62.

A TIE

By the time Basil Williamson and his contingent of RAF missileers-to-be arrived in the summer of 1959, desolation had given way to a panoply of permanent concrete launching pads, a network of roads connecting them, and housing and office blocks. SAC crews who had been trained on Thor by Douglas technicians were waiting to pass their knowledge on to their British allies. Months of lectures, demonstrations of the many parts of the weapon system, and practice countdowns followed. Graduation was a live firing. The SAC training team worked with the RAF men to be certain everything on the site was ready, but then, as soon as the actual countdown began, stepped back and let their pupils take the count through to the climax of flame and liftoff over the Pacific. In the England to which they returned in October 1959, ghost airfields from which the B-17s and the B-24s had once taken off to pummel the Third Reich had been pressed into a new mission. Down through the east of England, from East Riding in Yorkshire to the north, through Lincolnshire, and Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and neighboring counties, the Thors were being arrayed. The RAF broke the sixty Thors down into batteries of three missiles each and formed a squadron of five launch control officers and forty enlisted technicians to man each battery, twenty squadrons in all. Four regular RAF airfields currently in use were selected as headquarters bases to provide communications and whatever other support was needed and the twenty squadrons were divided between them, five squadrons, or five three-missile batteries totaling fifteen missiles, assigned to each main base. One of the batteries was sited at the headquarters base. The other four were set up on abandoned airfields around it, many of these the Second World War American bomber bases. To disperse the missiles and prevent all from being knocked out in one blow, the airfields selected for the sites were roughly fifteen miles apart. From the air the whites and grays of the individual missile installations, emplaced in a one, two, three line, stood out starkly in the green of the English countryside.

Not all went well in the beginning. The missile itself was up to its mission, but the Douglas technicians had a lot of trouble making the ground support equipment function properly. For a time as much unusable equipment was coming home in the C-124s as new “modification kits” were going over. Although the first missiles ready to be launched against the Soviet Union theoretically went on alert at RAF Feltwell and its satellite installations in Norfolk in the spring and summer of 1959, the Thors there and at other installations rapidly organizing were, in fact, harmless. While the Soviets may not have known it, the Mark 2 reentry vehicles were empty. The RAF high command did not trust the system enough to allow the nuclear warheads to be mounted. The problem had not arisen because of Jamie Wallace’s maximum speed philosophy. Had he not applied the blowtorch to move the ground support program along as rapidly as possible, more time would have been lost. The difficulty was that they were pushing the limits of technology with what was, for its era, a complex system. The failings could not be detected until Thor was actually being deployed. Jacobson solved the impasse by handing it to one of the most astute Air Force engineers of his time, Benjamin Bellis, then a thirty-five-year-old major.

Like Henry, Bellis was also eventually to wear three stars on his shoulder tabs and to oversee the creation of one of the most potent American fighter-bombers of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the F-15 Eagle. To stop the helter-skelter improvising that was occurring in the effort to make the Thor system function as advertised, Bellis instituted a procedure he called “configuration control.” When a fix to a problem was achieved, the change was carefully recorded, applied universally, and coordinated with the production line of the manufacturer so that it would be phased into newly built ground support equipment. Bellis formed a committee, with himself, naturally, as its chairman, to supervise and enforce the process. To make certain there was an end to the confusion that had reigned prior to his arrival, no change in any equipment on site in England could be made without the permission of the committee. Within months, Bellis’s engineering modifications and the forceful manner in which he applied them had the ground support gear working as it should. The achievement was not without casualties. Two Douglas technicians were killed in California by an accidental explosion while testing redesigned machinery to fuel the Thor’s LOX tank. But in those years of Cold War urgency, such fatal accidents were a price everyone was prepared to pay. The RAF hierarchy was at last convinced it had a reliable IRBM. In May 1960, the one-megaton warheads were mounted on the Thors. All of the western Soviet Union, including Moscow and beyond to many of the industrial centers as far as the upper Volga, was within the fan of their 1,725-mile range.

Finding homes for the Jupiters among the other NATO allies was to prove a more difficult task. As a result, the Air Force, to the helpless rage of the Army’s John Medaris at the Redstone Arsenal, reduced the number of Jupiters destined for NATO from sixty to forty-five. Charles de Gaulle had returned to power in Paris in 1958 as the only French leader capable of staving off the country’s descent toward chaos and civil war because of the impending loss of Algeria after another fruitless colonial conflict. He was obsessed with restoring French pride and independence, regaining the international stature lost with the defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940, and creating France’s own nuclear arsenal, his Force de Frappe. Although he privately admitted that Western Europe’s security relied on American power, he was not about to publicly concede dependence on anyone by leaning on Washington’s missiles. De Gaulle refused the Jupiters.

Italy was more forthcoming. It agreed to the stationing of thirty Jupiters under the two-key system of dual control worked out by the British. A headquarters was established at the air base at Gioia del Colle, in the heel of the boot formed by the bottom of the Italian peninsula. Italian air force launch crews were sent to Alabama for training at Redstone. In contrast to the Thors, which were laid on their sides within their shelters, the Jupiters, painted white with Italian air force markings, were emplaced in the open, erect for firing and ranged phalluslike across the southern Italian countryside in three-missile batteries. Turkey, also a NATO member, was short of skilled manpower to be trained as missile technicians, but more trusting of the United States. The fifteen Jupiters it accepted were entirely manned and controlled by U.S. Air Force personnel. The Turks simply provided security troops for the batteries. Again to prevent the missiles from being destroyed in a single preemptive strike, the batteries were widely dispersed through the rugged terrain inland from the port of Izmir, a once predominantly Greek city on the western end of the Anatolian Peninsula, known as Smyrna until the Turks expelled the Greek minority after the First World War.

From Turkey, the Jupiters could cover the entirety of European Russia and fly as far as Soviet Central Asia. The presence of American IRBMs in a nation right on the Soviet frontier was particularly unsettling to the Russians. It was, in fact, an act of provocation and should have been foreseen as such. The Soviets were upset enough to, on at least one occasion, send down a jet fighter on a photoreconnaissance mission. The plane crashed.

The dispatch of the Thors to England and the Jupiters to Italy and Turkey had effectively stymied the Russians. They had deployed their medium-and intermediate-range missiles earlier than Schriever and his comrades had managed to field their IRBMs, but not early enough to cause undue anxiety, because Britain’s and Washington’s other NATO allies had known that the American missiles were on the way. Schriever and those who labored with him had tied with their Soviet opponents in this first round of the race to deploy nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, and in the process they had learned some important lessons.

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