Penetration Team … SAC’s Saboteurs

Oct. 1, 1957

In the dimly lit café in Fairview, Mass., Mary Ann Hickey, a pretty blonde in a tight-fitting dress, had no trouble at all striking up a conversation with an off-duty airman from nearby Westover Air Force Base.

As the evening progressed, she skillfully encouraged her newfound friend to talk about himself, and he did his best to impress her, boasting of his importance. In a few hours, Mary Ann knew practically everything the young airman knew of the inner workings at Westover, which is home base for one of SAC’s three B-52 jet bomber wings and headquarters for the US Eighth Air Force.

Later, Mary Ann tapped lightly at the door of a nearby motel cabin and was quickly admitted. A half dozen men awaited her.

For them and for Mary Ann—that is her real name, and she is a WAF A/3C—this was serious business. She and the men were members of a SAC “penetration team,” and their mission was to try to enter Westover by any means they could devise, infiltrate the inner ring of security defense, and reach the flight line or other sensitive areas to carry out hypothetical sabotage on planes and facilities.

No one on the base—except the commander—knew of their presence.

The idea of this penetration team, and others like it, first operated by SAC in 1953, is to test base security vulnerability and defense. Composed of several enlisted men, usually under an officer, the teams employ every ruse to throw base defenses off guard. They remain in towns near the base for several days, gathering information—as Mary Ann did—before attempting penetration. Forging orders, stealing passes, posing as workmen, scaling fences, they try anything in their effort to reach sensitive areas to wreak simulated havoc on the base.

Here’s how the team works. A few days before the actual penetration is to start, the team leader phones the base commander that his team is in position and gives the commander a code name and phone number for the team command post, which is manned as long as the team operates. This is necessary to prevent enemy agents from posing as teams and playing for real. Air police and security forces are never informed. SAC plays the game in earnest.

On the other side of the coin, SAC air police and security forces are constantly on alert for all penetration attempts, simulated or real. At Westover, this antisabotage force, composed of several hundred airmen under six officers, is headed directly by the base Provost Marshall, Lt. Col Jack Murphy of Fort Worth, Tex.

They are divided into two groups; air police, who man gates, run traffic, check identifications, and issue badges; and the special, larger group assigned directly to security—protecting aircraft, weapons, fuel, supplies, and combat crews—in a word, combat capability.

Together, they comprise a defense in depth, the first ring of which includes fences and entry gates, where improper credentials are weeded out. On the field itself, vital areas—flight line and fuel and ammunition areas—are protected by additional fences and guard gates. Special restricted area passes are needed to enter and leave these areas. To trap penetrators who might break through the rings, walking guards with sentry dogs and roving radio patrols are used. Around extremely sensitive areas there are trip wires attached to flares, which when gently touched will light up the area and trap intruders.

Says Colonel Murphy: “Every coroner of the security setup is linked by phone or radio to Central Security Control Center, where a highly trained, sabotage-alert team is on duty twenty-four hours a day. Any call for help from sensitive areas and this team responds in its special vehicle … like firemen answering an alarm.”

Ready for all contingencies, including such problems as stalled vehicles, jammed radios, busy telephone lines, or even capture of Central Control, Colonel Murphy’s forces, like those at other SAC bases, operate on two assumptions:

1. That “it can happen here.”

2. That, as the colonel puts it, “One man with a rifle, arriving in time, is far more effective than fifty with machine guns who get there just five minutes too late.”

About the Author: Author Jim Winchester, remembered by readers for his “Milt Caniff’s Air Force” in the July 1957 AIR FORCE, is a feature writer with King Features Syndicate, and has contributed several other articles to this magazine. Photographer George Burns, whose pictures, specially posed, illustrate this piece, is a former Yank contributor, now of Schenectady, N.Y. He worked with Jim on “WAF in Paris” and other articles which have appeared here. He specializes in documentary photography and his work has appeared in a number of national publications.