63.

BLACK SATURDAY

Bennie made the cover of Time magazine in the spring of 1957. The issue of April 1 displayed a profile shot in color of a handsome man in the dark blue uniform of an Air Force major general, silver braid on the brim of his cap, two silver stars on his shoulder tabs. “Missileman Schriever,” the caption beside the photograph said, while in the background a ballistic missile lit a fiery trail above the clouds of earth as it streaked toward space. The cover photograph and the feature article inside that it advertised were a major public relations coup for Schriever, an indication that he and ballistic missiles were arriving. For months he had been pressing the Air Force hierarchy to raise some of the security curtains on the missile program in order to reap the public and congressional support that favorable publicity could provide, and this was the first, notable fruit of his effort. Time, which proclaimed itself “the Weekly Newsmagazine,” was at the height of its influence in the 1950s as a newsmaker and fashioner of public opinion. Under the leadership of its co-founder and editor-in-chief, Henry Luce, who had heralded the twentieth as “the American Century,” Time was a model of militant anti-Communism and brisk, upbeat reporting on the inevitably triumphant future of the United States. There was no hint in the article of the excruciating struggle Schriever, Gardner, and von Neumann, assisted by the intrigues of Vince Ford, had waged to set the ICBM enterprise in motion. “The history of the missile has little record of military unwillingness to accept it as the weapon that must be developed at top speed,” Time said. “Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson bulled the ICBM project through the National Security Council.” Nor was there ever any doubt as to who was to lead the program. “Actually we didn’t appoint him—Benny was born for this job,” the magazine quoted an anonymous general in the Pentagon. “There wasn’t another soul we knew who could handle it, so we just sort of nodded and said ‘OK, now,’ and Benny walked in and took over.” (Time spelled Schriever’s nickname as the sports reporters in the San Antonio of his youth had.)

The most factually accurate section was a warm account of Schriever’s arrival in the United States in 1917 as a six-year-old from Germany with his mother and younger brother, Gerry, and of Elizabeth Schriever’s heroic travail to raise her boys with housekeeping and the sandwich stand at the twelfth green of the Brackenridge Park Golf Course. But he was no longer San Antonio’s boy wonder of golf who had achieved a mention in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for three times driving a ball more than 300 yards onto the green and then sinking it with a single putt, quite a feat with the golf clubs of his youth. Now he was “hard-eyed Ben Schriever” pitted against the Soviets in “his destiny-sized race for an operational ICBM.” The encomiums rolled on. “Ben Schriever, a tomorrow’s man,” had “the most important job in the country.” He was a “discerning, thinking leader,” an “outstanding and extremely tenacious manager.” Not that much of the praise was unmerited, for Bennie was “a tireless, able, dedicated, imaginative officer” and in 1957 he was the man of the moment. And if much of the Time cover story was fiction, for a man who lived on the edge as Schriever did and who rarely strayed from a grasp on reality himself, fairy tales, as long as they were friendly, were welcome.

The fifteen men whom Schriever had gathered at the Schoolhouse when he had officially taken command of his fledgling Western Development Division on August 2, 1954, had metamorphosed into a ballistic missile and space satellite center. By the end of 1957, testing of Thor had been under way for virtually a year, Atlas launches had begun that June, and manufacture had started on Titan, the alternative ICBM in case Atlas should prove a failure. Planning for a photo-reconnaissance satellite under the WS-117L program was advancing. On June 1, 1957, in line with the same relaxing of security that had led to the Time cover story, the Air Force also peeled away the official disguise and redesignated the innocuously named WDD as the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (AFBMD). Schriever had 485 Air Force officers and noncommissioned specialists and 222 civilian clerks, secretaries, and other auxiliary personnel at work in his new BMD. Employed alongside them to facilitate the processing of contracts was a special Ballistic Missile Office detachment from the Air Matériel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It consisted of another 55 Air Force and 155 civilian employees. After Power took over from LeMay at Omaha, a decision was also made in late 1957 that SAC would take responsibility for the training and deployment of all ICBM units. A full-fledged SAC liaison office was created to work at Schriever’s WDD. It was titled Office of the Assistant Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command for Missiles, but it was known by its acronym, SAC-MIKE. Its head was Colonel William Large, Jr., a highly decorated B-24 veteran. He had won the Silver Star for Gallantry and twice been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading raids out of Italy against the notoriously perilous Ploeşti oil fields in Romania and other targets in east and south Europe. Co-located with all of these WDD components in the same but now much expanded Arbor Vitae complex of office buildings near Los Angeles Airport was a Ramo-Wooldridge organization that had mushroomed from 170 scientists and technicians in 1954 to 1,961 in 1957.

These numbers were paltry when compared to the tens of thousands at work in the offices and on the assembly lines of the firms building the missiles. The two ICBMs encompassed seventeen major contractors, like Convair and the Martin Company, which had the air-frame and assembly contracts for Atlas and Titan, respectively, 200 subcontractors, and thousands of suppliers all over the United States. Nor were the profits small. Aerojet General, for example, had been given $400 million in Air Force orders to furnish the engines for Titan. Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, whose products were the intangibles of technical expertise and brainpower, were not doing badly either with the simple cost-plus-fee arrangement Trevor Gardner had first pressed them into on the formation of the Tea Pot Committee in September 1953. By the close of Fiscal Year 1958, Ramo-Wooldridge had earned approximately $70 million.

