March 11, 1958 The Day the US, Nuked Itself

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.

If you’re ever in South Carolina, stop and enjoy the historical delights of the Pee Dee region. About a half-hour from Pedro’s “South of the Border”, there you will find the “All-American City” of Florence, according to the National Civic League of 1965. With a population of about 38,000, Florence describes itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance.

Oh.  And the Federal Government dropped a Nuke on the place. Sixty-two years ago, today.

maxresdefault (29)To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Those of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The Air Force Boeing Stratojet bomber left Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, on a routine flight to Africa via the United Kingdom.  Just in case thermonuclear war was to break out with the Soviet Union, the B47 carried a 10-foot 8-inch, 7,600-pound, Mark 4, atomic bomb.

The Atlantic Coastline Railroad conductor, WWII veteran & former paratrooper Walter Gregg Sr. was in the workshop next to his home in the Mars Bluff neighborhood of Florence, South Carolina while his wife, Ethel Mae “Effie” Gregg, was inside, sewing. The Gregg sisters Helen and Frances, ages 6 and 9, were playing in the woods with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies as the B47 Stratojet bomber lumbered overhead.b47-7aAt 15,000-feet, a warning light came on in the cockpit, indicating the load wasn’t properly secured.   Not wanting a thing like that rattling around in the back, Captain Earl E. Koehler sent navigator Bruce M. Kulka, to investigate.  Kulka slipped and grabbed out for something, to steady himself.  That “something” just happened to be, the emergency release.

Bomb bay doors alone are woefully inadequate to hold back a 4-ton bomb. The thing came free and began a 15,000-foot descent, straight into the Gregg’s back yard.

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This hole 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep was made after an Air Force nuclear weapon accidentally fell from a B-47 and exploded in Florence, South Carolina, March 12, 1958. The home of Walter Gregg (background) was almost destroyed. Several members of his family were treated for injuries. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

The Mark 4 atom bomb employs an IFI (in-flight insertion) safety, whereby composite uranium and plutonium fissile pits are inserted into the bomb core, thus arming the weapon. When deployed, a 6,000-pound. conventional explosion super-compresses the fissile core, beginning a nuclear chain reaction. In the first millisecond, (one millionth of a second), plasma expands to a size of several meters as temperatures rise into the tens of millions of degrees, Celsius. Thermal electromagnetic “Black-body” radiation in the X-Ray spectrum is absorbed into the surrounding air, producing a fireball. The kinetic energy imparted by the reaction produces an initial explosive force of about 7,500 miles, per second.

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.  Effie gashed her head when the walls blew in but miraculously, no one was killed except for a couple chickens.  Not even the cat.

screen_shot_2016-05-11_at_60319_pmThree years later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crew members ejected from the aircraft at 9,000-feet and landed safely, another ejected but did not survive the landing. Two others died in the crash.

In this incident, both weapons were fully nuclear-enabled.  A single switch out of four, is all that prevented at least one of the things, from going off.

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One Mk 39 nuclear weapon from the Goldsboro incident remained largely intact, with parachute still attached. The second plunged into a muddy field at about 700mph, and disintegrated.

Walter Gregg described the Mars Bluff incident in 2001, in director Peter Kuran’s documentary “Nuclear 911”. “It just came like a bolt of lightning”, he said. “Boom! And it was all over. The concussion …caved the roof in.” Left with little but the clothes on their backs, the Greggs eventually sued the Federal Government.

The family was awarded $36,000 by the United States Air force.  It wasn’t enough to rebuild the house let alone, replace their possessions.  Walter Gregg resented it, for the rest of his life.

download - 2020-03-11T083015.786Over the years, members of the flight crew stopped by to apologize for the episode.

The land remains in private hands but it’s federally protected, so it can’t be developed.   They even made a path back in 2008 and installed a few signs,  but those were mostly stolen by college kids.

You can check it out for yourself if you want to amuse the locals.  They’ll know what you’re doing as soon as you drive through the neighborhood, the second time.  Crater Rd/4776 Lucius Circle, Mars Bluff, SC (Hat tip roadsideamerica.com)

A month before the Mars Bluff incident, a hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in the ocean, off Tybee Island, Georgia.  Incidents involving the loss or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons are called “Broken Arrows“.  There have been 32 such incidents, since 1950.  As of this date, six atomic weapons remain unaccounted for, including that one off the Georgia coast.

