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15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation

15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation

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15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation

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Feb 1, 2011


Packed with startling revelations, this inside look at the secret side of the Cold War exposes just how close America came to total annihilation

During the Cold War, a flight crew had 15 minutes to get their nuke-laden plane in the air from the moment Soviet bombers were detected—15 minutes between the earliest warning of an incoming nuclear strike and the first flash of an enemy warhead. This is the chilling true story of the incredibly risky steps our military took to protect us from that scenario, including:

• Over two thousand loaded bombers that crossed American skies. They sometimes crashed and at least nine times resulted in nuclear weapons being accidentally dropped

• A system that would use timers and rockets to launch missiles even after everyone was dead

• Disastrous atmospheric nuclear testing including the horrific runaway bomb—that fooled scientists and put thousands of men in uniform in the center of a cloud of hot fallout

• A plan to use dry lake beds to rebuild and launch a fighting force in the aftermath of nuclear war

Based on formerly classified documents, military records, press accounts, interviews and over 10 years of research, 15 Minutes is one of the most important works on the atom bomb ever written.

Feb 1, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

L. DOUGLAS KEENEY is a military historian and researcher. He is the cofounder of The Military Channel on which he hosted a series called On Target. He has since appeared on The Discovery Channel, CBS, and The Learning Channel and is the author of numerous books of military history.

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15 Minutes - L. Douglas Keeney




WROTE TIME MAGAZINE: SAC has keyed its 3,700 combat crews so tautly to what SAC Commanding General Thomas Power calls ‘the compression of time in the Atomic Age’ that SAC is even designing a new type of slip-on shoe to save alert crews the few seconds spent on fumbling with shoelaces.

It was November 1958.

*   *   *

HOW TO DETERMINE which country won a nuclear exchange was a riddle few attempted to solve save for Harvard Professor of Economics Dr. Carl Kaysen. Working with McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy’s special assistant for National Security, Kaysen prepared a briefing on the current war plan in which he presented a set of calculations. Said Kaysen, no matter what war scenario played out, both the United States and the Soviet Union would be horribly devastated by the nuclear exchange. How then was a winner to be determined? "Accompanying these assumptions is the notion that prevailing in general war means coming out relatively ahead of the enemy. As an example, if the U.S. has lost 20 percent of its industrial capacity and 30 percent of its people, but the Sino-Soviet Bloc has lost 40 percent of its industrial capacity and 60 percent of its people, then the U.S., somehow or other, has won the war."


*   *   *

WROTE JONATHAN SCHELL in his book The Fate of the Earth: Now we are sitting at the breakfast table drinking our coffee and reading the newspaper, but in a moment we may be inside a fireball whose temperature is tens of thousands of degrees. Now we are on our way to work, walking through city streets, but in a moment we may be standing on an empty plain under a darkened sky looking for the charred remnants of our children. Now we are alive, but in a moment we may be dead. Now there is human life on Earth, but in a moment it may be gone.

This was the Cold War.



IN 1945, A special committee of the Manhattan Project headed by Nobel Prize–winning physicist James Franck was asked to examine the political consequences of atomic bombs. In their final report they reduced to one sentence the essence of combat for those armed with atomic weapons. Wrote Franck: In no other type of warfare does the advantage lie so heavily with the aggressor.

The committee, which had no military training whatsoever, thus summed up what would come to be known as the Cold War.

*   *   *

IN 1907, AN engineer with the J. M. Guffey Petroleum Company slipped into a canoe and paddled across a swamp to Caddo Lake, Louisiana. He halted, pulled in his paddles, leaned over the gunwales, and, near the surface of the water, lit a match. The match promptly went poof! into a blossom of fire, proving that gas, and certainly oil, lay beneath this otherwise forlorn backwater of Louisiana. Gulf Oil Company promptly bought the rights to drill through the lake, and within years a cobweb of wooden trestles and walkways had spread across the surface of the lake, connecting an eerie landscape of wooden derricks. One after the other, the rigs found oil and gas, and soon Caddo Lake was forested with derricks standing in twelve feet of water, all of it sheltered, all of it calm.

Oil exploration would now take to the seas.

