The Open Gate

A B-57 crew faced the end of the world.

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He lives now in an “adult community” on the edge of northern California’s wine country in Sonoma Valley.  It’s a tree-shaded cluster of ranch-style houses on hilly lots where deer play, but not children.  “Hell, if we saw a kid here we’d die of shock,” says Jim Mugavero

You pronounce his name as though it started with “Mc.”  And if you knew him in the 41st Fighter Squadron in World War II, you’d call him “Mugs,” and you’d wonder how he and his lively Australian wife can stand living in a place so quiet.  He’s no “adult.”  Overweight?  Well, yes.  Arthritic?  Perhaps a bit.  But he’s still full of stories, and if you’re lucky he’ll tell you one.

Like the time he came face to face with World War III.

Mugavero made ace while serving in New Guinea and the Philippines, stayed in the recently established “blue suit” Air Force, and got to be a lieutenant colonel.  In the early 1960s he had a cushy assignment at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside of Washington, D.C.  But he got fed up and put in for an opening someone at the Pentagon told him about: single-engine jet pilot with 2,500 hours; Yokota, Japan; family included.

He got the job—and found he’d been assigned to the Eighth Bomb Squadron of the Third Bomb Wing, which was based outside Tokyo.  “It was a fine old outfit,” he says.  “But I’d never flown a bomber in my life.  I’d never wanted to get near one!”

This was during the chilliest period of the cold war, and the Air Force had given this squadron a real doozy of a mission.  Each of its 24 twin jet B-57s had a specific target in the Asian Soviet bloc.  If someone punched the button before code one—war—each B-57 would roar off at 500 mph and at 50-foot altitude carrying a single nuclear bomb.  When it reached its destination, the B-57 would climb and, before going into a loop, release the bomb, which would climb still higher until it pitched over and descended to the target.  The B-57 would continue the loop until it was headed away from the target in a shallow dive, inverted.  The pilot would then roll upright, snuggle back onto the deck, and get out of there.  “When it blew,” Mugavero explains, “we hoped to be out of the blast area.”

Rehearsing for this bit part in Armageddon was demanding, especially for young bomber pilots used to flying straight and level.  The B-57, which had been designed in Great Britain as the Canberra and built in the States by Martin, was fine for surgical strikes, but it wasn’t know for aerobatics.  Putting one through an Immelmann (that half roll on top of the loop) was like wrestling a steer to the ground.  “That’s why the Air Force had asked for a fighter pilot,” says Mugavero, who would become squadron flight commander.  “My job was to learn the mission and train the kids to do it without killing themselves.”

In Japan, Mugavero eased into a routine of training flights and home life.  He could help his wife with the shopping, see their three kids off to school, and come home and play with them in the evenings.  Work consisted of flying to the practice bomb range, howling in at high speed and low to the target, beefing the nose up, and holding enough Gs to throw a phony bomb away from the airplane.  The actual release was the task of a computer, which was activated by the pilot.  “We never let it go,” explains Frank Clark, who was the other half of the B-57’s flight crew.

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.”

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