More than half a century ago in the midst of cold war flurry I was part of an American deterrence strategy that shaped my life in ways I am only now becoming aware of. If memory serves me, this is how I remember it.
My first duty-station after Goodfellow Air Force Base was at Stead Air Force Base in Reno, Nevada. It was a strange assignment that turned out to be one of those life-changing events in one’s trajectory. I was assigned to the 8th Air Rescue Group at Stead AFB as a Junior Intelligence Officer. When I arrived I was informed I had been promoted to 1st Lt. Major Shirley was the Senior Intelligence Officer. He was glad to see me. Within a week he had me squared away and ready to function as an Intelligence Officer sans cloak and dagger.
The Cold War began with Winston Churchill’s Fulton, Missouri, speech on March 5th of 1946 about the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain” descending on Europe. The Soviet Union went from being a World War II ally to “the evil empire.” The United States would spend the next forty years arming for conflict with the Soviet Union.
Our cold-war secret strategy would be to send our Strategic Air Command (SAC) long-range B-36 bombers into the Soviet Union to deliver their nuclear payloads on select Soviet cities. Air to air refueling (probe and drogue) was still relatively new and dicey, so flying into the Soviet Union was pretty much a one-way trip. The plan then emerged that specially trained recovery teams would go into the Soviet Union to pick up the B-36 crews from where they ditched their planes after dropping their bombs.
To prepare for this eventuality, on December 16, 1949, General Curtis R. LeMay of World War II bomber fame, ordered organization of the 3904th Training Squadron which morphed into the 8th Air Rescue Group, a secret Strategic Air Command recovery unit, to find and bring back those B-36 crews from the Soviet Union. The first training site was a mountainous terrain survival school at Camp Carson, Colorado, chosen because the surrounding terrain resembled the terrain of the Soviet Union.
This was not, however, the first effort at aircrew survival training. In August of 1947 the Arctic Indoctrination School, an aircrew survival program, was established at Marks AFB near Nome, Alaska. Its mission was to train aircrews in how to survive in harsh arctic environments. In 1948, the Arctic Indoctrination School was merged with the survival school at Ladd AFB, combining the survival training of aircrews. Dissatisfied with this early aircrew training and receiving no Air Force Command support for its improvement per his Plan for Evasion and Escape, Training and Operations, General LeMay opted to develop SAC’s own aircrew survival training.
By 1952, the SAC Survival School outgrew its site at Camp Carson, Colorado, whereupon General LeMay moved the Survival School to Stead Air Force Base, a high mountain site just north of Reno, Nevada, where the 8th Air Rescue Group would train for its recovery missions and where SAC bomber crews would undergo training in escape and evasion tactics in the event of war with the Soviet Union. The 8th Air Rescue Group and the SAC Survival School would be co-tenants at Stead AFB, each with its own command structure, each reporting to SAC headquarters. The conditions at Stead AFB were perfect. Ten miles northwest of Reno, the new training site offered the high Sierra Nevada Mountains for cold-weather survival training and the hot, bleak, treeless encampment of sage-brush and desert for equatorial-weather survival training.
Essentially, the 8th Air Rescue Group was the only one of its kind in the Air Force. It was both a front and a reality: a front in the sense that it was not a Military Air Transport (MATS) rescue unit; a reality in that it was a Strategic Air Command (SAC) ultra-secret rescue unit. In 1954, American strategic deterrence depended upon the lumbering, cigar-shaped long-range B-36 bomber whose range could penetrate the Soviet Union with only enough gas for a one-way trip. After having delivered their bombs and having ditched their planes, the 8th Air Rescue Group would lift the B-36 crews out of the Soviet Union with “sophisticated techniques and technology.” That was the plan. There was no way to refuel the B-36s in the air since air to air refueling (probe and drogue) was in the experimental stage.
I arrived at Stead AFB as an Intelligence Officer for the 8th Air Rescue Group in the Spring of 1953 from Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas, having gotten back into active duty via an ROTC commission at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. During World War II, I had served in the Marines.