Feature image top of page;  “C. B. Gregg looks at the bomb damaged home of his brother Walter Gregg who was injured after an Air Force bomb hit about 100 yards away on March 12, 1958, in Florence, S.C. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

January 25, 1949 The Candy Bomber

By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche.  College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood.  By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.

World War II ended on May 8, 1945 in Europe, leaving the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) in place, in and around the former Nazi capital of Berlin.  Representatives of the 3 met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg between July-August, hammering out a series of agreements known as the Potsdam agreement.

Built on earlier accords reached through conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, the agreement addressed issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.

The Potsdam agreement called for the division of defeated Germany into four zones of occupation, roughly coinciding with then-current locations of the allied armies. The former capital city of Berlin was itself partitioned into four zones of occupation. A virtual island located 100 miles inside of Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.

berlin-1948During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the drive to destroy the Nazi war machine.  Such differences were quick to reassert themselves in the wake of German defeat.  In Soviet-occupied east Germany, factories and equipment were disassembled and transported to the Soviet Union, along with technicians, managers and skilled personnel.

The former Nazi capital quickly became the focal point of diametrically opposite governing philosophies.  Leaders on both sides believed that Europe itself, was at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

images (58)West Berlin, a city utterly destroyed by war, was home to some 2.3 million at that time, roughly three times the city of Boston.

Differences grew and sharpened between the former allies, coming to a crisis in 1948. On June 26, Soviets blocked access by road, rail and water, to western occupation zones.

This was no idle threat.  Of all the malignant governing ideologies of history, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has to be counted among the worst.  These people had no qualms about using genocide by starvation as a political tool.  They had proven as much during the Holodomor of 1932 – ’33, during which this evil empire had murdered millions of its own citizens, by deliberate starvation.  To Josef Stalin, two million dead civilians was nothing more than a means to an end.

At the time, West Berlin had only 36 days’ worth of food, and 45 days’ supply of coal.Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-19000-1661_Berlin_Kinder_spielen_in_Ruinen-e1445197409271With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated a daily ration of only 1,990 calories would require 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for the children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.

With electricity shut off by Soviet authorities, heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline.

All of this and more was going to be needed.  Every.  Single. Day.

BA_Aircrews_LgWhat followed is known to history, as the Berlin Airlift.  At the height of the operation, a cargo aircraft landed every thirty seconds, in West Berlin. Altogether, the USAAF delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 on a total of 278,228 sorties.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 flights.

Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from Earth to the Sun, at a cost of 39 British and 31 American lives.

800px-BerlinerBlockadeLuftwegeUS Army Air Force Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen was one of those pilots, flying C-47s and C-54 aircraft deep inside of Soviet controlled territory.  On his days off, Halvorsen liked to go sightseeing, often bringing a small movie camera.

One day in July, Hal was filming take-offs and landings at the Templehof strip when he spotted some thirty children, on the other side of a barbed wire fence.  He went over to speak with them, and felt impressed.  It was normal for children to ask GIs  “Any gum, chum?” or “Any bon-bon?”  Not these kids.  Dirty, half starved and possessed of nothing whatsoever, these kids had spirit.  Halvorsen remembers:

“I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.'”

Reaching in his pocket, Halvorsen found two sticks of gum.  Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. Breaking them each into four pieces he gave them to the nearest children, only to watch them break the gum into smaller pieces, to share with their friends.  Those who got none received tiny slivers of the wrappers themselves, small faces shining with joy at just a whiff of mint from the wrapper.

Halvorsen told the kids he’d be back tomorrow, on one of those planes.  He’d have enough for them all, he said.  You’ll know it’s my plane because I’ll wiggle my wings.

That night, Halvorsen, his co-pilot and engineer, pooled their candy rations.  Even small boxes can’t simply be tossed out of a moving aircraft, and so, the three rigged handkerchiefs.  Tiny little “parachutes”, for tiny little packages.

Halvorsen made such drops three times over the next three weeks and noticed each time, the group of children waiting by the wire, grew larger.

tumblr_mc0esdHpaP1rezpz7o1_500Newspapers got wind of what was going on.  Halvorsen thought he’d be in trouble, but no. Lieutenant General William Henry Tunner liked the idea. A lot. “Operation Little Vittles” became official, on September 22.

