In the Spring of 1965 the 376th Bombardment Wing and its three squadrons at Lockbourne Air Force Base, just south of Columbus, Ohio, were being inactivated. Its EB-47Es were being phased out of the Air Force inventory and sent to the aircraft bone yard in Arizona, or even scrapped. Everyone in the Wing was anxiously awaiting an assignment to another base or job because their positions would shortly cease to be. Dunc Wilmore, Dave Hubbard, and I (all electronic warfare officers: EWOs, Ravens, or Crows) seemed to be among the last to get an assignment or to know anything about what was happening. I had flown my last B-47 sortie, an annual evaluation, February 4th, some three months earlier. One hot afternoon in late May we were alerted to go to the Central Base Personnel Office (CBPO) for late information. We were under a lot of tension because of the possibility of getting a bad assignment to a bad location, like old B-52s at Minot, North Dakota. Would the news be good . . . or bad?
Dunc had heard that Strategic Air Command (SAC) was looking for six EWOs with engineering degrees for a special project. He knew two Ravens who were involved in a classified project at Shemya way out in Alaska's Aleutian Islands but they couldn't tell him much about it except that it was an excellent assignment and should be good for their careers. Dunc knew he wanted in!
Once at CBPO we were given orders that said we were to report to "Ling Temco Vought (AFLC-LOT), Electro Sys, Greenville, Texas," "NET 0800 20 May 65 and NLT 1000 21 May 65; depart NLT 2400 21 Aug. 65. Duration of CRS is eight weeks" "To attend Sp. Radar Sch." Translated, the orders said to report to a company facility Not Earlier Than and depart Not Later Than the indicated dates and times for a Special Radar School under the auspices of the Air Force Logistics Command office, LOT, that was to last eight weeks. The company was commonly called LTV at that time. Later it was E-Systems and still later I think it was Raytheon/E-Systems. Currently, it is part of I-3 Com. Greenville, a former farming town complete with city square, is about 50 miles northeast of Dallas on US Highway 67. It had a population of about 25,000 at that time, and is still about the same size today. The news came as a welcome relief. At last! We knew something definite! No more waiting! But what was it really all about?
The information on the orders didn't tell us very much about what the temporary duty (TDY) was to be. A duration of eight weeks did not equate from May 21 to August 21, either. That was 13 weeks! Ultimately, the course ended July 20. As we would learn shortly, the project was, indeed, highly classified. We all had Top Secret clearances already but not of the type needed for the assignment. What we had was for the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), but we would learn that the type we needed was for Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). The SIOP is what bombers and tankers would use if they were to go to war. SCI is for reconnaissance in peacetime, among other things. As much as we would have liked to have done otherwise, we were unable to tell our wives and family anything about the exact mission, or how we did it, until decades later. Now, almost everything about it, even some of the smaller details, is seemingly readily available on the Internet. Some things, however, must forever remain classified. We were soon to learn that the course covered absolutely unique equipment on a highly specialized reconnaissance aircraft, the RC-135E, tail number 62-4137 (indicating that manufacture/tail number assignment was in 1962), Boeing Contract Number 18477. How the last four numbers were assigned is still a mystery because there are gaps in the numbering sequences. Perhaps other aircraft types had the numbers in the gap. After all, there are other airplanes besides the -135s, aren't there?!
We were going to be in reconnaissance! The very name held an aura of excitement and intrigue! It was shrouded in secrecy! We knew very little about RC-135s except that there were some, somewhere, mostly at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, just south of Omaha. The other places we hadn't even heard about yet. What is recon, as most in the SAC field called it? People in the Tactical Air Command (TAC) called it "recce." Webster defines it as "exploratory surveys or examinations, as in seeking out information about enemy positions, installations, etc." We also fell under the acronym PARPRO that stands for Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance PROgram. The SAC RC-135 recon definition included another, all-important, word: peripheral. This meant we never penetrated "enemy" airspace or territory to accomplish the collection mission. This is not spying which is done covertly. We always flew right out there in plain sight. It was not done secretly, although we didn't tell very many folks what we were doing, or how and when we were doing it. There is a very big difference between spying and reconnaissance. We were always well outside foreign territory or territorial waters. A source of personal aggravation is having the news media constantly call RC-135s "spy planes." Reconnaissance, yes, but spy, never!