As the 8th Air Rescue Group’s Intelligence Officer, I was responsible for gathering information pertinent to the areas of the Soviet Union where the Group’s recovery airplanes were likely to fly over in getting to the B-36 downed crews. In preparation for this assignment I studied more Russian language and history than my one year of Russian at Pitt. I had a dual appointment, however, with the SAC Survival School as a trainer in escape and evasion as well as in the interrogation techniques likely to be used by Soviet authorities in the event our B-36 crews were apprehended. Mostly, though, the Group’s Intelligence Unit made sure the SAC crews undergoing the survival training knew how to read maps of the Soviet territory they were likely to “ditch” in and that they understood the techniques for escape and evasion wherever they were likely to ditch in the Soviet Union.
There were three squadrons of modified Gooney Birds (C-47’s) in the 8th Air Rescue Group. The plan was that the slower-flying Gooney Birds could slip into the Soviet Union under the radar flying at tree-top altitudes, dropping into landing areas cleared by the downed crews using short-field landing and take-off techniques. The landing gear struts of the C-47’s had been modified to give the plane a higher front profile for short-field landings and take-offs. Each C-47 had a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and crew-chief. Under real battle-field conditions, a medic would be part of the crew. That was America’s early secret cold-war strategy.
To find the downed crews the gooney birds were equipped with special homing devices that picked up URC-4 radio signals from the crew on the ground. Finding the ditched crew was not always easy, but once a signal had been picked up, the plane’s homing device locked in on the signal directing the plane to the pick-up site.
When the plane landed in the space cleared by the downed crew—often less than 50 yards—the crew chief would hurry them into the plane, attach JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) bottles under the belly of the aircraft, and jump into the plane that had been waiting for its take-off roll with pilot and co-pilot sitting on the brakes—the plane in full throttle. Roiled in fearsome immediacy the rescue would be completed in less than ten minutes.
Given the clear sign by the crew chief, the pilot and co-pilot would back off the brakes and the plane would lurch forward at full throttle. After a short roll the pilot would pull back on the stick urging the plane into the air, the co-pilot would hit the JATO bottle button and like a jet the gooney bird would shoot up above the tree tops.
The problem with that JATO technique was the possibility of a stall. During those exercises, a number of gooney birds fell out of the sky propelled with that JATO assist. We lost a number of gooney birds and ditched crews with that maneuver.
How to pick up downed crews went through many evolutions from trying to snag a downed crewman dangling between two poles with a sort of grappling hook to picking up a crewman with a net. The technique that worked best was short-field landings and take-offs. The efficacy of the JATO bottle was a hit or miss gamble, though mostly successful.
In the search for downed crews, we practiced short-field landings and takeoffs in the Snake and Feather River country of Idaho—tough terrain which seemed to be the kind of landscape in the Soviet Union that would offer our downed crews the best chance of survival and eventual pickup. Training the gooney bird crews in low-level flying meant practicing flying just off the deck in flat country. Many a time a railroad engineer would toot his whistle surprised to see a gooney bird flying alongside the train almost level with the top of the boxcars. A number of times participating in those exercises, I thought we had bought the farm.
In retrospect, that period of U.S. deterrence reads like something out of Catch 22. We flew hundreds of missions perfecting the plan: Gooney Birds (C-47’s) flew low level over treetops, dropped onto hastily prepared landing strips to pick up “downed crews” directed with URC-4 radio signaling devices. Practice after practice in all kinds of terrain and weather we flew, experimenting with inane pickup techniques in simulated recoveries of downed aircrews. I was young and gung ho in those days, and believed I could become Air Force Chief of Staff.
Strategic Air Command bomber crew training in escape and evasion involved pushing bomber crews beyond endurance they didn’t know they had. The landscape of the Rocky Mountains in that part of Nevada is brutal in winter and stifling in summer. Crews were dropped off in remote sites with maps, minimal gear and food, and forced to survive off the land as they made their way to designated rendezvous points. As a member of the training team I spent many a night out there in the wild of the Sierra Nevada with those SAC crews.