What had begun between Halvorsen and his friends spread to the whole squadron. Word quickly crossed the ocean and children all over the United States gave up their own, for kids who had less.  Soon, candy manufacturers themselves joined in.

By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche.  College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood.  By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.

“Christmas from Heaven: The Candy Bomber Story” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, Narrated by Tom Brokaw

Before long, pilots were dropping little packages, all over Berlin. They were the Rosinenbombers. Raisin Bombers. Halvorsen himself came to be known by many names, to the children of Berlin. “Uncle Wiggly Wings”. “The Chocolate Uncle”. “The Gum Drop Kid”. “The Chocolate Flier”.

Colonel Halvorsen’s work even earned him two letters, proposals of marriage, but he turned them both down.  He was carrying on a romance by letter at this time, with Miss Alta Jolley.  The couple would go on to marry in April of 1949, a marriage which would last, for fifty years. Alta Jolley Halvorsen passed away on this day in 1999 leaving her husband, 5 adult children and 24 grandchildren.

On this day in 1949, the Berlin Airlift had barely cleared the mid-point.  The largest humanitarian airlift in aviation history would last until the blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949, and then some.  Operation Little Vittles continued throughout the period, dropping an estimated 23 tons of candy from a quarter-million tiny little parachutes.

Over the years, many of those now-grown children have sought Halvorsen out, to say thank you and to tell stories.  Tales of hope, and fun, of fond anticipation.  All in a time and place when such things were very hard to find.

557b6348427ef.imageYou never know, he said. “The small things you do turn into great things.”

January 22, 1959 The Real Che

While Che himself made no secret of his blood-lust, Western Liberals appear pathologically incapable of regarding the man’s history, as it really was. 

Valkyrie. Che. Two films, both produced by the Great Hollywood Myth Machine. Both released to US audiences in December, 2008. One tells the story of Claus von Stauffenberg, the disillusioned, war-crippled German patriot who led the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The other is Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a middle-class Argentinian intellectual and accomplished athlete, despite a life-long problem with Asthma. One, the towering Aristocrat. The bearer of hereditary titles of nobility.  The other the left-ish physician radicalized by the poverty of his day to become the Marxist Revolutionary.

Some 4,980 Germans were murdered for complicity real or imagined, in the Valkyrie plot.  Many slowly strangled with piano wire, their death agonies filmed for the delectation of a Dictator.  Von Stauffenberg himself met his end, before a firing squad.

Guevara breathed his last before a Bolivian firing squad.  The similarity ends there.

che_1215322cErnesto Guevara trained and motivated firing squads credited with the summary execution of 16,000 Cubans or more, since the Castro brothers swept out of the Sierra Maestro Mountains in 1959.  It was around this time he acquired the nickname “Che” from an odd fondness for the verbal filler che, not unlike the Canadian English “eh” or some Americans’ fondness for the punctuating syllable “Right?”

CheG1951Numbers are surprisingly inexact but Guevara is believed personally responsible for the murder of hundreds if not thousands, in the name of “Revolutionary Justice”.  Guevara himself described in his diary, the murder of peasant guide Eutimio Guerra:

“The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for Eutimio so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe].”

Such a cold and clinical description for a murder which surely splattered the blood and brains of the victim over his executioner, bespeaks a man at best thoroughly hardened to casual bloodshed and at worst, a stone psychopath.

Guevara wrote home to his father: “My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood…I’d like to confess, Papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing.”

As the proverbial fish who knew not that he was wet, Che Guevara believed the natural social order, was Marxism.  “There are truths so evident” he would say, “so much a part of people’s knowledge, that it is now useless to discuss them. One ought to be Marxist with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics, or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology.”

At one time signing letters home as “Stalin II”, Guevara became disillusioned with the Revolutionary zeal of even the Soviet Union, adopting instead the North Korea of Kim Il-sung as the ideal political order.  God help anyone friend or foe whose politics came to disagree even slightly, with those of this “Man of the people”.

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Photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who later used the name “Korda” liked to describe the Che image as encabronado y doliente (pissed off and pained) – H/T Smithonian.com

After seven years of the military dictator Fulgencia Batista, the Cuban people were in a “lynching mood”.  On this day in 1959, the Universal Newsreel arrived in the United States,  narrated by Ed Herlihy.  In it, Fidel Castro can be seen asking an estimated one million Cubans if they approved of executions.  The question was met with a booming response “¡Si!”.

