“A DIFFERENT APOLLO 11 MOON LANDING STORY.”
The Lunar Landing of Apollo 11 and the Junior Officers Revolt at SAC Headquarters.
July 20, 1969…
July 19, 1969. Omaha, Nebraska—Strategic Air Force Command Headquarters.
By order of SAC Commander-In-Chief, Gen. Bruce K. Holloway, 38 junior USAF Special Intelligence Officers are ordered to appear at a mandatory “Commander’s Call” in the second floor Command Staff briefing room of SAC HQ, Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska. As I recall it was to be on Sunday, July 20th, 1969. Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but that was not the big story.
The orders required all 38 officers to assemble to account for their conduct in an embarrassing public relations bungle by the Air Force. One of the First Lieutenants at SAC’s elite and ultra-top secret 544th Reconnaissance Technical Wing, among the world’s top photo intelligence analysis units, inadvertently set off what became known in SAC command circles as the “Junior Officer’s Revolt.” Not exactly the Cain Mutiny, but it involved one of the very top Generals of the United States military.
The state of Nebraska enjoyed a special relationship with SAC and its succession of “Cincs,” or commander-in-chiefs. Between 1968 and 1969, an unusually rapid succession of SAC commanders took place. General Joseph J. Nazzaro was replaced by an interim commander, Gen. Keith Compton, succeeded by Gen. Bruce K. Holloway of “Flying Tigers” fame. Part of this close military/community cooperation involved fundraising for AKSARBEN (Yep, Nebraska spelled backwards), the state’s “United Way or Community Chest.” USAF personnel were expected to support a huge, high-pressure donations campaign. To refuse to donate or virtually “tithe” through USAF payroll deductions, it was threatened, would reflect on your military service record. Officers were threatened with “derogs” (negative notations) on their OERs (Officers Effectiveness Ratings) if they did not participate—something that would effect their career advancement and promotions. A lot of minimally paid enlisted men and struggling career officers caved in and signed up. Some held out, mostly junior (lieutenant and captain) “Reserve Officers,” not generally regarded as career officer material and therefore somewhat indifferent to pressure on their military futures since almost all expected to return to civilian status at the end of their service agreements.
July 16th Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral on its epic lunar mission. Mission commander, Neil Armstrong, and lunar module pilot “Buzz” Aldrin were preparing to walk on the moon on July 20th. It seems that about the same time they were leaving their lunar footprints, the mandatory SAC commander’s call of 544th Special Reconnaissance Intel Officers to SAC Headquarters commenced. What on earth could cause all this fuss during days this historic?
Junior Intel officers were not always cast in, or controlled by, the behavior protocols held dear by echelons of senior Air Force officers. A new breed, we enjoyed a certain intellectual and analytical independence beyond our rank, important to the critical thinking and analysis of everything from drone photography of the harbor at Haiphong, to SR-71 “Blackbird” multi-sensor photo and radar imagery from above 85,000 feet, to counting “Foxbat” aircraft on Soviet airfields and ICBM launch sites from space. Senior staff tolerated our certainties while chafing occasionally at our perceived impudence. But we were very good at what we did.
First Lt. Nicholas King was the culprit. He had the nerve to write a scathing personal letter to the Chairman of AKSARBEN after they gifted the new SAC Commander, Gen. Holloway, with $40,000.00 of donated AKSARBEN funds to be used at the discretion of the SAC Commander-in-Chief. The gift was spent to transform the entrance and upstairs command staff offices from stark Curtis E. LeMay marble and pale green, to alternating panels of ocher wall covering and dark hardwood paneling. Thick ocher carpeting was installed at the SAC HQ Main Entrance and its upstairs command staff offices, including the CINC’s.
Lt. King’s letter suggested the next time AKSARBEN had $40,000 to throw away, rather than enable the beautification of the SAC entrance with charitable donation funds, they should consider helping with the Offutt AFB airmen’s barracks, many of them brick structures built before WWI that reached 120 degrees in summer (un-air conditioned, of course). Or, help the struggling facility for handicapped children of base personnel. And on…you get the idea. The letter was circulated though the super-secret subterranean labs of the HQ Intel photo interpreters, analysts, and briefing officers—almost all of whom were junior officers. Thirty seven other officers became signatory to Lt. King’s impudent pique, and off it went.
I can’t honestly recall if Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon by the time we assembled for the commanders call. Phone calls between us concluded we were in for a real chewing, some had heard and were terrorized that the Commander-in-Chief, himself, was going to tear into us. What a small handful of us knew—being his Special Intel briefers on a daily basis—was that this heroic WWII air ace was particularly inarticulate with even his half dozen staff generals at our briefings and was highly unlikely to be the one “ripping into us.” General Holloway, as expected, was not present for the meeting. It turns out that chore fell to his DCI (Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence) Lt. Gen. Dacey, who took to the podium. Gen. Dacey was a good choice; many of us liked him from our duties of briefing him regularly—finding him dashing, smart, incisive, erudite, and tough. This day he was volcanic.
