Put the Message in the Box

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I began my military career some thirty years ago as missile launch officer stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, outside of Knobnoster, Missouri, which was right next to nowhere.   Knobnoster, was a booming town of 2,709 god fearing farm community citizens, whose biggest claim to fame was being mentioned in the Television movie The Day After, the post nuclear war docudrama that reminded us why we never want to experience the calamity of nuclear war, as if we needed a reminder.

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The #5 Tourist Attraction outside of Knobnoster Missouri

Actually, Knobnoster is known for its annual town festival and a peculiar contest called Betsy bingo. This game is a country version of bingo where a well fed Holstein milk cow is placed in a fenced in area of the town square with a Texas sized checkerboard drawn in chalk with a number in each block. Lottery tickets are then sold for each block and the “lucky” square where Betsy does her business is the lottery winner. This may be the only case where being shit upon is a good thing. I am not sure what happens if Betsy does her business in 2 blocks, I guess they split the pot.

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Whiteman Air Force Base was home to the 351st Strategic Missile Wing (SMW), an InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) unit under Strategic Air Command, also known as SAC. We military types love our acronyms and have one for everything. FUBAR was my favorite, it was the condition I often got myself into over long weekends at the Kansas City bars.  The 351st SMW was home to 150 Minuteman II ICBMs, which was enough nuclear firepower to destroy half of Russia, at least the parts where people lived. SAC was led for much of its early existence by General Curtis LeMay, an Air Force legend who kicked ass and took names later.  He was a stout, dark haired, cigar chomping man with piercing eyes and an unwavering vision and perpetually pissed off demeanor.

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General Curtis LeMay – Father of Strategic Air Command

His nickname was “The Demon” and he was responsible for the firebombing of Japan in World War II and was known to say things like “Kill enough of them, they will quit fighting,” or the famous “We should bomb Vietnam back into the stone age.”  Lemay was the youngest 4 star general since U.S. Grant and his tenure was the longest over an American military command in over 100 years.  He instilled incredible discipline and focus in our nuclear force which gave the U.S. undeniable credibility with our Cold War enemies. This was the era of Mutually Assured Destruction, (M.A.D), and to make it work both sides had to believe the other side would wipe them out in a counterattack if the other attacked first. With General LeMay at the helm of SAC the Russians had no doubt about that. Unlike today, when Russia runs amok in our politics and elections and we invite them over for lunch and thank them.

Long after he retired SAC still maintained a reputation of exacting perfection in carrying out its tremendous responsibilities of maintaining nuclear weapons and being prepared to launch them in a matter of seconds. We missile crewmembers sometimes said that SAC actually stood for “Screw All Crewmembers” because if you varied from perfection in how you carried out your duties you would be punished and humiliated. For instance, if you and your crewmate busted a check ride in the missile trainer you might find yourself in front of your squadron commander in full service dress uniform, called Class “A” uniform at the time, explaining the error of your ways. Wearing your Class A uniform was almost like wearing a scarlet “A” because if you were seen in them there was a 50/50 chance you had screwed up and was about to be punished. So whenever you passed a fellow crewmember at work wearing their Class A service dress uniform it meant either they were dutifully preparing to certify that they were ready to pull alerts or they were about to chewed out by their boss. Years later whenever I put on my Service dress uniform I still felt a bit apprehensive, like putting on a dark suit to go to a funeral, only it was your funeral you were going to.

If you failed in your personal conduct or performed poorly on alert your squadron commander would issue you a Letter of Reprimand (LOR), which would effectively end your career, but then he would place it in a drawer and say that if you didn’t screw up again he would tear it up when he left. You were of course relieved to hear that, but then you had this LOR sitting in his drawer and you knew that if you made one more mistake your career was over. Nothing like a bit of fear and intimidation to ensure you upheld the SAC tradition of perfection.

We also took three grueling tests every month. One for managing the weapon system, one for handling the nuclear codes, and one for decoding the Emergency War Orders (EWO) telling you what missiles to launch.  If your average fell below 95% you were put on probation and had to report to your squadron commander and tell him that this would never happen again. The first test was easy because it was open book, you had full access to your Technical Orders (TOs) and the only way you missed a question was through laziness. The second one was on the codes, it was closed book, but the questions were selected from a known pool of questions and with a little studying was easy to ace.  The third test, known as EWO, was very intense and required considerable focus because your career was at stake every month. Missing just one question was bad, missing more than one was catastrophic. It was common for the crews who took the test early in the month to give the other crews some “intel,” like watch out for this scenario, or you might want to reread this section of Emergency Action Message (EAM) book.

