I was interviewed recently by Konley Kelly with the Commemorative Air Force B29/B24 Squadron. The interview will be appearing in the July squadron newsletter. Questions were asked about my Dad, why I was making CREW 713, and related stuff. Some of the questions were about my Dad's service and how he felt about serving in the Air Force. I got to thinking about this, and realized this was a good subject for a blog.
My Father's career in the Air Force lasted just over 21 years. I like to put his military career into historical epochs. I tend to break his career down into three main periods. First period is WWII, (1942-1945). Second period is Korea and Early Cold War, (1950-1959). Third and final period is Later Cold War and Viet Nam, (1960-1968). It is with the third period that this blog is concerned with today.
Sometime around early 1960-61, Dad was asked to join the first crews of the new Airborne Command Post. This was a brand new communication tool in the Cold War at that time. Here's what happened. The US Military needed a command post that could work close to the front lines of any particular engagement, ANYWHERE in the world if needed. Tactical Air Command (TAC) made the decision to establish the Airborne Command Post (ACP). This flying command post as the name implies, would have the capacity to remain airborne for as long as 24 hours, if need be. Simply put, it was designed to fly over a certain designated area and be a central information post for all the various branches of the military engaged in a particular battle, political crisis, etc. It would fly at say, 30,000 feet, safely out of the reach of all but the most advanced anti-aircraft missiles at the time. The Command Post would take coded messages from land based military units, (The Army or the Marines) and also from Naval units in the area as well. The various units would send a signal Up to the Airborne Command Post, which would then disseminate the information and then re-direct the message either back Down towards the troops or further on to Langley, The Pentagon or The White House. It was rather an ingenious way of communicating in those now ancient times, prior to the advent of satellites orbitting the Earth, 20,000 miles up. In essence, The Airborne Command Post WAS a satellite. For example, it could take a message from a Naval commander at sea and re-direct to his counterpart in the army fighting 20 miles apart.
A few years back, I tracked down one of my Dad's former commanders, Ted Buck. Mr. Buck was living in retirement in Mt. Vernon, IL. He was one of the pilots/Ops Officers who served from 1964-1968 aboard the Airborne Command Post. He said you were asked to join these hand picked crews, you couldn't volunteer. Tactical Air Command HQs reviewed thousands of military personnel files and asked the men to serve on board these crews. I'm sure it was considered a great honor to be picked and of course, you had to have top secret clearance and swear an oath of silence as well. He remarked that the board reviewing the files got a chuckle from the fact that Dad was the only radio operator on the list who had served in WWII. He also said, 'your Dad was a good soldier'. The aircraft picked to serve as the very first Airborne Command Post was also the very first KC-135 tanker to roll off the Boeing Assembly Line in 1956. She was named 'The City of Renton', (S/N 55-3118) after the city where the Boeing plant was located. After being turned over to the Air Force, she was retrofitted with the latest communication equipment and high tech gadgetry available at the time and tested and re-tested for reliability. She was at Edwards AFB for FOUR years, (1957-1961) before she was ready for service. According to Mr. Buck, there were three original pilots, (not including the test pilots who flew and tested her first) who rotated and flew the Airborne Command Post, including Mr. Buck and two men, Lew Kesterson and Ed Gray, both of whom had long careers in the Air Force starting in WWII. Apparently the Air Force put a lot of stock in those hardy WWII vets. Historically, The City of Renton and The Airborne Command Post are important. She, and the ships that would follow, were the direct ancestors of todays modern AWACs aircraft.
One of the notable missions for which he was given the Air Medal, (fourth oak leaf cluster) was the Dominican Republic uprising in 1965-66 in which President Johnson ordered US troops into that country to protect US citizens and interests. Airborne Command Post served during this operation, coordinating elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, 7th Special Forces Group, the 19th Air Force, Airborne Airlift Task Force, Joint Task Force 122,Command Ship USN TACC afloat, elements of the Marines and a naval blockade of some 41 ships. This mission would become known as Operation Red Fox. From April 28 through May 5, 1965 the ACP was airborne an average of 12 hours each day, relaying vital information from all the various units involved in the operation and forwarding the messages to their proper destination.
According to Mr. Buck, the Airborne Command Post also accompanied 4 star general Walter C. Sweeney and his military fighter escort of an entire squadron of planes, (18 planes make up a squadron) on a tour of South East Asia. She also flew numerous sorties during Viet Nam coordinating bombing and strike missions with various outfits of the Air Force and Navy. For my Dad it was a pretty amazing way to wrap up a long military career. I recall as a small boy of about 5-6 years of age, the group would fly out for two or three week missions. They always seemed to leave late Sunday night. I remember, my Mom, worried and concerned, sometimes crying as she kissed her husband...maybe for the last time? He would be wearing his dark blue shiny flight uniform, with his master sergeant patches and name tag "MENA". We always played this game. I would ask him, 'where you going Dad?' and he would smile, give me a kiss and answer, 'I can't tell you, but maybe when I come back, I will'. Of course, he never did. Those were classified missions and he didn't talk about those until many years had passed. We all know the history of Viet Nam now, the secret bombings in Cambodia, the whole story is now well known. I'm sure my Dad was right in the thick of all that. It's a terrible thing...war, and a terrible burden to bear as well, I'm sure.
My Dad would continue to serve in the Airborne Command Post until his retirement in 1968. Interestingly enough, his last active day of duty was July 31, 1968. Exactly 24 years earlier, he had flown his 30th and last combat mission of WWII. Another interesting note about his retirement orders, they are signed by General JP McConnell-USAF Chief of Staff. Read on for the punchline.
Meanwhile, The City of Renton soldiered on. She flew various VIPs during her long, illustrious career, including Secretary of Defense John McNamara and Venezuelean President Romulo Betancourt. In 1963, she flew as a decoy for Air Force One & President Kennedy and in 1971 she carried Henry Kissinger to China on his historic mission. According to Mr. Buck, she was never classified as a VIP transport by the Air Force, always carrying her designation as a Combat Aircraft in the Air Force inventory. He said this with pride. The City of Renton was the first of 820 KC-135 frames to roll off the assembly lines. In 1998, she was retired and placed on permanent display at McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kansas. Perhaps because she was the first of the tanker line, she has been returned to her tanker status. McConnell AFB IS the base where the majority of the Air Force' tanker fleet is stored and based from. Here's more from her former commander, Ted Buck, '...she is setting on a pedestal in Takeoff Position and it is quite impressive. She has been converted back to a tanker including the reinstallation of a boom. This is not the way I would have liked to see her live out her days, but I believe this is better than the Boneyard at Davis Monthan'.
I couldn't agree with you more sir. One of these days, I'll drive up to Wichita and take a look at the last aircraft my father flew. That will be something.
A personal thank you to Daniel P. Williams, historian with the 22nd Air Refueling Wing. McConnell AFB, KS. DSN -743-3999. He kindly provided me with some wonderful photos of S/N 55-3118. McConnell AFB is not named after the General JP McConnell referred to in the blog, that's more of a happy coincidence. McConnell AFB is named after brothers Fred and Thomas McConnell of Wichita, KS. Both were Air Force Pilots and WWII veterans as well. There is no relation.