*   *   *

WELL BEFORE THE Battle of Britain, the British Air Ministry wanted to evaluate the offensive capabilities of a new thing known as electromagnetic radiation. Could an electromagnetic wave of sufficient power melt the skin of a German bomber or, absent that, could it in some way incapacitate or kill the enemy pilot? they asked. They turned to Sir Robert Watson-Watt, superintendent of the Radio Research Station in Slough, England. Watson-Watt passed the question along and reported that there was no possibility of developing a radio Death Ray, as one historian wrote, but there was an excellent possibility of tracking the reflected energy of such a ray and using it to detect enemy bombers. Asked to prove it, Watson-Watt set up a demonstration so simple that a school-age child could have understood it. He tuned a receiver to the frequency of a common signal used by the BBC and set up an oscilloscope to display what he called the bounce. He had a Royal Air Force Handley Page Heyford bomber fly a predetermined route some miles away and pointed his antenna to the sky. He turned on the scope and watched with amusement as the eyes of his observers snapped open wide as the line on the scope flared.


Watson-Watt’s first radio-wave-bouncing device would in time become Britain’s Chain Home radar stations. In 1940, the Germans launched the air invasion of Great Britain but the warnings from the Chain Home radar stations gave the RAF time to launch their fighters. The British never blocked the German raids—that was beyond the capability of radar and certainly more than their small cadre of RAF pilots might hope to accomplish—but they exacted enough in German losses to win the Battle of Britain.

*   *   *

THE BATTLE FOR the Marshall Islands began on January 31, 1944, and ended February 21. More than 40,000 American soldiers and marines took part in the invasion at a cost of more than 3,000 injured and 372 fatalities. The soldiers secured the islands and promptly moved forward, while behind them the construction battalions of the Seabees arrived. By March 1944, Kwajalein had been transformed into an island of barracks, Quonset huts, sheds, fuel farms, airfield, runways, maintenance sheds, docks, dust, and ammo dumps that, taken together, would become the primary advance resupply base supporting what would be known as the Pacific campaign. Twenty-two thousand men were based on Kwajalein, twelve thousand on Enewetak. Their sheltered lagoons would be dotted by ships that numbered in the hundreds. Said Don Whitman, who went to Enewetak to man a weather station: I had these images of the South Pacific but when I arrived here, it was just another base. All of the trees had been blasted away in the war and what was left of them, bulldozed. It was barren except for buildings and people and telephone poles.

Barren and more. About these islands an air force historian would write: It was doubtful that searchers would find a more remote region on this planet outside the polar regions.

In the years to come, even remote would be relative.

*   *   *

IN 1941, GERMANY invaded the Soviet Union, thus putting at war Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich against Joseph Stalin’s Communist Russia. Senator Harry Truman made no effort to hide his contempt for both nations when he spoke of this sudden turn of events. If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia, said Truman, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and in that way let them kill as many as possible.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said more or less the same thing even as he forged an alliance with the Russians. My children, said Roosevelt, paraphrasing an old Balkan proverb, it is permitted you in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.

The bridge Americans wanted to cross was the one that led from the beaches of Normandy to Berlin. The devil they would walk with was Stalin.

*   *   *

FORECASTING THE HEIGHT of waves created by storms took on a sense of urgency in 1938 when the Pure Oil Company joined with the Superior Oil Company to explore a leased tract of land one mile offshore near Cameron, Louisiana. The plan was to build a freestanding platform in the Gulf of Mexico and drill in fourteen feet of water. The question was this: how high should the platform be elevated to allow free passage of waves between its legs?

I. W. Alcorn, an engineer with Pure Oil, had ample experience building derricks on land but had no experience at sea. However, he had the cunning of a poker player. Alcorn consulted wave experts who assured him that in the Gulf of Mexico waves could grow no higher than fifteen feet.

Alcorn didn’t believe them for a moment. Instead, he had his own ideas.

The name of Alcorn’s platform would be taken from the tract leased from the state of Louisiana called the Creole tract and would be called the Creole platform. I. W. Alcorn’s Creole platform would go into the history books as the first real freestanding structure built in the open seas but more infamously as the first freestanding structure to be hit by a hurricane and washed away. But for Alcorn’s cunning, the offshore-oil industry might well have retreated to land, but in fact Alcorn expected his platform to be struck by waves; what he endeavored to do was to preserve the piles, the legs under the platform. Alcorn knew that the driving of piles was by far the most difficult and certainly the most costly part of an offshore rig, so instead of hoping that waves would never top fifteen feet, he simply designed a platform that would break away in a storm if the waves hit it. Alcorn placed his platform on a swarm of three hundred legs, only a handful of which moved when a hurricane finally swept the Creole platform into the sea.

The waves, of course, topped fifteen feet.