Reconnaissance doesn't fit the Air Force mold in a lot of ways. For many years there have been only a very few squadrons flying RC-135s. Only three locations had PCS units back then: Offutt in Nebraska, Eielson in Alaska, and Kadena in Okinawa, Japan. Training and evaluation requirements are not the same as KC-135s. Recon crews flew what were essentially war-time missions all around the world nearly every day while the Cold War still held forth. This was in opposition to the routine training sorties that B-52s and KC-135s flew for practice in the 'States. As a result, training and evaluation regulations and manuals had to have special editions just for recon. Tanker and bomber criteria does not fit reconnaissance. Special exceptions and criteria modifications are always needed. Some "authorities" never could understand or accept that. It caused a lot of consternation and difficulty.
Like all of the RC-135 aircraft today, we were unarmed. Current RC-135s do have infra-red flare dispensers, according to news reports, but we had none. That was it: no defensive or protective equipment. Recon B-47s did have a twin 20MM cannon tail-turret. In the mid-60s the RC-135C had an ALQ-70 deceptive jammer as protection against fighter radars, but the RC-135E had no flares, armament, or jammer.
This airplane had originally been destined to be a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) C-135B cargo transport and had been specially converted for the reconnaissance task. Only 30 of the B models were made. Careful examination of the early flight test pictures reveals part of the Military Air Transport Service name on both sides of the fuselage. The E suffix model designator indicated that it was the fifth in the series of different C-135 models. The letters I and O are not used as either prefix or suffix to avoid confusion with the numbers one and zero, and this is common in all military nomenclature. Only one E model was ever made unlike the M series that had six and the C series that would have 10 by the end of 1967.
The C-135 is a somewhat smaller, shorter, and narrower derivative of the Boeing 707 airliner that has been flown by virtually every airline in the non-communist world. Its lineage comes directly from the Boeing 367-80, commonly known as the Dash 80, and is the Boeing model 717-158. The initial cost, even adjusted to reflect earlier and later costs of the many different models, may well have been the single most expensive RC-135 ever. It was also the heaviest for a number of years and may be the heaviest ever. The modification was started about April of 1963, cost $35 million, and took 37 months to complete. By comparison, 10 C-135Bs were converted to RC-135Cs at the Martin factory in Baltimore, Maryland in about the same length of time, the last C being delivered in November of 1967. One source says the cost for Lisa Ann was $100 million. The total cost, including the initial acquisition, was about $1000 per pound. Not only was it expensive, but also it had a very high Precedence Rating in the intelligence community. Lisa Ann had a rating of I-17, indicating that only 16 other Air Force intelligence projects were more important. The other RC-135 at Shemya had a Precedence Rating of I-18.
In one of the letters I wrote to my folks I mentioned that the personnel costs for the Ravens attending the training course was very expensive. The cost for the 16 of us for the travel, TDY, and regular pay was more than $50,000! Costly for the time, but not much at today's rates.
Shortly thereafter we learned that the airplane's special radar was to track Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) re-entry vehicles, the warheads, as they were being tested. The target test area was on the east side on the Kamchatka Peninsula near Uka airbase in the far eastern part of the Soviet Union.
This certainly seemed to be a plum assignment and definitely beat going to B-52s! We were told that we had been hand-selected for assignment to a truly unique aircraft, with highly classified equipment, to be flown from a forward operating location. Going to an established program is one thing, but being in on the ground floor of a new, untested, unproven program that had vast potential was really something special! Little did we realize at that time that the "forward operating location" was Shemya Air Force Station, Alaska, in our 49th state. Termed "The Black Pearl of the Pacific," for the black sand beaches, or "The Rock," for its volcanic origin. Aside from the lava, there are a number of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. One author called Shemya an atoll, but this island is certainly not a ring-shaped coral island surrounding a lagoon. Shemya has a diverse geological history. Later, this was an Air Force Base, still later, Eareckson Air Station when it was put into caretaker status March 31, 1995. And, rumor had it that there was supposed to be a woman behind every tree!
