Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Blood and Guts

Being a part of the Security Force assigned to protect Nuclear Weapons Convoys was an honor.  You didn't get assigned to this team, you competed for it.  Well at least when I was doing this back in the early 1980's.

As I stated in the previous articles in this series, the Convoy Team consisted of Fire Teams.  On the ground our vehicle of choice became the Peace Keeper Armored Car.

Peace Keeper Armored Car.
With run flat tires and a bullet resistant shell and windows, the Peace Keeper was an upgrade from the standard pickups we used to use.  As with any upgrade there were "issues".

One issue was how the armor was attached to the main chassis of the vehicle.  Any rough treatment would end up with the body falling off.  There was a misunderstanding concerning the winch.  Since it had a winch we thought the vehicle could go off road.  It can't, and the winch was not nearly powerful enough to pull the 5 ton vehicle out of anything. 

Since a convoy consists of machines, at some point in time it will break.  When an important vehicle broke down we would set up a National Defense Area.  This is a temporary area that becomes important Federal Property.  Our team practiced setting these areas up and managed to do so in just seconds. 

The Mission

On one mission I was assigned to one of the Fire Teams that followed directly behind the Weapons Van.  The Weapons Van had an issue with its brakes, so we had to stop the convoy and set up a National Defense Area until it could be fixed, or replaced.  My Fire Team immediately raced ahead of the convoy where we would block traffic. 

I jumped out and ran up the road a short distance and began to stop traffic.  The first vehicle I stopped was a tractor trailer with a couple from Canada.  Behind them were several smaller cars.  The couple in the vehicle looked at me in astonishment.  I could understand the look given the fact I was dressed in full battle gear, but they just kept staring at me in amazement.  I was sort of puzzled.

That is when my Fire Team Leader came up and said, "Hey you have blood streaming down your face!"

I touched my hand to my face, and sure enough..blood was streaming down my face from the crown of my nose.  The night prior to the Convoy the nose pads on my glasses had broken, and getting out the the vehicle I remember my helmet hit the top of the door.  I guess that had jammed the sharp point where the nose pads connected into my nose.  It didn't hurt much, but I guess it did add a certain charm to the situation.  I smeared the blood around a bit to make it more dramatic and carried on.

Blood scares the hoola hoop out of people.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Death Before Dishonor

Airborne Fire Team Charlie

In the previous post I talked about one of the missions that put us One Breath Away From Death, this article is the second part of this series.  

I talk about Fire Teams a lot in these articles, so I will tell you what a Fire Team is.  This definition was true as of my retirement in 1995. A Fire Team consists of 4 people.  There is a Leader, Rifleman/Grenadier, Machine Gunner, and Assistant Machine Gunner.  The standard rifle of choice was the M-16 A1 (later on we got the A2 version).  The M-16 allowed for three type of fire settings...Safe (no fire), Semi (1 round per trigger squeeze, and Auto (as long as the trigger is down it would fire).

M16 A1
There is a civilian version of this weapon called the AR-15.  The AR-15 is often confused with an assault weapon.  The M-16 is an assault weapon (since it allows for full auto fire)...the AR-15 is not (it only fires on semi-auto.  I know the Anti-Gun nuts will freak out, but what a weapons looks like does not make it an assault weapon.  

The Rifleman/Grenadier carried a combination M-16 plus one of two types of grenade launchers.  The older type grenade launcher was the XM-148. This weapon was horrible. It was difficult to fire, and was very prone to breaking. 

The newer type was the M-203.  It was much easier to fire, and was very reliable. 
The Machine gun we used was the iconic M-60.  Used since 1957 the M-60 was a nightmare to carry.  The gunner had to carry the gun and 200 rounds of ammo. The assistant gunner carried the spare barrel kit, and additional ammo. The running joke was that the shortest man got the M-60.  I will say it tended to work out that way.

Aside from the weapons and ammo we also carried the good old Metal WWII style Helmet, with a Vietnam Era Flak Vest, and our load bearing equipment (LBE). 


Flak Vest

Load Bearing Equipment.

And of course the most hated piece of gear the Vietnam Era Gas Mask

Gas Mask with cover.

All of the combat gear, and cold weather gear was stored in our Hawk Bag.

Combat Vogue Circa 1980's

When in a mission we wore the Helmet, Flak Vest, LBE, Gas Mask on our side in its carrying bag, Ammo, Canteen, cold weather gear, and of course an empty plastic bottle. Other gear included code sheets (lose these and go to jail). 

To unsuspecting civilians we could look very dangerous...or very uncoordinated...that stuff was hard to move in.

The Mission

The Charlie missions were always an iffy affair.  If the Helicopter worked...If the wind was not too bad...If the temperature was not too low...If the rain/snow was not too heavy...If the clouds were not too low...then we went. If not..we still went...just a different way (which I will not tell you about). 