Still, the experts ran thriving businesses.

*   *   *

IN THE FALL of 1943, Major General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, met with General Henry H. Hap Arnold, commanding general of the army air forces, to ask for help. Groves needed to test the ballistics of a bomb casing that would in time hold an atomic bomb. Practice bombs’ shapes needed to be modified based on the flight characteristics they exhibited. Groves asked Arnold to streamline the testing, but he also needed a guarantee of absolute secrecy. Arnold obliged on both parts, an act of cooperation that cut through countless weeks of senseless red tape. That Arnold did so had as much to do with the demands of the war effort as with Arnold’s personal witness to the rapid changes in aeronautics. Arnold, the man who would usher in the era of the intercontinental nuclear bomber, had been trained to fly an airplane by the Wright brothers themselves.

*   *   *

HARRY DAGHLIAN FUMBLED. After an evening lecture at the Los Alamos labs, Daghlian decided to continue a criticality experiment he’d started during the day. Daghlian had been tickling the dragon’s tail, as the scientists called it, building a critical assembly with a ball of plutonium and thirteen-pound tamper bricks made of tungsten carbide. At some point the assembly would go critical and a chain reaction would start, essentially a small atomic bomb; the trick was to contain it, to contain the fire of the dragon, so to speak.

The sweet smell of piñons no doubt drifted on the cool New Mexico air as Daghlian readied the final brick, but he fumbled and the tamper brick dropped into the pile, and with that, a bright, bluish light swelled between his hands. Daghlian hurriedly tore the pile apart but the spears of gamma had already pierced the flesh of his body and bathed his right hand in intense, deadly radiation.

Daghlian was rushed to the infirmary. For twenty-five days he wasted away. The incessant sweats and the onset of delirium reverberated down the halls and marked the hours as surely as the ticking of a clock. His hand swelled to nearly twice its normal size. His skin died, first the hands, then the abdomen. The desquamation continued up his arms to his neck and face. They debrided the necrotic skin. He was given shots of morphine and was bathed in cool water but no doubt his organs shut down and the walls of his abdominal tract sloughed. Daghlian died.

Three months later, as General Groves was testifying before the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy, he was asked to explain his understanding of radiation and death. With a sufficiently powerful dose of radiation, Groves said, death could be nearly instantaneous. In cases of minor exposure, death might well result, too, but without undue suffering. In fact, said Groves, they say it is a very pleasant way to die.

*   *   *

AN AMERICAN AIR-DEFENSE radar station was put into operation near Kahuku Point on Oahu, Hawaii, famously detecting (only to be dismissed as a flight of B-17s) the inbound flight of Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941. Despite this inauspicious start, ninety-five radar stations soon dotted the East and West coasts of the United States, the radar operators intently watching for the blip that would be the sign of a second attack.

All this, however, was short-lived. The 1942 naval victory against the Japanese at Midway and the 1943 defeat of the Germans in North Africa pushed back the front lines far enough for one to conclude that radar stations were a needless drain of precious war assets. In 1943, the War Department disbanded the Air Defense Command.

The oceans, it was thought, were defense enough.

*   *   *

WELL BEFORE THE United States entered World War II, the army air forces issued a design specification for a bomber that could fly the unheard-of distance of five thousand miles with ten thousand pounds of bombs, bomb a target, then return to base without refueling. That such an aircraft would even be considered had much to do with the deteriorating situation in Europe. Washington feared that Great Britain would fall to the Germans and, as a result, bombing missions to liberate Europe would have to be staged from Upstate New York.

On August 8, 1946, the prototype for the B-36 intercontinental bomber rolled off the production lines and began its preliminary flight tests. In every dimension, it was an aircraft of staggering proportions. It was 162 feet long and 230 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Its fuselage was so long that a trolley had been installed in a tunnel that the crew used to pull themselves from the nose to the tail. If you put a B-36 at the center of a football field its wingtips would touch the ten-yard lines on both sides. It could stay aloft so long that it often carried backup pilots and had bunk beds fore and aft. So thick were the wings that a man could enter them nearly upright and crawl inside to work on the engines.

The bomber was in all respects built in accordance with the original 1941 design specifications except for the bomb bay. In the aftermath of Hiroshima, it would be modified to carry Fat Boy.

