Growing up on a Cold War air base in the shadow of the big one
“Do you realize there are fifteen hundred babies born a month in SAC?” says Jimmy Stewart, playing a B-36 pilot in the 1954 film Strategic Air Command . I was raised among those babies. I grew up near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, during the Cold War, amid the presence of the Strategic Air Command and the eagle vision of Curtis E. Lemay. I spent the first few years of my life with great silver B-36 Peacemakers flying overhead. “Silver overcast,” they were wryly called. I went to kindergarten on the base, where each morning one student was designated officer of the day, and I attended air shows where the latest planes were on display, like the F-106A Delta Dart. I was surprised that the edge of the F-106's wing didn’t cut my finger when I furtively touched it. We were carried up in helicopters with open doors and, hovering, looked down on the planes laid out on the tarmac, huge crosses and arrowheads. We passed the “clima,tic” hangar that could reproduce the conditions of bases in Greenland or the steamy tropics.
Half a century later we have somehow mostly forgotten that SAC (pronounced sack ) once occupied the same place in our national consciousness as did the Royal Navy in the British one —and perhaps the same as the imperial legions occupied in that of ancient Rome. Just a few years after military restructuring rolled SAC into the Air Combat Command, we have forgotten what the Strategic Air Command meant.
In the beginning SAC was staffed by a mixture of callow youths and seasoned World War II bomber vets who had pounded Germany and Japan from Flying Fortresses and Superfortresses and gotten the nod in 1948 to deliver the big ones. SAC’s job was to routinize doomsday, to bureaucratize Armageddon. Its planes stayed airborne twenty-four hours a day.
The B-36s flew over our house. In kindergarten I modeled B-36s from red and green clay. Often I gave them eight or even ten engines rather than the six props and dual jets podded at the ends of the wings. The specific number was inconsequential to a fouryear-old. There just sure were a lot of engines on that wing. The big bombers seemed one with the suburban tract houses and the bulldozers that came to strip out the thin pines and pile them up for burning. The smoke was often heavy and tangy with the pine sap.
SAC was the keeper of blue skies, the shield and umbrella under which the normal life of America in the fifties, of Elvis and Hula Hoops and college football and strip malls and tail fins, could proceed without dark seriousness. SAC’s bombers cruising above the earth without pause were aerial versions of the battleships their predecessors had helped make obsolete, back in the twenties, when Billy Mitchell sank the old German Ostfriesland .
Careful press relations shaped SAC’s image. A 1956 celebration book that captures the tone of the time, The Air Force , by Arnold Brophy, describes how LeMay improved barracks to keep SAC airmen happy and how fliers were trained in hand-to-hand combat in case they were shot down. Each SAC bomber, Brophy assures the reader, “can drop more firepower than all the Allied aircraft dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II,” the kind of boast LeMay himself always liked to make. “Manned by the most dedicated and single-minded men the U.S. has ever produced, SAC planes, with long, white vapor trails marking their lonely courses, head for specific enemy targets.”
The film Strategic Air Command was a virtual Pentagon tract. As the star, Jimmy Stewart seems Lindbergh grown up, or Mr. Smith gone to Armageddon—or at least to Omaha. He suffers under a LeMay-like general: “Don’t tell me your little problems, son. All I’m interested in is results.” Even so, even under the threat of the bomb, it’s a wonderful life. A good family man, out there defending “our way of life,” he’s loyal to his pregnant wife, played by June Allyson, until SAC calls. The message is clear: Constant vigilance was the price of the prosperity.
SAC was embodied by its commander, Curtis LeMay. Invariably referred to as “cigar-chomping,” LeMay had been the lead navigator on a crucial 1938 demonstration flight in which bombers took on Navy battleships and won the day, and the episode had shaped his thinking forever. LeMay felt the Navy had cheated in the tests, and he became a brutal practitioner of interservice rivalry, cutting down the competition first on behalf of the Air Force, then on behalf of SAC. Like the generals in Beetle Bailey , he knew that the real enemy was the Navy.
