The Open Gate

The B-57 crew had repeated this nuclear alert drill dozens of times. But today was different.

A U.S. Air Force Martin B-57A in flight over Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Maryland, in 1953.

He lives now in an “adult community” on the edge of northern California’s wine country in Sonoma Valley. It’s a tree-shaded cluster of ranch-style houses on hilly lots where deer play, but not children. “Hell, if we saw a kid here we’d all die of shock,” says Jim Mugavero.

You pronounce his name as though it started with “Mc.” And if you knew him in the 41st Fighter Squadron in World War II, you’d call him “Mugs,” and you’d wonder how he and his lively Australian wife can stand living in a place so quiet. He’s no “adult.” Overweight? Well, yes. Arthritic? Perhaps a bit. But he’s still full of stories, and if you’re lucky he’ll tell you one.

Like the time he came face to face with World War III.

Mugavero made ace while serving in New Guinea and the Philippines, stayed in the recently established “blue suit” Air Force, and got to be a lieutenant colonel. In the early 1960s he had a cushy assignment at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, D.C. But he got fed up and put in for an opening someone at the Pentagon told him about: single-engine jet pilot with 2,500 hours; Yokota, Japan; family included.

He got the job—and found he’d been assigned to the Eighth Bomb Squadron of the Third Bomb Wing, which was based outside Tokyo. “It was a fine old outfit,” he says. “But I’d never flown a bomber in my life. I’d never wanted to get near one!”

This was during the chilliest period of the cold war, and the Air Force had given this squadron a real doozy of a mission. Each of its 24 twin-jet B-57s had a specific target in the Asian Soviet bloc. If someone punched the button for code one—war—each B-57 would roar off at 500 mph and a 50-foot altitude carrying a single nuclear bomb. When it reached its destination, the B-57 would climb and, before going into a loop, release the bomb, which would climb still higher until it pitched over and descended to the target. The B-57 would continue the loop until it was headed away from the target in a shallow dive, inverted. The pilot would then roll upright, snuggle back onto the deck, and get out of there. “When it blew,” Mugavero explains,  “we hoped to be out of the blast area.”

Rehearsing for this bit part in Armageddon was demanding, especially for young bomber pilots used to flying straight and level. The B-57, which had been designed in Great Britain as the Canberra and built in the States by Martin, was fine for surgical strikes, but it wasn’t known for aerobatics. Putting one through an Immelmann (that half roll on top of the loop) was like wrestling a steer to the ground. “That’s why the Air Force had asked for a fighter pilot,” says Mugavero, who would become squadron flight commander. “My job was to learn the mission and train the kids to do it without killing themselves.”

In Japan, Mugavero eased into a routine of training flights and home life. He could help his wife with the shopping, see their three kids off to school, and come home and play with them in the evenings. Work consisted of flying to the practice bomb range, howling in at high speed and low to the target, beefing the nose up, and holding enough Gs to throw a phony bomb away from the airplane. The actual release was the task of a computer, which was activated by the pilot. “We never let it go,” explains Frank Clark, who was the other half of the B-57’s flight crew.

Clark was Mugavero’s navigator, performing his role from the bomber’s rear seat. A friendly and self-effacing bear of a man, too big to be a fighter pilot, he’s taken the time to drive from Sacramento to reminisce with his former pilot. “While Mugs watched his gauges,” Clark recalls, “I’d spot the horizon and tell him when to pull over the top of the loop. He was great to fly with, except when we had to practice dive-bombing. He’d head damn near straight down, and I’d yell, ‘Pull out, pull out!’ Gunnery I could take, and skip-bombing. But I hated those dives.”

Every few weeks the squadron would leave Japan for a week or two on alert at Kunsan Air Base in Korea, south of Seoul, where they would relieve other crews. “We’d land at our base and roll into our revetments,” says Mugavero. “Then the armament crews would ‘upload’ one nuclear bomb into each B-57.”

At Kunsan the air crews stayed in a one-story wooden building that combined mess hall and dormitory. The aircraft were clustered outside; barbed wire fences enclosed building, airplanes, and men. A heavy chain link gate, which rolled on a track parallel to the fence, led to the runway and the great world outside: a flat landscape that was barren except for a mountain range at the horizon. Once the B-57s had arrived for the alert period, the gate stayed closed. Everyone knew that during this time it would open only for the real thing—a strike.

“As soon as we arrived at this Korean base, we’d get briefed on our targets,” says Mugavero. They were different every time, and the men studied them carefully. They also played cards, used their new Japanese stereo equipment to tape music (a new group called the Beatles was getting hot), held endless bull sessions, and slept in their clothes while they waited for the bell.

“It would go off two or three times during the first days,” Mugavero remembers. “I’d head straight for my plane, strap in, and get ready to start. Frank would grab our maps and orders from the operations officer and follow me. As soon as he got a hand on the cockpit ladder, I’d hit the switches.” A black powder charge fired up the -57’s twin jet engines, and the crew was supposed to “show smoke” within five minutes of the bell.

