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.

moon-nuke_wikimedia-commons_fb

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:

Laika and capsule
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:

Gagarin_Capsule (1)
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.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 7, 1957 Nuke the Moon

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

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 the superiority of its own technology, military might and, by implication, the dominance of its political and economic 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. An entire 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 its intention to do the same.

The early phase of the Space Race was a time of serial humiliation for the American side, the Soviet Union launching 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”, 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 series rocket was scheduled to launch the grapefruit-sized test satellite into earth orbit in 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 off 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.  Soviet leaders were beside themselves with joy, and stamped the twin disasters “Kaputnik”.  “Flopnik”.

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

In 1957, newspapers reported a rumor that the Soviet Union planned a nuclear test explosion on the moon, timed to coincide with the lunar eclipse of November 7, and celebrating 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.

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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 the bomb returning to earth.

Though 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.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Reiffel said “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.

moon-nuke_wikimedia-commons_fb

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 appears the place may need another wing.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 26, 1948 Berlin Airlift

At the height of the operation, an aircraft landed every thirty seconds in West Berlin. The USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons altogether and the RAF 541,937, on a total of 278,228 flights.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 sorties.  Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

Following the end of World War II in Europe, the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg. The series of agreements signed at Cecilienhof Castle and known as the Potsdam agreement built on earlier accords reached at conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, addressing issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.

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

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“The red area of Germany (above) is Soviet controlled East Germany. German territory east of the Oder-Neisse line (light beige) was ceded to Poland, while a portion of the easternmost section of Germany East Prussia, Königsberg, was annexed by the USSR, as the Kaliningrad Oblast”. H/T Wikipedia

During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the mutual desire to destroy the Nazi war machine.  These 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.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin informed German communist leaders in June 1945, of his belief that the United States would withdraw within a year or two.  He had his reasons.  At that time, the Truman Administration had yet to decide whether American forces would remain in West Berlin past 1949, when an independent West German government was expected to be established.

Stalin would do everything he could to undermine the British position within its zone of occupation, and appears unconcerned about that of the French.  He and other Soviet leaders assured visiting Bulgarian and Yugoslavian delegations.  In time, all of Germany would be Soviet, and Communist.

The former German capital became the focus of diametrically opposing governing philosophies, and leaders on both sides believed all Europe to be at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

hqdefault (5)There never was any formal agreement, concerning road and rail access to Berlin through the 100-mile Soviet zone. Western leaders were forced to rely on the “good will” of a regime which had deliberately starved millions of its own citizens to death, in consolidating power.

With 2.8 million Berliners to feed, clothe and shelter from the elements, Soviet leaders permitted cargo access on only ten trains per day over a single rail line.

Western allies believed the restriction to be only be temporary, but this belief would prove to be sadly mistaken.

Only three corridors were permitted through Soviet-controlled air space. With millions to feed, the Soviets stopped delivering agricultural products from their zone in eastern Germany, in 1946. The American commander, General Lucius Clay, retaliated by stopping shipments of dismantled industries from western Germany into the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded with obstructionist policies, doing everything it could to throw sand in the gears of all four occupied zones.

US and UK zones of occupation combined into a single “bizone” in January 1947, joining with that of France and becoming the “trizone” on June 1, 1948. Representatives of these governments and that of the Benelux nations of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg met twice in London to discuss the future of Germany, while Soviet leaders threatened to ignore any decisions coming out of such conferences.

The four-power solution was unworkable throughout the postwar period. For the city of Berlin, 1948 would reach the point of crisis.

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That March, Soviet authorities slowed cargo to a crawl, individually searching every truck and train. General Clay ordered a halt to train traffic on April 2, ordering that supplies to the military garrison in Berlin be transported by air. Soviets eased their restrictions a week later, but still interrupted road and rail traffic. Meanwhile, Soviet military aircraft began to harass and “buzz” allied flights in and out of West Berlin. On April 5, a Soviet Air Force Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter collided with a British European Airways Vickers Viking 1B airliner near RAF Gatow airfield.   Everyone onboard both aircraft, were killed.

The final straw came with the currency crisis of early 1948, when the Deutsche Mark was introduced. The former Reichsmark was severely devalued by this time, with calamitous economic repercussions. The new currency went into use in all four sectors of occupied Berlin, against the wishes of the Soviets. This new currency combined with the Marshall Pan had the potential to revitalize the German economy, and that wouldn’t do. Not for Soviet policy makers, for whom a prostrate German economy remained the objective.

