Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

WWII War Stories

By Paul Belmont

I was privileged to serve as Aide-de-Camp to MajGen/LtGen John "Jack" W. O'Neill from July 1966 to July 1968. How I became the Aide is a separate story. Major General O'Neill was Commander of the Air Force Systems Command's Electronic Systems Division (ESD) at L.G. Hanscom Field, Bedford MA in 1966. I had arrived at Hanscom as a new "shave-tail" Procurement Officer in August 1964. ESD had world-wide responsibility for the development and deployment of command and control systems -- such as Autosevocom (a secure telecom system), Over-the-Horizon (OTH) missile detection radar systems, eventually AWACS, and many, many other systems. It was a good command with a challenging mission. In 1967, General O'Neill was promoted to LtGeneral with the command of the newly formed Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) at Los Angeles Air Force Station (not 'AFB' at that time), El Segundo, CA. SAMSO combined the former Space Systems Division (LAAFS) and Missile Systems Division (MSD) at San Bernadino CA. and had responsibility for all of the AF missile and space programs (a bunch).

Without going into the role of an aide -- the job is very different than it looks to outsiders (myself included, which is why I initially turned the opportunity down). However this story is about one type of experience I was provided in this assignment.

In both organizations -- ESD & SAMSO -- there was a Command aircraft assigned. ESD had a C-54; SAMSO had a C-118 -- variations on a theme. This was in the "good old days" when the aircraft were assigned to the Command and at the call of the Commander, and were outfitted for Executive travel. The ESD bird made two trips a year to Europe and the mid-East and two trips a year to the Far East. The SAMSO bird was mostly used for travel between LAX and Andrews -- lots of high level interaction with SecAF/SecDef on the ballistic missile and MOL programs. On both aircraft there was a galley and dedicated enlisted stewards to support the command section on the flights. General O'Neill was very unimposing -- stern when needed, but not ego-driven at all. He was a superb "Commander" and he commanded respect of all who worked for and with him. General O'Neill had a "routine" that we all knew. He would fly the aircraft off to cruising altitude, then come to his compartment for work or briefings by staff on the flights. When departing LAX usually at 1800 we would have dinner served about 1900 to 1930. It was always a fantastic NY strip steak, green beans, baked potato, and ChateauNeuf-de-Pape wine (before this wine became wildly popular). His compartment accommodated 9 executive seats in addition to his seat w/table. Next to the command compartment heading back to the tail was a bunk compartment with 6 bunks (the General had a separate sleeping arrangement), and then the open seating for about 20 or so additional PAX. As the Aide I had some control over the manifest and knew which O-6's were to sit up in the command area. (I also controlled the bunks -- and "my" order of assigning them was (a) first to all O-6's; (b) the Aide -- that be me!!; and then (c) O-5's if there were any bunks remaining.

Now the time frame is 1966 and 1967 and all of the O-6s in both Commands at that time were WWII vets and/or veterans of the Missile Crisis with General Bernard Schriever. So, after our great dinner, the cigars came out and were passed around and the War Stories started. Nearly always over the two years there was a seat in the command compartment for me. Talk about "Living AF History" -- I was treated to many incredible stories. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Mission over Japan: Major Jack O'Neill was a B-29 pilot and Squadron Commander in the Pacific during WWII. He had numerous combat missions over Japan. He was decorated for one particular mission. He also became the personal pilot for Major General "Rosie" O'Donnell, Commander of an Air Force in the Pacific Theater. As O'Neill told us the story, he was aircraft commander with General O'Donnell as pilot for a mission over Japan. It was a typical long, long, tiring mission. All went to plan. After the long return to base -- Tinian I think -- O'Neill was at the controls for the landing. As he described it, it was one of those "terrible landings" that you pilots all have had once in your career -- smashed the aircraft into the runway and bounce a time or two before settling down. Knowing that "everyone" on base was watching to see General O'Donnell's safe return, O'Neill punched the mike on tower freq and announced "Great Landing General O'Donnell". O'Neill told us that even into the 1960's General (Ret) O'Donnell still gave him a hard time about that stunt saying that folks still came up to him to talk about how scary that landing "of his" was. Gutsy call for O'Neill.
SecAF Contract Approval: One of my most favorite stories deals with the incredible intensity that our Air Force and the military leadership felt about the Missile Gap with the Soviets. Many of you are familiar with the missile crisis/missile gap, the Atlas Program, the Minuteman Program, and other measures with the highest national priority. It was the number one set of programs for the country and the defense industry in the late 50's and early 60's. O'Neill was a Colonel on Schriever's staff at the Old School House in El Segundo CA. One night onboard the aircraft to Andrews he relayed a story about a trip that Schriever and the key AF Systems Command missile program staff made to the Pentagon to brief the Secretary of the Air Force on the status of construction of missile silos for the Atlas program. Everything was concurrent -- development, testing, construction -- the pace was frenetic. O'Neill describes the situation in the SecAF Briefing Room -- Secretary at the head of the table, Schriever next to him; a few critical Air Staff and civilian leaders in attendance, and the briefer and a couple of Schriever's O-6s. It was a "Decision Briefing" related to required SecAF approval for a letter contract to initiate construction of facilities -- valued at a "lot" of money. When the briefing presentation was over SecAF spoke to summarize (essentially) as follows: "Now, General Schriever, to recap you want my SecAF approval to have the Air Force enter into a letter contract with "Company AA" to begin construction of facilities for the "XXXX" program, is that right?" Schriever replied, "Actually Sir, you already gave your approval." To which the SecAf said, "I did, when??". Schriever said, "Do you recall when Colonel "QQ" (the briefer) showed you a (particular) chart ?" SecAF: "Yes!". Schriever: "Well Sir, hopefully you recall that you nodded your head in the affirmative at the message of that chart. When you nodded your head I indicated to Colonel "BB" who was standing at the door of the briefing room. Colonel "BB" passed the word to Colonel "JJ" who is a contracting officer and who was on the phone in your office with the contracting officer at Company AA. The contract has been signed and in effect for the past 20 minutes now, and the bull dozers are moving earth." The SecAF is reported to have uttered an expletive and told Schriever and his "Gang of Bandits" to get on their way.
I was truly fortunate to have had the direct and personal exposure to that generation of outstanding airmen, warriors, managers, and leaders at a young age. I was privileged to know them in relaxed moments and hear incredible stories about the challenges they dealt with, and the sense of humor that sustained them. It was intensely motivating and rewarding. Had I been smarter (like "OPPO Puryerer" (sp??)), I would have recorded the stories for posterity. Oh, Well!!
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