Russell E. Hershey,
INT: And then.. could you just explain in a bit more detail.. when you got to your assigned point, what happened then? When you took off and you flew to an assigned point, did you.. just circle around..?
OP: The typical profile on a twenty four hour alert would be a take-off from your home base for example flying east into the Mediterranean, approaching the coast of Spain tankers would be launched from Spain and we would refuel. As I recall we would take on about seventy or eighty thousand pounds of fuel. We would fly into the Mediterranean. We'd through the Straits of Gibraltar there, near Sicily and we would reverse course and come back out through the Straits, always careful not to violate any international borders and then another tanker would launch from Spain and we would take on fuel again and at that time we took on.. close to a hundred thousand pounds of fuel and then flew westbound until we reached that fail-safe point into which I.. no longer had enough fuel to reach our assigned targets and recover to a post-strike base. Those post-strike base, I might add, were agreements that we had with what we would probably call now Third World countries that we could recover B-52s there and if we had to recover there, there were provisions there to reload the airplane. If there was only fuel to come back to the States, but to the extent to reload the airplane with weapons and go back and strike targets again. That was the beauty of the aircraft and the B-52 is that we could recycle the weapon systems, unlike missiles which was a one-shot deal.
INT: It's an interesting point. I mean, I suppose a lot of people have the perception that to fly a B-52 into the heart of Russia was a suicide mission. Was that not the case?
OP: Flying into the heart of Russia, some people probably considered it a suicide mission. I don't know if we were if you would consider us SAC people brainwashed. We were convinced that we could do it and we felt that we were going to hit our targets and we were gonna survive. That if anybody got hit, it was gonna be.. we just felt it was gonna be somebody else. Much like driving your automobile down the Interstate and then you hear about the accidents -- it's somebody else that gets hit, not us. We felt confident of the aircraft. we felt confident of each other capabilities on the airplane and we knew that we could do it and I think again, that's another reason that that we were successful, because I think the our adversaries knew that we were committed to do it and we had proven it before and we were ready to do it again, if we had to.
INT: You and your...
INT: There you are, flying round all over the world, carrying your weapons. Was it a job or was it something more than that?
OP: Carrying the.. flying and carrying weapons initially you were so overwhelmed with a large aircraft and this enormous mission but after months and years of doing it, it became somewhat routine. You knew what to expect and you did things repetitively and you had to be very fearful that that you didn't fall into complacency and it was something that we talked about. And it did become routine, it did become much like a job and you had to be very careful that you didn't become somewhat callous about your job and when it became that, we kinda had to give each other wake-up calls. But there were refreshing moments there that that. that, you know, that.. Strategic Command did a very good job of taking care of that people.. In my case I came to Strategic Air Command without a Bachelor's degree. When I left the Strategic Air Command I had a Masters degree in Business Administration, so while they asked me to do a lot of things, they also took care of me and they promoted me along the way so it was a win-win situation.
INT: Did the Russians know what you were doing?
OP: Oh, I think so. It was although we were.. did the Russians know what we were doing? I think absolutely although we kept everything very hush-hush amongst ourselves, amongst our families. you know, in those days with the spies and then of course when the satellites started.. spinning, we felt that there wasn't.. many secrets, but that didn't preclude us from just running our mouths. If I might add a side-note here. A few weeks ago, we had a 34th Bomb Squadron reunion at Wright Patterson. The 34th Bomb Squadron was part of the 17th Bomb Wing which was Doolittle's Raiders when they made the raid off of the hornet to Japan, so that was our unit designation at Wright Patterson. Well, when we had this reunion here a few weeks ago, we had a tour of the alert facility and it was the first time that those women wives, were ever allowed in the alert facility where we pulled alert. When the families came to visit us, we had to go out to the parking lot and visit and that. In some areas they had shelters and other places that you could go to, one of the wing buildings. But we had our strings tied to that alert facility and to that aircraft because we had to be airborne in very few minutes.. within 15 minutes we had to get those airplanes airborne. So we couldn't stray too far.
INT: What was it like when the.. presumably you had a.. was it a warning siren that suddenly said you had to get up into the air? Did you practice that?