Soviet guards halted all traffic on the autobahn to Berlin on June 19, the day after the new currency was introduced.

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German woman burning cash, for heat

At the time, West Berlin had 36 days’ food supplies, and 45 days’ supply of coal. The western nations had scaled military operations down in the wake of the war, to the point where the western sectors of the city had only 8,973 Americans, 7,606 British and 6,100 French. Soviet military forces numbered some 1.5 million. Believing that Allied powers had no choice but to cave to their demands, Soviet authorities cut off the electricity.

While ground routes were never negotiated in and out of occupied Berlin, the same was not true of the air.  Three air routes had been agreed upon back in 1945.  These went into use on this day in 1948, beginning the largest humanitarian airlift, in history.

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.  Two million German civilians would be nothing more than a means to an end.

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RAF Sunderland flying Boat moored on the Havel near Berlin unloading salt

With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated that a daily ration of only 1,990 kilocalories 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 children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.

Every.  Single. Day.

Heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline, every day.

United States Air force General Curtis LeMay was asked “Can you haul coal?” LeMay replied “We can haul anything.”

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Loading milk, bound for Berlin

The obstacles were daunting.  Postwar demobilization had diminished US cargo capabilities in Europe to a nominal 96 aircraft, theoretically capable of transporting 300 tons per day. Great Britain’s RAF was somewhat better with a capacity of 400 tons, according to General Sir Brian Robertson.

700 tons were nowhere near the 5,000 per day that was needed, but it was a start.  With additional aircraft mobilizing all over the United States, the United Kingdom and France, the people of occupied Berlin had to buy into the program.

General Clay went to Ernst Reuter, Berlin’s mayor-elect. “Look, I am ready to try an airlift. I can’t guarantee it will work. I am sure that even at its best, people are going to be cold and people are going to be hungry. And if the people of Berlin won’t stand that, it will fail. And I don’t want to go into this unless I have your assurance that the people will be heavily in approval.”

Luckily, General Albert Wedemeyer was in Europe on an inspection tour, when the crisis broke out. Wedemeyer had been in charge of the previously-largest airlift in history, the China-Burma-India theater route over the Himalayas, known as “The Hump”. Reuter was skeptical but assured the authorities that the people of Berlin were behind the plan. Wedemeyer’s endorsement gave the plan a major boost. The Berlin Airlift began seventy years ago today, June 26, 1948.

Germans-airlift-1948
German civilians awaiting inbound aircraft, at Templehof

The Australian Air force joined in the largest humanitarian effort in history that September. The Canadians never did, believing the operation to be a provocation which would lead to war with the Soviet Union.

Through the Fall and Winter of 1948 – ’49 the airlift carried on.  Soviet authorities maintained their stranglehold but, preoccupied with rebuilding their own war-ravaged economy and fearful of the United States’ nuclear capabilities, Stalin had little choice but to look on.  On April 15, 1949, the Soviet news agency TASS announced that the Soviets were willing to lift the blockade.

C-54_dropping_candy_during_Berlin_Airlift_c1949
C-54 drops candy over berlin, 1948 – ’49

Negotiations were begun almost at once but now, the Allies held the stronger hand. An agreement was announced on May 4 that the blockade would be ended, in eight days’ time. A British convoy drove through the gates at a minute after midnight on May 12, though the airlift would continue, to build up a comfortable surplus.

At the height of the operation, an aircraft landed every thirty seconds in West Berlin. The USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons altogether and the RAF 541,937, on a total of 278,228 flights.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 sorties.  Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

39 British and 31 American airmen lost their lives during the operation.

In 1961, Communist leaders would erect a wall around their sector of the city.  Not to keep foreigners out, but to keep their own unfortunate citizens, in.  The Berlin Wall would not come down, for twenty-eight years.

 

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October 22, 1962  Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock had broken before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock reset.  The events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any time in history, before or since.  Seconds to go, to nuclear extinction.

doomsday clock, 1In 1947, members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists envisioned a “Doomsday Clock”, a symbolic clock face, to dramatize the threat of global nuclear catastrophe.  Initially set at seven minutes to midnight, the “time” has varied from seventeen minutes ’til with the 1995 collapse of the Soviet Union, to two minutes before midnight with “Operation Ivy”, the first American thermonuclear detonation, in 1952.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock reset.  Yet the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any time in history, before or since.  Seconds to go, to worldwide nuclear extermination.