A few years ago there was a huge controversy when a group of missileers were busted for texting answers to their friends on their monthly test. I am not sure which test they cheated on, the first two were unclassified, whereas the EWO was Top Secret NOFORN, which meant no foreigners could see it, even over breakfast at a country club. I was a bit intrigued by this incident because the first two unclassified tests were relatively easy, and the third highly classified. So they were either stupid for cheating on an easy open book test, or really stupid for texting highly classified information on their cell phone. General LeMay probably rotated 360 degrees in his grave when this incident came to light. I suspect he would tolerate today’s Millennials for about 30 seconds before he would kick them on their backside and show them the door, there are no “participation” trophies in SAC. The missileers who cheated were indeed drummed out of the service, if Lemay was still in charge they would have been behind bars wearing orange uniforms.  Unfortunately, the remaining honest missileers had to pull extended double duty for months until trained replacements arrived. Talk about a buzz kill. Here’s your reward for being honest, you get to work 75 hours a week for the next 6 months with no increase in pay.  Of course they sucked it up like good missileers always do, that is what duty and service to your country is about.

Heavy drinking among the missile crew was the norm, partly because of the stress and also because many of us were young, single and had money to burn, which we did. Kansas City was about 50 miles away so every weekend a load of us would pile into a car to hit the bars. Usually the guy who had to pull alert the next day was the designated driver because there were restrictions on drinking before alert (though the restrictions were often ignored).  The lucky stiff whose turn it was to drive was known as the DDST, designated driver and story teller.  It was his responsibility to remain sober for the drive home, and also tell stories the next day of what had transpired the previous night.

There was also a small college town not far from the base called Warrensburg, where most of the single guys lived. The college was Central Missouri State University (CMSU) and I am an alumni.  Most missileers obtained their Master’s degree from CMSU because the Air Force paid 100 percent of tuition and you could study at night when pulling alerts.  There was a strip of college bars and restaurants just off campus and on Thursday night it was rocking with many young men with SAC approved short hair darting from bar to bar like fireflies looking for a mate, which they were. Most small communities near military bases are supportive of the military members, not this town.  The city police were notorious for patrolling the back allies after the bars closed hoping to catch a crew member relieving himself in public. I think revenue from fines and speeding tickets given to the military kept this small town afloat.

I myself had an infamous altercation with Warrensburg’s finest, one that nearly ended my budding military career early. I was at a keg party at a friend’s apartment near downtown when everyone decided to head to the bars.  I had already had a few drinks, so I made a responsible decision and decided to walk the few blocks with my girlfriend rather than drive.  My mistake. We were halfway to the bars when all of the sudden we were surrounded by 3 cops cars with their lights flashing like a scene from the old Cops show, just without the Bad Boys soundtrack. I thought maybe we had walked past a bank that had just been robbed, but then an officer stepped from a patrol car and asked me what was in my cup. I don’t recall my exact retort but it was something like, “what do you think?” Without hesitation the officer placed me under arrest, handcuffed me, and put me in one car, my girlfriend in another. Not sure why, maybe he didn’t want us to collaborate on a secret scheme to overthrow the Government. I was stunned and asked why we had been arrested.  The officer curtly replied “open container.”  I did not even know that was a criminal offense. I grew up in the Greater Cincinnati Ohio area and regularly attended church festivals and Octoberfests where beer flowed like water and everyone stumbled around with cups of beer eating brats and doing the chicken dance on cue. But this was Missouri, in the bible belt, not Cincinnati, in the beer belt.  Much to my chagrin we were taken downtown, fingerprinted like drug dealers, and had his and her mug shots taken. I was in shock and thought my military career was over. One minute I was taking a casual stroll with my girlfriend and the next I was behind bars, sharing space with a tattoo covered guy named Barney who apparently hadn’t bathed in days and smelled like my former farm co-worker, Big Mike.

As visions of a Class A public humiliation and a “drawer” Letter of Reprimand danced in my head I was granted my single phone call and called one of my sober friends to bail me out.  Then, once home I had to gather my courage and call my squadron commander and tell him how I had let down Strategic Air Command and Curtis LeMay.  That Monday I forlornly reported to his office in my Class A uniform where I received the obligatory drawer Letter of Reprimand for my conduct unbecoming of an officer, which officially placed me on secret probation. One more screw up and my career was over. Fortunately, my squadron commander was looking out for me and talked the Police Chief into dropping the charges as long as I received the military reprimand and if I went downtown and apologized to the police officer that arrested my girlfriend.  You see while I was in the one police cruiser lamenting about the end of my career my girlfriend was in the other calling the police officer every name in the book for arresting us while we were peacefully walking down the street.

