55.

THE RELUCTANT RESCUER

Aday or so after Thor 103 burned on the launching pad and while he was still on the East Coast, Schriever telephoned the lieutenant colonel who had so briskly instructed Mettler to abort the launch, Richard Jacobson, his chief of test facilities and operations. “Jake,” he said, “I need you to take over the program.” Jacobson had been warned by one of Schriever’s deputies to expect the call and he had his answer ready. “General, I don’t want it,” he replied. “I really don’t want it.” He explained that he had striven hard to establish a reputation for performance in the Air Force and had too much to lose by getting involved with a sinking enterprise. “I can understand that,” Schriever said, “but you know we’re in a terrible competition with the Army, and if we can’t make an IRBM work, the Army’s going to say we can’t make an ICBM work, and we’re going to lose the whole guided missile program. You’ve got to make Thor work.” The pressure on Schriever had become excruciating. One of his officers recalled long afterward that during a staff briefing on a Saturday, when Bennie had left orders he was not to be disturbed, his secretary had appeared at the doorway and said there was a call he had to take in his office. “That was Eisenhower,” he said, as he walked back into the meeting, “and I’m not sure I’ll be here on Monday.”

Jacobson felt bad having to refuse Schriever anything because he had such respect for the man. The respect had been earned at the Pentagon one day back during the interregnum before the adoption of the Gillette Procedures. If they were to maintain schedule and proceed “to the maximum extent that technology would allow,” as General White, the vice chief of staff, had directed in May 1954, they needed approximately $130 million for the next fiscal year. The launch complexes to be built at Canaveral, the downrange monitoring stations through the Caribbean, and other essentials, all had to be paid for. Yet they had so far been allotted only $38 million. Schriever arranged an appeal before a board of the Air Staff. Jacobson was awed by the galaxy of stars in the room. The chairman of the committee was a three-star general and all of its members had at least two and a couple of them three.

Schriever, followed by Jacobson and others from the WDD staff, briefed the committee on why they absolutely had to have the additional funds. The generals listened patiently and then discussed the matter among themselves. The three-star chairman turned to Schriever. “General, we have other high priority things and we don’t have the funds,” he said. “You’re going to have to live with the $38 million and make your schedule.” Schriever, as was his wont, had been sitting behind a table with his feet propped up on another chair. It was a favorite position because it was relaxing and solved the problem of what to do with his long legs. He took his feet off the chair and stood up, a conspicuous figure with the single star on his shoulder tabs before this multistarred committee. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you can tell me what schedule you want me to make, in which case I’ll tell you how much money you will have to provide. Or you can tell me how much money you will provide and I will tell you what schedule you will get. But you can’t tell me both.” Jacobson was astonished. A junior general running a program, no matter what the priority, was expected to salute and march off once his betters had rendered judgment. The program would then fall far behind schedule, or perhaps not get finished at all, but the requirements of seniority and protocol and budget would be satisfied. The committee had expected Schriever to behave accordingly. “My God,” Jacobson thought, “these guys are going to eat him alive.” The chairman broke the silence. “General, let us discuss it,” he said. “We’ll get back to you. Just wait outside.” In about ten minutes they were summoned back into the room. “General,” the three-star said to Schriever, “you’re absolutely right. You’ve got your money.”

Back in a bind again, Schriever was not about to relent with Jacobson. He pointed out that as far as he could tell, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the missile. “All three errors have been because of the way in which they tested,” he said. “And you, as director of tests, know more about how to get this thing done than anybody and I want you to do it.” Jacobson tried again to wiggle away. “Boss, I got to tell you, I don’t want my name on that goddamn program. You’re going to lose that program.” Jacobson was assuming that, with Jupiter flying so smoothly, should Thor run into much more trouble, Secretary Wilson, if for no reason other than to please a president who was always seeking ways to reduce the military budget, would reverse himself and declare Jupiter the nation’s IRBM. Schriever cut a deal with Jacobson. “I’ll tell you what, Jake, I’ll leave you as director of tests, but I’ll make you acting program director of Thor,” he said, underscoring the word “acting.” “If you’re concerned about it being on your record, it will never appear.” Jacobson relented, partway. “Well, you’ve got a program director named Ed Hall,” he said. “I’ll get him out of your way,” Schriever replied. And so he did, but not in a manner that would disgrace Hall and force his departure. Ed Hall was too gifted a man to lose. Schriever had in mind a new prospect appropriate to those gifts, one he knew Hall would take up with enthusiasm. He wanted to keep Hall around until matters matured enough for him to assign Hall to it. In effect, he suspended Hall while he shifted Jacobson into his job. He told Hall that although Jacobson would be taking over Thor, Hall would officially remain the program director. He was to wait in this holding pattern until Schriever could arrange an alternative worthy of him.

