Jim Biles was interviewed on September 8, 2014 by Karen Brewster and Leslie McCartney at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Jim had attended the conference "A Cold War, 2014 Alaska Conference and Nike Veterans Reunion" held in Anchorage, Alaska on September 4 and 5, 2014. In this first part of a three part interview, Jim discusses his personal background and education, how he entered the U.S. Army, coming to Alaska to work at a Nike Missile Site, and missile launching procedures. He also talks about the 1967 Fairbanks flood and an encounter with a Russian Bear bomber airplane on the radar screen.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 8, 2014
Narrator(s): Jim Biles
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Leslie McCartney
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Sue Beck
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Personal background, education and entering the military
Assessment of the army and reorganization
Ending up in the air defense system
Learning missile systems
Warrant officer duties
Coming to Alaska
Dangerous work and personal relationships
Stationed at Bravo Battery (B Battery) near Eielson Air Force Base
Learning from NCOs
1967 Fairbanks flood
Officer organization at B Battery
Reliability of electronics and computers in the radar system
Firing of missiles
Social norms and the military in the 1960s
Russian Bear bomber on radar and being prepared to shoot it down
End of Russian bomber incident and rarity of such occurrences
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KAREN BREWSTER: Okay, today is September 8, 2014, and this is Karen Brewster. I’m here in Fairbanks with Jim Biles for the Cold War project, and Leslie McCartney is also here with us.
Thank you, Jim, for finding time during your trip to come talk to us.
JIM BILES: Thanks for asking.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you were one of the vets from the Nike sites here in Fairbanks. But before we get to that, can you tell us a little bit about your personal background -- when and where you were born, your growing up and education.
JIM BILES: I was born in Florida in 1944. My education -- really just to start where we come here -- I graduated from high school in Lompoc, California in ‘62.
My father was in the Air Force, and he had prepared my brother and I both to go to college.
And, of course, the Vietnam War was goin’ on, which is really why I turned out in the military. Because I may not have ever done that, other than the draft was goin’ on and my father said, “You’re going to go to college and you’re going to enroll in ROTC.”
And who was I to tell him no in those days? Especially when you had an iron-fisted Air Force colonel as a father, you did what he told you to do. Sorta.
While you were in his presence anyway. So I went to Cal Poly. I have a bachelor of science degree in business administration.
Rooted for Cal Poly. It’s in the top ten business institutions in the United States. Has been for many years.
I’m one of the guys that put it there, but in a different manner.
I was commissioned in March of ‘67 and went from San Luis Obispo, California to Fort Bliss, Texas for my officer basic. I’d already gone through a basic training that ROTC put you through. That was at Fort Lewis in ’65.
And at Fort Bliss the training was really, I thought, pretty excellent.
I still remember quite a bit of it today. There’s a lot of it -- just because after forty-five years, your memory goes -- but I thought it was really good training.
They all -- they -- at Fort Bliss we actually had to go through what they call -- I don’t remember what they called ‘em. It was -- they had called them a confidence course up until about the time I got there -- and really probably political correctness started long before that, but they were starting to become more sensitive and become politically correct, so they renamed the course.
All I remember it as is confidence course.
We had to crawl through trenches under machine gun fire with a loaded weapon. That kind of thing. Did it daytime and at night.
And I was privileged to go through with a whole bunch of basic trainees. And I got to see some very interesting human behavior traits while we did that.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what was it called before it was the confidence course?
JIM BILES: Don’t remember. Well, it was the confidence course before they renamed it to something politically correct. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, I see.
JIM BILES: And I’m sure -- I’m going to tell you several things. One of them -- as I said, this is gonna be my version of what happened. It’s not a version that a lot of people will like, but it’s my version.
The -- the Army in those days was pretty crude. Now, you can’t -- I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like during -- well, the Civil War, World War I, World War II had to be pretty brutal.
Because my Army was pretty crude. And so they were not -- they only started becoming politically correct in about, I would say ’60 -- probably ‘66–’67, somewhere around in that era.
And, of course, during that period of time we were changing from what was called the reorganization -- well, we were goin’ through the reorganization of the Army division.
Previously, it had been the Pentomic division. They were reorganizing the whole structure of combat forces in the Army because of the atomic -- and that’s what it was called in those days. They call it nuclear now because it -- it seems to be -- I guess Americans are okay with nuclear.
They weren’t okay with atomic. Scary. So again political correctness started creeping in, and -- and they were selling their product to the public and, of course, they had to recruit guys.
It wasn’t very hard because they had the draft, but -- and I’ll say that in my opinion the draft army was excellent. I mean, I had -- I had less problems, fewer problems with draftees than I did with guys that enlisted in those days.
So, all I’m gonna say is the American citizen when he's called, gets up and does his duty. And I’ll tell you later on some of the things that these guys had to put up with.
The Fairbanks defense was isolated, primarily because we either lived on base or -- I don’t even know how close -- the closest one was in Moose Creek.
That was really I think the closest to civilization. That was A Battery.
Then you had the rest of ‘em -- well, D Battery, Delta Battery, was down by, I think, Johnson Road off the Alcan.
So there -- those guys actually might have had some interaction with the civilian people.
For our guys, we were fifty miles away from Fairbanks up on the top of a mountain at 2500 feet. They lived there, and that’s what they did.
They would come down to -- they would come down to Anchorage to blow off steam. To get here they had to ride in the back of a two and a half ton army vehicle --
LESLIE McCARTNEY: You mean go down to Anchorage or to Fairbanks?
