It is late summer, 1962. We have been stationed at the Thomasville Radar Site for six months. All of us are getting pretty good at our jobs. Only a few of the techs from Sperry and Burroughs are still here, and in truth we now know the radar system as well as they do. Well, almost. I take and pass my five level proficiency test, qualifying for pro pay - doing good.
For a young airman life is great. I visit Shirl (my new girl friend ) at least twice a week. I work eight hours a day, have enough money to buy cigs, some new clothes now and then, and put gas in the car. Plus, I am trained to work on one of the largest radar units in the world. I tell you, for an 18 year old, it doesn't get any better.
The radar is officially being turned over to the Air Force once we pass the final Beta Test. I have no idea why they call it that, sort of like Zulu Time. Who picks these names? Anyway, during the test, we have to maintain continuous operation for 48 hours. Then we must detect a mock attack on the Southern U.S. by enemy bombers coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. Actually they are B-52's out of Eglin AFB in Fla., but we pretend they are the Russians. The MAJAC room (Master Anti Jam and Control) is where system performance is monitored. As the test progresses we see 11 Bogeys about 200 miles out heading for shore. The PPI (Plan Position Indicator ) scope goes wild with blips every- where. They are jamming us, and masking their real positions. The Majac Console has an analog display that shows us the azimuth, and the frequency that each plane is using to jam our signal. So we program in a frequency change for a few degrees azimuth around the jammer's position, and paint him out again. Then of course the plane changes frequency and we lose him again. The planes are using what is called Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). We are using Electronic Counter Counter Measures (ECCM). The cat and mouse game goes on for an hour or so, until it appears that the B-52's are getting the better of it. Then unexpectedly, we loose transmitter drive. The Amplitron (main transmitter tube ) goes into oscillation. In this state, it randomly shifts from one frequency to another. We didn't plan it that way, but as it turns out we can now see every plane clearly. Our transmitter oscillation is changing frequency so fast that the planes can't adapt to it. However, our receiver automatically tracks transmitted frequency and adjusts our receiver to whatever frequency is transmitted. This allows us to locate the planes and paint them out clearly. (Paint refers to the little blip on the scope indicating the position of a plane ) The Air Defense Command people at Craig AFB know that the planes are now only 30 miles out, and should be able to overload our receiver with false signals. They don't understand how we can still see them. We don't tell them, and enjoy the fun. The squawk box comes alive every now and then with a question from Ops. "Huh T'ville, what's your transmit power, over?" We tell them and wait. "Huh T'ville, what's your range gate blanking frequency at 92 degrees, over?" They are trying to see what we are doing, because it ain't supposed to work this way. "Huh T'ville, repeat your transmit freq, over." We can tell they are going nuts up in operations. We just let them stew about it, and volunteer no usable information. Chalk one up for the radar boys. We pass the test and officially become linked to the Sage Network of world wide radar sites feeding NORAD. However, we did get a very nasty memo from Air Defense Operations after an investigation confirmed that we allowed our transmitter to oscillate, and didn't tell anyone about it.
Note: The main transmitter tube operates at approximately 10 million watts of power, and cannot be allowed to oscillate for long, as it will burn out.
Officially, we are on line, sort of. The radar still only runs properly every other day, if we are lucky. The rest of the time we are replacing those high priced tetrode tubes and magnetic amplifiers. The tubes blow out every couple of days, and the mag amps short out almost as frequently. These particular tubes have gold plated contacts, and are very expensive. One of my co-workers in the transmitter section is a guy my age named Godfried, but we call him Frits. He and I joke that we burn up a good $20,000 dollars a week. When you're 18, government money is not real, and nothing to be concerned with. We just order more.
In early October, 1962, we received word that a special team from Sperry was coming in to extend the range of our receiver by three to five times. This would make it possible for us to see objects up to 1500 miles away. At that range, our beam would be in space due the curvature of the earth. We all wonder what in the world is going on.
One of our buddies is a guy named Norman, who happens to work in the Communications Center. He gets and decodes all the Krypto message traffic. Even though it is Top Secret, he lets us know what is going on prior to the Commander's Call announcing that the Russians have Nuclear Missiles in Cuba. Holy crap! We are directed to get the radar operational immediately, and go to Def. Con. 3. The base is sealed off. Additional M.P.'s are sent in from Craig AFB in Selma. No one gets in the compound or on base who doesn't work there. We are on full military alert status twnety four hours a day, a good two weeks prior to the day when President Kennedy went on TV and told the nation what was happening.