So, I sucked in my pride and went downtown and apologized to the officer, and my squadron commander followed his end of the deal and issued me the Reprimand.  And so I thought this regrettable chapter in my life was over.  I was wrong.   Several months later my promotion board met and I was promoted to the rank of Captain.  Since the Reprimand was in the “drawer” and not in my official military record the promotion board was not aware of my un-SAC-like behavior and promoted me on the merits of my record.  A few weeks later I was walking downtown in mid-day, totally sober, no drinks in hand, minding my own business when a police cruiser pulled up next to me and asked me if I was Roger Westermeyer.  I was immediately alarmed, and cautiously replied that I was.  The officer then stated that he had a warrant for my arrest and asked me to get into the car, which I silently did.  He had a baton and a 9mm Glock, I did not. At that moment the “career dissipation” light went off in my head.  As a missileer, one of your most important duties was to ensure proper codes were loaded into the launch control center system, if you erred when loading the codes a bright red light illuminated that said “codes dissipated”.  If that happened your career was over, hence the term “career dissipation” light.

 

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The Launch Control Panel at the Commander’s Console

So, I rode silently to the police station, with the career dissipation light flashing inside my head. With my one phone call I immediately called VFR direct to the squadron commander to explain the situation. VFR direct is a pilot navigation term that stands for Visual Flight Rules and in AF parlance it means going direct to the boss. My commander was understanding and promptly called the Police Chief and got me released.  I later found out that the police officer who arrested me had heard through his wife who was a secretary on base that I had made Captain, and he thought that the Air Force had reneged on the deal to punish me. So he personally reissued a warrant for my arrest.  However, he did not have the authority to put out a warrant for my arrest and the Police Chief rescinded the warrant. I counted my blessings and made sure that I was never out alone again in that town, ever. So much for supporting the troops.

Drinking was not an uncommon hobby for missileers stationed in Knobnoster, Missouri.  If you didn’t hunt or fish, there were few other things to do to occupy the time of twenty year old men.  You could only wax your sports car so many times. So every Friday the Officer’s Club was packed at happy hour and me and my cohorts met to plan the weekend’s festivities.  The Club was especially hopping whenever a promotion list was released because the officers that were just promoted had to buy drinks for everyone. By the end of the night everyone was trashed and we were all doing Carrier landings, which is when you get a long table, dump some beer on it to make it slick, and then after a running start you belly slide across the table.  All in good fun, until you slide off the other end and landed on the floor face first.  I think that is where I got the scar under my lower lip. We also had the habit of throwing the recently promoted into the pool just outside of the bar, regardless of the time of year or temperature.  The annual Christmas party was good fun too. One year I was despondent because of girl troubles and I proceeded to do as many shots as my friends would buy me, which was a lot, a whole lot.  Things got a little fuzzy and the next thing I remember someone was tapping me on my shoulder asking if I had a ride home. I then realized that I was passed out under the Christmas tree at the officer’s club, without a friend in sight. This was long before cell phones and texting. Luckily, the person who woke me lived in the same town and drove me home and my favorite police officer was nowhere to be seen.

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Inside a typical Launch Control Center

Missileer duty was not all play.  Typically we pulled 6-8 alerts each month, which lasted about a day and a half, and we had training days in between.  The alerts began with a pre-departure briefing for all crews going on alert and the briefings covered weather, ongoing maintenance operations, any military exercises, and anything else relevant to the crews for that shift.  After that was the long drive to your assigned Launch Control Facility, which were dotted throughout the Missouri and Kansas countryside.  It was the junior crew member’s duty to drive, unless the senior enlisted Facility Manager was swapping out that day. The Commander usually took the opportunity to nap or read the paper. SAC policy did not permit stopping on the drive to the Launch Control Facility, but typically we did.  SAC Crewmembers had to live by the strictest rules, and we found every opportunity to rebel against them when we could.  On the way to Delta Launch Control Facility, the squadron command post for the 508th Strategic Missile Squadron, was an Amish bakery that sold cinnamon buns that were simply to die for. It was a must stop.  I always wondered what these Amish people thought of these military types showing up in ominous uniforms, carrying satchels because we could not leave classified material unattended, and sporting 38 caliber side arms, while we shopped for cinnamon buns. But we paid in cash, and were always polite.

Throughout my crew time we had several variations of uniforms and jackets starting with blue cotton two-pieced uniforms somewhat akin to what a plumber might wear, though adorned with all kinds of military patches and a rocket over your pocket.

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Deputy Combat Crewmember      1Lt Roger Westermeyer

When they were first issued they were dark navy blue, but as you washed and dry cleaned them over your 4 year tour they eventually faded to a lighter blue. So it was very easy to distinguish between the f*ing new guy (FNG) and seasoned veterans by how faded their uniform was.