All that needs to be known about Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista, is that he fled office with $300,000,000 US, on December 31, 1958.  The triumphant rebel columns streaming out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, were quick to establish themselves in power.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro dismissed the need for elections, proclaiming his government to be a “direct democracy”.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports arenas, in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of Batista supporters were executed or imprisoned as Castro’s “Revolutionary Socialist State” purged itself of the former regime.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he’d personally order a retrial.

Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, described the Ambassadorship as “the second most important man,” in Cuba.  Now, the Castro administration distanced itself from the US, adopting an increasingly leftist posture and seizing US controlled oil installations, banks and sugar refineries.  By October 1960 the government had “nationalized” 166 such businesses, including Coca Cola and Sears, Roebuck.

bay-of-pigsSince the Presidency of James Monroe, US foreign policy has opposed outside intervention in the American hemisphere.  The government was not about to permit a communist state, 90 miles from its shore.

A secret operation to overthrow the Cuban government was conceived and initiated by the Eisenhower administration, and put into motion in April 1961.  1,400 CIA backed Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón“ (Bay of Pigs), intending to overthrow the communist government.

The effort was doomed to failure.  The New York Times had been reporting on the “secret invasion”, for a month.

Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration sought other means of removing communists from power.  “Operation Mongoose” sought to embarrass and discredit Castro personally, with tactics ranging from print & radio propaganda, to hallucinogenic chemical-laced cigars.  Someone even had the hare-brained idea of lining Castro’s shoes with thallium salts, to make his beard fall out.

The Communist government consolidated power, taking control of trade unions, jailing opponents, suppressing civil liberties, and sharply limiting freedom of speech and of the press. Secretary of State Christian Herter described Castro’s single-party political system as “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern”.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the American President was impotent and indecisive.  One Soviet adviser described Kennedy as “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations… too intelligent and too weak.”

Cuban and the Soviet officials reached a secret arms agreement in July, 1962.   By late summer, American intelligence discovered Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 jet bombers in Cuba.

Worse yet, construction had begun on several missile sites.  On October 14, ultra-high-altitude Lockheed U–2R reconnaissance aircraft photographs revealed the presence of medium and intermediate range ballistic nuclear missile sites under construction in Cuba.

1st_Reconnaissance_Squadron_Lockheed_U-2R_80-1068
A redesigned version of the U-2, the U-2R, was used from the late 1960s through the 1990s

President Kennedy warned of the “gravest consequences” resulting from the introduction of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, while Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko insisted that Soviet aid was purely defensive. U-2 photographs gave lie to Gromyko’s protestations.  Images taken on the 17th revealed the presence of 16-32 missiles.

The administration went to great lengths to portray “business as usual”, while behind the scenes, policy makers wrangled over options from quarantine to tactical air strike to outright military invasion.  President Kennedy himself suddenly departed a political event in Chicago, his aids concocting a “cold” diagnosis to explain his sudden absence.

Cuban Missile Crisis, coldIn a televised speech on October 22, Kennedy publicly revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and called for their removal.  A naval quarantine would close off the island, Kennedy said, until Soviet leaders agreed dismantle missile sites, and to make certain that no additional missiles were shipped to Cuba.

From the Soviet perspective, Cuba was a small ally behind enemy lines, the same situation the Americans experienced, in West Berlin.  Besides, the Americans had missiles in Italy and Turkey.

Kruschev had gambled and lost, that he could “[I]nstall nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them”.

The President warned “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”  There was no mistaking American intent.

Kruschev replied, “I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace…”

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba
1962 — This newspaper map from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Soviet nuclear submarines moved in response to the quarantine, as Cuban waters became the scene of a tense, naval standoff.

Kruschev responded on the 24th, describing the US blockade as an act of aggression.  Castro urged the Soviet leader to initiate a nuclear first strike, should the Americans invade his island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a “Defense Readiness Condition” status of DEFCON 3.  The United States Air Force was now ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.

U-2 photographs of the 25th & 26th showed accelerated construction on the island, with several silos approaching operational readiness.  US air forces were placed at DEFCON 2.  War involving Strategic Air Command, was now “imminent”.

Cuban Missile Crisis, contest

On day twelve of the standoff, October 27, an American U-2 was shot out of the sky by a Soviet supplied surface-to-air missile.  The pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson Jr, was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross in history, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

Anderson’s was the only combat death of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he wasn’t alone.  Three reconnaissance-variant Stratojets crashed between September 27 and November 11, killing 11 airmen.  Seven more died on October 23, when their C-135B Stratolifter stalled and crashed delivering ammunition to the Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay.