LeMay took command of SAC in October of 1948, two years after it had been formed, and declared it a shambles, with untrained crews who couldn’t hit their targets. He staged a mock bombing attack on Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and it was a dismal failure: Not a single bomber completed the mission successfully. LeMay called it “just about the darkest night in American aviation history.” He proceeded to get SAC in shape.
SAC’s motto would become “Peace is our profession.” Its seal was a shield bearing an armored hand glinting against a blue sky, an image like a knight painted by Piero della Francesca. But it had three lightning bolts and only one olive branch.
LeMay’s premise was: We are at war already. Since the next war would be a war of deterrence, won or lost before it started, we were in effect already fighting World War III. So LeMay kept some of his planes in the air at all times. Some had pushbutton starters so they could scramble quickly.
To LeMay it was clear that when World War III came—and he almost longed for it—there would be no chance for the big comeback America had staged in World War II. A Pearl Harbor would be fatal. So he had no hesitancy about striking first if attack seemed imminent. With every passing year the margin of advantage for the United States was growing smaller. SAC’s advantage, LeMay said, was a “wasting asset.” It seemed crazy to him to let the other guys strike first. “Catch ‘em with their pants down,” as George C. Scott urges, playing the general modeled after LeMay in Dr. Strangelove .
In June of 1950 SAC staged an exercise involving dozens of bombers targeting Eglin Air Force Base. In Mission With LeMay , a 1965 autobiography he wrote with MacKinlay Kantor, he described the constant practice of which the Eglin run was a good part: “We attacked every good-sized city in the United States. People were down there in their beds, and they didn’t know what was going on upstairs. By the time I left SAC . . . every city in the United States of twenty-five thousand population or more had been bombed on innumerable occasions. San Francisco had been bombed over six hundred times in a month.”
In the spring of 1953 a top-secret CIA report revealed the vulnerability of the United States to a surprise attack by Soviet long-range bombers. That August, just nine months after the first American H-bomb blast, the Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb. LeMay thought they would be ready to attack by 1954, the year of “maximum danger.”
Beyond the danger of attack from the air, LeMay developed an obsession with security and sabotage on the ground. He gained national publicity when he staged a surprise visit to a SAC hangar and found the security guy eating lunch. “I found a sergeant guarding a hangar with a ham sandwich,” he said. He had crack Air Police patrolling SAC bases, like the commando units in Dr. Strangelove . He dispatched trained “penetrators” to plant notes that said things like, “This is a simulated bomb that will explode in five minutes.”
Sometimes his agents would paste a baby picture or an animal picture on their I.D. badges just to test the security guards. Once LeMay himself found soldiers entering his office to repair phone lines. It took him several minutes to remember that the Air Force used outside repair people. He drew his automatic before the intruders had time to deposit the slip of paper that read, “You will be blown up at 1030.” LeMay even had his wife tested by a security guard, who demanded that she produce identification while she was working in her back yard. She had to get up and go into the house for it.
SAC’s headquarters was at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, formerly a dreary Army post. The location had been chosen carefully: It was especially far from the bases of Soviet bombers. Offutt and the other distant SAC bases at Rapid City and Minot quickly turned into isolated Americandream towns. Most of them were in the middle of nowhere, so LeMay made SAC into a housing developer, creating whole new developments, green-grass Levittowns under blue skies. He set up hobby shops to improve base morale. The hot rods built there raced on the runways. It was Pax Atomica, as LeMay liked to call it.
Growing up in the shadow of the B-36 meant growing up amid the lore and legend of airpower, the belief that wars would now be won or lost by great silver bombers, raining destruction on distant cities. The last war airpower had won was less than a decade behind us.
Living near Eglin I was raised in the religion of airpower. I must have been but three or four when my mother brought home a model of the B-29 on which my father had flown, all silver with burgundy prop and tail tips, and I was taught that the airpower that had won the last war was there to prevent the next. I “imprinted” on these aircraft the way Konrad Lorenz described goslings imprinting. The B-36s overhead were just a larger version of the B-29; the B-52s and B-47s and B-58s would continue the evolution.