That was all there was to it. The crews would fire up their airplanes, then shut them down. The targets were far away and there was no sense wasting fuel when every second in the air would count. The crews would then return to their quarters to wait for the next bell, when maybe they could improve their time. “Five minutes sounds long,” says Mugavero, “but when you’d been waked up at 2 a.m. it really wasn’t.”

It was more like 4 a.m. when the bell went off one chilly morning in late November. Mugavero had been playing bridge the night before and was glad he’d retired early. He swung out of bed, downed some coffee, and yelled at Clark to move it so they could show smoke and get back into the sack. He trotted out to the airplane, scrambled into his seat, and clicked on his parachute straps. The auxiliary power had already been plugged in by the crew chief. Clark soon appeared, clutching papers. He climbed up the B-57’s ladder as Mugavero prepared to turn the switches.

“Don’t start!” shouted Clark.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘Don’t start’?”

“I mean don’t start up. Not yet. This one’s real. We can’t waste fuel. We’re on our way.”

Mugavero stared at him. “You’re kidding. Right?”

“I’m not kidding. We’re on our way tonight. But don’t start up until that truck moves.”

Mugavero stared into the night and saw the impossible: the gate was open. An Air Force blue pickup truck had driven up and parked inside the gate. Its engine was plugged into an electrical heater to keep it from freezing and the driver stayed inside. “When he moves it, we take off for our target,” said Clark, settling into his seat. “No one will tell us. We’ve got radio silence.”

“What’s happened?” Mugavero wondered aloud.

“I have no idea.”

The two men sat silently, trying to keep warm in their winter flightsuits. As the hours passed they watched the sun brighten the sky. It might well be the last sunrise they’d see. Mugavero thought of his wife, who was probably just now waking. Soon she would be getting the kids up, starting breakfast, and planning a trip to the commissary. Thinking about it now, he searches for words: “The world was going on as usual right then, and there I was, waiting to end it.”

Mugavero had seen his share of action. He knew that he and Clark would carry out their task. They’d make it to a certain unlucky spot on the maps that they had studied so closely. Then Mugavero would beef the yoke back at exactly the right second, hold exactly the right amount of Gs, wrestle the airplane through its half-roll, and then scream away from the great sun ball that would rise behind them. There’d still be fuel enough to make it back.

But to what?

“I remember thinking of swimming in the lake back in Michigan when I was a kid,” says Mugavero. “I thought of things I’d always meant to do and never had. Mostly I thought about my family. As we sat there in our cockpit, Frank suddenly said, ‘Jeez, I’d love a cheeseburger right now.’ Remember that, Frank? I thought about that. Sure, we could have a couple of cheeseburgers when we got back. And then I thought, No. No food. Nothing. Nothing left.”

Maybe, he thought, it would be better not to head back after throwing the bomb. Clark could give him an accurate bearing for a desolate area, far from any civilization, where they might bail out, and they’d probably survive—for a while.

But why survive?

Sitting in their cockpit in the growing light of dawn, they listened to the radio’s military channels and picked up the terse messages of Strategic Air Command bombers refueling in midair. “We knew those guys were on the edge, just like us, that one of their planes would also be hitting our target, that it would look like the Fourth of July there,” says Mugavero. “I thought, I don’t want to do this, but I will. It’s my job. And I knew thousands of others were getting ready to do it too, on their side as well as ours. And I thought: Nobody wants to do this. But we all will. Goodbye world.”

And so it went, hour after hour, cramped in tandem seats, sitting on top of a would-be atomic holocaust, eyes ever on the pickup truck that would indicate launch verification when it moved out of the open gateway. “We had special things to consider,” says Mugavero. “The plane, the fuel, the bomb, the course, the tactics—but I knew that really I wasn’t a special person. I was as human as the next guy. I sat in that cockpit and had the same thoughts that anyone would have who knew that life—damn near all life—was about to end.”

After six endless hours, an officer approached the B-57. He told Mugavero and Clark to shut down the electrical switches and come in.

The pickup truck started up and drove quietly away, trailing a little plume of blue exhaust. Mugavero and Clark watched the gate close.

The two men unbuckled their straps, pulled off their helmets, and clambered out of the Canberra. Standing beside it on the concrete taxiway, they rubbed the blood back into their numbed buttocks, stretching and flexing muscles, breathing deeply the cold Korean morning air. From all over the compound, pilots and navigators appeared, stiff, wan, weary, hungry, cold, scared.

All of them headed for the building, where they began unzipping their flying clothes. Once inside, a great chorus seemed to rise and echo: “What happened?”

A ground officer gave the answer quickly: President Kennedy had been assassinated.

In the great uncertainty that followed the deadly shots in Dallas, thousands of servicemen around the world had gone on alert. The end of civilization had been contemplated by many others besides Mugavero and Clark.

When Mugavero returned to Japan a few days later, his family was there to meet him. Driving home, his wife said, “I don’t know if you heard the news about the president. He was shot and killed.”

“Yes,” said Mugavero. “We heard about it.”

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