Close analysis of a close call by
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(9 Stories)

Prompted By Close Calls

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Close calls can be close only because of a chance occurrence, thought, or action. Like the so-called “Butterfly Effect” they often yield their own legacy, and in my father’s case, raise questions in my mind as to luck, responsibility, and personal values.

When I was a young teen, my father related, as best I recall, the following:

It was on St. Patrick’s Day 1953, in the middle of the Cold War, when a squadron of eight RB-36H’s left the runway in the Azores Islands, heading home to South Dakota for what promised to be a grueling 20+ hour flight strapped into uncomfortable seats in nasty weather. A circular storm system rotating clockwise promised a 100-knot headwind that would delay the return even more. The RB-36H was a specially modified B-36, a six propeller, four jet behemoth dreamed up by General “Bombs Away” Curtis Lemay, designed to penetrate Soviet Airspace to take photographs in “peacetime” and to drop a single nuclear bomb should war break out. Each plane had a crew of 23 servicemen.

This was more than a training mission, as the squadron was also testing whether they could sneak into the United States on the return trip without being picked up by US radar, intercepted radio communications, or visual observation. The plan was to fly close to the surface of the Atlantic and gain altitude only after entering US airspace. The crews were told not to use their radar, and to make no in-flight radio transmissions. Entry into North America was over Newfoundland, Canada.

Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of the lead airplane was Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth, the officer in command of Rapid City Air Force Base in South Dakota. As the base commander, he didn’t have sufficient recent hours and training to be in command of the plane. He was basically along for the ride.

My father, then a First Lieutenant, was a navigator in one of the other planes. It was his responsibility to know where the plane was, and to tell the pilot where to fly to get back home. The flight left in the early daylight hours in the Azores, and flew through the night over the Atlantic. It was difficult to see the water below, and, with the cloud cover, virtually impossible to see any stars above. Sometime before dawn, he and the pilot agreed to gain altitude, violating the ground rules of the mission, to take a peek at the stars above the clouds, thereby allowing my father, trained in celestial navigation and armed with an Omega watch, to determine where they were. I don’t know who made the suggestion, but the information it produced was startling – they were over a hundred miles closer to land than expected. It turned out that over the night, the storm had migrated north. Rather than facing a headwind at the northern edge of this circular storm, they were at the southern edge. No longer hindered by the wind, they were instead pushed along at a rate far faster than anticipated. Armed with this information, the pilot gained altitude when new calculations indicated he would be approaching the edge of North America.

It turns out that the decision to take a peek and violate orders was, according to my father, followed by each of the other crews on this mission. (Other accounts said that some crews were able to see the stars through a break in the clouds.) At any rate, it is clear that the crew of the Commanding General’s plane stuck to the orders. At about 4:40 a.m., in a blinding rainstorm, it ran into a 900 foot hill at an altitude of 800 feet twenty miles inland from the Atlantic coast in Newfoundland. Everyone aboard was killed in what witnesses described as a tremendous fireball. The Air Force sent up another plane, a B-50 (the successor to the B-29 that dropped the atomic bombs in 1945) to search for the RB-36. It, too, crashed for unknown reasons, and was never recovered.

Families waiting for the crews got word of sketchy news reports of a crash involving an as-yet unidentified USAF plane. My mother, like other wives, called the Base. No information was forthcoming, and, no doubt, the person in the base command building had very little to give. Probably breaking protocol, and after pleading by my mother, he said that the Lieutenant had checked in. Our family did not escape unharmed, however. My grandmother, who also heard radio reports, was certain that my father had perished, and suffered a non-fatal heart attack which left her out of breath for the rest of her life. She had survived being struck by lightning and being bitten by a rattlesnake, so it would take more than a heart attack to take her down.

Soon thereafter, in a ceremony attended by President Eisenhower, Rapid City Air Force Base was rededicated as Ellsworth Air Force Base.

What strikes me, 67 years later, is the lesson my father imparted to me after telling this story – don’t obey a stupid order. It may end up killing you. To my father, at least, this mission was a close call. To others, of course, it wasn’t.

But other questions remain. Did my father accurately state the facts?  And do I remember accurately what he told me? And more haunting is a question raised years later by my twin brother (the good twin), and a question that never occurred to me (the evil twin) – did my father, or any of the other crews, who discovered their location only by violating orders, have any responsibility to break radio silence to alert other crews who might not have made the same navigational discovery?

