The recent missile alert fright in Hawaii reminded me of a similar event in Iowa many years ago. Fewer people were affected, or even knew about it, but those of us in the middle were just as shaken as those Hawaiians running for bomb shelters.
I was working my way through Drake University in the late 1950s as a security guard at the Iowa Air National Guard base in Des Moines, home of the 132nd Fighter Interceptor Wing of that time. Although in full Air Force uniform and carrying a loaded .45 in a belt holster, my duties were more that of a night watch than someone on the alert for saboteurs. My hours were midnight to eight during which I occasionally patrolled the base in a dark blue pickup with a white stripe reading “Air Police.” But most of the time I sat near the telephones at the Operations desk.
Occasionally the civilian airport control tower at the other end of the long runway called to advise of the arrival of a military plane or of then-Governor Hershel Loveless in our C-45 passenger plane. But phone calls were rare. I spent most of my time just trying to stay awake.
Because the Cold War with the Soviet Union threatened to go hot at any moment, the U.S. Air Force remained on 24-hour alert. Our wing did its part by having two F-86 Sabre jets ready to scramble in a matter of minutes to thwart a Soviet attack in those pre-missile days when bombers were the primary threat. Other Air National Guard bases in the Midwest also had interceptors on alert so that a swarm of defenders could take to the sky on quick notice.
As part of our national guard training we studied the features of Soviet Bear and Bison bombers, as did civil defense volunteers who manned observation posts across the country. By that time the Soviet Union possessed thermonuclear bombs, so the threat was indeed grave.
Among the several phones behind the Operations desk was a red one marked “urgent.” I was told by my supervisor, Maj. Allen Packer, that the phone was for emergencies only and, to that point, had remained silent. But if by chance it did ring, I should write down the numerical code provided and call him immediately.
Months passed. I almost forgot about the red phone. And then it stunned me with intermittent nerve-shattering buzzes in the middle of a winter night.
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I picked up the phone and said, “Yes, sir. This is the 132nd Fighter Interceptor Wing.”
A solemn voice responded, “The following code is in effect immediately.” The voice then gave me a series of numbers that I copied on a pad. I awakened Major Packer with a call and told him I had received a code on the red phone. “I’ll be there as soon as I can get dressed,” he responded with urgency in his voice.
Major Packer arrived shortly thereafter, opened the safe in the Operations office, and removed a code manual. He leafed through it until the numbers I provided matched one of the listings in the manual. The major ran his finger across the page, reading carefully. His face turned ashen. “This means imminent enemy action,” he gasped. “Get on the phone and call all the pilots and crews and tell them to report to the base immediately.
I hardly had time to decipher “imminent enemy action” as I whirled the Rolodex and placed calls, but I assumed bombs could be falling at any moment. Was I making my last phone call?
Crews and pilots arrived in a rush and prepared our Sabres for takeoff. A certain controlled pandemonium ensued. Pilots jumped into cockpits. Their planes were fired up. All they needed were further orders on how to proceed.
The red phone buzzed. I picked it up and heard, “This is a drill. Repeat. This is a drill. Disregard the previous code.”
I turned to Major Packer and almost shouted, “It’s a drill. It’s only a drill.”
Color returned to his face, along with a smile. He gave the order for everyone to “stand down.”
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Pilots and crews returned home. Major Packer remained to finish up some paperwork in his office behind the Operations desk. When he finished he passed by me and said, “You did a good job.”
“That scared the daylights out of me,” I responded.
“Yeah, me too,” the major replied.
“Why didn’t they tell us it was a drill?” I asked.
“If they did, people wouldn’t take it seriously. They wanted to test our readiness. The next time might not be a drill.”
I shuddered at the thought.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has authored two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org