The 1960s was a decade of hope embedded in the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. I was there; I was a Cold War warrior in every way imaginable. When I signed up for navigator training in the U.S. Air Force, I wanted to be on the front line, and that meant getting assigned to a B-52 Stratofortress crew. This awesome 8-engine plane was the Air Force’s answer to the need for a strategic bomber force that would win the war against Communism and take down the Soviet Union. This bomber fleet was also an essential component in the planning to assure that the U.S. could survive a first strike and deliver devastating destruction to the enemy—this is the language of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
In this essay, I want to describe the training and experience that I had in order to become wedded to a weapon of mass destruction. I also want to share with you the spine-chilling atmosphere that I and many other Americans shared about a nuclear future.
Navigator (nav) training started with a nine-month program of study and inflight training at James P. Connally Air Force Base near Waco, Texas. (Please note that I said Way-co, not Whacko, but some might say there’s no difference.) Upon successfully completing this program, I received my navigator wings. Based on my class standing, which was in the top five, I was able to choose the next stop—either going to MATS (Military Air Transport Service) and navigating air transport planes based in Tampa (yes, I said Tampa and the year is 1962), or opting for advance nav training in California. So off to California we went.
Six months later I landed (no pun intended) in Dayton, Ohio, where I was assigned to a B-52 crew at Wright Patterson AFB. The Cold War called for B-52 missions to be in the air 24/7 so that another Pearl Harbor would not happen. B-52 crews were on base “alert” seven days a week and then off for two weeks. Alert meant that the crews and aircraft were “cocked and loaded” with nuclear weapons, four bombs and two missiles with one under each wing. We lived on base and occasionally scrambled for live takeoffs and training. Our work week consisted of studying maps for low- level (500 feet) bomb runs and playing—ping pong was my favorite along with outdoor handball (three walls). Our two-week off time consisted of training and practicing navigating and bomb runs at different locations in the U.S., mainly the Carolinas and upstate New York.
Our alert flight time took us to one of two destinations—a romp around the Mediterranean where I had the pleasure of seeing Europe for the first time (I could see the Rock of Gibraltar through a bombsight) or the North Pole, home of Santa Claus. The North Pole flights were affectionately called “Chrome Dome” flights. These flights were 24 hours in duration and required in-flight refueling, both going and coming. The navigator’s duties included crawling into the bomb bay for a visual inspection of the nukes, an awesome sight and memory even to this day. Oh, one other duty is worth mentioning. It was the nav’s responsibility to start and monitor a stopwatch on each takeoff and notify the pilot when we had reached the “go/no go” point to abort or lift off. An eight-engine fully loaded B-52 rumbling and roaring down the runway was a sight to behold.
Okay, you might wonder, why was a navigator needed at all? The answer is straightforward: to reach downtown Moscow from the North or the South, B-52s had to fly with radios and electronic nav equipment silent. The enemy had to know that we would get to our target no matter what. You might also wonder what would happen to those aircraft that dropped their bombs on the target. After all, these missions were one-way flights; there was not enough fuel to return. The USAF plan called for the successful B-52s to fly on to Iran where they would refuel and return to the USA. Having said this, I don’t remember any crew member believing this plan would work but, after all, I’m sure the USAF generals didn’t like to think of the unthinkable as a suicide mission.
The B-52 crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, electronic warfare officer known as an EWO, a tail gunner, a navigator and RN (radar navigator). The nav and RN were located downstairs and, if needed, ejected downward in an emergency. The RN was responsible for identifying the target and homing in on it during the 500 foot low-level bomb run. The RN actually flew the aircraft on the bomb run.
What, you might ask, could prevent a wayward crew aboard a loaded B-52 from carrying out a “Lone Ranger” strike on the Soviet Union? There was a “fail-safe” system that went something like this: once a secret code was received from the President authorizing an attack, the co-pilot and nav had to validate it with documents on board for this purpose. This “fail-safe”system could, of course, fail if a B-52 crew decided to ignore the validation process. What, then, would be the last recourse available to a crew member who didn’t see eye-to-eye with the pilot’s plan to launch an unauthorized strike? Yes, you guessed right: crew members packed sidearms, and I am fully confident that I and fellow crew members would not hesitate to shoot a crew member under these circumstances.
Now to the Cold War chill that infected every aspect of life in the 1960s. The MAD doctrine, as history has shown, worked—neither the US nor the Soviet Union launched a nuclear war; it was a standoff. Still, it was an ominous time. Do you remember the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? Probably not. But I do. I was still in Waco and wondered if my training would be cut short. It was also strange to witness suddenly armed guards on the base’s entrance. President Kennedy and his advisors didn’t want to place a blockade around Cuba as that is an act of war. So they settled for a naval blockade ready to intercept any Soviet vessels carrying missiles or materials for constructing Cuban silos. The country and world were on edge. Eye-to-eye with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, the question was: “Is anyone going to back off? Or is a nuclear war imminent?” The Kennedy administration dangled the promise to the Soviets that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and agreed (secretly) to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey, if they would remove the missiles in Cuba. Nuclear disaster was avoided.
I was so convinced that a nuclear future was ahead that I decided I did not want to bring a third child into a world where a “survival of the fittest” could result in some awful things. I imagined being faced with draconian choices. The 1964 black comedy satire movie, Dr. Strangelove, was all too real a possibility. The movie’s subtitle, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,”concluded with Slim Pickens, the pilot cast as Major T. J. “King” Kong, riding a bomb out of the bomb bay and yelling: “Yippee-ki-yay!”
Oh Lordy, I am so, so happy that I never dropped a bomb on anyone. But would I if I had been so ordered? You betcha!
Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.