One bad part about going to Shemya was that it was to be without family. Not only was it isolated from the rest of the world it was also a remote assignment: no dependents allowed. That applied to the PCS folks as well as the TDY troops. Shortly after WW II families were allowed but it must have been a dismal existence. However, just having a wife and children present can make a house a home.
Shemya is the next-to-the-last-inhabited-island and fifth-from-last numerically in the Aleutian Island chain at the western extremity of Alaska. The Aleutian Islands are a long chain of volcanic rocks dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. The nearly 300 islands are almost devoid of trees but have an abundance of mountains and several active volcanoes. The Bering Sea is on the north side of the island chain and the Pacific Ocean is on the south. Shemya is just about as far north in the North Pacific as you can possibly get. Also, Shemya is so far west that the international date line was bent west around it, and the rest of the Aleutians, so that it would still be in the Western Hemisphere's time zone. It is closer to Japan (800 miles) than to Anchorage (1500 miles). Shemya is part of the Near Island group, so-named by Russian explorers because of the islands' proximity to Russian territory which was the Komandorsky Islands that are about only 300 miles away. The Aleutian Islands and the rest of Alaska were acquired from Russia in 1867 during the Crimean War, when Russia was in danger of losing her western territories. The Near Islands consist of Attu, Agattu, and the Semichi Islands which are Shemya, Nizki, and Alaid. Shemya's coordinates are 52-42-44.19N and 174-06-49.03E. Its latitude is about the same as Berlin, Germany, Dublin, Ireland, Birmingham, England, Amsterdam, Holland, and Warsaw, Poland. Shemya is definitely not the land of the midnight sun, contrary to what others have written, even though the sky was not dark before 9:30 p.m. in mid-April. Official sunrise on June 20 is about 0400 (4 a.m.) and sunset is about 2100 (9 p.m.).
As it happened, the prospect of such a location was none too appealing. Shemya, as we were to learn later, could have some of the world's worst weather: low temperatures, high winds, thick overcast, rain, and fog - all at the same time. Shemya was in what is termed the Maritime Climate Zone. The warming Japanese Current running along the Aleutian chain collides with the cold air masses coming in from the Arctic region and Bering Sea. This produces fog, rain, sleet, snow, and, frequently, typhoon-strength winds. You haven't really lived until you've seen and survived 40-knot fog!
Inclement weather could last for only a few minutes or weeks on end. The highest temperature on record up to that time was just 63 degrees. Some reports say it has since gone all the way up to 65. The lowest to date is only +7. Summer temperatures usually ran in the mid- to upper-50s, and winters were in the upper 20s to lower 30s most of the time.
Summer was warmer but it also brought more fog. Shorts and beach ware were definitely out of place, but over the years an intrepid few have tried swimming in the frigid waters! Diurnal variations seldom exceed 10o. Because of the lack of orographic effects, Shemya is practically free of thunderstorms. On the average, lightning and thunder occur only once a year. The wind is almost constant. Very rarely was there a calm day. Only four or five times in my combined total of 19 months (TDY/PCS) assigned to Shemya was there a calm day. If the temperature didn't get you, the wind-chill would. During World War II more men were lost because of the weather on Shemya than to enemy action. Actually, not a single person was lost on Shemya because of enemy action! Yet, if it hadn't been for the enemy, the military probably wouldn't have been there is the first place.
Many Shemya residents, PCS and TDY, have called the location God-forsaken. This is just not true. There is a great deal of beauty on Shemya, if you take the time to look for it. Wild flowers abound in the short summer weeks. Cloud formations, with great golden shafts of sun light streaming through to stormy seas, are among the most marvelously beautiful I've seen anywhere in the world. We are not forsaken by God. He is always with us. Is it not written "It is the Lord who goes before you; He will be with you, He will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed." and ". . . I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord." Psalms 139:7-18 adds even more assurance the God is always with us and provides many wonders both night and day. What more can we ask?