Che was bitterly disappointed in the wake of what he saw as capitulation, following the Cuban Missile Crisis.  To Che Guevara, millions of Cuban citizens added up to nothing more than “A people ready to sacrifice itself to nuclear arms, that its ashes might serve as a basis for new societies.”

YAFChePosterWhile Che himself made no secret of his blood-lust, Western Liberals appear pathologically incapable of regarding the man’s history, as it really was.

download - 2020-01-21T120856.886Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!…Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become” – Ernesto Ché Guevara

Then-candidate Barack Obama ignited social media indignation in 2008 when Houston campaign headquarters popped up, sporting a stylized image of Che Guevara.

20080211ObamaCheHouston2For many of us, then-President Obama’s March 21, 2016 moment in Havana, Cuba defies understanding, unfolding as it did under a ten-story image of Che Guevara.

The BBC’s 2014 “History” is precious little more than a wet kiss.

Ernest Hemingway, who never saw a Leftist Revolution he didn’t like, was living in Cuba at the time of the revolution. Hemingway invited the young American journalist George Plimpton, to come for a visit.   One afternoon, “Papa” summoned the young writer.  “Come” he said, “there’s something you should see”.  Plimpton arrived with a few others.  After a short time mixing cocktails in flasks and collecting lawn chairs, the group was off.  An hour outside of town.  It was a grand adventure.

Setting up chairs as if they were there to watch the sunset, a truck appeared in the distance, a short time later.   The group watched as bound men were unloaded from the truck and shot, their still-twitching bodies thrown back in the truck and hauled away.  Over a long career in American journalism…Paris Review…PBS, George Plimpton never managed to write a word about the event though he did elevate himself to such a state of middling dudgeon, he declined to publish Guevara’s memoir, the Motorcycle Diaries.

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Street graffiti of Guevara wearing a Che t-shirt in Bergen, Norway.

The iconic photograph of the killer, taken by photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, is one of the most reproduced images of all time.  More than the “Mona Lisa”.  More than Marilyn Monroe standing over that grate, with skirts a-flying.  It was Che, just Che, risen to the level of secular God.  The Marxist High Priest of anti-capitalism, his image adorning the t-shirts and shot glasses of Social Justice Warriors and Hipsters from Berkeley to the Congo, from the East Village to Saigon.

Entire websites are devoted to peddling such garbage while not one of them, (NOT ONE!!!) gives a moment’s thought to the insensate character of glorifying such an image by such “capitalist” means.

Claus von Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin of one of the Great Tyrants of History, is all but lost to the popular imagination.

What a sick, sad, sorry commentary that is, on our popular culture.

President Obama Lays Wreath At Jose Marti Memorial

 

January 21, 1968 Blue House Raid

It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly  lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.

By 1967, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had some 44,829 South Korean forces in Vietnam. An overwhelming force of NVA and Vietcong had the misfortune of surrounding a platoon of “Blue Dragon” Marines on February 15 of that year, a 10-to-1 numerical superiority near the village of Trà Bình. Poor visibility precluded air support and the fighting which followed was close, and personal. By the time it was over, 243 NVA lay dead. Korean Marines lost 15 men.

North Vietnam’s Commander-In-Chief put out an order to all his forces advising them: “Avoid ROK Marines at all costs.”

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ROK Marines of the 11th Company, 3rd Battalion, Blue Dragon Unit

Any combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia will tell you.  In Vietnam they faced a tough and disciplined soldier. POW interrogations of captured NVA revealed one Lieutenant Trung to be particularly hard core, a tough guy in a world of tough guys. One US Marine Corps Lieutenant of Korean ancestry dressed in the uniform of the Blue Dragon Marines and paid a visit to Lt. Trung’s cell.

Not a word or gesture passed between the two.  The mere presence of a Blue Dragon was enough to get this guy talking.  Korean fighters are no joke.

For two years, an elite, all-officer force of 31 North Korean commandos were trained in infiltration and exfiltration techniques, weaponry, navigation, concealment and hand-to-hand combat, with particular emphasis on knife skills. These were “Unit 124” commandos, highly trained and fanatically loyal soldiers, tough as rawhide and each prepared to die for the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK), “Dear Leader” Kim Il-sung.