 

It wasn’t uncommon for one of the more ingenious rookies to repeatedly wash their uniform so they blended in better with the veterans.  It was the seasoned veteran’s job to take the FNG’s under their wing and teach them the SAC ways.  I was fortunate that my first crew commander was very laid back and had not drank the SAC cool-aid.  We both focused our energies on more rewarding endeavors like chasing the ladies.  We both dressed well and I wore extra large preppy glasses and we became known as the GQ crew. I guess there are worse things to be known by.

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The GQ Crew – AKA WWII

About halfway through my assignment we switched uniforms to blue polyester Flight suits, much like fighter pilots wear, but blue instead of olive green.  I am not sure exactly why, they did have a lot of pockets and were comfortable, but since you changed out of them as soon as you got into the capsule it didn’t matter that much. I think the switch to the Flight suits was an effort to boost the missileers sagging morale, and make them think they were cool like fighter pilots. It was much easier to get dressed in what was basically a coverall uniform, and it didn’t need to be laundered.  But then of course you couldn’t tell the FNGs from the old guys anymore.  It also killed one of the missileer traditions. When you pulled your last alert it was common practice for your junior crew partner to cut up your uniform while you slept, so when you reported back to base the next day you were wearing shorts and had no sleeves, even if it was January and freezing out.  I recall one episode where the outgoing senior guy switched the location of the uniforms while the junior crew member slept.  Then the junior guy accidentally cut up his own uniform and had to wear it back to base with everyone laughing at him because they knew he hadn’t pulled his last alert. But you had to return the new Flight suit uniforms when your crew duty was up so no more slashing them up on your last alert.

Also, at the end of my tour the Air Force decided to issue missileer’s leather jackets like pilots wear, once again to help our flagging morale. They were nice, I still have mine in the back of the closet somewhere with the SAC patch on it, but if the Air Force really wanted to improve our morale they could have issued bonuses like they do for pilots.

The funny thing about the uniforms is that we rarely wore them when on duty.  As soon as we finished the changeover from the previous crew and closed the 8 ton blast door behind them we changed into sweats, t-shirts and slippers to perform our professional duties in private. Here we were SAC trained killers wearing t-shirts and pajamas while on duty. Often during the holidays I would wear my favorite Grinch pajamas while I pulled alerts.  I always thought it was strange that if nuclear war ever occurred it would be fought by men and women wearing pajamas and slippers.

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A Launch Control Center blast door at FE Warren AFB

One cool thing about the 8 ton blast doors is that the crews had painted designs on them similar to the nose art from World War II bombers. My favorite was one painted red, white and blue like a Domino’s pizza box that said “World-wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less, Or Your Next One is Free.”  We missileers had a sadistic sense of humor at times, but we had to, otherwise if we really thought about the enormity of our responsibilities it would eat a hole in your soul.

 

I pulled several of my alerts in the 510th Strategic Missile Squadron that had a unique and at the time highly classified mission. Some of the missiles in that squadron were equipped with the Emergency Rocket Control System, which of course went by the military acronym of ERCS.  This device was a UHF transmitter that was mounted to the top of Minuteman II ICBM instead of the normal nuclear payload.  The purpose of the ERCS was to broadcast the Emergency Actions Messages in case all other communications were destroyed in the nuclear war.

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An ERCS payload

The missile crew’s duty was to verbally load the messages into the rocket and then launch it so other nuclear crews including bombers and submarines could hear it.  While pulling alert, it was the crew’s responsibility to practice loading messages into the ERCS to stay proficient.  On one alert, while my crewmate was asleep I was a little devious and loaded the song “Put The Message in the Box” by the group World Party.  World Party was a British peace, love and happiness hippy group and the song was about spreading love throughout the world. I so wanted to launch that Minuteman II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that cold Missouri night and spread the word of love across the world.  I am sure Curtis LeMay would have risen from the grave and personally kicked my ass if I had done that. Now some twenty-five years later the need in our world for that message of love is stronger than ever. Unfortunately, ERCS have been deactivated, but now that Al Gore has invented the internet we can share our hope for love and world peace via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs written by middle-aged Grinch pajama wearing retired SAC crewmembers.

 

2 thoughts on “Put the Message in the Box

  1. Roger, my dear, you chose the wrong profession! I’m thinking of you from now on as an AEH (Aspiring Ernest Hemmingway). However, instead of running with the bulls, you survived balancing the powers of the world!
    It is so good to keep up with you as you write. Thank you for sharing in such a humorous and interesting way. Your achievements go well beyond student at IHM! I’m proud to have taught you and wish you and your family the best.

    Like

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