The Open Gate
A B-57 crew faced the end of the world.
- By Edwards Park
- Air & Space magazine, January 1994
(Page 2 of 5)
Clark was Mugavero’s navigator, performing his role from the bomber’s rear seat. A friendly and self-effacing bear of a man, too big to be a fighter pilot, he’s taken the time to drive from Sacramento to reminisce with his former pilot. “While Mugs watched his gauges,” Clark recalls, “I’d spot the horizon and tell him when to pull over the top of the loop. He was great to fly with, except when we had to practice dive-bombing. He’d head damn near straight down, and I’d yell, ‘Pull out, pull out!’ Gunnery I could take, and skip-bombing. But I hated those dives.”
Every few weeks the squadron would leave Japan for a week or two on alert at Kunsan Air Base in Korea, south of Seoul, where they would relieve other crews. “We’d land at our base and roll into our revetments,” says Mugavero. “Then the armament crews would ‘up-load’ one nuclear bomb into each B-57.”
At Kunsan the air crews stayed in a one-story wooden building that combined mess hall and dormitory. The aircraft were clustered outside; barbed wire fences enclosed building, airplanes, and men. A heavy chain link gate, which rolled on a track parallel to the fence, led to the runway and the great world outside: a flat landscape that was barren except for a mountain range at the horizon. Once the B-57s had arrived for the alert period, the gate stayed closed. Everyone knew that during this time it would open only for the real thing—a strike.
“As soon as we arrived at this Korean base, we’d get briefed on our targets,” says Mugavero. They were different every time, and the men studied them carefully. They also played cards, used their new Japanese stereo equipment to tape music (a new group called the Beatles was getting hot), held endless bull sessions, and slept in their clothes while they waited for the bell.
“It would go off two or three times during the first days,” Mugavero remembers. “I’d head straight for my plane, strap in, and get ready to start. Frank would grab our maps and orders from the operations officer and follow me. As soon as he got a hand on the cockpit ladder, I’d hit the switches.” A black powder charge fired up the B-57’s twin jet engines, and the crew was supposed to “show smoke” within five minutes of the bell.
That was all there was to it. The crews would fire up their airplanes, then shut them down. The targets were far away and there was no sense wasting fuel when every second in the air would count. The crews would then return to their quarters to wait for the next bell, when maybe they could improve their time. “Five minutes sounds long,” says Mugavero, “but when you’d been waked up at 2 a.m. it really wasn’t.”
It was more like 4 a.m. when the bell went off one chilly morning in late November. Mugavero had been playing bridge the night before and was glad he’d retired early. He swung out of bed, downed some coffee, and yelled to Clark to move it so they could show smoke and get back into the sack. He trotted out to the airplane, scrambled into his seat, and clicked on his parachute straps. The auxiliary power had already been plugged in by the crew chief. Clark soon appeared, clutching papers. He climbed up the B-57’s ladder as Mugavero prepared to turn the switches.
“Don’t start!” shouted Clark.