How A Two-dollar Watch Saved The World

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My mind raced. How to get out of this? If I could only tell the pilot in the Yak that this was all a mistake, the result of a technical error, and that we’d never meant to approach this near his wonderful workers’ paradise.

I must have said something to this effect aloud, for Jim came over the intercom. “Let’s try one-two-one-pointfive.” That was the international emergency frequency.

So, breaking all the rules, we got on the horn. “Hello, Yak. Hello, Yak. We just want to go home. Can we do that?” Staticky silence. The Yak flew silently at our side.

Finally a heavily accented voice emerging from the ether asked, “Are you the Boeing bomber?” My response in the affirmative was met with silence.

Then: “Why are you approaching the Soviet Union? What is your intention?” The transmission seemed to us to come from a Soviet air-defense ground-control station, not the fighter.

I explained about the failure of our navigational equipment. I even explained that we were flying the last plane in the production run and that it was a piece of junk that was always breaking down. I said all we wanted to do was turn around and go home. Could we do that please?

Silence.

I got back on the radio. “If you shoot us down, you’ll start the war. If you try to force us down, we’ll fight and you’ll have to shoot us down.” I thought some more. What else could I say?

Then Jim came on the intercom. “Tell them it’s my fault. Tell them if that Yak pilot lets us go home, I’ll give him my watch.”

With nothing to lose I relayed the message. Silence.

Then: “What kind of watch?”

“Tell him it’s a Timex.”

I did.

“Oh, no,” Art groaned from behind me. “Why didn’t you tell him it was a Rolex? Or at least a Hamilton?”

The Russian voice came over the airwaves again: “Timex is ‘Keeps a licking and takes on ticking’?”

“Something like that. Yes. Da. Da.

Silence. But the Yak slid close in to our wingtip, and the pilot raised his left arm and pointed at the wrist. “Give me your watch,” I called down to Jim. He wiggled up and handed it to me. I lifted it toward the Yak. The pilot raised his goggles and stared, then rolled the Yak upside down so that we were flying canopy to canopy. I held the watch up, and he, hanging upside down, stared at it. He circled his left thumb and forefinger.

The radio crackled. “How deliver?”

“We’ll mail it when we get back to England.”

“England?”

Oh, cripes! I’d just passed along classified information to the enemy.

Silence again.

“O.K. You mail to this address.” We all three memorized what seemed like a civilian street address, and I repeated it back over the air.

A few seconds after we had done that, the Yak edged in on our wingtip once again. The pilot gave us the O.K. sign once more. I cranked the B-47 into a near-vertical 180 and headed back the way we had come. The Yak pilot escorted us at eight o’clock high for the next ten minutes. Then he dived down again, giving us some anxious moments, pulled up to our wingtip, raised his wrist, and peeled off into a shallow dive toward Russia.

We returned from our mission about twenty minutes behind schedule. In debriefing we explained the discrepancy by the failure of our navigational equipment and headwinds. Jim was complimented on his extraordinary navigational skills in steering us home—and he did do a fine job—and that was that. There was no mention of our unauthorized breach of radio silence, and we didn’t bring it up.

We did send Jim’s watch to that Soviet address—from a civilian post office in Oxford. We thought about buying a new Timex or even chipping in for a more expensive watch, but Jim said, “No, I promised him my watch, and that’s what he’s going to get. I like the idea of some Russian interceptor pilot wearing my Timex.”

A while later, after Gary Powers’s U-2 was blasted out of the sky, as the world spiraled into the Berlin crisis, a B-47 was shot down by a Flashlight near where we’d had our close encounter. The war fever boiled up dangerously.

Talking about the fate of the B-47 crew while on alert in our runway bunker during the war scare, Jim mused, “Maybe the Timex was never delivered and the Yak pilot was sore.”

“Maybe,” said Art, “it took a licking and stopped ticking.”

“But we did mail it,” I pointed out. “Let’s write and ask what the deal is.” So on our next forward alert overseas, we mailed a letter to the Soviet address. As near as I can remember, this is what we wrote:

“Dear fellow pilot: We sent you the Timex watch you asked for, so please lay off shooting down B-47s. When the politicians tell us to, we’ll fight, but let’s not rush things.

“Yours truly,

“The crews of the 351st Bombardment Squadron.

P.S. If the Timex didn’t work, maybe it was the last one in the production run.”

Throughout the rest of the Cold War, another long twenty years, years that saw all my crew and me retire and some of our sons grow up and become SAC aircrew, no Strategic Air Command aircraft was ever again shot down by a Soviet fighter.

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