My father figured as a heroic warrior of airpower. Family myth fitted neatly into the national myth that arrived on our primitive black-and-white television set via Walter Cronkite and the program “The Twentieth Century": Eager American youths from small towns across the country were being sent for training to the new bases set up far from the vulnerable coasts.
In these bases my father had learned bombing and radar and navigation and gunnery so he could help win World War II. He had been sent to San Angelo, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas. The strains of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had drifted through his barracks at Clovis, New Mexico. He had learned gunnery in Boca Raton, Florida, where the luxury Boca Raton Hotel had been requisitioned by the military and the nude statues out front had been boxed in plywood for the duration.
Then airpower compounded the trainees into ethnically mixed Hollywood all-American crews—the kid from Brooklyn, the guy from Texas, the farm boy and the city boy—that would fly from Wichita to Khartoum and Bombay, to China and Guam, and eventually over the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. My father had bombed Tokyo in LeMay’s great firestorm and then been shot up over Osaka and left blind, a disabled veteran, with his right arm crooked and bent. His left arm compensated; from my earliest days I thought it looked like the arm on the baking soda box. Decades later bits of shrapnel were still working their way out of his skin.
The Bible of airpower was Victory Through Air Power , written in 1942 by Maj. Alexander P. de Seversky. Its cover showed a lowering gray cloud on a blue sky. Inside was laid out the ideology on which SAC would be built and which would send my father and thousands of other young men from small American towns and farms to war over the Himalayas, over Rangoon, over Osaka and Tokyo.
Seversky was a charismatic White Russian émigré who had distinguished himself as a naval aviator in World War I, during which he lost a leg. He allied himself with Billy Mitchell, the maverick general, and after Mitchell died, in 1936, he became the leading exponent of the faith that strategic bombing would be the dominant force in all modern wars.
The major founded Seversky Aircraft, which later became Republic Aviation, and his book was a huge bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It warned Americans that they could no longer rely on the oceans but they could win World War II with superior airpower. They were no longer safe in Kansas City or Chicago. However, if Americans built a massive force of bombers and destroyed the distant cities of their enemies, they could return to their comfortable isolation.
Seversky laid out the rationale for fighting wars with the bombs that would lead to the A-bomb. Walt Disney, one of Seversky’s fans, made a film of the book at his own expense, as a contribution to the war effort. The 1943 movie, Victory Through Air Power , was a powerful piece of propaganda, offering a neat solution to the muddles of war with fantastic machines to keep the distant enemies at bay.
Seversky, nicknamed “Sasha,” narrated the film in his exotic and authoritative Russian accent. The movie blended newsreels of Mitchell and his famous demonstration of how to bomb battleships with cartoon explanations of the development of military aviation. Animated maps used shields and arrows and eagles to explain the situation, with the eagle of airpower fighting the Japanese octopus and destroying its head as the tentacles slowly released their hold. The film featured six-engine pusher-prop bombers, with streamlines running off their edges, foreshadowing the B-36.
James Agee, then the film critic for Time magazine, found the movie a skillful piece of propaganda and noted that it never showed civilians on the ground, never showed the target. The climactic battle of the eagle and the octopus, he said, perfected the abstracting of war. The movie offered, he wrote, “gay dreams of holocaust.”
Richard Schickel argues in his history of the Disney studios that Disney liked airpower because it made for efficient, clean warfare in which corpses are never seen. Airpower seemed to appeal especially to Midwesterners like Disney, LeMay, and Dwight Eisenhower. It was in a way the flip side of the region’s traditional isolationism, a way to play world power without sending soldiers overseas.
It was not long before Seversky and Disney’s dreams of holocaust would be realized. The B-29 long-range bomber was being developed in top secrecy at Boeing in Seattle even as the film was being made. And Curtis LeMay, then training at Muroc, California, would follow the B-29 from bases in India to China and then the Marianas, from which at last the bombers could effectively reach Japan, Disney’s eagle attacking the octopus.