No matter how bad we thought it was on Shemya the troops during WW II had it so much worse. We at least had good food and warm shelter. The first military on the island had absolutely nothing. They had to dig long foxholes just to put up tents because of the high winds, had no facilities of any kind, and had to go for months without being able to take a bath. Ian Beaton, in his book They Also Serve, describes in less than glowing terms what life was like on Shemya shortly after Attu was retaken in 1943. Compared to then, we were in the lap of luxury! Read Ian Beaton's book. It's very good. According to the book, a small shipment of trees came to Shemya in July 1944. However, he didn't say they were ever planted!
Our orders, dated May 17, were probably given to us the morning of May 18. They came so close to the reporting date that Dave and I started the next morning, after some hurried packing that afternoon. We drove the 1050 miles straight through to Greenville and had rain almost all of the way. Even as it happened the trip seemed like a harsh, exhausting blur. In my red 1964 Volkswagen, packed full of gear and clothes, we drove 23 hours to make it on time. Dunc went there on his own and probably drove, too. Dave and I checked into new apartments in the Cadillac Hotel that was in the middle of downtown-Greenville. The six-story, all-brick building was on the north-west corner of the block. It had green-roofed porches over the main entrances. On the roof, behind a series of lattices, was a restaurant with outside seating. Balls and dances were also held in the open air.
Our rooms had completely electric kitchens, new carpet, and new furniture. My room was on the west side of the building, number 224, and I think Dave was somewhere on the third floor facing south. Greenville is also the city where Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in United States history, enlisted and where his museum is located. Cotton was one of the major agricultural products in the area.
We reported to the Air Force detachment at what became the E-Systems facility on Majors Field. It was just a few miles outside of town (10 minutes) southeast of Greenville. Majors Field was also the Greenville Municipal Airport. Most of the field was fenced off for the E-Systems aircraft modification plant but the airport area was open to the public. We processed through the security office, had clip-on, picture-ID badges made, and completed the rest of the paperwork to begin the formal course of instruction. Everyone working at E-Systems wore ID badges to ensure proper identification because a great deal of classified work was done there on quite a variety of different airplanes, even those from other countries. Some foreign airliners on the parking ramp had unusual bulges and bumps on them, indicating possible reconnaissance antenna pods.
The next weekend Dave and I drove about three hours southwest to Waco. We toured James Connally Air Force Base that was adjacent to the town and Waco for a few hours. It was nice to revisit what had been our home for nine months during navigation school only three years earlier. Waco was the home of Baylor University where I met, wooed, and married my wife, Molly, when she was a graduating senior. Dave was our Best Man. Dave met his wife, Lucia, at Baylor, too. Yes, indeed, Waco holds many wonderful memories.
The name "Lisa Ann" was selected by a Mr. F. E. O'Rear, who was the Air Staff's special project manager for the RC-135'X' - later to become the RC-135E. Lisa Ann was Mr. O'Rear's youngest daughter and the only female ever to board the operationally-configured aircraft up to the time it was deployed from the Continental United States (CONUS) and enroute to Shemya Island. He wanted to name it Dora, to honor his mother, but the name was already assigned to another project. However, we never heard of a Dora in the reconnaissance world. (DORA was the acronym for Dynamic Operator Response Apparatus. This was Air Force equipment used to simulate the cockpit and flight characteristics of an aircraft for research and development [R&D] work, according to a 1976 code- name handbook.) Another reconnaissance aircraft, the RC-135S, with a similar mission that also flew from Shemya was named Wanda Belle, later Rivet Ball. A few years later Lisa Ann was renamed Rivet Amber, and Rivet Ball was subsequently changed to Cobra Ball. (Maybe Rivet Amber would have become Cobra Amber?) Wanda Belle was originally named Nancy Rae (another daughter, maybe?) before having airframe modifications made in the early 1960s that included the characteristic elongated reconnaissance nose. At least one of the Air Force NCOs associated with the RC-135E named a daughter Lisa Ann.
