In December 1958, workmen demolishing a World War II barracks at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., made a startling discovery. Concealed in a wall—inches behind the spot once occupied by the swivel chair of a tank commander—they found a block of TNT weighing approximately one pound.
Partially decomposed, the explosive was highly “sensitized.” The workmen hastily, and carefully, departed from the scene.
Minutes later, after the surrounding area had been cleared and roped off, Vandenberg’s number-one ordnance-disposal expert, MSgt. Frank A. Perry, tiptoed into the booby-trapped building.
At that moment, Perry’s good friend, SSgt. Archie A. Crawford, was walking into a steel and concrete bunker on the edge of the Pacific, five miles away. Crawford’s assignment, by comparison, was relatively easy. He and his teammates were about to mate a reentry vehicle to the business end of an Atlas ICBM.
Meanwhile, a continent removed, six Air Force technicians—not one of whom boasted more than four stripes on his blue worsted sleeves —were winding up a day’s work in the Philadelphia laboratories of the General Electric Company. For the past eight hours, they had been puzzling like a group of T-formation quarterbacks over piles of schematics. The words “reentry vehicle” were etched on their tired minds.
And back across the country at Vandenberg, still another USAF sergeant drew a missile trajectory on a blackboard. He was SMSgt. Herbert W. Howard, Jr., then a lecturer in a classroom at the California base. His audience today was made up of British Royal Air Force enlisted men.
Sergeants Perry, Crawford, and Howard, and the Philadelphia-based technicians had much in common. All were self-professed “cannon-ball greasers.” And all belonged —and still do—to SAC’s 51st Munitions Maintenance Squadron, an outfit that can legitimately call itself unique.
The 51st, with headquarters at Vandenberg, has a mission calculated to make an old-fashioned, simple munitions man envious. The Squadron is knee-deep in the aerospace age. Its concerns begin with reentry vehicles and ballistic missile warheads and go on from there. Squadron ordnance experts also handle a variety of sophisticated missile accessories, like squibs, igniters, and retrorockets. And they’re not above doing a bit of bomb, TNT, or land-mine disposal when the occasion demands. Sergeant Perry’s excursion into the booby-trapped barracks was a not unusual event. In just the past six months, he has disposed of more than 800 pieces of live ordnance found on the former armored artillery range that is now Vandenberg.
The overripe charge of TNT on that occasion was detonated on the spot. Fortunately—for the resulting blast was a humdinger—all buildings in the area had already been earmarked for destruction.
Who installed the charge? Perry theorizes that some long-departed tank corps GI may have been seeking to have his commanding officer replaced—the hard way. “We’ll never know,” Sergeant Perry muses, and perhaps it’s just as well.”
By way of contrast, the 51st boasts one of Vandenberg’s most popular commanders. He is Lt. Col. Oscar J. Sundstrom, a pioneer SAC missileman who found his way into the special weapons business back in 1955. Ex-lumberjack Sundstrom arrived at Vandenberg almost three years ago.
“At that time,” he recalls, “the base population consisted largely of earth movers and construction stiffs. Ours was the first operational squadron. And, believe me, our ‘blue-suit capability’ was a novelty in those days.”
Under Colonel Sundstrom’s direction, the 51st got off to a flying start. In October 1958, the outfit participated in the historic first rocket launch from Vandenberg. The shot was an unqualified success. From that date to this, emphasis in the 51st has continued to be on “professionalism.”
“In our business,” Colonel Sundstrom is fond of saying, “we can’t afford to make that first mistake once.”
Currently, about 150 men sport the organization’s striking red and yellow insignia. The device, an embroidered reentry vehicle hurtling across an empty sky, is intended to illustrate the squadron slogan: “First in Space.” The words are appropriate. Colonel Sundstrom explains why.
“Not too many stop to realize that the reentry vehicle is the only true missile. The balance of the bird—the power package, fuel tanks, and guidance mechanism—might be likened to an outfielder’s arm. They supply force and direction.
“But it is the baseball—or missile—that travels to second base. By the same token it is the reentry vehicle alone that is destined to wind up on target.”
The 51st works with the baseballs, the reentry vehicles of USAF’s missile arsenal.
In addition to his “blue suiters,” Colonel Sundstrom superintends the efforts of a dozen General Electric and AVCO Corporation technical representatives. Associated contractor personnel total an additional twenty-five.
Since its inception, the 51st has worked hand in glove with industry to expedite reentry vehicle development. This much-heralded concept of concurrency has paid off. Lead time has been markedly reduced. And when an RV is deemed ready for the launching pads, technicians who will maintain and install it are trained and waiting.
Over the past three years, 51st personnel have sat in on a variety of weapon-system development conferences. Industry has called their contribution “invaluable.” As a result, provisioning techniques, the construction of field facilities, and technical-data books have become far “more realistic.”
