the end of the pier, Ed is alone with his thoughts…and his bucket
Before long, however, he is no longer alone. Up in the sky a
thousand white dots come screeching and squawking, winging their way toward
that lanky frame standing there on the end of the pier.
Before long, dozens of seagulls have enveloped him, their wings
fluttering and flapping wildly. Ed stands there tossing shrimp to the
hungry birds. As he does, if you listen closely, you can hear him say with
a smile, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’
In a few short minutes the bucket is empty. But Ed doesn’t leave.
He stands there lost in thought, as though transported to another
time and place.
When he finally turns around and begins to walk back toward the
beach, a few of the birds hop along the pier with him until he gets to the
stairs, and then they, too, fly away. And old Ed quietly makes his way down
to the end of the beach and on home.
If you were sitting there on the pier with your fishing line in
the water, Ed might seem like ‘a funny old duck,’ as my dad used to say.
Or, to onlookers, he’s just another old codger, lost in his own weird
world, feeding the seagulls with a bucket full of shrimp.
To the onlooker, rituals can look either very strange or very
empty. They can seem altogether unimportant … maybe even a lot of
Old folks often do strange things, at least in the eyes of Boomers
Most of them would probably write Old Ed off, down there in
Florida… That’s too bad. They’d do well to know him better.
His full name: Eddie Rickenbacker. He was a famous hero in World
War I, and then he was in WWII. On one of his flying missions across the
Pacific, he and his seven-member crew went down. Miraculously, all of the
men survived, crawled out of their plane, and climbed into a life raft.
Captain Rickenbacker and his crew floated for days on the rough
waters of the Pacific. They fought the sun. They fought sharks. Most of
all, they fought hunger and thirst. By the eighth day their rations ran
out. No food. No water. They were hundreds of miles from land and no one
knew where they were or even if they were alive. Every day across America
millions wondered and prayed that Eddie Rickenbacker might somehow be found
The men adrift needed a miracle. That afternoon they had a simple
devotional service and prayed for a miracle. They tried to nap. Eddie
leaned back and pulled his military cap over his nose. Time dragged on. All
he could hear was the slap of the waves against the raft…
Suddenly, Eddie felt something land on the top of his cap. It was
Old Ed would later describe how he sat perfectly still, planning
his next move. With a flash of his hand and a squawk from the gull, he
managed to grab it and wring its neck. He tore the feathers off, and he and
his starving crew made a meal of it – a very slight meal for eight men.
Then they used the intestines for bait. With it, they caught fish, which
gave them food and more bait . . . and the cycle continued. With that
simple survival technique, they were able to endure the rigors of the sea
until they were found and rescued after 24 days at sea.
Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he
never forgot the sacrifice of that first life-saving seagull… And he
never stopped saying, ‘Thank you.’ That’s why almost every Friday night he
would walk to the end of the pier with a bucket full of shrimp and a heart
full of gratitude.
(Max Lucado, “In The Eye of the Storm”, pp…221, 225-226)
PS: Eddie Rickenbacker was the founder of Eastern Airlines. Before
WWI he was race car driver. In WWI he was a pilot and became America’s
first ace. In WWII he was an instructor and military adviser, and he flew
missions with the combat pilots. Eddie Rickenbacker is a true American
hero. And now you know another story about the trials and sacrifices that
brave men have endured for your freedom.
As you can see, I chose to pass it on. It is a great story that
many don’t know…You’ve got to be careful with old guys, You just never
know what they have done during their lifetime.
I did not see the film, but if this is what really happened, then it’s another Benghazi.
Almost seems as though Obama celebrates when our servicemen are killed.
Does the actions (or in this case, inaction) of ZERO really surprise anyone?
The real story of Captain Phillips
Apparently the President “managed” the details of the rescue of
Captain Phillips. In doing so he earned the hostility of the Seals
entrusted with the mission.
Here’s an account by a career Naval
officer who had a distinguished career, Herb Schwartz, in which he
refers to the President as “Zero”. (Which gives you an indication that
he feels the President was more of an obstructionist than what the WH
would later characterize as “daring and decisive”, once success had been
If you see the movie, keep these things in mind !
