After several weeks of lectures in Arizona, the serious part of the four-month training course for the RAF launch crews got under way at the new Vandenberg Air Force Base on a sparsely populated stretch of the California coast near the town of Lompoc, about 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Schriever had acquired its 64,000 acres of sand and scrub brush, inhabited by rodents and the sidewinder rattlesnakes that fed on them, back in the fall of 1956 after long eyeing the place as an ideal West Coast base. The barren expanse belonged to the Army. It had been named Camp Cooke and used during the Second World War and the Korean War as a training ground for armored and infantry divisions. Schriever had several reasons to want it. Cooke’s isolation and size—it was four times as big as Canaveral—made it perfect as a first operational base for the ICBMs and as a permanent training ground for launch crews, to include live practice firings out over the Pacific. Left unsaid, because the matter was considered so sensitive, but critical to Schriever’s thinking nonetheless, was the fact that Camp Cooke lay along the one coastal area of the United States from which a polar orbit of a space satellite was most easily achieved. The earth rotates on its axis like a top spinning slowly on a table. If one removes the table in one’s imagination and visualizes the top spinning by itself in the air, one can understand the importance of a polar orbit to spying from space. A photographic reconnaissance satellite circling around the ends of the top, the poles of the earth, can photograph any area of the globe’s surface as the earth turns beneath it. Throwing such a spy satellite into polar orbit to photograph the Soviet Union’s military installations and weaponry from on high, a secret project code-named WS (Weapon System)-117L, was on Schriever’s agenda as soon as he had created a ballistic missile up to the task. Attaining a polar orbit from Cape Canaveral was a perilous undertaking because the missile had to be launched over populated areas of Latin America with the possibility of diplomatic protests and a public relations disaster if anything went wrong and people were injured from falling debris. But from Camp Cooke, where the coast of California juts westward into the Pacific, there is, except for a few islands, nothing but open sea stretching all the way to Antarctica.
In the summer of 1956, Bennie had carefully observed the bureaucratic nicety of appointing a site selection board for an alternative ICBM operations and training base. The board had predictably recommended Camp Cooke. The Army didn’t seem to have much use for it anymore, having abandoned the barracks and other buildings on Cooke to caretaker status after the end of the Korean War in 1953. Secretary Quarles was the obstacle. In those pre-Sputnik years, he was engaged in his “Poor Man’s” program to please Eisenhower and didn’t want to spend the money required. The estimates were that the cost of roads, buildings, and launch facilities would run $42 million in Fiscal Year 1957 and $400 million the following fiscal year. His attitude was that Schriever ought to make do with Cape Canaveral. Bennie, stubborn as ever when he believed something was really necessary, pressed the argument. The Air Staff supported him unanimously. A briefing was scheduled at the Pentagon, for the latter part of August, to decide the question. Bennie couldn’t attend himself. Dora had become so upset over his neglect of her and the family that he had finally given in to her complaints by promising to take them on vacation to Hawaii at that time and he knew there was no way he could renege on his promise. And although he would have sat in the briefing room, prepared to respond to questions, he would in any case have delegated the actual task of rendering the briefing to his specialist in the art, Major Roy Ferguson, Jr.
Roy Ferguson was, like Jamie Wallace, a country boy type, born and raised in Tennessee. He was courageous, he thought for himself, and he was not intimidated by the opinions of others, regardless of how high the source of the opinion happened to rank. Thirty-five missions flown out of Italy in a B-24 bomber against German fighters and flak, during which he had twice been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross along with four Air Medals, had undoubtedly reinforced these qualities. He also had a talent all his own, a talent the Irish call the gift of gab. He was a born persuader with a spectacularly retentive memory. In a night he could absorb enough facts on a subject of which he had previously known nothing to stand on a briefing platform the next morning and give a trenchant and convincing presentation. Of medium height, with a shock of dark hair combed back from his chiseled features, he also cut a good figure on a briefing stage. Ferguson was another example of Schriever’s talent-oriented system of management. He had originally come out to the Schoolhouse from the Pentagon as the unit’s operations officer, but as soon as Schriever had noticed his special gift, he had become WDD’s command briefer. Whenever an important sell had to be put across, either in California or in Washington, Ferguson took a crash course in the subject and mounted the briefing stage.