The President said that any attack, on any nation in the western hemisphere, would be considered an attack on the United States, and would be met with a full retaliatory response. Perhaps the strongest direct statement ever spoken by a U.S. President. The guys on the base had considered this somewhat of a exercise up until that moment. Somewhat of a lark. When President Kennedy was through speaking, there was silence in the rec room. None of us knew quite what to say, or do. We just sat there a while. Then quiet discussions began. People speaking in low tones, as if in church. The realization of possible nuclear war sinking in. Damn, this was the real thing.
The radar won't cooperate, the mag amps keep shorting out and we are down to our last four. There is a big meeting that night. The transmitter crew, the C+E Officer and a guy from Sperry are all trying to figure out how to make these things work. Frits and I have an idea, but nobody pays much attention to Airmen 2nd's when all the tech sergeants and officers are talking. I am a little intimidated but I say, "Sir, we may be able fix that." They don't hear me, or pay no attention. I try again, "Sir, Frits and I have an idea that might work." Lt. Mitchell looks my way, and asks the rest to be quiet a minute. He wants to hear our idea. Now I move up and approach the table with Frits. We explain that the terminals on top of the mag amp are too close to the metal case. These things are about 24 inches high and 12 inches wide, all metal with four terminal post on top. The connections are very heavy duty, rated for thousands of volts. However they have been manufactured with the terminals too close together, and too close to the metal case. At least that is what my buddy and I believe.
I tell them that we need to separate the terminal posts from the main case of the unit, and use a piece of phenolic insulating material to make new mounts for the connections. This way the post will be insulated and mounted far enough above the case not to short out. Then when we have a high current situation occur, it will not arc and blow the amp. I see some looks exchanged between the powers that be, and confirmation from the Sperry guy that it just might work. Lt. Mitchell doesn't even talk about it, he just says, "Do it now!" Frits and I work on it, with lots of supervision. Everybody wants to be in on the fix, but they all know who thought it up. I love it when a plan comes together.
After a couple hours we have the modification made on two units, and install them in the Amplitron room. Then it takes an additional 20 hours to get the whole system up and running. Finally we are ready. Everybody holds their breath as we run the transmitter up to full power. We are at two megawatts and holding. Six meg, eight meg, 90,000 volts on the plate, 10 megawatts out the horn, and she holds. The real trick will be when we change frequency and cause varying loads to be placed on the output stages. We test from 400 to 450 megacycles and it holds steady as a rock. All that high priced help, and a couple of 18 year old airmen come up with a fix. The lesson here is this. When you have a real problem, ask the people who actually do the work how to fix it. Needless to say, we are very proud of ourselves. All told, we worked 36 straight hours from the time we got the word about the missiles, until the whole system was totally combat ready. Adrenalin is remarkable stuff.
From that night on, we ran the transmitter for three straight weeks, and never let it go off the air. Prior to then, we were lucky to keep it running two days in a row. But now, with missiles in Cuba, it had to run.
Our beam was sweeping over Cuba first. Then a beam from a Texas radar swept across the top of ours. Finally, a radar in New Jersey was adjusted to sweep over the Texas beam. All of the data from these radars was being fed directly to NORAD Hdqtrs. . In Ops we normally had Airmen 3rd's, and Airmen 2nds. on the scopes. Now every scope had a "Full Bird Colonel" watching the sweep go round and round. A Colonel on a scope, it was unheard of. Our Squadron Commander was only a Lt. Colonel. He was the only one on base before, now the place was crawling with them. Each of them had a headset, and an open mike to NORAD. If they saw a missile lift off from Cuba the word would be given to launch ours. A few minutes after the go command, the U.S. would send a full retaliatory strike not only at Cuba, but at Russia itself. The exciting part was that the first people to know about it would be us. The little Radar Sqd. in Thomasville Al. A missile launch would break through our beam first on it's way up. Then the Texas beam would see it, and finally the folks in New Jersey would track the missile. We were so wrapped up in the technical aspect of the mission, that the reality of what we were doing, or what might actually happen, was somewhat muted. We didn't speak about the gorrilla in the closet. It was too big to deal with.
The transmitter and receiver sections were roped off, and no one was allowed to go in without permission. If something needed adjustment ( we called it tweaking ) one of those Colonels would say, "OK, you got five minutes to tune whatever, but don't knock this thing off the air." Let me tell you, that is a lot of pressure on an 18 year old kid. These guys are talking for real about launching ICBM's, and I'm in there turning dials centering up the transmit frequency, and peaking the power across the band width. Once in a while when you try to change something, it can cause a shutdown. I don't want to be the one to knock the transmitter off the air. Luckily for all of us, everything works fine.