Herb Schwartz is a Navy Blue and Gold Officer for the Naval Academy
and father of the highest ranked graduate at the USNA in 2000.
He flew missions over the former Soviet Union with Francis Gary
Powers, taught at the Judge Advocates college and briefed President
Kennedy as an intelligence officer.
The best is that he is my friend and a man I trust. Did I forget that
he is an author and a retired Military Judge.
From: Herb Schwartz, Subject:
The real story of Captain Phillips written shortly after the event by
someone who was there.
All of us want to raise our glass this week to the Navy
SEALs who popped those three Somali pirates. And I’m sure you want to
hear the real story of what happened. Especially because there is a
revoltingly opportunistic and cowardly side to it. Guess which side
Zero (aka: our president) is on.
Why, for example, did it take SEAL Team Six (aka DEVGRU, Navy Special
Warfare Development Group, the Navy’s equivalent of Delta Force) over
36 hours to get to the scene?
Because Zero refused to authorize the SEAL deployment for those 36
hours, during which the OSC – the on scene commander, Cmdr. Frank
Castellano of the USS Bainbridge – repeatedly requested them.
Once the SEALs arrived – parachuting from a C-17 into the ocean near
the ship – Zero then imposed ‘Rules of Engagement’ (ROE) specifying the
SEALs could not do anything unless the life of the hostage, Captain
Richard Phillips, was in “imminent” danger.
Thus, when Capt. Phillips attempted to escape by jumping off the
lifeboat into the ocean, the SEAL snipers had all four pirates (one
later surrendered) sighted in and could have taken them out then and
there – but they could not fire due to Zero’s ROE restrictions.
When the SEALs approached the lifeboat in a RIB (rigid-hull inflatable
boat) carrying supplies for Capt. Phillips and the pirates, the
pirates fired upon them. Not only was no fire returned due to the ROE,
but as the pirates were shooting at the RIB, SEAL snipers on the
Bainbridge had them all dialed in. No triggers were pulled due to the
Two specific rescue plans were developed by Cmdr. Castellano and the
SEAL teams. Zero personally refused to authorize them.
After the second refusal and days of dithering, Cmdr. Castellano
decided he had the Operational Area and OSC authority to “solely
determine risk to hostage” and did not require any further approval of
Four hours later, the White House is informed that three pirates are
dead and Capt. Phillips has been rescued unharmed. A WH press release
is immediately issued, giving credit to the president for his “daring
and decisive” behavior that resulted in such success.
Zero has absolutely no military knowledge or experience whatsoever.
He demanded decisional control over the entire hostage drama to the
last detail. All actions required his personal approval. He dithered
like a coward while the world laughed at our warships flummoxed by
four illiterate teenagers with AKs in a lifeboat.
Only when the Navy Commander decided to ignore his Pantywaist-in Chief
and take action and responsibility himself, were the incredible skills
of the SEALs put into play.
That Zero could cynically and opportunistically claim that his “bold”
“calm” “tough” leadership was responsible should remind everyone that
not a single action, not a single word of this man can be trusted. He
is bereft of honesty and moral character. That’s why he’s Zero.
We raise a glass full of pride and gratitude to Navy Commander Frank
Castellano, the Navy SEALs for their incredible competence, and our
military as we also recognize Zero for what he is,
appropriately, for what he is Not.
Having carried countless knives of many types and sizes all of my life, I discovered that in today’s protective nanny society, kids can no longer do that.
I had one time asked the boys why they didn’t carry knives while in school? They looked at me like I had suggested something evil, and said No Way, they would have been ‘cuffed and stuffed’ for carrying a deadly weapon in school.
Times sure have changed. Every boy I ever knew, along with a few girls, carried a knife to school and ‘Nothing’ ever happened… in ‘Our’ Culture. No one ever thought about stabbing anyone with them. We played games like ‘mumbly peg’ at recess. Which included tipping the open knife off various things, knees, elbows, chins, foreheads etc, trying to ‘stick it’ :>)
We threw our knives at trees, dirt, logs to ‘stick’ em and see who could do it best. We whittled animals out of pieces of wood that we carried in our pockets, while waiting for class to start, or just while sitting around with each other or alone.