The most dangerous phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28, when Radio Moscow announced that Cuban missiles would be removed in exchange for an American pledge not to invade.  In a secret “side deal”, the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove American “Jupiter” missiles, from Turkey.

Cuban Missile Crisis, mushroom cloud

The most dangerous thirteen days in world history, had passed.  The American quarantine would continue until November 20, when the Soviets agreed to remove their bombers.  The Americans removed Turkish missiles, the following April.

Throughout this period, a blizzard of communications both direct and indirect, were exchanged between Washington and Moscow.  With little to go on but mutual distrust, Kennedy, Kruschev and their aids sought to understand the true intent of their adversary.

If there is no intention,” wrote Kruschev, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

The American and Soviet governments established the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link in 1963, from a mutual desire that we never again, get that close to the brink.  Contrary to popular culture, this “hotline” has no “red phone”, and never did.  The Moscow–Washington hotline was at first a dedicated teletype, replaced by direct-link fax machine in 1986. Since 2008, the Pentagon maintains a secure computer link with the Russian Federation, and messages are exchanged by email.

 

August 19, 1976  Operation Paul Bunyan

American forces in South Korea were moved to DEFCON 3 on August 19.  Two days later, the show of force response called “Operation Paul Bunyan”, descended like a biblical plague, on the North Korean outpost.

The current impasse with North Korea has died down for the time being, but the Korean peninsula is no stranger to conflict.  16th and 17th century Manchu and Japanese invasions brought about a sense of Korean isolationism, leading many to describe the place as a “Hermit Kingdom”.  The tendency became more pronounced in the 19th century, as Koreans witnessed the colonization of China to the north, and its humiliation in two opium wars.

The July 1866 General Sherman incident resulted in the death of all 20 officers and crew and the destruction of an American armed merchant marine side-wheel steamer, leading to the U.S. Navy’s 1871 expedition to the Kingdom of Joseon (Chosŏn), the Shinmiyangyo.  The expedition would result in the death of about 300 Korean soldiers and three Americans.

General Sherman Incident

US-Korean relations soured in 1905 in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, when the U.S. recognized Korea as falling into the Japanese “sphere of influence”.

Korean nationalists were dismayed in 1910, with the Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula.  Woodrow Wilson’s high-sounding principles of national self-determination bypassed the Hermit Kingdom, leaving Koreans with virtually no role in their own internal administration.

Following the Japanese defeat in WWII, the Korean peninsula was divided into two occupied zones:  the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States. The Cairo declaration of 1943 had called for a unified Korea, its division along the 38th parallel intended to be temporary.   It wasn’t meant to be.  Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land, haranguing his countrymen about the “spirit of self-reliance” he called Juche, (JOO-chay).

kim_il-sung
Propaganda poster depicting “Dear Leader”, Kim Il-sung

South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.

The 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

Within days, the United States secured a United Nations resolution, calling for the defense of South Korea against North Korean aggression.  Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid.  90% of them were Americans.

American intervention turned the tide.  US and South Korean forces crossed the North Korean border in November 1951, pressing north toward the Chinese border.  Hundreds of thousands of troops from the People’s Republic of China poured across the border in December, mounting heavy assaults against allied forces and converting what had been a war of movement, into a brutal stalemate and war of attrition.

Republican Dwight David Eisenhower won decisively in the 1952 Presidential election, a contest which turned heavily on foreign policy.  It wasn’t long before President Eisenhower’s public hints of nuclear escalation brought all sides to the negotiating table.

33,741 Americans lost their lives in the Korean war.  Total casualties including North and South Korea, China and United Nations forces, military and civilian, number some 2.8 million.

north_korea_dmz
View from the south side of the Joint Security Area, Korean DMZ

An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, a new border drawn between North and South Korea, giving South Korea additional territory and creating a “demilitarized zone” between the two nations.  WWIII had been averted, though the two sides technically remain at war, to this day.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South), has been the focal point of cold war tension, ever since.

The Korean DMZ conflict of 1966–69 culminated in the Blue House Raid of 1968, the attempted assassination of ROK President Park Chung-hee by North Korean commandos.  This period saw a series of skirmishes along the DMZ, resulting in the death of 43 Americans, 299 South Koreans and 397 North Koreans.

blue-house
South Korean Executive Mansion – “Blue House”

Some such episodes are borderline comical, such as the “mine is bigger than yours” tit-for-tat known as the “flagpole war” of the 1980s.  The South Korean government built a 323′ flagpole flying a huge, 287lb ROK flag in Daeseong-dong, 350 meters from the line of demarcation. Not to be outdone, DPRK government officials erected a 525′ flagpole in Kijŏng-dong, flying a 595lb flag of North Korea. As of 2014, the DPRK pole remains the 4th tallest flagpole, in the world.