In winter, Stead AFB became a cold-weather survival school, training SAC bomber crews to navigate snow-covered mountainous terrain. This involved learning how to ski and how to negotiate the snow on foot. In winter as in summer the crews were trained in how to survive off the land. The training was rugged and intended to produce rugged crews who understood that their survival depended on their determination to stay alive if they expected to come home after a nuclear cataclysm.
In the classrooms of the Survival School, SAC bomber crews were taught the basics of escape and evasion: they studied maps of the Soviet Union, acquired a rudimentary knowledge of Russian, and learned how to become invisible. Above all, they learned how to depend on each other in those circumstances. They were taught how to do low-altitude parachute jumps in hazardous terrain. They were also trained in combative measures (Judo).
When they finished their training at the Survival School, SAC bomber crews were ready for the perils of the nuclear age. The school was mandatory for all SAC bomber crews. Those who could not “cut it” were washed out, replaced by those who could. The training was as strenuous as the training today of Navy Seals, though not as lethal.
The pains of the body, however, were nominal compared to the stresses on the mind. SAC bomber crews were required to undergo mock capture, imprisonment, and interrogation as real as if the entire process was happening in the Soviet Union. To the degree that our information about the Soviet Union’s treatment of prisoners-of-war was reliable, and within boundaries of safety for the SAC bomber crews, our “mock” exercises were staged right to the edge of realism. Many times our medical personnel halted continuation of our mock exercise with particular crew members, especially during the interrogation phase of the exercise. Despite knowledge that the situation was an exercise, some crew members “broke down” and were rushed to the infirmary. The situation reminded me of my boot-camp training in the Marines at Parris Island during the dark days of World War II. Many boot-camp trainees washed out of the Corps because they couldn’t take the heat.
The curriculum of the Survival School included familiarization with the Military Code of Conduct as it applied to being captured and becoming a prisoner-of-war. The Military Code of Conduct had evolved out of our experiences with American prisoners-of-war during World War II and Korea. My contribution to that training was an acronym for remembering the various parts of the Military Code of Conduct that applied to becoming a prisoner-of-war. Name, rank, and serial number became the mantra. Later, American POW experiences in Vietnam fine-tuned the Military Code of Conduct for those circumstances.
The 8th Air Rescue Group trained everywhere in the states, experiencing a variety of terrains and circumstances. As the Group Intelligence Officer, I went everywhere our planes went. I was not only the unit courier and responsible for briefing our brass and crews but also responsible for safeguarding our Top-Secret plans which I kept close to my body when not in a secure area.
In the Fall of 1954, the 8th Air Rescue Group was deployed to an RAF (Royal Air Force) base at East Kirkby, England for joint training with the RAF. That deployment took us across the United States to Gander, Newfoundland, then to Keflavick, Iceland. The last hop from there took us directly to the RAF base in East Kirkby, England. I was the only Hispanic in the Group; and an officer. At flying school I was the only Hispanic in my flight (53-O) . . . and quite possibly the oldest second lieutenant on active duty. I did not realize then and only later understood how many “firsts” I would be part of. There weren’t many Hispanic officers in the Air Force then.
The English saw me as exotic; my comrades, as odd. Though I could carouse with them in their idiom, and they respected that I had been a marine Sergeant during World War II, that I spoke Spanish and French and had studied the runes of English literature. They noticed I spent a lot of time in my room, typing. They abided my ethnicity but would not countenance a poet. Two years earlier, the New World Society of Pittsburgh published a chapbook of my poetry (The Wide Well of Hours) and, as a consequence, I fancied myself a poet.
The English understood poetry. When some of them who worked at the base learned about my success (d’estime) in poetry they invited me to read some of my works. Those invitations and their questions afterward helped me later to frame my identity as an American, as an Hispanic and ultimately as a Chicano. But I was still a Yank to them, something between a black and a white American. “Don’t get many Mexican Yanks here, lad,” one of them said, all curious about me.