*   *   *

THE D-DAY BEACHES were alive with construction equipment, tracked vehicles, traffic marshals with whistles, and a steady stream of men wading ashore, marred only by the occasional thump of a distant enemy shell. Ships dotted the horizon; tethered blimps soared into the sky to snare unwary enemy fighters. It was June 8, 1944, two days after D-day. Omaha Beach had become a small port city with its own protected harbor. Enormous concrete caissons—two hundred feet long by sixty feet wide and sixty feet tall—called Phoenixes had been fabricated in Great Britain and then carefully pulled across the English Channel. They were positioned off Omaha Beach and Gold Beach and sunk to create a pair of one-mile-long breakwaters called Mulberries. The Mulberries stood thirty feet above the water at low tide and ten feet above it at high tide. So impressively large were they that seven Liberty ships could tie up on them at the same time.

The Mulberries, however, lasted mere days. On June 19, 1944, a powerful Atlantic storm pummeled the caissons with pounding waves and tossed them about as if they were cork. As the skies cleared, the harbor, such as it was, was gone. The concrete caissons dotted the ocean helter-skelter, most turned over, sunken or breached. There was no breakwater, the port was in shambles, but there was an inspiration.

Colonel Leon B. DeLong, an engineer, saw the destruction and pictured a better way to handle the seas. DeLong envisioned a type of pier that could be jacked up or down according to the height of the waves. In his mind he saw piers that would inch above the cresting waves and be impervious to the seas.

In 1949, Colonel DeLong established the DeLong Engineering Company and promptly won a government contract to build a pier that would extend into North Star Bay, a finger of the Atlantic that adjoined a small air force base located in Thule, Greenland, 695 miles north of the arctic circle. Because North Star Bay was frozen for all but a few precious months, DeLong decided to use surplus landing ships as the frame for the pier. These 250-foot-long flat-bottom barges, as they were called, were filled with concrete, through which six legs to a side were drilled and prepositioned. DeLong fabricated those parts in a shipyard in the Gulf of Mexico and then, like bugs on their back, towed them up the Atlantic to Greenland, where he lowered the legs into the seabed and jacked up the barges above the waterline to become an instant pier including a concrete roadway on top.

DeLong’s jack-up was an instant success and DeLong’s name quickly became synonymous with portable maritime structures, including his jack-up oil rigs that could be implanted in the ocean, jacked up, and then moved to another spot if the well was dry.

DeLong’s name, too, would become synonymous with an air force plan to use jack-ups to elevate the platform for a radar station that would be built in the Atlantic Ocean, although not because he built the largest of these stations but because he did not.

*   *   *

THERE WERE NO more cloudy days, not the way bomb-weary Germans had come to relish days when the skies were overcast and the bombers were forced to give them rest. On November 13, 1943, iron bombs unexpectedly pierced a solid cloud deck over the city of Bremen and, impossibly, the unwelcome sound of bombs exploding punctured the morning quiet. Little known to the Germans, the Americans were now using a British radar-bombing system that made the thickest of clouds seem as invisible as air and displayed the otherwise hidden city on a radar-bomb scope as if it were a sunny day.

Thus began radar bombing, an invention of war that in coming years would be refined and improved and for which tactics would be developed until radar bombing became the rule and not the exception, and cities unseen to the naked eye of a bombardier would be destroyed in the flash of an atomic bomb.

All using radar.

*   *   *

IN 1944, THE United States Navy contracted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a computing device that would speed up the calculations required to display how aircraft stability would be affected by human inputs delivered through flight controls. The project was called Whirlwind. Whirlwind was expected to become the brains inside a flight simulator that would react to a pilot’s actions in real time and in this manner dramatically improve flight training.

Whirlwind, however, moved in fits and starts and was fast becoming something quite apart from the flight simulator originally envisaged. Whirlwind was a machine with possibilities and complexities, the sum of which was slowly overwhelming the resources of MIT and exhausting the navy’s budget but attracting the interest of a new user that saw it not as a flight simulator but as a nerve center for a global network of radar stations that had not yet been designed.

Whirlwind was fast becoming the world’s first mainframe computer, not that such words had yet been coined.

*   *   *

A DRAMATIC CHANGE in the concept of warfare was unfolding in the Central Pacific. From the Northern Mariana Islands of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, long-range B-29 bombers were systematically destroying Japan, although no one back in Washington seemed to understand what was under way. With tactics of his own design, Major General Curtis E. LeMay had been sending streams of bombers, which numbered in the hundreds, seventeen hundred miles across the Pacific to attack Japanese targets at altitudes low enough to avoid the jet stream yet high enough to avoid the burst points of the antiaircraft shells fired from the ground. He had experimented with bomb loads and, unhappy with conventional bombs, had switched to incendiary bombs to trigger secondary fires on the ground. Because bad weather had been the cause of too many aborts, he trained his crews in the new radar so that they could bomb in any weather.