North-Korean-TroopsOn January 17, 1968, Unit 124 infiltrated the 2½ mile demilitarized zone (DMZ), cutting the wire and entering South Korea. Their mission was to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee in his home, the Executive Mansion equivalent to the United States’ own White House, the “Pavilion of Blue Tiles” known as “Blue House”.

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South Korean Executive Mansion and Office Complex – the Blue House

It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly  lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.

780px-Korea-Seoul-Blue_House_(Cheongwadae)_garden_0681&2&3-07
Garden and Grounds of South Korean Executive Mansion

On the 19th, four brothers of the Woo family were out gathering firewood when they stumbled upon Unit 124. A fierce debate ensued among the commandos, as to what to do with these guys. Training dictated they be killed without hesitation, yet somehow that didn’t seem right. Wasn’t communist ideology supposed to be a “people’s movement”?  Besides, it would take too long to bury the bodies in the rock-hard, frozen ground.

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The crooked pine behind the presidential Blue House in Seoul is pock-marked with bullet holes, from the 1968 raid. Photo courtesy: AFP

The decision was made to convert the brothers, on the spot. Talk about goofy. After a suitably long harangue on the wonders of communist ideology, the Woo brothers wisely proclaimed themselves, converted.  Thus released, the brothers went directly to authorities.

Unit 124 broke camp, for the next two days averaging 10kph over mountainous terrain, despite an average 70-pounds apiece in equipment.

Commandos made it to within 100 meters of Blue House on January 21, only to be challenged at a road block.  The firefight broke out without warning, dissolving into a running gunfight and manhunt lasting for the next eight days.  When it was over, 26 South Korean military and police personnel were dead along with two dozen civilians and another 66, grievously wounded.

Four Americans were killed in efforts to prevent Unit 124 members from re-crossing the DMZ.

Korea_BlueHouseRaid29 commandos were killed or committed suicide. One escaped, back to North Korea. Only one, Kim Shin-jo, was captured alive.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole.  Over in Vietnam, the Battle of Khe Sanh began the same day as the raid.  Two days later, a US Navy technical research ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korean forces. The Tet Offensive broke out all across South Vietnam on January 30.  In no time at all, the Blue House raid was forgotten.

Kim Shin-Jo’s interrogation lasted nearly a year, to learn how the raid had been carried out. Meanwhile, ROK authorities “recruited” their own commando assassination squad, as a bit of payback. The 31 members of “Unit 684” were recruited from among South Korean petty criminals, the sort of guys who “got into street fights”.  A lot.

The three years’ “training” these recruits were subjected to on Silmido Island, off the coast of Inchon, was beyond brutal. Seven of didn’t live through it.

Silmido, a 2003 film produced by Kang Woo-suk

The raid was never carried out. North-South relations had thawed by August 1971, as the Silmido Island recruits staged an insurrection.   20 inmate/recruits were dead before it was over, shot to death by members of the ROK military or committed suicide, with hand grenades.  The last four Unit 684 survivors were tried by a military tribunal for their role in the uprising and executed, in 1972.

The government buried the story.  The tale of Unit 684 was all but unknown until the 2003 film Silmido, the first movie in South Korea to attract a box office of over 10 million viewers.  In May of 2010, Seoul courts ordered the government to pay $231 million to the families of 21 members of Unit 684.

Kim Shin-jo became a citizen of the Republic of Korea in 1970.  Kim’s parents were murdered by North Korean authorities and his relatives “purged”.  Kim renounced his communist ideology and became an ordained minister with the Seoul “Sungrak” (“Holy Joy”) Baptist Church in Gyeonggi-do. He has a wife and two children.

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Kim Shin-jo

I’m indebted for this story to a man who was a family friend, almost before my folks decided to start a family.  I have known this man longer than I can remember and flatter myself to regard him as a personal friend. He was one of the interrogators, during both the Trung and the Kim episodes related above. Thank you, Victor, for your story.  And for your service.

November 7, 1957 Nuking the Moon

Out of the mess of the Space race emerged an idea destined to go down in the Hare-Brain Hall of fame, if there is ever to be such a place. A show of force sufficient to boost domestic morale, while showing the Russkies, we mean business. It was the top-secret “Project A119”, also known as A Study of Lunar Research Flights.

We were going to detonate a nuclear weapon.  On the moon.