We compared any ‘new’ knife with pride, as ‘new’ anything was rare in those days. Hand me downs were far more common. Larry got new boots for Christmas. A knife pocket was sewn on the outer side. They were the new boots he was wearing while riding his bicycle, as he kicked the cats in the dark…Skunks. Those boots stunk for the rest of their life. He had to ‘wear them out’ because no new boots until the next year. Larry didn’t smell like Larry…. until his boots wore out.
My Boy Scout knife that mom ordered for Christmas, was very special. I carried that Camp Knife for years, until I broke it, doing something not realistic for any knife. Every time I see a Boy Scout knife, I remember mom getting that special knife for me. :>)
I had a Boy scout Axe with a sheath from one other Christmas. In excellent condition today, those are worth a few dollars. Mine was battered and used, after many camping and hiking trips. I was ‘rough on stuff’ :<(
Today the knife is considered a very irresponsible item for a well protected boy to own. Back then it was as common, as a dollar in your pocket is today.
Totalitarian Controlled ‘progressive’ Society by Design, authoritarian mandated Safety across the USA of today, has changed this once adventuresome nation into some dis-utopian, feel good imaginary dream state, that has far more flaws than ever existed in Mark Twain’s time. Heaven, filled with adventure and knowledge, seems ever more attractive in comparison.
Enjoy life in the Untied States of America. ‘One Nation Under God’
and ‘Pack a Knife, you will feel better about yourself’
A compilation of SR-71 stories.
In April 1986, following an attack on American soldiers in a Berlin disco, President Reagan ordered the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorist camps in Libya ..
My duty was to fly over Libya , and take photographs recording the damage our F-111’s had inflicted.
Qaddafi had established a ‘line of death,’ a territorial marking across the Gulf of Sidra, swearing to shoot down any intruder, that crossed the boundary.
On the morning of April 15, I rocketed past the line at 2,125 mph.
I was piloting the SR-71 spy plane, the world’s fastest jet, accompanied by a Marine Major (Walt), the aircraft’s reconnaissance systems officer (RSO).
We had crossed into Libya , and were approaching our final turn over the bleak desert landscape, when Walt informed me, that he was receiving missile launch signals.
I quickly increased our speed, calculating the time it would take for the weapons, most likely SA-2 and SA-4 surface-to-air missiles, capable of Mach 5 – to reach our altitude.
I estimated, that we could beat the rocket-powered missiles to the turn, and stayed our course, betting our lives on the plane’s performance.
After several agonizingly long seconds, we made the turn and blasted toward the Mediterranean …
‘You might want to pull it back,’ Walt suggested.
It was then that I noticed I still had the throttles full forward.
The plane was flying a mile every 1.6 seconds, well above our Mach 3.2 limit.
It was the fastest we would ever fly.
I pulled the throttles to idle, just south of Sicily , but we still overran the refueling tanker, awaiting us over Gibraltar …
Scores of significant aircraft have been produced, in the 100 years of flight, following the achievements of the Wright brothers, which we celebrate in December.Aircraft such as the Boeing 707, the F-86 Sabre Jet, and the P-51 Mustang, are among the important machines, that have flown our skies.
But the SR-71, also known as the Blackbird, stands alone as a significant contributor to Cold War victory, and as the fastest plane ever, and only 93 Air Force pilots, ever steered the ‘sled,’ as we called our aircraft.
The SR-71, was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, the famed Lockheed designer, who created the P-38, the F-104 Starfighter, and the U-2.
After the Soviets shot down Gary Powers U-2 in 1960, Johnson began to develop an aircraft, that would fly three miles higher, and five times faster, than the spy plane, and still be capable of photographing your license plate.However, flying at 2,000 mph would create intense heat on the aircraft’s skin.
Lockheed engineers used a titanium alloy, to construct more than 90 percent of the SR-71, creating special tools, and manufacturing procedures to hand-build each of the (40 planes.. (WoW ! ! ! 40 planes???? I thought only 7.)
Special heat-resistant fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids, that would function at 85,000 feet, and higher, also had to be developed.