“Roy, I’m going to Honolulu on vacation,” Schriever said after he had summoned Ferguson to his office. “I want you to go up and brief the secretary and I want you to get me Camp Cooke. But don’t you mention live firings from that facility.” Schriever explained that saving money had become an obsession with Quarles and that the construction costs to transform Cooke into a suitable base were already an obstacle to acquiring it. Practice launching of missiles would cost more money. Training without launching was relatively cheap. Ferguson was to stick to training.
During the flight to Washington, Ferguson reflected on what Schriever had said and decided the boss was not making sense. Why would anyone give them such a huge and expensive piece of real estate if they were going to use it only for training that did not include launches? That could be done anywhere. The only cogent reason for possessing such an expansive base as Camp Cooke, and one on the sea at that, was to launch missiles from it, both for training and in war with the Soviets if it came to that. And so Ferguson made up two sets of charts. One set laid out the training argument Schriever wanted. An alternative set focused on the advantages of Cooke for live firing of missiles, in training and in war. The fact that he might have to disobey a direct order from the boss did not bother Ferguson. Schriever had said to get him Camp Cooke. If he didn’t succeed in that, disobedience “would be the least of my problems.”
Ferguson had assumed that a briefing for Secretary Quarles would be a high-profile affair, but he was astonished at the audience that began gathering and gradually filled the conference room. The secretary and Nathan Twining, still Air Force chief of staff, took their places in the front row. So did General White, the vice chief, and Tommy Power, then still commanding ARDC. Behind them were all the three-star generals who headed the various sections of the Air Staff and behind them their two-star deputies and sundry other major generals, including Major General John McConnell, then SAC’s director of plans, who had flown in from Omaha for the occasion. (He was subsequently to succeed Curtis LeMay as chief of staff of the Air Force during the Vietnam War.)
SAC was interested in seeing the Air Force gain Cooke because of the foresight of a junior officer sitting in the back row. This was Captain Richard Henry. He had joined SAC in 1950 as a second lieutenant right after West Point and flight school to co-pilot a four-engine B-50 bomber, the advanced version of the B-29 fitted out to carry the first mass-produced atomic bomb, the Mark 3 Nagasaki-type plutonium weapon. Leningrad was their assigned target. SAC was short of tankers in its young years. Henry and the other members of the crew were told they would get a drink from a tanker on the way to Leningrad, but there would be no second drink to bring them home. Their one meager hope of survival after the plane ran out of gas would be to bail out and walk, through the snow if it was winter, into Finland. “We would still have flown the mission,” he said. Henry had graduated in the upper 10 percent of his class at West Point. This induced the Air Force, after his tour in a B-50, to send him to the University of Michigan, where he earned not one but two master’s of science degrees, in aeronautical engineering and in instrumentation engineering. The latter degree was particularly useful in the art of missilery and, on his return to Omaha, Henry was dispatched to Los Angeles in October 1955 as SAC’s liaison officer to Schriever’s organization.
LeMay had meant the appointment to be a gesture of contempt, conveyed by Henry’s lowly rank of captain. “We had the last laugh,” Schriever was later to say. “He ended up a lieutenant general in command of the place,” which did occur in 1978. But not before Henry, in the years in between, had insisted on paying his dues as a combat airman by flying 200 missions in an F-4 Phantom jet fighter-bomber in Vietnam. Schriever had insisted that Captain Henry be shown every courtesy, and so when the site selection board had been created, Henry had been appointed to it as the SAC representative. He had immediately recognized the future usefulness to SAC of Camp Cooke. The Strategic Air Command was slated to take charge of all ICBMs once the missiles had been developed to the point where they could be deployed and no crew could be considered proficient until it had actually launched a missile in practice. Nor could crews be kept proficient without periodically retesting their skills with a live firing. Henry’s report to SAC headquarters, pointing out how perfect Cooke was for all of this, had quickly caught the attention of the command and brought McConnell to the Pentagon on this day. His report may also have helped to achieve the unanimity among the generals on the Air Staff for obtaining Cooke and brought some of them to this briefing as well, as the influence of SAC was never to be underestimated. His position on the site selection board had, despite his mere captain’s bars, entitled Henry to witness the briefing. A colonel who was sitting beside him at the back counted thirty-three stars in the room. He told Henry to look around. “Dick, this is a unique experience. You’ll probably never have one like this again the rest of your career,” the colonel said.
