1961 – A Cold War Vignette

October 6th, 2011


The attachment is one of many short pieces about where I’ve been and what I’ve done, written as the mood strikes. Each title begins with the year of the event, and the computer puts them in order like chapters.

This one includes the word “vignette” in the title. To make sure that was the RIGHT word, I looked it up and learned something interesting: literally, the word means “something that may be written on a vine-leaf”. It must be French; at least the word SOUNDS French. In this context, however, the definition, is… ”short, impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or setting.“ This is included so you can’t say I never taught you anything useless… 😀

Fred Horky
Sembach AB – 38th TMW
Grünstadt – Site III “Plank Owner”

When the Cold War was a bit warmer…

Is it one of ours…

…or one of theirs?

This anecdote recalls one of my really insignificant memories that somehow sticks in the mind. It involves the 1961 Berlin Wall Crisis. Almost forgotten now, “The Wall” had created a 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 intended to force his will on the American president, whom he had perceived as being weak because of his youth.)

It was obvious to us that our Mace missile launch site at Grünstadt 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.

Grünstadt - Site III (1961) (photo courtesy of Fred Horky)
Grünstadt - Site III (1961)

Our normal status had been to have six of our site’s eight launch pads having missiles loaded with “cans” (Mk 28 nuclear warheads), booster rockets, and live target film which would take the bird to a specific target on the other side of the Iron Curtan. They would be checked out, and “cocked”; ready for combat launch.

The other two launch pads would have normally be in the process of having missiles set up or torn down in the continuing routing recycling to home base for routine maintenance, or being used for normal continuing training.

During the hottest part of the Berlin Wall crisis, however, I recall all eight launch pads with loaded, cocked, and ready missiles; and with crew duty compressed and extra crews always on site, ready to launch more missiles, faster. Unsaid was “before you’re taken out of the game…..”

In the past we had frequently seen fighter bombers of the USAF and allied air forces using us for practice for their own training. Now added to the mix were President Kennedy’s massive reinforcements sent to Europe to counter the Russian saber-rattling, including many nationalized Air National Guard units, equipped with F-84F fighter-bombers. We had had NOT seen them before.

My anecdote concerns one sunny but very hazy Sunday afternoon that summer of 1961. I was on duty, and for some routine mission walking across the missile compound toward one of our alert missiles, 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 over me and disappearing into the haze. He had obviously crossed the site very fast and low, and was now pulling straight up.

Whoever the pilot, his maneuver was obviously the first part of a “LABS” (Low Altitude Bombing System) attack. This involves approaching his target at high speed and low altitude, crossing very low and very fast directly over that target. The low altitude makes possible precise, positive target identification in murky weather; pulling up into an Immelman turn (a half loop with half-roll at top) allows a single “nuke” to be released while still flying straight up: when the pilot completes his half-loop and half-roll he could escape the way he had come, even as the bomb’s momentum took it even higher before its doomsday fall straight down ….on us. Thus, the “LABS” technique of tossing the bomb “over the shoulder”, (i.e.; “toss bomb”) gives a pilot time to escape the nuclear blast of his own weapon.

My brief glimpse was just of the fighter’s rapidly-disappearing ass end, as it flew straight up away from me, out of sight into the haze. My momentary glance could only identify it as
a single engine jet with a swept, mid-mounted wing and a horizontal tail mounted half way up the rudder.

Those I.D. features narrowed the 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.

“Good Guy”Good Guy

A problem in warfare has always been that, when the enemy is within range of your weapons, YOU are likely within range of HIS. Thus, with events being as testy as they were, my second possibility was that the unknown jet fighter could be a Russian or East German MiG-17. End-on, it looks just like an F-84F, and the bad guys had thousands little more than fifteen minutes flying time away from us, just on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It might have been one of THEM doing a REAL toss bomb sortie on ME with a REAL nuke.

“Bad Guy”Bad Guy

With the thing disappearing at several hundred miles an hour straight up into the murk, I had little information and less time to make a decision.

Today I still recall very clearly thinking that now I had a few seconds to decide between a further two options:

1. Bend over to kiss my ass goodbye…
2. Continue walking across the compound as if nothing had happened.

Fortunately, I chose the latter, thus avoiding a very large embarrassment.

You’ve likely figured out by now that, as things turned out, that World War III had NOT suddenly started, and the airplane was NOT a MiG…

Just to remind everyone of what we all wanted to AVOID, I’ve included this picture taken of one of my training launches made at the White Sands Missile Range in NewMexico in the spring of 1959, prior to deployment to Germany.

Mace Launch - White Sands (photo courtesy of Fred Horky)
Mace Launch - White Sands