In 1962, the first Blackbird successfully flew, and in 1966, the same year I graduated from high school, the Air Force began flying operational SR-71 missions.
I came to the program in 1983, with a sterling record and a recommendation from my commander, completing the weeklong interview, and meeting Walt, my partner for the next four years.He would ride four feet behind me, working all the cameras, radios, and electronic jamming equipment.
I joked, that if we were ever captured, he was the spy, and I was just the driver.
He told me to keep the pointy end forward.
We trained for a year, flying out of Beale AFB in California , Kadena Airbase in Okinawa , and RAF Mildenhall in England ..
On a typical training mission, we would take off near Sacramento , refuel over Nevada , accelerate into Montana , obtain a high Mach speed over Colorado , turn right over New Mexico, speed across the Los Angeles Basin, run up the West Coast, turn right at Seattle , then return to Beale.
Total flight time:- Two Hours and Forty Minutes.One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic, of all the mortal airplanes below us.
First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied.
A Bonanza soon made the same request.
‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply.
To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio, with a ground speed check.
I knew exactly what he was doing.
Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley, know what real speed was, ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded.
The situation was too ripe.
I heard the click of Walt’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walt startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace.
In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’
We did not hear another transmission on that frequency, all the way to the coast.
The Blackbird always showed us something new, each aircraft possessing its own unique personality.
In time, we realized we were flying a national treasure.When we taxied out of our revetments for take-off, people took notice.
Traffic congregated near the airfield fences, because everyone wanted to see, and hear the mighty SR-71.
You could not be a part of this program, and not come to love the airplane.
Slowly, she revealed her secrets to us, as we earned her trust..
One moonless night, while flying a routine training mission over the Pacific, I wondered what the sky would look like from 84,000 feet, if the cockpit lighting were dark.
While heading home on a straight course, I slowly turned down all of the lighting, reducing the glare and revealing the night sky.
Within seconds, I turned the lights back up, fearful that the jet would know, and somehow punish me.
But my desire to see the sky, overruled my caution, I dimmed the lighting again.
To my amazement, I saw a bright light outside my window.
As my eyes adjusted to the view, I realized that the brilliance was the broad expanse of the Milky Way, now a gleaming stripe across the sky.
Where dark spaces in the sky, had usually existed, there were now dense clusters, of sparkling stars.
Shooting Stars, flashed across the canvas every few seconds.
It was like a fireworks display with no sound.
I knew I had to get my eyes back on the instruments, and reluctantly, I brought my attention back inside.
To my surprise, with the cockpit lighting still off, I could see every gauge, lit by starlight.
In the plane’s mirrors, I could see the eerie shine of my gold spacesuit, incandescently illuminated, in a celestial glow.
I stole one last glance out the window.
Despite our speed, we seemed still before the heavens, humbled in the radiance of a much greater power.
For those few moments, I felt a part of something far more significant, than anything we were doing in the plane.
The sharp sound of Walt’s voice on the radio, brought me back to the tasks at hand, as I prepared for our descent.
San Diego Aerospace Museum
The SR-71 was an expensive aircraft to operate.
The most significant cost was tanker support, and in 1990, confronted with budget cutbacks, the Air Force retired the SR-71.
The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America for a quarter of a century.Unbeknown to most of the country, the plane flew over North Vietnam , Red China , North Korea , the Middle East , South Africa , Cuba , Nicaragua , Iran , Libya , and the Falkland Islands .
On a weekly basis, the SR-71, kept watch over every Soviet Nuclear Submarine, Mobile Missile Site, and all of their troop movements.
It was a key factor in winning the Cold War.
I am proud to say, I flew about 500 hours in this aircraft. I knew her well.
She gave way to no plane, proudly dragging her Sonic Boom through enemy backyards, with great impunity.
She defeated every missile, outran every MiG, and always brought us home.
In the first 100 years of manned flight, no aircraft was more remarkable.
The Blackbird had outrun nearly 4,000 missiles, not once taking a scratch from enemy fire.On her final flight, the Blackbird, destined for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, sped from Los Angeles to Washington in 64 Minutes, averaging 2,145 mph, and
setting four speed records.
Thank you, from an SR-71 pilot.