As World War II drew to a close in 1945, there arose a different sort of conflict, a contest of wills, between the two remaining Great Powers of the world. The “Cold War” pitted the free market economy and constitutional republicanism of the United States against the top-down, authoritarian governing and economic models of the Soviet Union. The stakes could not have been higher, as each side sought to demonstrate its own technological and military superiority and, by implication, the dominance of its own economic and political system.

American nuclear preeminence lasted but four short years, coming to an end with the first successful Soviet atomic weapon test code named “First Lightning”, carried out on August 29, 1949. Mutual fear and distrust fueled the Soviet-American “arms race”, a buildup of nuclear stockpiles beyond any rational purpose. A generation grew up under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.  A single mistake, misunderstanding or one fool in the wrong place at the wrong time, initiating a sequence and bringing about the extinction of life on this planet.

nuclear

The arms race acquired the dimensions of a Space Race on July 29, 1956, when the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, into earth orbit. Two days later, the Soviet Union announced that it aimed to do the same.

The early Space Race period was a time of serial humiliation for the American side, as the Soviet Union launched the first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on August 21, 1957, and the first artificial satellite “Sputnik 1” on October 4.

Laika and capsuleThe first living creature to enter space was the dog Laika“, launched aboard the spacecraft Sputnik 2 on November 3 and labeled by the more smartass specimens among the American commentariat, as “Muttnik”.

Soviet propaganda proclaimed “the first traveler in the cosmos”, replete with heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers. The American news media could do little but focus on the politics of the launch, as animal lovers the world over questioned the ethics of sending a dog to certain death, in space.

On the American side, the giant Vanguard rocket was scheduled to launch a grapefruit-sized test satellite into earth orbit that September, but the program was plagued by one delay after another.  The December 6 launch was a comprehensive disaster, the rocket lifting all of four-feet from the pad before crashing to the ground in a sheet of flame, the satellite rolling free where it continued to beep, only feet from the burning wreck.

The second Vanguard launch was nearly as bad, exploding in flames only seconds after launch.  Chortling Soviet leaders were beside themselves with joy, stamping the twin disasters as “Kaputnik”, and “Flopnik”.

Out of this mess emerged an idea destined to go down in the Hare-Brain Hall of fame, if there is ever to be such a place. A show of force sufficient to boost domestic morale, while showing the Russkies, we mean business. It was the top-secret “Project A119”, also known as A Study of Lunar Research Flights.

We were going to detonate a nuclear weapon.  On the moon.

In 1957, newspapers reported a rumor.  The Soviet Union planned a nuclear test explosion on the moon, timed to coincide with the lunar eclipse of November 7.  A celebration of the anniversary of the Glorious October Revolution.

Edward Teller himself, the ‘Father of the H-Bomb” is said to have proposed such an idea as early as February, to test the effects of the explosion in a vacuum, and conditions of zero gravity.

Today, we take for granted the massively complex mathematics, involved in hitting an object like the moon. In 1957 there was a very real possibility of missing the thing and boomerang effect, returning the bomb from whence it came.

While the information is still classified, the project was revealed in 2000 by former NASA executive Leonard Reiffel, who said he was asked to “fast track” the program in 1958, by senior Air Force officials. A young Carl Sagan was all for the idea, believing at the time that living microbes may inhabit the moon, and a nuclear explosion may help in detecting such organisms.

Reiffel commented in a Guardian newspaper interview:  “It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth. The US was lagging behind in the space race.” The now-retired NASA executive went on to explain that “The explosion would obviously be best on the dark side of the moon and the theory was that if the bomb exploded on the edge of the moon, the mushroom cloud would be illuminated by the sun.”

The Air Force canceled the A119 program in 1959, apparently out of concern that a ‘militarization of space’ would create public backlash, and that nuclear fallout may hamper future research and even colonization efforts, on the moon.

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Previously secret reports revealed in 2010 that Soviet leaders had indeed contemplated such a project, part of a multi-part program code named “E”.  Project E-1 involved reaching the moon, while E-2 and E-3 focused on sending a probe around the far side of the celestial body. The final stage, project E-4, involved a nuclear strike on the moon as a “display of force”.

Construction plans for the aforementioned Hare-Brain Hall of Fame have yet to be announced but, it already appears the place may need another wing.

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April 12, 1961 Space Race

“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’ – Yuri Gagarin

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Most of us who lived through the period feel the same way.