In Jacobson, Schriever had found a man who could rescue him from his predicament, for Richard “Jake” Jacobson was a man prepared to expend whatever energy and perseverance were required to achieve his ends. He was extremely intelligent, one of the smartest officers ever to serve Schriever. Enemies called him “Jake the Snake.” The epithet was undeserved, a parting shot from officers angry at having been bested by him in some professional scrape. While he would resort to guile when necessary, Jacobson was no intriguer. He was normally as candid as he had been on the telephone with Schriever, his forth-rightness reinforced by the cuss words that laced his language. The son of a prosperous family of Jewish ancestry in the ladies garment business in Birmingham, Alabama, he had grown up in a house with four African-American servants, including the chauffeur. His father steered him into business administration at the University of Alabama because it was assumed he would take up the family trade, but he found the subject boring and soon switched to his first intellectual love, mathematics, and developed an interest in flying.

By the fall of 1943 he was in England, a twenty-three-year-old captain in the U.S. Army Air Forces, piloting a C-47 transport in a troop carrier group. When a call went out for volunteers to fly a special (“special” being the military euphemism for “dangerous”) mission, Jacobson raised his hand and found himself in a squadron that dropped the first paratroops, the “pathfinders,” during an airborne landing. He was designated lead pilot of one of the three-plane flights, called “serials,” into which the squadron was organized. The pathfinders were equipped with radio beacons to guide the subsequent waves of C-47s with the mass of airborne infantry to the correct landing zones. The trick was to drop the pathfinders on the right spot, always difficult in those years of relatively primitive navigation instruments and particularly so at night, as had to be done for the Normandy invasion. In the predawn hours of D-Day, Jacobson led his three-plane serial at fifty feet over the English Channel, then up to 700 feet as they crossed Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula to gain enough altitude for the parachutes of the pathfinder troops crowding the planes to open. He suddenly realized that his navigator had failed to alert him to a turn and he was off course. He took his three C-47s back out to the Channel and up over the Cotentin and into the German antiaircraft fire once more, so that these parachutists would not fling themselves out the doors and into battle in vain. He was awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry and later, from Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government, a Croix de Guerre.

A Silver Star and a Croix de Guerre were not all he had brought home from the war. He had, in another instance of Jacobson persistence, won a brunette English beauty named Ethel Davies, called by her nickname, Peg. She was as strikingly lovely as Jacobson was strikingly homely. He had a beak of a nose, large ears that stuck out, and while still in his twenties, except for the hair on the side of his head, which he kept clipped short in military fashion, he was bald. He spotted her on a railway platform in Nottingham in the East Midlands, near the airfield where his squadron was stationed, and asked if he could sit beside her on the train. “Well, I suppose so,” she replied. “It’s a free country.” She was in uniform. Britain drafted its women for non-combat duty during the war, and to avoid ending up as a secretary, Peg Davies had joined the Royal Signals branch of the women’s army organization, the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She was working as a switchboard operator at a depot in the vicinity. Her stop was first and by the time she got off, Jacobson had maneuvered the conversation around to learning the name of the place and what she did there.

