When the Cold War was a bit warmer… ©
By Fred Horky
Is it one of ours ….
….or one of theirs?
This anecdote recalls a not-really-very-significant memory that somehow just resurfaced. It involves the 1961 Berlin Wall Crisis. For most people today, “The Wall” is either forgotten, or was never-known. But it was a really a hot button item at the time, now well over a half-century ago. “The Wall” created a six-months-long face-off between Russian Premier Khrushchev, who was challenging the young new American President, John Kennedy. (Years later, we learned that the Russian dictator HAD thought he could force his will on the newly-elected American president, having estimated that Kennedy would be weak and indecisive because of his youth and relative inexperience.)
One of the basic tenants of all wars is that, whether between cave men with clubs or with nuclear missiles today: if the enemy is within YOUR range, YOU are likely within HIS range. Thus, with all that tension, it was very obvious that our Mace missile launch site would be a priority target very high on the bad guy’s “hit list”. Although we never discussed it among ourselves, I don’t think any of us privately expected that if a real war started, we would survive very long.
I took the above picture of our Grünstadt site from a Sembach T-33 jet. As can easily be seen, this early-missile-era site was pretty exposed!
Our normal routine was to have six of our site’s eight launch pads fully loaded with missiles armed with warheads, booster rockets, and live target film which would take the bird to a specific target on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They would be checked out, “cocked”; and ready for launch.
The other two launch pads would have normally be in the routine of having missiles set up or torn down in a continuing rotation back to Sembach for routine maintenance, or being used for normal continuing crew training.
During the hottest part of the saber-rattling over the Berlin Wall crisis, however, all eight launch pads held loaded, cocked, and ready missiles; with additional launch crews already on site, ready to launch more missiles as fast as possible. Unsaid were the words “….before you’re taken out of the game…..”
In our routine operations the fighter-bombers of the USAF-Europe and allied air forces frequently used us for practice for their own training. Newly added to the mix were the jets of the massive reinforcements sent to Europe by Kennedy to counter the belligerent Russians. Included were EIGHTEEN SQUADRONS of the nationalized Air National Guard and Air Force reserve, most equipped with F-84F fighter-bombers. We had not seen them before. (Novelist and aviation writer Richard Bach was one ANG F-84F pilot sent to Europe; his book “Stranger to the Ground” is an excellent read about a single flight made during his deployment.)
My anecdote concerns a sunny but very hazy Sunday afternoon during that tense summer of 1961. I was on alert duty, and for some routine but now forgotten purpose happened to be walking alone across the missile compound, when I suddenly heard the roar of a jet engine VERY low, directly over my head. Looking up, I caught just a fleeting glimpse of the tail end of a jet fighter, now climbing straight up and away from me, disappearing into the haze. He had obviously crossed directly over our missile site very fast and low, and was now pulling straight up.
Whoever the pilot, his maneuver was as obviously the first part of a “LABS” (Low Altitude Bombing System) maneuver. Also called “Toss Bomb”, the technique was invented so a single-seat fighter pilot could visually find and attack his target with his “nuke”, without being incinerated in the blast of his own weapon. It involved first approaching directly at the target, very low and very fast. The low altitude made possible precise, positive visual target identification in murky weather. Pulling up into an Immelman turn (a half loop with half-roll at top), the weapon would be released automatically by a simple bomb-release computer as the airplane passed upwards through the vertical. This allows the pilot to concentrate on completing his half-loop and half-roll so he could escape the way he had come, as the bomb’s momentum carried it much higher, before the inevitable doomsday fall straight down. In this case, if it were a real attack, on my head. The LABS technique, also called “toss bombing”, was thus designed to give the attacking pilot time to escape before being incinerated by his own weapon.
As mentioned, my brief glimpse had been just of a rapidly-disappearing ass end of a fighter-bomber, as it flew straight up, away from me and out of sight into the haze. That momentary glance had only identified it only as a single engine jet with swept, mid-mounted wings and its horizontal tail mounted half way up the rudder.
Those features narrowed the possible aircraft type down to ONE of TWO possibilities.
The first was that the unknown fighter had been one of the recently-arrived Air National Guard F-84F’s, flying an unannounced simulated “toss bomb” training sortie on our site, and NOT dropping anything on my head. In other words, a “Good Guy”.
As mentioned, since the days of the cavemen when the enemy is within range of your weapons, YOU are likely within range of HIS weapons, be it a club or a nuclear bomb. Thus, with world events being as testy as they were, my second possibility to consider was that the unknown jet fighter had been a Russian or East German MiG-17. End-on, the MiG looked much like an -84F ..and the bad guys had thousands of them, little more than fifteen minutes flying time away from us, just on the other side of the Iron Curtain in EAST Germany.
Thus, I couldn’t ignore the fact that our visitor MIGHT have been a MiG doing a REAL toss bomb sortie on ME. With a REAL nuke.
With the airplane disappearing at several hundred miles an hour straight up into the murk, I had little information, and less time, to make a decision.
But even more than a half-century later, I still recall very clearly thinking that in those few seconds my options were three:
- Bend over to kiss my ass goodbye ….or
- Run in circles, scream and shout; like Chicken Little, or…
- Continue walking across the compound as if nothing had happened.
Fortunately, I chose the last option, thus avoiding a very large embarrassment.
As you’ve likely figured out by now that, World War III had NOT suddenly started, and the airplane had been an F-84, NOT a MiG…..
Postscript: just to remind everyone of what we all wanted to AVOID, I’ve included this picture taken of one of my own training TM-76A “Mace” missiles that with my crew I launched on April 23rd, 1959 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, just prior to our deployment of the first Mace unit to Sembach.