OP: The way we were warned on an impending launch, or even practiced the.. many practice exercise.. we called it was the klaxon and it was just a loud horn and it blew all over the areas where crew members on alert could possibly be. If you were fortunate to be assigned to base where you had access to the theatre, it would blow in the theatre. It would blow in the chapel. It would blow in all of the buildings and you had your vehicles parked with easy access and that was one of the nice things of being on alert. You know, when you wore a red badge, you could.. just park any place you wanted to. If you had that alert truck, you had freedom to park. We never got a traffic ticket while we were on alert.
INT: What happened when the klaxon went off?
OP: When the klaxon went off we all rushed to our airplanes. You understand the airplanes were loaded with all our gear. we had these bags of arctic gear and jackets and all those sorts of things so the.. oh flight boots and whatever we needed for that flight was already pre-loaded onto.. to include rations food. So we simply ran like the devil to that airplane and fired up the ground carts to get power to the airplane and they had to start the engines then and we cranked those engines as fast as we could and we would listen for a message from Strategic Air Command 'cos they give us instructions on what type of exercise it was, if it was a practice or if it was the real thing and when that horn blew, when the klaxon blew, you know, literally swallowed 'cos you didn't know what it was going to be.
INT: Were there any moments when you really thought this might be it?
OP: We were always very careful in those times. Were we ever felt very threatened when the klaxon blew? Certainly there.. we did in those times .. during increased world tensions. for example, during the Cuban crisis, if the horn blew, we shook like the devil. I mean, we were scared, this is.. we were.. we say 'we're on our way'. other times sometimes we'd get a little a little rumor that we're gonna have a practice exercise, that we'd kinda chuckle a little bit, you know, but more times than not, we just simply never knew. We knew historically that there would be four or five klaxon exercises during the month. It was a practice thing, so.. and there were.. there are all different types of that and so we would keep track of.. well, we've had this exercise, we've had that, we've had that one, so we would predict when the horn blew the next time what we were going to.. what's going to be a taxi exercise, why, it's just gonna be an engine start.. (sentence trails off). We played those guessing games.
INT: Did you ever think what you were going to come back to? If you had had to go and fight and war, what was going to be left when you came back?
OP: Concern that we had if we ever had to go to war, we got back home, what would it be like back here? especially Strategic Air Command 'cos we felt that we were prime targets and with a tremendous destructive power of nuclear weapons that that our families would probably be gone. There are families that understand that. I don't think I ever told mine that. Certainly they've got the message from the local population, you know, because the base is there.. if we didn't tell them, certainly the news and the media did make it abundantly clear that we were susceptible to that, but our families were troopers. They hung in there right along with us.
INT: Good answer. Going back to flying alerts, in 1966 there was a terrible accident over Palamaris in Spain when a tanker and a B-52 collided. Do you remember that incident at all?
OP: The re-fuelling accident in the Spain area during one of the airborne alert exercises yes, I remember that, I won't say vividly but certainly remember the accident because we didn't hear of that many and those types of accidents where you have nuclear weapons loaded you don't forget those. Statistically, you look at accidents and you know there gonna happen. You just can't predict when and to what. To what extent. And I recall.. flying in that direction early in the morning with the sun directly in your face and you've been flying all night and you're gonna take on eighty thousand pounds of fuel in an E-model B-52 at heavy gross weights refueling in four twenty four hundred and thirty thousand pounds of fuel that you had to keep your power up because once you fell off that boom and you had to chase that tanker, well you had to chase them a long way to catch up again and it was it was a critical maneuver because y0u're only about twenty five feet from that tanker and you can snatch that boom or that tanker can pitch a little bit and you get into some turbulence and that sort of thing and we were... the pilots, you know, the pilots are a very strong bunch and if we had to get seventy thousand pounds of fuel, we got it and there wasn't a.. no.. if we couldn't get it, it was, you know, you felt very poorly about your professionalism you even questioned your own. So there was every effort possible to get it and occasionally you could see the situation there where you may have pushed it a little too far.
INT: Were there any repercussions for the SAC after that event?
OP: Repercussions of an accident like that we all waited for the accident report because usually when you have an accident one of the first things that happens are all the rumors, you know, and who was on the airplane and what really happened. And we would get the message. Of course they would be somewhat sterilized and what exactly happened and we would have training sessions learned type things. If we could get anything from the accident was it the fault of the airplane, was it crew, was it training, was it the mission or just exactly what it was and we tried not to play too much of the guessing game because, you know, the chances are we knew those people and we'd just flown that same type of sortie ..(inaudible).. by the grace of God it could be us. And so we took it very seriously.