This particular day the weather was on the edge. The cloud cover was sporadic and ranged from a few hundred feet to about 1 thousand feet.  Since we were required to have a visual of the convoy throughout most of its movement, the clouds would mean we would by flying lower than normal. 

When the warhead reached its final destination we would orbit within visual range of the team on site.  The site we were at was in a canyon that was open on one end and closed on the other.  On the way to the site the clouds lifted to a higher altitude of about 3000 feet above ground level, high enough that we could safely maneuver above the convoy.  At the site the clouds appeared to be at that same level...the difference was the hills that made up the canyon were around 2 to 3 thousand feet above the site itself.  

We began our orbit of the site and went through several evolutions of the pattern when suddenly the front of the cockpit went from white cloud,  to white cloud and trees...very big...very close trees.  The pilot...who was normally a pretty quiet guy...screamed...yanked hard on the stick and we began a very hard turn.  I swear I could see the astonished faces of the squirrels as we barely..and I mean by feet...missed hitting them.

The term "Death Before Dishonor" is a nifty thing to have on the back or your flight helmet...but being killed because you hit a squirrel would make for a lousy epitaph.

Monday, November 19, 2012

One Breath Away From Death

Working with Nuclear Weapons is actually a lot of fun.  At least most of the time. During my time at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana I had the pleasure of being volunteered to join our elite Convoy Team.  Several (not going to tell you how many) Fire Teams (people with guns) would escort particular parts  (normally the ones that go boom) to the missile sites, and provide security for a particular period of time.

I loved this job, but the one position in the job I really wanted was the Airborne Fire Team.  As soon as I made it on to the Convoy Team I volunteered to go Airborne.  As it turned out, not many people really wanted the job.  The Airborne Fire Team had to be there several hours ahead of everyone else, and normally did not get done until several hours after the convoy ended.

Our chariot was the UH-1 helicopter (if you ever saw a Vietnam War movie, you have seen the UH-1).

Many of our missions lasted from 6-9 hours, with the occasional 12 hour and sometimes overnight trips. When flying in the UH-1 during a convoy you should be ready for doing a lot of circles.  The Airborne team is the cavalry in case someone gets the bright idea to try and steal a nuke.  Should they get lucky enough to actually look like they might overrun the ground team...then we would come swooping in to mess up their day.  I have plenty of stories about this particular assignment, but this is my favorite.

The day started out as any other, I arrived at the hanger 2 hours prior to the mission start, picked up my weapon, checked the orders, and looked over who was on my team.  I was only a Senior Airman at the time, but because of my stellar performance (I had actually scored pretty good on my quality control assessments) I was the Fire Team Leader.  My Flight Sergeant ( I am not making this name up) Staff Sergeant Thomas Rock (seriously that was the man's name) called to make sure I had all of the gear I would need.  Soon the pilot arrived.  I wish I could remember his name...but I will never forget the tag on the back of his flight helmet.  It read "Death Before Dishonor".  Rumors were that he had been a pilot in Vietnam.  The man was not boring.  This has significance in this..and future stories.

The pilot gave us the safety briefing which included things like kept you from getting your head, face, and hands from being cut off, or you falling out of the helicopter. None of which would make for a great day.  We went through the normal..if we crash scenario...which is helpful in making you think you will survive a crash.

This particular mission would be about 8 hours, this meant the chopper would refuel twice. Once on the way out, and once on the way back. Our refueling stop was a small grass airport in who-knows-where Montana. The team I had on this mission were experienced so there was no messing around, or having to show someone how to close the door. 

The typical mission was actually mostly boring.  If you can imagine having someone constantly kicking your chair while tipping it from side to side and back and forth for about 4-6 hours, then taking a short 30 minute break, then doing it all over again.  It works on some people really quickly, they puke...and puke...and puke.  My problem worked on my bladder.  So, each team member carried an empty plastic bottle.  Imagine trying to pee in a bottle while standing on a takes skill. 

The flight out was really boring. The wind was constant but strong.  This meant the pilot had to tack the helicopter like it was a sail boat.  Halfway through the mission we landed for fuel.  The team quickly ran inside to refill on coffee and stretch our legs.  30 minutes later we are back in the chopper for the rest of the mission.

The engine began to start..then it stopped.  It began to start again...and then something I have never seen before or since happened...the pilot jumped out..and began yelling at us to get out.  So we did.  When I looked back smoke was pouring out of the battery compartment on the chopper.  We took the fire extinguishers and flooded the compartment with foam. 

If this had happened in the air...who knows what the result would have been. Helicopters do not glide all that well and need a bit of altitude to even attempt it.  It is a lesson that we are just one breath away from death.