When he called the switchboard soon afterward to ask for a date, she told the other operators not to put him through. She had been struck on the train by his baldness and found it hard to believe he was as young as he claimed to be. The bald Englishmen she knew were in their fifties. He kept calling and she kept refusing to take the calls. Then one evening, right after she had finished washing her hair, a guard at the depot gate sent word to her barracks that an American officer was there asking to see her. She dressed, wrapped her damp hair in a big white towel, and walked down to the gate. It was Jake. She decided that if he was this persistent, he was worth at least one date. He courted her on a motorcycle filched from a British airborne outfit during a pre-D-Day practice drop, with Lucky Strike cigarettes, Hershey bars, and hefty No. 10 cans of grape juice, and he took her to dinners at a restaurant in Nottingham that still served steaks, locally reputed to be horse meat. He also stayed on active duty an extra year so that he could fly back to England and marry her at a registry office in Shropshire in 1946.

Foresight into the coming importance of guided missiles had led Jacobson to Schriever. He brought his English bride home to Birmingham and spent the next two years completing undergraduate studies for a bachelor’s in mathematics. Although he had left the service, he was still enrolled in the Reserve. While attending some mandatory Reserve schooling, he was informed by a general he knew that if he applied for a Regular commission, the newly independent U.S. Air Force would send him to MIT for two years of graduate study under Charles Stark Draper, the god of inertial guidance. He would receive the full pay and allowances of the lieutenant colonel’s rank he now held in the Reserve, along with tuition and any other expenses. He arrived at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, which Draper headed, on a Saturday morning and found the renowned professor in shirt sleeves sweeping the floor of the former shoe polish factory. Jacobson mistook him for a janitor until he asked directions to Dr. Draper’s office and the great man introduced himself. Because of sundry delays between Birmingham and Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was 1952 by the time Jacobson received his master’s degree in engineering from MIT. The question now was what to ask the Air Force to let him do with it. The Matador and Snark missiles were still in the development stage, but they caught his attention. Guided missiles, he decided, were in the Air Force to stay and he might one day want to command a missile unit. Nuclear weapons were also obviously here to stay and so he thought it would be a good idea to learn how to mate nuclear warheads to missiles.

The same general who had urged him to go to MIT arranged his assignment to the guided missiles section of the Special Weapons Command at Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base. He spent the next two years there, weaponizing nuclear devices from Los Alamos, first for missiles and then for bombers and fighters as well. His superior was Colonel Charles Terhune, whom Schriever had recruited as his second man, WDD’s deputy commander for technical operations, while putting together his Schoolhouse Gang in Inglewood in the summer of 1954. A test pilot at Wright Field and fighter pilot in the Pacific during the Second World War, Terry Terhune had a deserved reputation within the Air Force as an engineer of consummate ability. Once at the School-house, Terhune began rounding up other officers with engineering prowess for Schriever. The Air Force personnel department had selected Jacobson for a term at the Naval War College after his assignment to Kirtland, a comfortable academic year in Newport, Rhode Island. Terhune warned him that, with Schriever’s authority to put a hand on whomever he wanted, Jacobson was coming to Schriever’s shop sooner or later, and, if he wanted a good position, he had better come sooner. He told Peg they would not be going to Newport and came sooner, near the end of 1954. Moose Mathison, who had become Jacobson’s deputy at Kirtland, followed in 1955. It was Jacobson who, with Schriever’s assent, had then sent him to Canaveral as WDD’s delegate to oversee construction of the launch complexes there. “Colonel, do you have any experience in test operations?” Schriever had asked Jacobson on his arrival at Inglewood. “No, sir,” Jacobson had replied. “Do you know anything about testing?” Schriever had probed. “No, sir,” Jacobson said. “Good. You’re my director of tests,” Schriever announced. Terhune had assured him Jacobson was a quick study. Bennie had therefore assumed he would learn. And he did.