In the wake of WW2, irreconcilable differences between the two great super powers split the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes, calamity.  The war in Korea. The beginning of American intervention in Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961. First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields. Nobody else, was getting out.

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The Cold War took on inter-stellar proportions on July 31, 1956, when the United States declared its intention to launch an artificial satellite into space. The Soviet Union announced it would do the same and then stunned the world, launching the first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) on August 27, 1957 and then beating the US to its own goal with the launch of Sputnik 1, on October 4.

Soviet propagandists enjoyed another victory on November 3 when “Laika” launched aboard Sputnik 2.  Meanwhile, the American space program couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

Three days later and half a world away, the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported the capsule’s appearance over Boston:

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Laika

“Pupnick–the dog-bearing satellite–will be visible to early risers Thursday morning at about 5:09, Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, announced last night. Whipple added that Boston, where the rocket will be directly overhead, will be “one of the best places” from which to view the Russians’ latest satellite”.

Soviet propaganda portrayed heroic images of “the first traveler in the cosmos” printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.  There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  The real story was far more depressing.  Tightly harnessed, stressed by the forces of launch and overheated, Laika died within the first seven hours of her flight.

Belka and Strelka became the first animals to enter space and return safely to earth aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 followed closely by the American chimpanzee Ham, whose smiling visage appears at the top of this page.

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Belka and Strelka

On this day in 1961, 27-year-old Soviet Air Force Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space aboard the Vostok 1  capsule, returning to earth after an hour and 48 minutes’ orbit.  Major Gagarin’s  “Poyekhali! (Let’s go!) would become the catch phrase for the entire eastern bloc, for the following half century.

Soviet capsules were parachuted onto dry land in the early days of the space program, while the Americans preferred to “splash down”.  Gagarin ejected from the craft and parachuted to earth in Kazakhstan, much to the fear and dismay of local villagers:

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Gagarin Capsule

When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’

During the flight, Gagarin is supposed to have said “I don’t see any God up here.”

No such words appear in any of the transcripts. It’s unlikely he said such a thing.    Gagarin and his family celebrated Christmas and Easter, and kept Orthodox icons in the house.  He had baptized his daughter Elena, shortly before the historic flight.  The phrase more likely originated with Nikita Khrushchev, who  attributed the quote to Gagarin during a speech about the Soviet state’s anti-religion campaign.

220px-Yuri-Gagarin-1961-Helsinki-cropGagarin’s flight gave fresh life to the “Space Race” between the cold war rivals.  President John F. Kennedy announced the intention to put a man on the moon, before the end of the decade.

Today, the accomplishments of the space program seem foreordained, the massive complexities of the undertaking, forgotten.

In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put the $2.5 Billion Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, with defective “vision” and literally requiring “glasses”.

In the early days, these guys were sending human beings tens to hundreds of thousands of miles into space, on less computing “horsepower” than contained in your modern cell phone.

 

On a lighter note
After that Laika story, this tale needs a happy ending.
In 1960, “Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5, before returning to Earth.  Aside from a few plants, these were the first creatures to enter the void of space and return, alive.
Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.   During a thaw  in relations, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave one of those puppies,”Pushinka”, to President John F. Kennedy.
Pushinka and a Kennedy family dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies, pups JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka and Charlie are long gone but their descendants are still around, to this day.
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Mama Pushinka with JFK’s “Pupniks”: Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie, and Streaker

January 22, 1968 Operation Chrome Dome

“Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be”.  

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The communist world emerging from the “Great War” comprised the former Czarist state of Russia alone, the 1924 constitution promising a “federation of peoples equal in rights”. Instead, the Soviet system delivered a murderous, top-down authoritarian ideology, best exemplified by the deliberate murder by starvation of millions of its own citizens in Ukraine, the Holodomor, under the guise of agricultural “collectivization”. Here, the Party controlled the state, the military, the press and the economy.

At their best, the western democracies of the “First World” operated on the basis of classical liberalism with two or more distinct political parties, a free press and rule of law.

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In the wake of WW2, the two governing ideologies were irreconcilable, splitting the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the formerly non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The leaders of non-communist parties were discredited and intimidated, subjected to show trials and even execution. Albania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany: all were taken, often forcibly, into the Soviet embrace.