When the first raids aimed at precision bombing failed to strike their intended targets, because of bad weather and bad bombing, LeMay was put in command, and he tried something new—gambling the lives of his crews. He turned to terror bombing, firebombing whole cities. Now his target problem was simpler: Find the areas of cities that were the oldest and had the largest proportion of wooden buildings. The first target was Tokyo’s Shitamchi district.
Stripping the bombers of most of their guns and sending them in low and at night, LeMay dispatched 334 bombers from bases in the Marianas on March 9, 1945, each carrying about six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombs burned more than the sixteen square miles targeted and killed between eighty and one hundred thousand people. In no other six-hour period of human history had so many people died. The firestorm was so powerful it sent updrafts that tossed the bombers about as their crews breathed the smoke of houses and flesh.
To those on the ground the thousand or so bombers silhouetted against the sky looked like black knife-blades or, when the flames lit them from below, like silver moths trapped in amber. The bombs themselves were more a liquid silver rain than a series of objects. Women fleeing, carrying babies on their backs, continued to run, unaware that the bundles had burst into flame. Bodies twisted and turned into the pumice of Pompeii. Those who jumped into canals or pools were boiled to death.
The fires died down fairly quickly, after which processions of silent refugees moved under the moonlight amid the ruins. One man paused to light a cigar from a still-burning telephone pole.
Time called the raid “a dream come true.” It showed that “properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves.” In the first great triumph of airpower, approximately as many people died that night as in the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombings. The step to the atomic bomb was only a technical one.
Whether or not airpower really won World War II—its bad report cards in postwar analyses were overlooked by the public—it won its own war. The Air Force became an independent service and quickly grabbed the lion’s share of the budget from the Navy and the Army. Moreover, the atomic bomb meant that accurate bombing would no longer be an issue. The cult of airpower would grow as strong in the 1940s and 1950s as the cult of the battleship that LeMay and the others had fought in the 1920s and 1930s.
Eisenhower went for airpower, despite being an Army man. He saw it as a way to keep from becoming bogged down in another conventional war like Korea, and an inexpensive way at that. He adopted strategic airpower as part of his “New Look” defense policy (the phrase came from Christian Dior’s fashions of the time), the heart of the policy being that we would no longer fight messy conventional wars like Korea; we would prevent them by threatening direct nuclear retaliation against any Soviet or Chinese aggression.
Only time and the mounting strength of a counterdeterrent, the crises of brinksmanship and confrontation, would show that the policy of massive retaliation was unrealistic. No one would trade Washington or New York to defend Saigon or even Berlin.
Serious as the mission was, the tone of life around SAC was always business as usual. There was never the World War II sense of making a “big push.” My father, for instance, was neither an especial enthusiast nor a skeptic about the new kind of constant war. Once I heard him describe a reunion of his World War II bombing unit as an occasion “for telling old war lies,” but he went nonetheless and enjoyed the camaraderie of those far more militant than he. Like many Americans, I suspect, he was so happy to have made it through the hot war that he considered the requirements of living in the cold one a small price. Toward the physical price he had paid for his own survival, he never showed bitterness, and he wisely foresaw that I would outgrow my affection for the big bombers before there was any risk of my following him into their service. Later, looking back, he would laugh at what he, like most Americans, saw as LeMay’s rhetorical excesses, but during the years of Eisenhower he was determined to live deeply in the long-awaited peace, even if it could be ended at any moment by a klaxon calling SAC’s crews to scramble.
The B-36 that seemed so grand to me as a child, the flagship of SAC during the 1950s, was actually something of a turkey. Originally designed in 1941 to reach Germany from the United States in case England fell, it first flew in 1946. A mechanically ragged airplane, it was saved by its abundance of engines. There was a joke about it: Pilot: “Feather four.” Engineer: “Which four?” The bomber’s big, slow propellers emitted a distinctive whumpwhump sound. One pilot recalls its sounding like a streetcar as it rumbled toward takeoff.