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Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, what a compelling story and ethical dilemma. Should anyone obey a bad order? After all, the Nazi soldiers were just following orders. I guess the army has a different standard about such things. I was struck by how families of people serving in the army back then didn’t receive timely information about the status of their loved ones. During World War II, my mother-in-law went three months not knowing if her husband had died on a ship that was hit. Hard to imagine. Welcome to Retrospect!

    • Mister Ed says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. While writing this, it did strike me how different communication was in those days. And I wish I’d pursued the ethical implications with my father before he died.

  2. Marian says:

    Incredible story, and you really reveal all the ethical dilemmas involved in this incident. It reminds me of the Pete Seeger song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” I am so glad your father did what he did. And now, in the midst of this pandemic, we have a heroic Navy captain trying to protect his crew by “defying” protocol. Some things haven’t changed.

    • Mister Ed says:

      Thank you for your comment. My father didn’t mention this until we were in fact waist deep in Vietnam. And he said at around the same time that had he still been in the air force (he got out in ’54 or ’55 but the usual 20-year hitch for officers would have put him in a B-52 bombing Haiphong Harbor in the late ’60s) that he would have refused to go. That would have been a life changing event for all of us. Whether he would have followed through on it, we’ll never know.

  3. Suzy says:

    Welcome to Retrospect! Great story, and I love your father’s lesson to you: Don’t obey a stupid order! With the current Commander-in-Chief, that seems more important than ever! You should definitely send this story to your twin brother and any other siblings and see if they remember it the same way or not.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Compelling story, Mr. Ed! Like Marian, I immediately thought of the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt who was just relieved of his command for saving his sailor’s lives. What crazy times we live in now! I have a cousin who was a JAG officer in the Navy and often explains chain of command stories to me on FB. But sometimes one does need common sense too! Those people like your father need to be rewarded!

  5. Quite a story Mister Ed .
    Throughout our past and current history if others had followed your father’s advice and refused to follow stupid orders, the world might be a better place!

  6. A compelling story, indeed, but it’s your last paragraph that has me in its sway. I’m always fascinated by the issue of truth…whose truth, how to judge the accuracy, and whether or how much it matters in the end. But even more intriguing to me is your reference to good twin and evil twin. I hope you’ll be sharing more about that now that you’ve joined us on Retrospect. Welcome!

    • Mister Ed says:

      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. I’ve been thinking a lot today about truth, accuracy and how much it matters as it relates to this story. So the story inspired thinking by you and additional re-thinking by me. Not bad. As for the evil twin, we’ll see where that goes.

  7. Mister Ed says:

    Recollection is a funny thing.

    I sent the story to my “good twin” who added a little more., as follows:

    “I am the ‘good twin’ referenced in the submission. The only things I remember strongly are Dad contacting the pilot and suggesting that they fly through the clouds to take a little ‘peek’, and me asking whether he alerted the other crews, to which he replied something like ‘I assume they did something on their own’, implying it was their responsibility to do what they thought best. So I think I asked that at the time. I don’t remember the lesson imparted about stupid orders or Grandma’s heart attack.”

    • Mister Ed, thanks for sharing good twin’s take — after all, it’s only fair. My twin brothers were known as Big Twin and Little Twin based on one weighing 8’3″ and the other 8’11” at birth (I can’t remember which now, and yes that means our mother carried almost 17″ of baby with them). While I vaguely regret having given them the same shirts but in different colors almost every Christmas, to this day I’m conscious of being sure to give them equal doses of love.

      So now I’ve had to look up the “butterfly effect” you mentioned in your first paragraph, and of course (and this might be a “girl” thing) it reminds me of the game Telephone (also known as Chinese Whispers, which sounds so much more enticing) that we used to play as kids where one of us would whisper a message to another who would then pass it down the line and then finally the last person would relay it out loud and it often had either no relation to the original message or a hilarious version of it. Then it was just a game; as adults, this type of thing carries more weight, makes us wonder, ponder.

      Anyway, that’s what’s so great about Retrospect — we can share these nuanced issues with others that totally get it.

      • Mister Ed says:

        I always suspected that in telephone, there’s always someone who wants say something outrageous just to add fun to the game. In this case, I think there are other reasons for the variances. Speaking of twins, we were 4 lbs, 8 oz, and 4 lbs, 2 oz. I was the heavyweight. One year we insisted on two birthday cakes that my mother baked. One with blue frosting, the other green.

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