They were further surprised when I spoke to them about Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth and Browning. My search for Hamlet’s ghost began then, with numerous trips to Stratford, culminating twelve years later, when I was teaching at New Mexico State University, in my work on The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet (identified by the Chaucerian Haldeen Braddy as one of the most provocative works in a century of Hamlet studies). That study led to collaboration with Mark Medoff (Tony-Award author of Children of a Lesser God) and George Fellows on a musical version of Hamlet which we titled Elsinore, a play in the fashion of Camelot and Man of La Mancha. We thought the play would travel far, but were disillusioned when Joseph Papp suggested we turn it into a rock musical.
On weekends and long holidays at East Kirkby I scoured the English countryside, going everywhere, getting a sense of the British spirit, writing reams of notes and impressions, harboring in the back of my mind a Homeric epic, writing verse furiously, unaware that the essay would become my forte. My English literary friends invited me everywhere —London, Nottingham, Lincoln, Canterbury, Stratford. Seeds of my doctoral work in Chaucer took root during this period as well.
In the meantime, our cooperation with NATO forces took us to France, Germany, Italy, and Spain as well as Libya and Morocco. Some of our exercises took us deep into Iran and Turkey (Adana) where the U.S. had a listening station at Adana, Turkey,into the Soviet Union.
The Fall of 1954 turned into the Winter of 1955 and the 8th Air Rescue Group was ordered to Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli to support NATO maneuvers. The North African sun tanned me deeply and I was often mistaken for North African, a pied noire since I spoke French too, reminding me of how I was taken for Chinese the year I went to mainland China right after World War II. I was a Marine Sergeant then, having survived the war. “Yes, yes,” I told them. “Me Migua Chinee” (American Chinese). They nodded, bowed and smiled. I was accepted.
In Tripoli, I wrote poems about the desert, ancient Roman ruins, and ghibilies (hot, suffocating sandstorms off the Sahara Desert). I read and reread Eliot, Pound and Stein. I wrote triolets, rondolets, and sonnets. I wrote in English, Spanish, and French. I fa- shioned poems like Mallarme, Villon, Richepin, and Baudelaire. I translated into English El Cid and Chanson de Roland. I read Camus and Sartre and wondered about the French in Indo-China. Their turmoil in Algeria lay just beyond Tripoli. In French Indo-China we sided with the French. Our payment, perhaps, to Lafayette.
In March of 1955 NATO exercises moved the 8th Air Rescue Group to Rige, Norway, where I became even more exotic. Going from the airfield to the officers’ billets, I wondered why so many Norwegians were staring at me. The Norwegian TAC officer facilitating our stay informed me that dark-skinned people were a rarity in the country. Some of the maids in the officer’s billet asked if they could touch my skin.
We returned to East Kirkby in May. By now our TDY had extended past 8 months. In July, after a 10 month TDY, the 8th Air Rescue Group was ordered back to Stead Air Force Base in Reno. I was reassigned to the Intelligence Division of U.S. Air Forces Europe where I would work as a Threat Analyst in Soviet Studies. I didn’t know it then, but I was finishing the first leg of a journey that would take me to Aztlan, the mythic homeland of my Mexican Indian ancestors; and to their god, Quetzalcoatl—the plumed serpent. In 1981, I would write Madre del Sol/Mother of the Sun, a play about Quetzalcoatl, Moctezuma, and Cortez, performed in San Antonio in 1981, Mexico City in ‘82, Dallas in ‘83, and New York in ‘84.
More than half a century has passed since my work with the 8th Air Rescue Group and the SAC Survival School. What was once our early cold war secret strategy palls in comparison with our global military strategy today. Risible as that early cold-war strategy may be now, we pursued it earnestly in defense of the nation.
After ten years of duty, I left the Air Force to pursue graduate studies in English, realizing I was never going to be Air Force Chief-of-Staff. In 1971, I received the Ph.D. in English (British renaissance studies) from the University of New Mexico with only one year of high school and no GED.
Copyright 2018 by Philip de Ortego y Gasca. This chapter, “Labyrinth of secrets, survival and the Stupid,” is part of my memoir, “An American Odyssey-A Memoir” By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. Photo of Philip de Ortego copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. all other photos used in this article are in the public domain.