Brigadier General Osmond “Ozzie” Ritland, another technological innovator who had been detailed to the CIA as deputy director of the U-2 spy plane project and whom Schriever had recently recruited as his vice commander in California, introduced Ferguson to the gathering in a couple of sentences and then, as Schriever had instructed him, immediately sat down. Ferguson stepped up onto the low briefing platform, where his charts already rested on an easel, turned to his august audience, and began briefing exactly as Schriever had ordered him to do. He hewed strictly to the utility of Camp Cooke as a training base, saying nothing about money and nothing about missile launchings.
A pitchman of Ferguson’s talent and experience develops an acute sense for the reaction of an audience. He watches their eyes. Ferguson didn’t like what he was seeing. The eyes of this audience were dulling over. He was losing them. If he did not switch gears right away, the briefing was going to be a complete flop. He reached over to the easel, grasped the five live firing charts he had composed and put behind the training ones, and placed them in front. Ritland was sitting close enough to see what was on the new charts. His eyes grew large in surprise as he suddenly realized that Ferguson was about to defy Schriever. Not wanting to be unnerved, Ferguson shifted his gaze away from Ritland to the others and began briefing for all he was worth on the value of shooting missiles from Camp Cooke. He sensed the mood in the room change instantly. He had the attention of everyone now. He pressed on, exchanging charts as he led his audience through every category of live firing he had been able to think of the night before during the plane ride from California—testing new missiles, a graduation exercise for the training of a crew, the maintenance of proficiency that had concerned Henry, and the ultimate, the launching of war birds against targets in the Soviet Union or Communist China. He was silent only on the ease of achieving a polar orbit from Cooke, because the photoreconnaissance satellite project was such a closely guarded secret then.
The meeting came alive as the participants joined in with their own opinions. Tommy Power was interested primarily in the realistic training of launch crews and began holding forth on this point. He also focused on how suitable a base Cooke would be for the hurry-up deployment of the first few ICBMs as an initial deterrent to the Soviets, the “Ph.D. type” capability Trevor Gardner had spoken of two years earlier at the time of the Tea Pot Committee.
General White moved in to provide Ferguson with a four-star assistant and to steer the meeting where he wanted it to go. The range of the Atlas was 5,500 nautical miles (approximately 6,330 statute miles), wasn’t it? he asked Ferguson. “Yes, sir,” Ferguson replied. “Where does that go?” White continued. “From the northern tier of the United States, sir, it will cover about anything you need covered,” Ferguson replied. White called for a map of the world, some string, and a grease pencil. He got up and walked over to the briefing stage, put the map up on the easel, measured off a length of string covering 5,500 nautical miles, tied the grease pencil to one end, held the other end on the approximate location of Camp Cooke, and then swung the grease pencil in an arc. Shooting across the North Pacific, they could strike all of China and most of the eastern Soviet Union, including Vladivostok, Russia’s major Far Eastern port and naval base at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railroad on the Sea of Japan. “He’s right,” White announced to the room. “From the northern tier, we can.” Tommy Power recovered to give Ferguson another opening. “What does that cost?” he asked, referring to practice live firings out over the Pacific. Ferguson knew that Power wanted him to say something playing down expenditures, and he obliged. “Well, keep in mind, sir, very little instrumentation,” he said with assurance. He explained that since they would be launching over open water, they would not have to build expensive monitoring and tracking stations on islands, as they had in the Caribbean and South Atlantic, and could use Navy ships equipped with instruments instead.
Quarles had apparently heard enough. He turned to General Twining. “What do you think, Nate?” he asked. Ferguson was thirty-three years old at the time of the briefing, but Twining belonged to that First World War generation of Army Air Corps officers who still referred to a relatively junior officer as a “boy.” He answered without hesitation. “The boy’s right,” he said. Quarles looked up at Ferguson: “Go home and tell Schriever he’s got Camp Cooke.” The budget-bound Quarles continued to have misgivings, but he did not renege on his word. When Ferguson and Ritland returned that evening to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where they were staying, they stripped down to their underwear so that they could completely relax, called for a fifth of whiskey, and did not have a great deal left in the bottle when they ordered something to eat. On November 16, 1956, Secretary Wilson transferred the 64,000 acres of Camp Cooke that Schriever wanted to the Air Force. Approximately two years later, on October 4, 1958, the place was renamed in honor of the late Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force’s second chief of staff.