Some of the story of remembering the Fail Safe point and the Russians, an imaginary place no longer extant
by Peter Menkin
There is an amazing article in the online edition of The New York Times: Surprising Guests in a Russian Parade: American Troops. It is what this writer calls journalism as history.
Here is a salient part of the report in The Times about which this writer wishes to say something more personal making a statement of personal history as an American who served in The Strategic Air Command for four years (1965 to 1969).
Never before in history have active-duty American troops been invited to march in the Victory Day parade, according to the United States military. The occasion is the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, a date that carries an almost sacred meaning in Russia. Russian leaders have taken pains to explain that the Americans — along with contingents from Britain, France and Poland — were invited as representatives of the “anti-Hitler coalition.”
Of course, The Strategic Air Command was a part of the United States Air Force and my job was to be a computer operator. It was a normal activity everyday (7 days a week) to run special reports for B-52s and the SR-71. We supported the mission of bombers flying to the then Soviet Union making their Fail Safe point, and then returning home. We helped ensure they returned home. Of course.
In those years the Vietnam War was going on, and our commander was General Curtis LeMay. “Bomb ‘em back to the Stone age” Curtis LeMay smoked a cigar. To give the reader an idea of General LeMay, the story goes at least once we flew a B-52 around the world (stopping to bomb Vietnam), just to demonstrate it would be done. Of course, it had to do something other than fly the world non-stop. It had to carry real bombs and bomb a real enemy, and return home safely. You get the way Curtis LeMay thought. I mentioned this to a friend recently, and he remarked that act must have chilled the Soviet Union.
Those in the Strategic Air Command I knew, and today that Command is defunct, said of themselves in an ironic way they were, “SAC trained killers.” Part of the irony was though we were on the ground, far away, and it felt like a peaceful job, the reality was we were bombing them from the skies. And our planes flew with nuclear bombs, make no mistake about that. They flew to their Fail Safe point outside the Soviet Union. They did these, as I say, everyday, everyday many times everyday it seemed so that always there were the bombers on their way, 24 hours a day. Maybe you weren’t there.
I want to give you another taste of our willingness to defend the United States and make the streets safe for Democracy. (No kidding!) When I with others saw the satiric and shocking movie “Fail Safe” where the end of the world occurs, I think we were young, and laughing, and maybe in a strange, (eerie) way amused and even a little proud as we were frightened. We were frightened, for if one thought about it, one was living with the “bomb.”
Curtis LeMay reminded this writer of General Patton, in an American movie watcher way. I did like movies. In the Patton film there is a moment that must have been days when the skies for air cover for D Day were bad weather skies and General Patton called for a man of the cloth. (Christian) This writer thought it a real event, of course. But remember that as a young man an important reason for joining the United States Air Force was I liked the uniforms.
General Patton asks for a minister that is in good with the Lord. Though he doesn’t articulate that in a scene, when clear skies and the good weather allow for the air cover, he declares in the minister’s presence something like, “Keep that minister close by, for he is in good with the Lord.” The man of the cloth’s prayers work in the movie.
Here is the God part of this remembrance as we come to the presence of American and Allied soldiers becoming a reality as they march with Russians to the Kremlin in what was the Soviet Union for a commemorative Russian parade celebrating victory over Hitler. This writer thinks secretly, and you get a young man’s view of this kind of thing as this writer remembers, that General Curtis LeMay had some minister nearby who was in good with the Lord. We were on God’s side.
A very good friend of mine who on his discharge as a conscientious objector from active service returned home to Connecticut where he is now retired many years later, was as a devout young man doubtful about nuclear bombs; in fact Philip didn’t want to process any more checks to buy nuclear bombs and began refusing to do so in his work as a finance clerk. Philip had his doubts and more so a sense that God wouldn’t approve of flying to the Fail Safe point and back. Maybe they’d keep going in.
To make a long story short about his moment of revelation that was likened to St. Paul’s, he was discharged after being sent to do other work to finish two of his four years in Greenland. Not everyone agreed Curtis LeMay and God and his religious minister colleague were doing the right thing.
Let us hope that what I did not expect in my lifetime, Americans and Allies marching in Russia, that someday we will find ourselves with even friendly skies between the countries. For I remember that one man I knew who has now passed away fought as an American with the Canadians, flying from Great Britain across the water in a fighter plan dozens and dozens of times during the Second World War and lived. He cut a dashing figure, let this writer tell you. And he was glad to do it for a number of years, miraculously. Amazing! He was an ally of the Russians. History is a funny thing.
There is no Fail Safe point today. Thanks be to God.
This memoir originally appear in The Church of England Newspaper, London, here.