It was huge, with six pusher-prop turbojets set along its wings; jets were added later. The dome and the bulbous nose gave the plane a stupid, brontosaurian look. The frame of its Plexiglas canopy suggested a transparent view of the globe itself, crisscrossed with latitude and longitude lines. SAC’s heraldry was filled with images of the globe.
In flight the turtleback canopy atop the bomber was often filled with blue smoke from the cigars the pilots felt free to enjoy on long flights because LeMay was rarely without his own. In SAC the stogie was a symbol of jaunty esprit, a accent of »lan on the way to the final calamity. One year the winning crew in a SAC competition was awarded ashtrays with a B-36 mounted on the rim.
After the B-36 came the jet B-47 (chosen over the flying wing, the dream of the aviation executive John Northrop, which would later be realized in the shape of the B-2 stealth bomber) and the only airplane that can steal Jimmy Stewart’s heart from his wife. “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he gushes when he first sees one.
There were other bombers planned. SAC poured money into an atomic-powered bomber, which would have used only crew members who had already sired all their intended offspring. But the nuclear-powered bomber never worked. The B-36 was succeeded by the swept-wing jet B-47 and the B-52 and the B-58. LeMay planned the grandest of them all, the B-70, the Valkyrie, but Pentagon civilians argued that it would be obsolete before it was built. The bomber had been succeeded by the missile.
I put together plastic models of them all. And if my father’s injuries, the knowledge of the carnage of airpower past and future, might have given pause to the enthusiasm of a SAC child, it could also strengthen it. I spent my first decade in blind love for the shapes of the bombers.
For my ninth birthday I received a sleek plastic toy B-58 Hustler, SAC’s latest bomber then and LeMay’s delight in the late fifties, even while he was planning the larger B-70. Four jets hung from the B-58's delta wings, but the most noticeable feature lay beneath the fuselage: the “weapons pod,” a silvery torpedo shape containing the nuclear bombs. It was designed to dash in at treetop level and drop its payload. The B-58 never worked very well—its speed limited its range—but it was lovely. In his autobiography LeMay would wax positively effusive about its “ventral pod.”
LeMay had always counted on targets. Once while he was commanding the 20th Air Force B-29 group bomb- ing Japan in 1945, he was asked when the war would end. He motioned an aide over and asked him for a list. “How many targets do we have left?” he asked. The war would be over, he said, when he ran out of targets.
Even though SAC’s Cold War was a new kind of struggle, LeMay still needed targets. He needed them to etch into three-dimensional Lucite templates for the radar bombsights of his bombers. He needed them to shape the SIOP (single integrated operations plan), the blueprint for nuclear war.
And LeMay controlled the targets. Until the early sixties neither the Joint Chiefs nor the President knew what they’d be attacking if nuclear war broke out. Moreover, since there were no locks, no presidential codes for the weapons, LeMay’s bombers could have launched a nuclear war on his authority. LeMay feared dilly-dallying politicians; he wanted to “hit ‘em with everything we’ve got” at the first signs of any massing of the bombers he was sure the Soviets were rapidly building. He wanted to be sure he could launch Armageddon even if the White House was gone—indeed, if the White House hesitated.
When Elsenhower, in his 1955 Open Skies proposal, suggested that the United States and the U.S.S.R. allow each other free reconnaissance overflights, the Soviets were suspicious. They rejected the proposal immediately. So LeMay opened up the Soviet skies in his own way to find targets.
At the height of Cold War tensions, in the 1950s, LeMay sent a fleet of RB-47s over Vladivostok at noon one day. The crews took pictures boldly, and though two of the planes spotted MiGs, no interceptions were made. He could easily have started a war with such a flight. In fact there is evidence that he regretted not having done so. After all, he was always tormented by that wasting asset incarnated in SAC’s head start: Use it now, before you lose it, he thought. When he called in an RB-47 crew that had taken MiG damage on another mission, he actually joked that “maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”
Moved up to head the Air Force in 1961, LeMay demanded ICBMs as soon as they arrived. He wanted to get his hands on all three legs of the retaliatory “triad.” He kept in his office a model of a Polaris submarine, with its nuclear missiles, painted up in the SAC livery.