The 51st maintenance officer, Capt. Carl L. Bougher, puts it more succinctly: “We write the book, then proof-test it. Our record of success speaks for itself.”
Captain Bougher, a wartime pilot and a special weapons man since 1949, was the second man in the Air Force to be trained in his RV specialty. As squadron maintenance officer, the Captain has helped to guide the RV through various stages of refinement.
There are, of course, several types of RVs in existence and in various stages of development. In this area, as in others, a great deal of progress has been recorded in the past few years.
It is difficult to discuss actual reentry vehicles without violating security in a most classified area. But a look at one of the most commonly used test RVs, even in the most general terms, points up the complexity of some of the hardware in use today. This vehicle carries aloft an arming and fuzing system, an internal power supply, and a separation system to kick it loose from the missile airframe. The payload includes a scoring kit, complete with a SOFAR bomb, for test purposes.
The bomb is a charge of black powder that is exploded by water pressure many feet below the ocean’s surface. Hydrophones record the blast’s intensity. In this fashion, impact points for the continuing series of Air Force ICBM launches can be determined with amazing preciseness.
When it arrives at any of the organization’s several checkout bays, the RV is factory-sealed in one or more enormous metal containers. It is removed, and all interior circuitry subjected to pressure testing, using automatic checkout equipment. Next, the entire package is placed in the jaws of a machine that resembles an outsized lathe. There it is tumbled endlessly in a motion designed to simulate the RV’s fall through space. The machine calibrates the instrumentation and the RV’s arming and fuzing mechanisms. Malfunctions show up as red lights on the tester’s instrument panel.
Final assembly of a test-shot RV includes the installation of a scoring kit. Then the RV is mated to its proper missile. The RV is trucked to the launching pad on a specially designed trailer. After being carefully aligned, it can be affixed in a matter of minutes to the missile airframe.
Unfortunately, mating—or demating—today’s internally complex reentry vehicles is not quite the simple business it appears on the surface. If it were, life would be a great deal easier for the 5lst’s hardworking technicians. As it is, overtime has become the outfit’s rule of thumb, rather than an exception. Not everyone finds it onerous, however.
One such enthusiast is SSgt. Archie Crawford. In point of service, the twenty-four-year-old noncom is the organization’s enlisted veteran. On a “normal” weekend, he logs twenty-five to thirty hours on the launching pads, or working in the big bays where the birds are groomed.
Last year, Crawford was asked to fly to Eniwetok as a technical adviser with SAC Commander in Chief Gen. Thomas S. Power. The shot they were slated to observe was aborted for technical difficulties, but Crawford recalls the event as one of the highlights of his career.
“The old man,” the Sergeant declares admiringly, “knows as much about RVs as I do!”
He should. It was Crawford and his fellow NCOs who schooled the four-star SAC chief.
General Power is but one of the many high-ranking Air Force officers who have completed the 51st’s RV indoctrination course. And the bulk of these comprehensive briefings are given by noncommissioned officers. Colonel Sundstrom is proud of the fact.
“They’ve got the know-how,” he maintains, “and the ability to pass it on. Why not make the most of it?”
Their skill as instructors keeps the majority of 51st technicians on the move. Approximately half of the enlisted force is away on TDY most of the time. As part of its mission, the 51st is responsible for training RV technicians who will man the dozens of ICBM launch sites now under construction throughout the western half of the US.
Earlier in the program, hundreds of British troops were trained at Vandenberg in the intricacies of the Thor, under knowledgeable gents like Sergeant Howard. Now, with IRBM squadrons operational in England, the 51st is busy schooling replacements for the original British contingent.
Education is a passion among Colonel Sundstrom’s select crew. To date, the organization has dispatched more people to officer training schools than any other Vandenberg-based unit.
And the job of teaching goes on and on. It is a rare day, for example, when demolition expert Perry fails to address at least one Vandenberg gathering.
“We know that there are still some unrecovered pieces of live ordnance lying around the base,” Perry declares. “And this is home for thousands of kids. So we talk to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, and mothers’ clubs.
“Nowadays, a bulldozer occasionally detonates an old land mine. But the children—who’ve been trained to recognize mines—won’t get close to one or to an uncleared area. And they give a wide berth to any other piece of ordnance they happen to see. So far, no one’s been hurt.”
Which is exactly the way the 51st would like to keep it.—End
AIR FORCE/SPACE DIGEST readers will find Sergeant Doherty’s byline familiar. His most recent contribution was a photo essay on Atlas which appeared in April 1961. An information specialist at SAC Headquarters, Offutt AFB, Neb., he has written for this magazine on subjects ranging from Alaska to Minuteman on the rails. A veteran of both the Coast Guard and the Army Air Corps, with some fifteen years of military service, he joined USAF in 1954. He has written for several national magazines and is a fishing enthusiast when he can find the time. He is a native of St. Louis.