As the “Cold War” descended across the land, United States and allied nations of the “Western Bloc” sought to “contain” Soviet expansionism, extending military and financial aid to the western democracies and creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO alliance). With the Soviet Berlin Blockade of 1948 – ’49, the US Air Force together with the RAF and Royal Australian Air Force delivered 2,333,478 tons of freight in nearly a third of a million sorties. Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered the better part of the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

The United States’ monopoly on the most destructive weapon system in history came to an end on August 29, 1949, with the ‘RDS-1’ explosion at the Semipalatinsk test site in modern-day Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union had the atomic bomb.

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Today, the anti-communist tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy are reviled as excessive, as indeed some of them were. Yet, the Top Secret cable decryption program known as Venona and declassified only in 1995, revealed extensive Soviet espionage activities at Los Alamos National Laboratories, the State Department, Treasury, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and even the White House.

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes calamity:  the war in Korea, the “Space Race”, the beginning of American intervention in Vietnam.  The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961.  First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields.  Nobody else was getting out.

In 1957 – ’58, both American and Soviet authorities planned in a show of force, to Nuke the Moon.

United States Air Force General and Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander General Thomas Sarsfield Power introduced Operation Chrome Dome, placing thermonuclear weapons on permanent air patrol to provide a rapid “first strike” or retaliatory “second strike” in the event of nuclear war.

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1964 Operation Chrome Dome Map from Sheppard Air Force Base, TX – H/T Wikipedia

Missions initially departed Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and flew across the United States and over New England, refueling over the Atlantic before heading north toward Soviet air space. Three separate missions were being flown by 1966, one East over the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, another north to Baffin Bay, and the third over Alaska.  12 missions per day, 365 days a year.

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The Department of Defense has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components, which do not involve the immediate risk of nuclear war. They’re called “Broken Arrows“.

Broken Arrows include accidental or unexplained nuclear or non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon, the loss of such a weapon and the release of nuclear radiation resulting in public hazard, actual or potential. There have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents since 1950. As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.

Major “Kong” rides the bomb in the dark, 1964 comedy by Stanle Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

Five such incidents are associated with Operation Chrome Dome:

• On January 24, 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear weapons broke up in mid-air, dropping its payload in the area of Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five men bailed out and landed safely. One bailed out but did not survive the landing. Two more died in the crash.
• Two months later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two nuclear weapons departed Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento before experiencing uncontrolled decompression. Forced to fly at a lower altitude and unable to meet its refueling aircraft, the bomber ran out of gas and crashed outside of Yuba City, California. The air crew safely bailed out, but a fireman was killed and several injured in an accident, while en-route to the scene.
• In 1964, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 53s was returning from Massachusetts to Georgia in heavy winter weather. Severe turbulence tore off a vertical stabilizer and the bomber crashed on the Stonewell Green farm, Near Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. Radar Bombardier Major Robert Townley was unable to bail out, and died in the crash. Navigator Major Robert Lee and tail gunner TSgt Melvin Wooten succumbed to injuries and hypothermia, on the ground. Only pilot Major Thomas McCormick and co-pilot Captain Parker Peedin, survived.
• On January 17, 1966, a B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000-feet, over the Mediterranean. The tanker ignited, killing all four crew members. The bomber broke apart, killing three of seven.
• On January 21, 1968, a B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs over Baffin Bay developed an uncontrolled cabin fire, forcing seven crew to bail out. Six ejected safely. Co-pilot Leonard Svitenko gave up his ejection seat when the third pilot took over, and sustained fatal head injuries while bailing out from a lower hatch. The bomber crashed on sea ice over 770-feet of water in North Star Bay in Greenland, a territory under Danish jurisdiction. Conventional explosives detonated in the crash, dispersing radioactive material, for miles.

For days, the only way to the crash site, was by dog sled. With average daytime temperatures of -25° and 80-MPH winds, “Project Crested Ice” was better known by those who were there as “Dr. Freezelove”.  The cleanup involved 562 American and Danish personnel, removing twenty-seven 25,000-gallon containers of contaminated snow and ice.

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The Thule Air Base accident became an international incident, resulting in termination of Operation Chrome Dome on January 22, 1968.  From that day to this, the next thermonuclear war will have to start from the ground.

At the height of the Cold war, civil defense film character Bert the Turtle advised  school children to “Duck and Cover”.  Kids across the nation were shown this film, I was one of them.  “Always remember“, says the narrator.,”the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be“.

Probably explains a lot, about my generation.

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