Flagpole War

Other episodes are distinctly un-funny, such as the 1976 axe murders of two American Army officers.

The Joint Security Area (JSA) lies within the village of Panmunjom, the only piece of the DMZ where North and South Korean guards stand face-to-face.  There the “Bridge of No Return” crosses the border, the Military Demarcation Line running across its center.  Here, POWs were brought from both sides, and given their final ultimatum.  They could stay in the country of their captivity or cross that bridge and return to their homeland.  They could never come back.

Axe_murder_incident_Lt._Pak_Chul
Lieutenant Pak Chul

The bridge was last used for prisoner exchange in 1968, when the crew of USS Pueblo was released and ordered to cross into South Korea.

Visible only during winter months, command Post #3, near the Bridge of No Return, has been called the “loneliest outpost in the world”.  On numerous occasions, North Korean troops have taken advantage of this isolation, attempting to grab United Nations Command personnel and drag them across the bridge into North Korean territory.

On August 18, 1976, five Korean Service Corps (KSC) personnel entered the JSA, escorted by US Army Captain Arthur Bonifas, his ROK counterpart Captain Kim, area platoon leader First Lieutenant Mark Barrett, and 11 American and South Korean enlisted personnel.

15 North Korean soldiers appeared, commanded by Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul, whom UNC soldiers called “Lt. Bulldog” based on his confrontational history.   Lt. Pak ordered the UNC to cease tree trimming, “because Kim Il-sung personally planted it and nourished it and it’s growing under his supervision.”  Captain Bonifas turned his back on the North Koreans, ordering the detail to continue.  That’s when the stuff hit the fan.

Axe Murder Incident

Another 20 North Korean soldiers crossed the bridge, carrying crowbars and clubs.  Lt. Pak removed his watch, wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it in his pocket, and shouted, “Kill the bastards!”.

When it was over, Captain Bonifas and First Lieutenant Barrett were dead, hacked to death with axes dropped by the tree-trimmers.  All but one of the UNC guards were injured.  Within hours, Kim Jong-il, son of “Dear Leader” Kim Il-sung, described the incident as an unprovoked incident in which American officers attacked North Korean guards.cpt_bonifas

The CIA believed the whole episode to have been pre-planned.  American forces in South Korea were moved to DEFCON 3 on August 19.  Two days later, the show of force response called “Operation Paul Bunyan”, descended like a biblical plague, on the North Korean outpost.

At 7:00am on August 21, 23 American and South Korean vehicles drove into the JSA with chainsaws, 753 troops escorted by two 30-man security platoons, armed with pistols and axe handles.  This was no tree trimming operation.

64 South Korean Special Forces brandished M16 rifles and M79 grenade launchers. Lethally effective elite soldiers, they taunted the North Koreans, daring them to cross the bridge.  Several had Claymore mines strapped to their chests, firing mechanisms at the ready.Lt._Mark_Barrett

20 utility helicopters and seven Cobra attack choppers circled overhead, behind them F-4 Phantom IIs and nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortresses.

12,000 additional troops were ordered to Korea, including 1,800 Marines from Okinawa.  At Yokota Air Base in Japan, a dozen C-130s stood “nose to tail”, ready to provide back-up.  Air bases from Guam to Idaho were on full alert.  The entire USS Midway carrier task force, stood offshore.

“Minds blown” by this show of force, North Korea responded with 150-200 troops of its own, but did little but look on at the proceedings.

42 minutes later, all that remained of dear leader’s tree was a 20’ stump, deliberately left to aggravate North Korean sensibilities.

DMZ_incident_tree
Korean DMZ ‘Incident Tree’

Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett were posthumously promoted to the ranks of Major and Captain, respectively.  Today, Camp Bonifas is home to the United Nations Command Security Battalion – Joint Security Area, whose mission it is to monitor and enforce the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 in the no-man’s land between North and South Korea.

Camp Bonifas is home to a one-hole, “par 3” AstroTurf patch, surrounded on three sides by minefields.  Sports Illustrated has called it “the most dangerous hole in golf”.  There is at least one report of an errant shot exploding a land mine. How nice it is that a sense of humor can survive, even in this wretched place.

Most Dangerous Hole