The first thing Jacobson did after taking over Thor was to send an officer he trusted to the Douglas plant at Santa Monica to find out why the company was not performing as it had promised and the original contract required. The Thors had been arriving at Canaveral with many parts missing. The unlaunchable missiles sat in one of the assembly buildings at the Cape until the parts arrived from California after long delays, and were installed. Even if Thor 101 had not blasted the pad so badly that repairs had taken two months, lack of parts would have delayed the launch of Thor 102, the missile the range safety officer mistakenly blew up, for an equivalent period of time. Jake’s investigator found, as Jacobson recalled years later, that the manufacturing procedures at the Douglas plant were “in sad shape” and the engineers there “didn’t seem to give a damn.” Jacobson briefed Schriever on what he had learned and said he intended to wake up the slackers. “Boss, I’m going to close down Douglas Aircraft Company until they straighten out,” he said. “I’m going to get their attention.” Get it, he did. He telephoned one of the senior executives that he was cutting off all payments until Douglas began producing on time and up to quality standards. Three days later the Douglas executives were in his office with a plan of reform. Hall took umbrage at Jacobson’s brusque methods and, his pride hurt because he was still officially the program director, went over to Santa Monica and told the engineers to ignore Jacobson. They immediately telephoned Jacobson and asked him what they should do. He said to put Hall on the phone, but Hall refused to talk to him. Jacobson called the Air Force security people and had them escort Hall out of the plant. The issue took months to square away and, while Jacobson relented after a time and allowed funds to flow again, the threat that he would once more stop the money was enough to keep Douglas on good behavior.

Jacobson’s next move was to appoint Moose Mathison his deputy. Whenever he could not be at Canaveral to oversee work on a Thor and preparations for a launch, Mathison was to act as his delegate and to speak with equivalent authority. The same would hold true in the blockhouse during a launch. If he happened to be absent for any reason, Mathison was the man. Like Schriever, Jacobson understood how thoroughly dependent the Air Force was on Mettler and Thiel and their associates. He was determined, again among his first tasks, to impress on the staff of approximately eight officers he had inherited from Hall that in the future he wanted teamwork with the Ramo-Wooldridge men, not internecine warfare. Hall’s staff were not an untalented bunch. One staffer was Sidney Greene, who, while a major at the Air Development Center at Wright Field back in 1952, had risked his career to divert $2 million to Hall for the prototype of the Rocketdyne engine that was powering Thor and would also power Atlas. But Jacobson discovered that instead of welding his staff into a team, Hall had each man doing his own thing with little interaction beween them. He decided that inviting them all to dinner at his house with their wives would be a good way to break down barriers and asked Peg to telephone the women and set it up.

In these years in the military, when the wife of your husband’s boss called to invite the two of you to dinner, you said, yes, thank you. Peg was baffled and angered by the negative responses she got. She rang Jake back. “I’m not dealing with that bunch,” she said. Jake convened a staff meeting. “Mrs. Jacobson and I are going to have a little affair Friday night, and we would like each of you to come with your spouse. We think you will enjoy it,” he said. “It is not a command performance, but I will take the name, rank, and serial number of any son of a bitch who doesn’t show up.” Attendance was 100 percent and Jake began to transform his staff. He sat them down with Mettler and Thiel and their people and, making no attempt to hide the peril that Thor was in, said the project was doomed unless both sides learned to cooperate. Mettler in turn promised all the support he could muster from the Ramo-Wooldridge group. “Jake, you tell us what you want done and we’ll do it,” he said. They went over all their launch procedures and tightened up. There were to be no more foolish gambles with time and alertness. Instruments were checked and double-checked. There were to be no more backward-flying DOVAP radars.

Nearly three and a half months went by before they could get another Thor ready to launch, but this time, on August 30, 1957, Thor 104 flew downrange for ninety-six seconds before it blew apart. Jacobson’s shaking up of Douglas now began to pay off in dramatically shorter launch intervals. Thor 105 was readied a lot faster and did a lot better on September 20. It lofted up and away, the engine shutting down instantly as it was programmed to do at 137 seconds and releasing the empty warhead, which flew on for 1,495 miles before impacting into the Caribbean. Twenty-one days later they crossed the finish line. On October 11, 1957, Thor 106 lifted off in a ballistic missile’s storm of fire and thunder and tossed its warhead off down the full required 1,725-mile course along the islands of the West Indies chain to splash into the Caribbean off Venezuela.

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