A Full Retaliatory Response
When President John Kennedy contemplated nuclear war, what went through the minds of the U.S. bomber crews?
- By Thomas Jones
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
Augustine R. Letto, USAF
(Page 4 of 7)
Orbiting at their positive-control turnaround points, the crews monitored radio traffic, listening for the Emergency War Order from SAC headquarters in Omaha to come crackling over the bombers’ long-range, high-frequency sets. At least two crew members were to copy the message, then compare its numbers and letters to onboard decoding documents. The voice messages would either recall them or commit them to strike their targets.
“As a 21-year-old I was very confident in the B-52H,” recalls Lee T. McCoy Jr. of Endwell, New York, who was an Airman Second Class tail gunner in the early 1960s. “My aircraft commander had survived World War II—and I thought he was the best—our EW was good, the navigator was excellent, the radar navigator [bombardier] never missed, and I had a Gatling gun in the tail that could take out air-to-air missiles. I had extreme confidence in the aircraft and the crew. Looking back, I was probably very naive. I thought I’d be coming home.”
Just One Reason
Bombs on target: For every member of a SAC crew, that’s what mattered. The plan was to penetrate Soviet airspace at low level and high subsonic speed, to stay below Russian radar, and to skirt known defenses. Approaching the target, B-47 crews would zoom upward, toss their H-bombs toward the aim point, and complete a 180-degree Immelmann maneuver to escape the blast (see “Exit Strategy,” Apr./May 2003). In the less agile B-52, crews delivered their weapons from 400 feet or lower, running in at 400 to 440 mph. With the bombardier fixing his radar scope cross-hairs on a nearby building or terrain feature—an “offset”—that gave a bright return, the B-52’s analog bombing computer would crank in the offset-to-target distance, speed, heading, and weapon ballistics, then send steering signals to the pilot data indicators on the flight deck instrument panel. Upstairs, the aircraft commander flew the airplane so as to keep the PDI needle centered at the top of its instrument case. Twin second hands on either side of the needle ticked off the time to bomb release. At 10 seconds to go, high-pressure hydraulics snapped the bomb bay doors open into the slipstream.
It happens very fast: You can hear and feel the subdued roar of extra drag in the slipstream, confirming the gleaming yellow warning light on the pilot’s panel: “Bomb Doors Open.” The radar-nav’s call of “Bomb Away!” is followed quickly by the thump of the doors closing, and the Stratofortress once again slips smoothly through the dangerous air, racing over—and away from—the target. The bomb’s delay fuse would allow the B-52, running flat out at 400 mph, to escape the fireball, blast, and intense heat. At least that’s what the tactics manual promised.
“I felt it would be a one-way trip,” says Clyde Ketcham. “Even if not shot down, after flying through all the radioactivity, I don’t think we would have lived very long, and on most missions, we had very little fuel left and really no friendly places to go after the last target. I think most crew members held down at the very bottom of their soul [the thought] that God wouldn’t let this happen. That’s how I kept my sanity.”
Buck Shuler remembers four main target “sets” in the SIOP, designed to erode the Soviets’ ability to cause further damage to the United States. “We would strike the leadership, their strategic retaliatory capability, general military [targets], and then their industry and ability to reconstitute. I can remember vividly the aiming point of the first weapon was the southwest corner of the Kremlin.”
After the president’s television address, SAC dispersed many of its B-47 squadrons to civilian airfields. The move complicated Soviet targeting and made room at crowded SAC bases for bombers displaced northward by U.S. invasion preparations.
Gus Letto came off alert in Ohio and joined other crews on a C-47 transport bound for Philadelphia International Airport. There they found three EB-47 jamming aircraft, which would penetrate the Soviet Union ahead of the bomber force, cocked and ready on the Air National Guard ramp. “SAC had taken over the [Guard] command post and quartered us in an airport motel,” Letto recalls. “They handed us credit cards and arranged for the B-47 crews to run a tab at the main terminal’s dining room. We ate in flightsuits, loaded .38s in our shoulder holsters.”