COLD WAR WEAPONS MECHANIC
On March 4, 1960, I joined the United States Air Force, a 17 year old high school dropout looking for some direction in life. I chose the Air Force because of my interest in airplanes. Toward the end of basic training, my "flight" of trainees was presented with the Air Force's plans for each of us. The selections were to be based upon the needs of the service, and the results of the aptitude tests we had taken. I was hoping to be assigned to some field in aircraft maintenance. Instead, I learned that I would be one of a few from my flight who would be working in the Munitions Branch.
We met with a specialist who explained the options available to us. He was sympathetic to the disappointment that most of us felt at our assignment, and agreed that we were unlikely to find our military occupations useful to us after we returned to civilian life. He explained to us the three specialties included in the Air Force's munitions branch: Munitions Specialist, Aircraft Weapons Mechanic, and Nuclear Weapons Mechanic. He seemed to be knowledgeable about the advantages and disadvantages of each specialty, and answered our questions frankly. He told us that the Aircraft Weapons Mechanic specialty was the only field that would involve actually working on the aircraft, Munitions Specialists spent most of their working time at munitions dumps isolated from the rest of the base, and Nuclear Weapons Mechanic was generally considered a plum assignment. However, the Aircraft Weapons assignment had the longest technical school, and was the field which would likely require the longest duty hours and hardest work. I considered this information, along with the advice I had heard from most of the Air Force veterans I knew: Try to find a challenging assignment, or risk four long years of boredom. I chose to become an aircraft weapons mechanic.
I spent the next 8 months at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, completing the training program for weapons mechanics. I soon learned that I would be handling nuclear weapons, despite my career choice. I learned that while the Nuclear Weapons Mechanics would indeed maintain the bombs, somebody had to load those bombs on the aircraft, as well as maintaining the weapons release systems. Accordingly, one month of our Lowry training was spent in a black-painted hangar surrounded by a security fence, near the center of the base. It was referred to simply as "The Black Hangar." Inside, we found a large selection of nuclear weapons.
Here was a Mark 7 atomic bomb, little different from the bomb which had destroyed Hiroshima fifteen years earlier. Here was the Mark 16, an early thermonuclear device, and its huge sibling, the city-busting Mark 36, which would barely fit into the cavernous bomb bay of a B-52. And here was an MB-1, an unguided, air-to-air missile with a nuclear warhead, designed to be launched from an interceptor aircraft against a Soviet bomber before it could release its own nuclear bombs. Despite the fact that all of these weapons had been disarmed, their nuclear and explosive components replaced by inert replicas, each bomb seemed to radiate menace. We were there to learn to inspect, load, and arm each of these weapons.
As a prelude to the hands-on training, we were given a briefing on the development and use of nuclear weapons. And so we learned, years before the details were available to the general public, about Fat Man and Little Boy, and how they came by their names. We learned the bare facts of the nature of a nuclear reaction, the difference between fission and fusion, the difference between an implosion and an explosion, the difference between fission, boosted fission, and true thermonuclear weapons. We learned of Uranium 235 and 238, of tritium and deuterium, and of the post-war development of thermonuclear weapons. We learned of Project Mike and the fate of the tiny island of Elugelab. Of course, we were told none of the real secrets of the hydrogen bomb--nothing about the fission process that followed the fission-fusion processes, nothing about the materials which surrounded the thermonuclear core of the device, and nothing about the placement of components inside the bomb casings. That would be the business of the Nuclear Weapons Mechanics, and they were trained elsewhere.
The first weapon we met in our training was the already-obsolescent Mark 7. This later design, though, had an electrically-operated jackscrew mechanism that would accomplish, at the aircraft pilot's command, the insertion of the deadly ball of plutonium into the sphere of high explosives which would squeeze it into a nuclear fury. On the Hiroshima mission, this task had been performed by hand, in flight, by a scientist working in the bomb bay of the Enola Gay. With the Mark 7, the plutonium sphere would still be delivered to the aircraft separately from the weapon. The weapon would be loaded onto the aircraft by a four-man crew of weapons mechanics.
During the loading process, the weapons mechanic who was assigned the Number Two Man position on the load crew, would lift the plutonium core from its shipping case and install it in the insertion mechanism inside the bomb. After the bomb was mated to the aircraft, the insertion mechanism would be tested to make sure the bomb would arm properly in flight. Each trainee practiced the installation of the bomb core with a practice sphere made of lead. The object was to install the heavy core into its position inside the bomb, without allowing it to touch any other component. It was a difficult chore, and had to be done wearing rubber gloves to prevent personal contamination by the dangerous plutonium of the real thing.
Only one time would I actually handle and install a plutonium sphere into a live Mark 7 weapon. At my duty station in Germany, the alert sirens one day sent me running for the flight line to join my recently-qualified load crew. I was the crew's Number Two Man. Everything seemed to proceed as it had during previous practice alerts, until the weapons began arriving at the airplanes, preceded and followed by security police in pickup trucks. One man in each truck stood in the back of the truck, his carbine ready. This was all routine, until the weapon's covers were removed. They were live bombs. Although we did not know it at the time, the exercise was part of an evaluation of the base's readiness for war.
Although we routinely loaded live bombs onto aircraft on alert duty, those airplanes were located in a high-security area of the base, far from the flight line, but close to the end of the runway. We had not seen those aircraft taking off, so at least we were not at war yet. My hands were sweating inside rubber gloves as I pulled the plutonium core out of its container. I installed it into the bomb, we loaded onto the aircraft, and the pilot climbed into the cockpit. All down the line, pilots were settling in the cockpits of F-100's, assisted by their crew chiefs. Engines were starting, but no airplanes moved. The pilots listened for orders on their radios. Finally, they shut the engines down and climbed from the cockpits. We were told that we were involved in an evaluation, and we unloaded the bombs from their pylons. They were covered again, and escorted back to the munitions area.
The Mark 7 was not loaded on that flight line again. It was quickly replaced by newer and deadlier weapons designs, carried by newer and faster airplanes. Over and over, we would practice loading the new weapons into the bomb bays of the mysterious new F-105's, which had replaced the old F-100's. And then came the long days and nights when we waited through the nerve-wracking hours of the Cuban Crisis. Every available airplane was loaded and armed, some of them parked on taxiways near the runway. We all knew that the world teetered on the brink of a holocaust.
I cannot remember ever hearing, during my four years in the Air Force, a discussion of the moral implications of using nuclear weapons. It was understood that it was Us against Them, the Free World against the Communist, the Good against the Bad. At Commander's Call one day in 1963, we saw a film explaining the role of Air Force Special Forces commandos in the battle against Communist guerrillas in some tiny Asian nation called Vietnam. Then came that November day in Dallas, and after that, no one was really sure of anything.