President Kennedy has decided to put a naval blockade around Cuba. The idea being to prevent any additional supplies or missiles from being brought in. Fact is they intended to prevent anything from being brought in. The day of the blockade we just knew that the Russian ships were not going to stop. We were going to war, everybody said so. We all waited and watched as the ships moved ever closer. As the moment of contact drew near, the tension on site was nearly off the scale. What would happen? Those on duty just kept busy. Those off shift were glued to TV sets in the rec room and barracks. No games, no frivolous activity. Just high pulse rates and worry, masked by youthful bravado. It happened - Kruchev blinked. He ordered the ships to stop and turn around. I imagine our Navy had a good deal to do with his decision. Go Navy! Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relieve. We were minutes from an all out nuclear exchange with the Russians, and somehow avoided it. The "Radar Boys" (as we liked to call ourselves) also like to brag that not one Russians made it past Thomasville either. However, there was one night when we thought we were under attack.
I was getting off the swing shift at midnight, and stopped by the main gate to talk with Heiden. (One of the MP's) He said he was just about to ride out back to check on Glen, and take him some coffee. I said I'd go along, always liked a Jeep ride. Due to the crises guards were posted all around the base perimeter day and night. Glen was way in the back by the water treatment facility. We drove up as close as we could, and had to walk the rest of the way. The Jeep would make it, but the Base Commander didn't want anybody driving on the grass, war or no war. (The commander played golf back there) Anyway, it was maybe a hundred yards back to where Glen was supposed to be. Heiden says to me, "I hope that fool doesn't shoot us." He is just kidding, but it's dark, and his comment makes me wonder about it. We get closer and hear Glen say, "Halt !" We think he is talking to us, so we give the password for the day, which is "Red Sox". The MP's had decided to use the name of a different ball team each day. Glen doesn't respond, and we hear the distinctive sound of an M1 bolt being pulled back, and a round being chambered into place. If you've ever heard that sound, you'll never forget it. Heiden says, "Hell, he just loaded up!" We can't see him, but we here him. Glen again says, "Halt or I'll shoot!!" Now we are scared and the thought occurs to us that maybe he saw something outside the fence before we got there. We call out to him, much louder this time, "HEY GLEN, DON'T SHOOT IT'S HEIDEN AND BOWERS !!" This time he hears us, and comes back to where we are. He was part way around the side of one of the big water storage tanks. The rear fence has forest directly behind it, and a big corn field on the left side of the base. Glen comes toward us in a low crouch, like he is afraid someone will see him. We ask in a whisper, "What's going on?" He says that somebody is on the other side of the fence trying to break in. Now all three of us are sort of huddled behind the tank, wondering if we should call for more troops. Just about then, a cow walks into view on the other side of the fence in the corn field. Just doing what cows do best I guess. This one was all alone, and must have gotten out of somebody's pasture. . What cow could resist having a midnight snack in a corn field? Especially if it is someone else's corn. I asked Heiden if he thought we should check her for Russian insignia, we laugh until it hurts.
Glen never lived it down, and by morning it was all over the base. When he came in to breakfast somebody cried out, "Hey Glen, shoot any of those Russian cows lately?" Somebody else would add, "That was probably a spy dressed up as a cow." It went on like that for quite a while. I really felt sorry for him, because out there after midnight, alone, I could very easily have done the same thing. I guess that's why I didn't repeat the tale. But Heiden spread it around as if he knew some secret that he alone was ordained to bring to everyone's attention. He took pleasure in it, one of those people who tear other people down to make themselves look good. Of course the opposite is true, but that type never learn that. Everything looks so easy after sun up, the ghost only show up after midnight.
I don't think I will ever again have a chance to be part of anything so important, with so much riding on what I did, right or wrong. It was very scary, and at the same time terribly exciting to know you were part of something big. I mean really big !
We stayed on alert for a couple more weeks, until it was clear that the Russians were removing the missiles from Cuba. The extra guards left, the Colonels left, and things got back to normal. Well, actually better than our previous standard for normal. The radar ran properly now. A few missiles pointed your way can help you focus.
The 698th was awarded a Unit Citation for our part in "Project Falling Leaves." That was
the code name for the special radar coverage over Cuba. We all felt like we had really kicked
butt. These "Radar Boys" all walked a little taller. Rightly so.