General Dacey’s comments were angry, threatening, and for a while, effectively intimidating to most of the assembled young officers. He degraded us, railing for a while berating us for bringing dishonor on the Air Force by signing and sending the letter, breaking the chain of command, betraying our honor and duty as officers, and for conduct unbecoming an officer. It was at this time a hand shot up near the back of the room and Gen. Dacey paused to permit the question. It was not what he expected. The question asked “Why, when the Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command gets caught with his pants down, spending charity money donated by his troops, to decorate his offices and SAC HQ entrance, that WE are the ones guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer?” I swear I heard Dacey choke. A brief pandemonium erupted before order was restored. Several other unsolicited comments of the same nature erupted as nearly the entire group of us pushed back at the hypocrisy of this collective “spanking” for the mindless misdeeds of the Command. The intimidation had produced precisely the opposite effect it intended.
Order was quickly restored but as hard as Gen. Dacey tried to continue his offensive, he was met by surreptitious shouts and comments from the assembled officers who would simply not accept his ugly, threatening comments. The assembly was clumsily broken off, with attending senior officers visibly flabbergasted and enraged at our insubordinate conduct. The Commanders Call abruptly ended and all of us were ordered back to duty.
I hope this story reaches some of the other junior officers at this historic event. I would like to know their comments on this narrative, their feelings about it, and their personal consequences of having been part of what was thereafter called “The junior officers revolt at SAC Headquarters.”
It seems that within a week or so, 37 of the 38 officers that signed the AKSARBEN letter had orders to some of the worst assignments at which an Intel Officer could be stationed. Only my friend, Capt. Lionel Smith, was spared out of all of us. He was simply so absolutely indispensable to the SAC satellite surveillance program he avoided similar punitive reassignment. The effect of this retaliation against the best intelligence community in the Strategic Air Command, their “best and brightest,” was to instantly strip SAC’s intelligence capability to perform daily critical intelligence analysis and procedures. And beyond that simple, blind revenge against its insubordinate junior officers was the location of our punitive assignments. They were considered the worst places they could possibly send us—all in combat zones of Viet Nam or high threat areas of Thailand. The Great SAC sin was that NONE of us, with our security clearances (far above TOP SECRET Special Intel) and working intelligence knowledge of our strategic surveillance programs, plans, platforms, capabilities, and assessments should have ever been assigned out of the continental U.S. Any of us falling into the hands of the enemy could have constituted a catastrophic setback for US military intelligence capabilities. That, however, was not a consideration in SAC’s response to intimidate and punish us.
My orders were to Task Force Alpha, Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, and after weeks of training at Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, I was on my way to the cushiest of our collective punishments, know to all as “Naked Phanny" RTAFB. A 4000’ asphalt strip cut out of the Northeast Thai jungle, it was the home of the 56th Special Operations Wing. Too short for jets, and with a Search and Rescue and Air Commando mission, it was a throwback to Korea and WWII. The prop aircraft inventory consisted of retiring A-26 Intruders (twin engine attack bombers from WWII), C-19 (WWII) Flying Boxcar gunships, three squadrons of A-1 Skyraiders (Korean War), CH-3 Jolly Green helicopters for search and rescue and air commando operations, and 0-2 and OV-10 forward air control aircraft. Seven miles from the Mekong and a short hop across Laos to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was there as an analyst in the seismic and acoustic sensor network that monitored and targeted troop and truck traffic shuttling war supplies through Laos to South Vietnam on the dirt road network of “the trail.” It was the best of the worst duty and conditions but hard to complain about when grunts were sent from South Viet Nam to NKP for R&R.
Capt. Nick King, on the other hand, had been sent to Phan Rang, South Viet Nam—a place called the armpit of Viet Nam and a really awful assignment. Reports reached us at NKP that he responded as we might have expected, with a peace symbol emblazoned on his bunker helmet; Nick also refused to salute the base commander and was reported to have responded, “What are they going to do to me? Send me to Phan Rang?” Years later, long after our military exploits, I heard he’d become an Assistant District Attorney in Louisville, Kentucky. An then a Tennassee Superme Court Judge.
A closing comment on the Junior Officers Revolt. It wasn’t just the Junior Officers that were ultimately upset with the SAC command. A look at any photograph of SAC Headquarters shows a huge building with a central entrance opposite the walkway, easily identified with an ICBM missile motif, from the Officers Club to the main entrance. Well, it seems that when foul weather set in—a certainty in Omaha—the new ochre yellow carpets at the SAC HQ main entrance took to soiling heavily from the wet and slushy foot traffic from the Officers Club and main entrance arrivals. What happened next almost set off the “Senior Officers Revolt at SAC HQ.” Full “bird” Colonels without sufficient rank and clout, plus hordes of Lt. Colonels and Majors accustomed to using the direct access to their offices in the HQ Building were barred from using the main entrance! They were required to walk the considerable distance (in freezing sleet and snow) to the far left or right wing entrances at each far end of SAC HQ. Indignant is not a strong enough reaction, though insubordination on the order of the Junior Officers Revolt at SAC Headquarters was not among their options.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their iconic footprints from Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon on the weekend of July 20th, 1969. And now, as a small footnote to history, is the true (if unknown) story of that same date. The Junior Officers revolt at SAC Headquarters.
Michael K. Hemp (Capt. Monkey Hotel, NKP 1969-1970)
More detail, photos, and information at www.BombardiersLounge.com
Strategic Air Command Headquarters Building from the Offutt AFB Officers Club.
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