While Schriever’s primary management technique was and always would be selecting the right man and giving him the freedom and authority to accomplish a task, he had developed a second system for keeping track of all of these projects. It centered on a monthly briefing the staff referred to ruefully as “Black Saturday.” The man Schriever chose to orchestrate this second system was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Getz III, tall and dark-haired, with round, friendly features. Getz had joined the Army Air Forces in May 1942 while he was still a senior in high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, flew thirty-one missions against Germany out of England as a B-24 pilot in 1944, and then volunteered to fly a P-51 Mustang fighter in a special unit that scouted targets ahead of the bomber formations. The scouts would radio the bomber leader whether the target was sufficiently free of clouds to permit visual bombing, whether he would have to bomb by radar, or whether the cloud cover was so thick that the bombers would have to go on to their secondary target. In the course of an additional forty missions as a scout, Getz joined the tiny club of American aviators who shot down one of the new Messerschmitt 262 jet fighters. He spotted the German pilot descending for a landing, dove on him at full throttle, and opened fire with his six .50 calibers, the P-51 shuddering with the 400-mile-per-hour speed of the descent and the recoil of the guns. As he saw his tracer bullets striking, Getz got so excited that he forgot to take his finger off the firing button to shoot in bursts and burned out all six of his machine gun barrels.

After the war, to avoid being demobilized before he could obtain a Regular commission, Getz took a course in statistical analysis that would qualify him for an unusual job classification, or Military Occupation Specialty as it was called, and was sent off to Japan for two years as a statistical control officer with the Far East Air Forces. A subsequent bachelor’s degree in accounting and economics and a master’s in industrial management made him precisely the man Schriever was seeking when he arrived at WDD in the latter half of 1955. Simon Ramo had decided to create a control room in the Ramo-Wooldridge Arbor Vitae office complex, where Schriever and his staff were shortly to move from the Schoolhouse in Inglewood. It was to serve as a focal point for management of the various programs. Schriever saw this as a move that could end with him becoming a captive of civilian managers. “I want to keep control,” he told Getz when he summoned him to his office shortly after Getz’s arrival. Getz was to assume responsibility for all management systems on Schriever’s behalf. “Your job is to work with them [Ramo-Wooldridge], but you are in charge and take charge.” To make the point to all that Getz spoke for him, Schriever assigned Getz directly to his office.

Getz proceeded to cast a reporting net that encompassed every detail of every enterprise in Schriever’s little empire. For example, each month prior to the main briefing, the Air Force project officers and the Ramo-Wooldridge engineers working on a missile had to get together, reach agreement on the current status of all aspects—engines, guidance, warhead, and so forth—and then sign their assent on a chart that illustrated this. Milestones were established, such as a completion date for each stage in the testing of a missile. The milestones were often not met, of course, and when this happened, the charts had to indicate exactly how much slippage had occurred and why.

The Black Saturday briefing, held in the Arbor Vitae control room, became the major event of the month at headquarters. Getz was its maestro. Prior to arriving in California, his nickname had been “Bill,” from his middle name of William. Soon, behind his back, he was being called “Cecil B. De Getz,” after Cecil B. DeMille, the famous Hollywood producer and director of spectacular epics like The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah. Getz’s productions began at 8:45 in the morning and extended until well after 5:00 in the afternoon, with ten-minute personal relief breaks at midmorning and mid-afternoon and an hour off between noon and 1:00 for lunch. He ran the sessions with ruthless efficiency, because he knew this was what Schriever wanted in order to pack as much as possible into a single day. A missile team would be allotted fifty minutes to make its presentation. If a briefer was starting to run over on his time, Getz would flash on a screen behind him a sketch of a hook pulling a man off a stage. The trick never failed to elicit laughter from the briefing room, but if the briefer ignored the message, Getz would abruptly inform him, even in the middle of a sentence, “Time’s up!”

Schriever’s subordinates had aptly dubbed the monthly briefing Black Saturday because “the Boss” was not interested in good news. At a time when the upper echelons of the American military were beginning to suffer from the disease of professional arrogance and lack of imagination, and the fare of a normal briefing was “Progress,” Schriever took an opposite approach. He wanted to know the problems, on the not irrational assumption that if they were solved, success would take care of itself. “I don’t like to be surprised,” he would say. “Give me the bad news. I can take it. I will not fire you for giving me the bad news. I will fire you if you don’t give me the bad news.” The briefings thus tended to be succinct recitals of woe, with frequently tentative ideas on how a team was going to solve a problem that continued to baffle. The discussions that followed sometimes helped, sometimes not. The paperwork burden and the time consumed in team meetings to reach agreement on the status of every aspect of every project made Getz the most unpopular man in the command. Yet no one dared ignore him because they knew that Schriever wanted what he was demanding. And there was no revolt because all understood that the system enforced discipline and teamwork. Everyone was made aware of what everyone else was doing and thus could pitch in to assist. Most important of all, the focus stayed where it mattered—the gradual elimination of impediments to getting the job done.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!