During our first day of classes we learned that there were seven of us Ravens that would ultimately fly the RC-135E, ground and flight test the equipment, and test it in an operational environment. We were: Capts Charles A. Levis, George Reagan, Peter M. Hurd, Richard P. Reeves, and Duncan Wilmore, and two 1st Lts: David B. Hubbard and me, Ronald D. Strong. (Charlie was shot down while flying in an EB-66C, Bat 21 of movie fame, over Quang Tri Province in Viet Nam on Easter Morning of 1972. He was only 39. An SA-2 surface-to-air missile hit his plane right at his compartment. Only one person of the six on board, the navigator who was rescued after 12 days, escaped by ejecting from the doomed machine. The Air Force carried Charlie as missing in action until 1978 because he was never found. MIAs were promoted in absentia in their normal promotion timing to help alleviate financial problems for the families. Charlie was promoted to full Colonel. Dick died June 19, 2001 at the age of 66 after an extended illness and a heart attack. The rest of us retired as Lt. Colonels. The credentials were impressive and diversified: Charlie and George were from the same Naval Academy class at Annapolis and Dunc was from West Point, the rest were Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps graduates from civilian colleges, but all were Regular Air Force officers by then. Charlie and Dick came from B-58s at Carswell AFB, Texas and Little Rock AFB, Arkansas; George and Pete came from B-52Gs at Wurtsmith AFB, Michigan and Warner-Robins AFB, Georgia; and Dunc, Dave, and I came from EB-47Es at Lockbourne. Pete and Dave had degrees in aeronautics from Parks College in St Louis, and mine was electrical engineering from Kansas University. I don't remember what degree Dick had from Clemson, but I'm sure it was something of a technical nature.
Apparently, to fill the class size quota, a group of nine EWOs from the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) at Forbes AFB, near Topeka in central Kansas, was included. They knew right from the start that they would get the training only and would never be assigned to fly on the airplane. We surmised that the Forbes guys were sent there because none of "us" had any reconnaissance experience. They were told the course would be three months long. As a result, all elected to bring their families because of the length. Their orders specified a TDY length of 62 days, as did ours, and the purpose was listed as "To attend a specialized training course." These orders were dated a day later than ours and were effective a day earlier. Two headquarters printed two sets of orders sending two groups of people to the same place for the same purpose, but the verbiage was quite different. Yet, they had to have been based on the same SAC DOORP message!
Because the project was so unique, it was viewed with great suspicion by the 55th. The Forbes troops knew if they became entangled with this program they would lose their spot promotions. Spot promotions were one rank higher temporary promotions that were granted to crews deploying to overseas bases to fly operational reconnaissance missions. When they returned from the deployments, that lasted up to three months, they reverted to their previous ranks. The time in the temporary rank counted as time-in-grade for promotion to the next higher grade. Over a period of time promotion could come months or a year, and more, sooner than normal. However, these promotions were phased out SAC-wide by about mid-1966 anyway, just as we were about to be deployed to Shemya. In reality, there had been a secret handshake somewhere between the 55th and Strategic Air Command Headquarters (SAC HQ) to protect the 55th troops from the project, something that not even the 55th commander knew about. All of us were totally in the dark when we arrived in Greenville.
After returning to Warner-Robins AFB Pete learned from an Air Force Office of Special Investigation (OSI) agent (a neighbor) on the base that he had been visited by both the FBI and CIA investigators who were doing a deep background investigation on him. They did not reveal why. The rest of us had to have had the same investigation but never heard much, if anything, about it. From that time on the seven of us were known as "those that care" by the Forbes folks, and the instructors, when important points were made by the instructors in the various classes. Maybe the decision-makers somewhere wanted us to be untainted by similar assignments because the seven of us had absolutely no similar experience. About the only similarity was that we were all Ravens qualified to fly in jet aircraft!
The EB-47Es at Lockbourne that Dunc, Dave, and I flew in were six-jet bombers that carried two Ravens in a pressurized compartment, called the Phase Five Capsule, that was fitted into the bomb bay in the place of bombs. These capsules bulged a little below the fuselage bottom and made that particular B-47 model easy to identify: they looked pregnant. The two Ravens flew facing backwards and jammed enemy radars. These B-47s were to go into a war zone in advance of bomb-dropping bombers to prevent the enemy early warning and fire-control radars from picking up, locking on, and shooting down the real bombers with anti-aircraft artillery or missiles.