WHEN I STEPPED OFF THE BOEING KC-135 TANKER that had brought me to my new duty station in 1968, I felt as though I had been transported back in time. I stood on a heavily patched aircraft parking ramp in front of a large, weather-beaten wooden hangar, marked with a sign that read “DET. 1 SHEMYA.” Scattered around the landscape were the wrecks of a few battered military trucks and other vehicles and old concrete gun emplacements—some with rusted barrels still pointing out to sea. The decaying fuselage of an old bomber lay just off the runway where we had taxied in to the hangar turnoff. A crust of ice and snow, which I was to learn never went away, covered the ramp, and a chilly wind of close to 30 mph was blowing steadily across the treeless tundra and rock that made up this small Aleutian island—my home for the next year. Everything was either stark white or some shade of black, as if the whole thing were a scene from an old newsreel.
At only about three or four miles long and a few miles wide, Shemya doesn’t show up in the average atlas. Located near the end of the Aleutian chain east of the larger island of Attu, its value lay in its proximity to Soviet missile testing ranges.
I was an electronic warfare officer (EWO) who had cut my teeth on B-52G bombers at Warner Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia, where life consisted of alert duty, long training flights, and endless preparation for either nuclear war or inspections—both about equally dreaded. On the B-52, the EWO’s job was to defend the bomber from fighters and ground-to-air missiles by jamming tracking radars, dispensing chaff and flares, and, when those efforts failed, advising the pilots that they needed to resort to violent maneuvers.
Until the B-52s lumbered into battle over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, electronic countermeasures had not really been tested in combat. Uncertainty about whether they would work, coupled with the mystery and weirdness that most people associated with electronic countermeasures at the time, made the EWO something of an oddball in the bomber world. The fact that EWO was pronounced “e-woe” didn’t help.
But in the RC-135s at Shemya, electronic warfare officers were called Ravens and were central to the mission. They located, analyzed, and recorded Soviet radar signals—real time, real world. They gathered data on the strategic missile tests the Soviets launched from sites in Plesetsk, Tyuratum, and Baikonur toward the vast Kamchatka test range.
I didn’t know much about the RC-135 Ravens when the squadron operations officer called and asked if I was interested in flying on a different aircraft. He couldn’t tell me much about the assignment, as everything was classified, but I was bored with continuous alert duty on the B-52s and more than a little frustrated with my second-class standing in a pilot-dominated bomber culture. “What the hell,” I answered. Things moved fast after that.
I was assigned to the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron of the Sixth Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, located at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Arriving at the beginning of winter, I discovered a place where the sun—what there was of it—rose grudgingly a few hours before midday and set a short time later, where moose strolled into back yards, and the landscape went on forever.
Most of us were married, and we lived on base in ghetto-like apartment clusters. Living in Alaska made you feel isolated, a sensation made worse by our being cut off from our extended families. Air crews on normal tours of duty spent one week at Eielson and the next at Shemya—in short, we would spend six months out of the year at the austere environs of Detachment 1. Wives knew nothing about their husbands’ work.
The heritage of our missions extended back to 1946, when a modified B-17G flew the first flight to gather electronic data on the Soviets. By the end of the cold war, U.S. Air Force and Navy crews would have flown 20,000 clandestine missions near Soviet airspace, gathering all manner of electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
In the late 1960s, there were about a dozen RC-135 airframes in the Air Force fleet, mostly one-of-a-kind types, configured for specific areas and intelligence collection missions, and often with their own code names. The RC typically had heavy antenna pods in the cheek fairing, forward of the wings. It also had a long radome, which inspired the RC’s nickname, Hog Nose.