LeMay bombed with an increasing sense of urgency. He bombed Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kawasaki, and Yokohama. He attacked when and where he was ordered to, but when he was finished he pulled names out of almanacs or off maps and bombed some more. In his view, the only reason runways had been built on Tinian and the only reason the B-29s were fueled up and loaded with bombs—the only reason he was in the Marianas—was to bomb Japan. Five hundred bombers against one city, eight hundred against another. Nine hundred bombers today, a thousand bombers tomorrow—the only point was to end the war, one factory, one city at a time.

So intense were his operations that by the end of May LeMay eventually exceeded the supply of bombs the United States Navy could deliver to him and was forced to take a break. I feel that the destruction of Japan’s ability to wage war lies within the capacity of this command, LeMay wrote of the bomber forces he commanded.

Yet, few comprehended any of this. On a trip to the Pacific, General Arnold landed on Tinian and asked LeMay when he thought the war would be over. LeMay said he hadn’t given the topic much thought. He excused himself. Thirty minutes later, LeMay returned and, much to Arnold’s surprise, said, ever so matter-of-factly, that it would probably be September before he could complete the destruction of Japan’s industry. LeMay no doubt displayed aerial photographs of the cities he had firebombed and the utter destruction of so many of Japan’s factories. He no doubt reminded Arnold that his B-29s had dropped thousands of mines in Japan’s harbors, thus making resupply nearly impossible, which meant that unlike Germany, there was little chance that Japan could rebuild any of its industrial capacity. All things considered, said LeMay, Japan would have nothing left to fight with by September 1945.

A somewhat startled but impressed Arnold asked LeMay to fly back to Washington and tell the Joint Chiefs what he had just said. LeMay promptly pulled a B-29 off the flight line.

Back in Washington, LeMay’s assessment was met with skepticism. It seemed impossible that a bomber command on a tiny island in the Pacific, thousands of miles from American shores, could single-handedly bring a nation as powerful as Japan to its knees. Wars were ended with soldiers and a million would invade Japan in November 1945. So unbelievable was it that General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, fell asleep. I don’t blame the old boy for sleeping through a dull presentation, LeMay later said. Here were these dumb kids coming in saying they were going to end the war for him.

While indeed LeMay failed to get his point across, the trip was not without its rewards. General Groves managed to get an hour with the general and briefed him on the atomic bomb and how it would be delivered by air. While LeMay didn’t completely understand the physics of the weapon, he did know Japan’s air defenses and promptly recommended a change in the bombing strategy. Rather than nest a queen among a cluster of worker bees and unnecessarily attract attention, LeMay suggested that they use a lone aircraft to drop the bomb. The Japanese were too weak and had too many problems to worry about one plane, LeMay said. A single bomber would look like just another reconnaissance flight, and reconnaissance flights were a waste of precious Japanese resources and were unlikely to meet any fighter resistance whatsoever.

Groves saw LeMay’s point and ordered the change. The first intercontinental-atomic-bombing mission would be as simple as any bombing mission LeMay had designed. One bomber, one bomb, planned in one casual meeting that would indeed end the war in September.

As to Marshall’s skepticism, there is no record of a subsequent conversation with LeMay about strategic bombing, but the truth was evident. The fact that Japan while still in possession of a formidable and intact land army, surrendered without having her homeland invaded by enemy land forces, represents a unique and significant event in military history, LeMay would later say. General James H. Jimmy Doolittle agreed: The Navy had the transport to make the invasion of Japan possible; the Ground Forces had the power to make it successful; and the B-29 made it unnecessary.

Said Hap Arnold: The influence of atomic energy on air power can be stated very simply. It has made air power all-important.

And thus it was that in the Pacific, with a bomb, air power entered its primacy.



IN 1942, IRAN signed the Tripartite Treaty of Alliance with the Soviet Union and Great Britain, thus granting the Soviets and the British permission to use Iran as a staging area for World War II military operations against Germany, subject to a clause that required both countries to withdraw their forces within six months of a cease-fire.

On May 19, 1945, less than two weeks after the surrender of Germany, Iran demanded that Britain and Russia withdraw their forces. The British left within ninety days, as stipulated by the treaty. The Soviet military did,

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