Skip to comments.Cold War heroics of 'Speedlight Delta' crew recognized
Posted on 08/25/2020 7:43:21 PM PDT by texas booster
The movie "Thirteen Days" is the latest dramatization of President Kennedy's showdown with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gottlieb "John" Wilmsmeyer, 71, hasn't seen the film. But the Missouri farmer figures he can match that Cold War tale with a nail-biter of his own.
It occurred about the same time. It might even have influenced the missile crisis. But for nearly 40 years, Wilmsmeyer had to keep quiet about "Operation Speedlight Delta."
He was crew commander on a KC-135 tanker at Forbes Air Force Base, Topeka, Kan., in the summer of '62 when invited to volunteer for a mission described as risky. The 32-year-old captain, already a proven test pilot and flight instructor, said, "Bring it on."
In August, Wilmsmeyer and crew - co-pilot, navigator and enlisted observer - flew to Brize-Norton Air Base in England. Their deputy wing commander at Forbes came along, uninvited, just to learn more about the mission.
The colonel in charge took the new arrivals outside and pointed to the aircraft, about a mile away, that appeared only in silhouette through the fog. And Wilmsmeyer recalled this terse exchange.
"Well," the colonel said, "they're going to be flying that airplane over there."
"But I want to know what they'll be doing," the wing deputy said.
"I just told you."
Wilmsmeyer got a fuller explanation.
The Soviets were conducting atmospheric nuclear bomb tests on the Russian peninsula of Novaya Zemlaya, above the Arctic Circle.
To monitor them, the Air Force had reconfigured a KC-135, with bigger engines to increase speed and altitude, and a longer fuselage to carry more reconnaissance gear, measurement devices and a special technical team.
The one-of-a-kind JKC-135 would have to fly 2500 miles, unarmed and unescorted, to loiter within 20 miles of the test site, monitor the blast and return with critical data about the Soviet nuclear program.
The crew was briefed on the obvious dangers - blast, heat, light - but nothing much was said about exposure to radiation.
On Aug. 23, the aircraft took off at 4 a.m., flying north over the Norwegian and Barents Seas, east past Sweden and Finland, and deep into Soviet air space.
After climbing above 45,000 feet, the crew pulled flash-blind curtains and circled on instruments alone, above the test area. Detonation came, as expected, at 9 a.m.
The crew watched the mushroom cloud spread, over closed circuit television, as Wilmsmeyer quickly banked to spread the shock wave "over as much of the aircraft as possible."
No Soviet air base was near enough for fighters to approach without warning, Wilmsmeyer said. But any other information on how this aircraft avoided being shot down is still classified.
The crew monitored 20 atmospheric blasts over nine weeks.
Some were thousands of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. One blast cracked three of the JKC-135s four engine mounts, forcing repairs. Heat from another scorched paint on the plane's underside. After every mission, teams with Geiger counters surrounded the aircraft on the tarmac to measure for radiation.
More declassified details about the USAF efforts to find out what the Soviets were up to.
Less attention was paid to the crew. They used bare hands to remove filters from air scoops used to collect ionized particles, Wilmsmeyer said. One day, a technician checked the dosimeter Wilmsmeyer wore with his dog tags to monitor radiation levels.
“When they tested mine, it promptly went off the scale,” he said. “Then they checked my co-pilot’s and his went off scale. The technician said, ‘There's got to be something wrong with this damn thing’ and threw it in the trash can. After that, they took away our dosimeters, so we really don't have any idea what kind of exposure we had.”
Only the navigator began to feel ill, at one point vomiting blood.
“I tried to get him to see a doctor but mission hours were such, whenever we took off, nobody was alive on base, so to speak. And we got back after closing times,” Wilmsmeyer said. After Speedlight Delta, the navigator wouldn't fly again. Back at Forbes, he was medically discharged.
Like the rest of the world, in late September 1962, the crew knew nothing about missiles in Cuba. But flying to the detonation one day, they spotted a Russian freighter that had just left port. It had two large cylinders, both about 85 feet long, strapped to its deck.
They took photos. Back at base, two intelligence officers, one from Strategic Air Command, the other working for the Joint Chiefs, “really got excited,” Wilmsmeyer said. “They said, ‘This is what we've been looking for,’ “ evidence of missiles bound for Cuba.
Wilmsmeyer's aircraft spotted the freighter again, two days later, still steaming toward the Atlantic. The cylinders were still on deck but covered.
The Speedlight Delta mission ended Oct. 29. Before returning to Kansas, the crew was told not to talk about it. No mention of the temporary assignment would appear in their service records.
In 1971, after three combat tours in Vietnam, he retired. He suffers today from a neurological disease that his doctor ties to radiation exposure.
Feet and hands tingle constantly, as if asleep. In 1997, Wilmsmeyer and his co-pilot decided the Speedlight Delta crew should get a medal. It took them two more years and intervention from Congress, to get enough information declassified to make their case.
Last August, in a small ceremony at their Methodist church in Hermann, Mo., a retired brigadier general, on behalf of the Air Force, presented Wilmsmeyer with the Distinguished Flying Cross. The 1962 flights, made “in the face of great personal danger,” said the citation, provided the nation with “intelligence of incalculable value.”
Your hyperlink does not work to bring up the actual article
I thought he was a 12 year old pilot according to my math - until I read the actual date of the original article.
These men served with honor in a classified role and were unable to speak of it until the end of their lives.
Interestingly article states the mission ended Oct 29. Tsar Bomba dropped on oct 30th and Id thought we were claimed to have a recon bird in that neighborhood.
Cobra Ball and Rivet Amber were pretty heroic too, although everything they did was top secret.
These missions started in 1962, while Tsar Bomba dropped in 1961.
I would not have wanted to be only 20 miles away when Tsar Bomba went off.
Gottlieb = God love
I lived at Forbes AFB at that year . Dad was in SAC .This is the first I have
heard of this . His generation kept our secrets s3crrt....
Wow, brave men.
I remember one day , dad took me , his 9yr old son out to the flight line at Forbes . That was a BIG thrill . Lined up, as far as I could see , were lined up beautiful ,silver B-47 bombers. He told me “ Son , if Mr. Castri doesn’t back down these planes are ready to go. They will take care if him”
He meant it. We were loaded for bear, Ruskie bear , and those B-47s would have removed Cuba from the face of the earth....
Yeah, read that too about being in the area. Not a fluke either, if true. Mention was made of “Bhang meters” to measure inter-stage ignition times. Close enough for corched paint, etc.
Not a chance fly by.
That airplane just looks like a hotrod.One of the best if not the best looking jet bombers imo.
I can still vaguely remember them taking off , one after another after another . Very impressive to a little boy
doesn't make sense. If he was 32 in 1962, he was born in 1930. He'd be 90 now.
The source article was written in 2001.
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