Here, near the city of Tripoli, the Air Force owned and operated Wheelus Air Base. Its principal attraction: a 23,000-acre gunnery range etched into the Libyan desert at a place called El Uotia, 50 miles west of the base, up against the Tunisian border. Pilots stationed at NATO airfields had access to smaller, specialized ranges near their continental bases, but bad weather and crowded European airspace made it a good idea to come down to Wheelus periodically to sharpen the full assortment of gunnery skills.
I’d recently reported for duty with the 79th Fighter Squadron at RAF Station Woodbridge in the United Kingdom. The squadron was equipped with F-100s, an aircraft I’d not flown for a while. That Monday morning, I was flying the number four aircraft in a sortie to the El Uotia range, getting “recurrent” in the jet, as well as renewing bombing and gunnery qualifications. It was a great time of day for flying—early, the sun not yet pounding thermals off the desert floor. Our four-ship worked its way methodically through the air-to-ground events: skip bomb, dive bomb, rockets, panel strafe. I could see Arab boys darting through the strafing lanes, scavenging the expended shell casings that would turn into brass coffee tables on offer in Tripoli’s souk. No doubt they kept the range clean, cut down on ricochets. They seemed sure of their footing. Still, I caught myself wishing they’d wait until we stopped shooting.
Suddenly, the control tower back at Wheelus began broadcasting the recall word on the guard channel. At Wheelus, pilots carried a pair of recall code words, changed each day: a practice word and one reserved for the real thing. The practice word got occasional use, as when we were tested to see how quickly aircraft aloft could be brought down and reconfigured for combat. No one remembered the real word being broadcast, ever, but now the control tower was surely using it.
Our flight leader, Capt. Cecil LeFevers, came up on the radio: “OK, guys, let’s hold high and dry and I’ll go over and straighten out tower.” We orbited at low altitude in a box pattern while Cece switched to guard and clarified the procedure in plain language: if they wanted to do a recall exercise, they should use the practice code word. Ignoring the advice, the control tower repeated the real word, a little urgency in their transmission this time. Uneasy now, we safed up our weapon systems and headed back to base.
I was the last pilot in the last flight to recover at Wheelus that morning. Decelerating down the runway, drag chute stretching out behind, I glanced across to the parking apron. It was a colorful sight, heavy with aircraft, upwards of 100 fighters of all the current types, decorated in the livery of every Air Force squadron assigned to the alliance.
Our ground crews quickly downloaded training ordnance and hung the external fuel tanks needed to give us range to home station. In less than three hours, I was on the runway again, accelerating this time, afterburner cooking, and now the parking ramp was a concrete moonscape—aircraft and everything moveable flushed out, gone.
The flight to Woodbridge was unremarkable. After landing, we learned that Khrushchev had finally decided to stop the bleeding through Berlin, the only real gap in the Iron Curtain. The East Germans were busy knocking over buildings, clearing a no-man’s-land on which they and the Russians would erect the Berlin Wall.
Beyond bringing our aircraft back, we did nothing about it, at least nothing I could see firsthand. Over the next couple of months, a few fighter units flew in from the States to reinforce bases in France and Germany, but on the ground at Woodbridge, we didn’t load live ammunition or go to any advanced state of alert. I mean no criticism; considering the then existing nuclear stalemate, it would not have been easy to choose an appropriate yet prudent response. I suppose the Russians watched us scramble out of Wheelus and were perhaps impressed by how quickly we regathered NATO’s air order of battle. Nevertheless, they went on to build a wall that stood for nearly three decades as a symbol of the Cold War. Our acquiescence meant the West would accept a divided Europe, at least for the time being.
Among the pilots in my four-ship flight to El Uotia range that day in 1961 was Lt. Mike Dugan, a razor-sharp West Pointer, one of the most creative officers I ever knew. Our families were neighbors in base housing, had babies about the same time, became friends. I liked him and learned a lot from him. As much as anything, Mike’s example led me to stay in the Air Force.
It turned out both Mike and I ended up wearing four stars. Only a handful of officers attain this rank, so the odds are against two lieutenants from the same squadron doing so. Nevertheless, by the autumn of 1989, when the Berlin Wall finally cracked and fell over, Dugan and I were in charge of the overseas operations of the Air Force—him in Europe and me in the Pacific. Each of us had begun our service a little before the wall went up and each stayed on a while after it came down, but the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall is a sort of metaphor, bookends for two careers that spanned much of the Cold War.
I know of no public monument to the Cold War, no campaign to decorate Washington’s Mall with such an object. But make no mistake, it was a real war, with everything at stake: real battles won and lost, real killed and wounded and missing in action, much treasure spent, many mistakes made. Maybe calling it “World War III,” or “The Forty Years War” would give a clearer idea of its importance. Against a background of domestic opposition, there were many opportunities to quit. Too often, it was a close thing. But somehow we found the determination to hang in there, to hold a dreadful system at bay until its own people could bring it down, a seismic event that ushered in the possibility, if only just that, of a safer, more prosperous, more democratic world.
Shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Air Force turned its attention to selecting a new chief of staff. Mike Dugan and I were finalists for the job. Naturally, I was disappointed when he was chosen to become the Air Force’s 13th chief. As it happened, I would replace Mike after he’d served only a few months, but when his selection was announced in the spring of 1990, it sure looked as if I’d run out of options. I began to contemplate retirement from active service, to consider what I wanted to do when I grew up. It was anything but an easy question, because all I had in mind, from the beginning, was to be a fighter pilot.