In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis LeMay was a hawk. He added bombers to the dozen or so that circled constantly on alert, and he urged President Kennedy to launch air strikes. When the crisis was over, he made it clear he thought we had lost. He told Kennedy that he should have forced out not only the Soviet missiles but the Soviets and Castro as well. We’ve got the Russian bear in a trap, he said, so “let’s take off his leg right up to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.”
But the missile crisis had in some way broken the fever of the Cold War. The sense of tension would never again be so great. SAC began to fade in the mid-1960s. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara put an end to LeMay’s beloved B-70 program. The plane had been called Valkyrie. Twilight of the gods! The prototypes were put to work for research until, in the summer of 1967, a chase plane struck the tail of one, killing the test pilot, Joe Walker, and providing a dramatic frame-byframe spread for Life magazine.
By 1964, when Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove came out, the idea of SAC as protector of “our way of life” had come to seem dark comedy. George C. Scott’s version of LeMay rang true in every way except for the womanizing, which LeMay didn’t do. The World War II-style ethnically balanced crew of the bomber now featured a black man, James Earl Jones, as the bombadier and Slim Pickens, in his greatest role, as Major Kong, who, when the go code comes, swaps his helmet for a cowboy hat and solemnly announces to the crew that it is time to go into “nuclear combat toe to toe with the Rooskies.” The real question, never answered, was, Could anyone go through with it? “Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beings,” says Pickens, “if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat.”
Perhaps my father’s injuries should have made me sense that airpower was not as clean and neat as its proponents depicted it, but the bombers that arrived each year seduced me with their beauty and kept me from doubts. Until we moved away from the base, I put together my models and we kids played out bombing roles in the limbs of a crepe myrtle tree.
I outgrew the bombers, of course, as other children outgrow fire engines or trains, but I still sat baffled in the theater at the end of Dr. Strangelove , a first exposure to black humor, when Slim Pickens rode the bomb to target rodeo style. I was twelve; only with years of maturity would I realize that this was the moment that ended the Cold War for me.
By 1965 Curtis LeMay had retired, impatient with progress in Vietnam. Unmuzzled at last, he used in his autobiography such terms as yellow twerp for a bomber pilot he deemed cowardly and parlor pink to describe a journalist. On page 565 he enunciated his famous recommendation for U.S. policy in Vietnam: “tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” In 1968 George Wallace picked LeMay as his running mate.
It had all been far from fail-safe, we would learn much later. There were numerous failures in the primitive electronics of the time—mistakenly played exercise-alert tapes, radar artifacts that looked like attacking bombers, many close calls the public never learned of. Col. Jack D. Ripper was not an impossible nightmare; before 1960 a local commander could have launched bomber attacks.
The B-52 flew on. Formally the Stratofortress, it was known to its crews as the BUFF, a phrase the Pentagon euphemistically insisted stood for “big ugly fat fellow.” In Vietnam the BUFFs’ silver skins were painted in camouflage. They were again pressed into service in the Gulf War. “Planes older than the men who fly them,” the generals grumbled, but their successors, the highly politicized B-I and the billion-dollar-apiece B-2 stealth bomber, were held out of that war, too expensive and unreliable to use.
Missiles had long since supplanted the bomber as the tools of nuclear deterrence; the maintenance of a bomber force as a leg of the triad was more a concession to old-line generals than a realistic attempt at defense. Still, airpower’s advocates had their day once more in a new form when the F-117 stealth, called a fighter but in reality a bomber for precision-guided weapons, starred in the Gulf War.
LeMay in old age dwelt on his World War II career, not his leadership of SAC or the Air Force. Interviewed late in his life by the historian Michael Sherry, he became taciturn and defensive about only one subject: the carnage of the Tokyo firebomb raid. He died in 1990, just before the Gulf War left a new vision of airpower as clean and bloodless, of smart weapons and stealth airplanes clashing in the green skies of night-vision lenses. Only the enemies were different. “Dad,” my nine-year-old son asked me not long ago, “what was the Soviet Union?”