FULLY COCKED 15 MINUTES: GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY
book. While LeMay was far from the crazed stereotype of the airforce generals in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (such as ‘Buck’ Turgidson, played by George C Scott), he was a very tough-minded man with an extraordinary grasp of every aspect of bombing. After all, it was he who firebombed Tokyo and sent Fat Man and Little Boy on their way. This driven individual was responsible for the fifteen minutes of Keeney’s title, that being the time needed from the moment a Soviet attack was detected to get hundreds of B-47s and B-52s into the air and ensure the ability to strike back. Eventually this was done with the aid of jet-propulsion units attached to the fuselage. Off they went, trailing huge plumes of black smoke, from runways shaped like Christmas trees to enable them to turn at speed for takeoff. What was dubbed ‘dial-a-yield’ enabled the US to include a bewildering range of nuclear devices in an arsenal that eventually numbered 32,000 weapons. Keeney’s book is dense with absorbing technical detail, whether regarding ‘Fail-Safe’, the brilliant idea conceived by RAND Corporation’s Albert Wohlstetter
AND THE COUNTDOWN TO NUCLEAR ANNIHILATION
By L Douglas Keeney (St Martin’s Press 372pp £16.67)
AT THE END of the Second World War the US was the sole nuclear power in the world, although paradoxically it did not possess a single functioning atomic bomb after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were big, complex devices requiring weeks to prepare and prime. The US also had an air force and navy capable of projecting power around the globe, even if in Europe the Soviets had a colossal advantage, with 4.5 million troops, 15,500 combat aircraft and vast numbers of tanks.
whereby the absence of any further s i gnal meant that US bombers turned homeward on reaching a pre-designated line, or the employment of deep-sea oil-rig designs to create offshore early-war ning radar s t a t ions amid 75-foot waves.
The obvious answer to this conventional imbalance was to rapidly stockpile nuclear bombs – the initial target was 200 such weapons – and combine them with a dedicated bomber force, Strategic Air Command (SAC). Unlike the 1,000-bomber raids of the Second World War, this would concentrate on small formations of ten or so planes, with only one of these needed to get through to its military or industrial target: the force of a single Hiroshima-yield atomic bomb was equivalent to the total payload capable of being delivered by 3,000 conventional bombers. The air crews chosen for these deep penetration missions into the Soviet Union knew that they would never come back if deployed, for this was a decade before mid-air refuelling became viable. ‘Kiss them goodbye and let them go,’ was how an operations chief put it.
A bomber crew races to the cockpit of a B-47
The air crew were a highly select group, liable to be transferred out for achieving ‘only’ 99 per cent in proficiency tests. They were glamour boys in an era that was unselfconscious about the vast consumption of ‘atomic cocktails’ of grapefruit
L Douglas Keeney’s deeply researched and vividly written book charts SAC’s organisational growth (it was bigger than Standard Oil), and the technological advances that accompanied it, from its beginnings in 1946 to its demise in 1992, when the nuclear bomber force was finally superseded by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could be launched from air, ground or sea. It is also the story of SAC’s two longest serving commanders, General Curtis LeMay (who took over in October 1948) and his successor from 1957 to 1964, General Thomas Power. Since Power was very much a disciple of LeMay, the latter is at the spiritual centre of Keeney’s juice and vodka. Life was spent in corrugated mole runs and station wagons, ready for that short sprint to fully ‘cocked’ aircraft, or on routine missions that flew round the clock, 352 days a year for thirty years, to guarantee instant response to an incoming Soviet strike. Contrary to what Kubrick showed in Dr Strangelove, their end runs meant flying at 400–500 miles per hour at tree-top level (so as to avoid Soviet radar) before releasing four bombs designed to drift down with the aid of parachutes. The blast was avoided by performing complex evasive manoeuvres in an aircraft fully shuttered-up against burning flashes of radiation.
Keeney has gone to great lengths to tease out information about mid-air disasters and refuelling explosions. An accident in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart in the air, left part of an armed hydrogen bomb somewhere under a field in North Carolina. As the plane exploded, its two bombs simply armed themselves in response to barometric fusing mechanisms, and it was merely the failure of a few final slivers of wire to connect that saved the town of Goldsboro
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011