JIM BILES: I’m sorry, Fairbanks. I’m probably going to get things -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: That’s okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: You were just in Anchorage, so that -- I did it. When we were in Anchorage, I did the same thing. I said, “Here in Fairbanks -- Oh no, wait.”
But -- so, before we get more into the Fairbanks story, I want to hear more about your training. And so you signed up for ROTC because if you did ROTC you’d go in as an officer?
JIM BILES: That’s correct. KAREN BREWSTER: Otherwise you’d be drafted as an enlisted?
JIM BILES: That was -- that was -- KAREN BREWSTER: That was the thinking?
JIM BILES: That was my father’s thinking. He -- he said if I’m going to invest money in your education, you’re gonna to do it -- do something that will be -- that will use the skills that the college is preparing you for.
So, you know, if you went out and dug ditches then you’d be okay as infantry. But it wasn’t -- you know, there was a lot of people that accused everybody that didn’t go to Vietnam as draft dodgers.
And that wasn’t -- that was not my dad’s thinking. He was in the second world war so -- you know -- peace time, war time -- wasn’t really a whole lot of difference to him.
So he said -- well, as I said, you’re going to use the skills that I’m going to give you, and I’m not gonna waste my money by having you drafted in the middle of it and sent to Vietnam as infantry. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So how was it that you ended up with the air defense? Because that was -- when you went to Fort Bliss, it was specifically for air defense training?
JIM BILES: Air defense, correct.
KAREN BREWSTER: How did you end up in that?
JIM BILES: That was -- that was my first real disappointment in the Army system. In the preparation, I told you that I was kind of naïve and had high expectations.
Well, I had applied for -- or I’d requested to be branched in the armor branch, which is a combat arm, and they did use armor in Vietnam.
And so I fully expected that if they branched me as armor, they’d send me to Vietnam.
Well, of course, you never get your first choice. And I was advised to make it my first choice, which was another one of my disappointments.
The guy that advised me knew full well that that wasn’t the thing to do, and so -- anyway -- you know.
So I went to Fort Bliss. And the education at Fort Bliss was excellent.
And at the time I was in the high altitude missile program, which was Nike Hercules at the time.
There were other missiles. There were other forms of air defense, but they were really going -- and the Army knew it -- all these programs were sorta pretty much going by the wayside.
There was Hawk, which was a short -- short range missile, and there were other things like the Quad .50, fifty caliber machine guns mounted in four.
There were some radars that were involved in that, but the guns weren’t controlled by them. They had already gotten rid of the large anti-aircraft guns.
And there was -- there was a Twin 40 mounted on a tank chassis -- CM 42 Duster, which they used in Vietnam as armor (correction per Jim Biles: this should be M-42). They used it as a convoy escort.
And, you know, I could have done that. But anyway -- so I figured, okay, my career’s going to be high-altitude missiles.
And I thought -- you know, up until the time you became a general officer, you pretty much specialized in something. Well, that’s not the Army’s thinking.
So, that’s how I got to Fort Bliss. As I said, the training that we got at Fort Bliss really was excellent.
And that’s the first time, I think, in my life that I really ever studied anything very hard. But I find that a lot of the guys that were there with me that didn’t go on later in the military studied harder than I did even. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: What kind of things were they teaching you? Were they --
JIM BILES: Well, they taught us all about the missile system, the capabilities. They taught us -- we actually had hands-on training with the missiles.
Hands-on training with the -- the -- actually there we didn’t have any of the -- I don’t think we had any live warheads involved. But we had the whole missile system and it was set up as it would be if it were in the field.
Because the whole system was designed to be mobile in the field just like they would use today. Pretty -- pretty strange thought, but they did that.
And we did -- we -- we got to see both fixed-site at Fort Bliss and we actually, I think -- as I recall, they fired an Ajax while we were there. The Ajax was the older missile and it was going out of the system, so -- And that was in ’67.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you got to walk through and actually do a whole launch procedure and firing?
JIM BILES: Yeah, everything. They -- well, we didn’t all get to fire, but we were part --
KAREN BREWSTER: But you were present -- JIM BILES: -- part of the crew. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
JIM BILES: So they -- they had us doing crewman duties. If you got to -- if you got selected -- I don’t remember what the incentive was, but if your performance and your grades were high enough, you got to shoot the missile.
And the -- the main thing was, though, we got right down to the button-pushing, electronic-checking duties of the crewman that -- that we were going to be with.
And you know, frankly it was extremely good training. And so when we got to the site, we weren’t asking -- and back in the day we called them Snuffy or other things, because there is a caste system, you know.
I can’t -- can’t tell you what they called the officers. There’s a bunch of names for that, but -- what these guys were doing.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what’s Snuffy? Is that the enlisted guy?
JIM BILES: Snuffy? Those are the enlisted guys, yeah. So-- And they called us -- as I say -- probably many other names but -- and that’s a kind of an interesting thing.
I was -- I was a little older than most of them because I’d been through the college system. But there’s -- there’s a huge chasm between enlisted men and officers.
And so -- and there’s a huge chasm between the -- what I call the regular enlisted man and the non-commissioned officers.
And then we had warrant officers that played a -- usually in the Army you didn’t find a lot of warrant officers, but to me the warrant officers in the Nike Hercules program were the most important. They were the kingpins.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what exactly is a warrant officer?
JIM BILES: Warrant officer? I was a commissioned officer, and a warrant officer operates with a warrant.
So his -- his duties are different. He’s a technical specialist. And he’s not supposed to have or be required to have leadership duties.
His whole deal is to be -- he’s supposed to keep the system running technically. And just because of the virtue of the fact that he’s an officer, the enlisted people would listen to him.
But he was not a commissioned officer who cracked the whip. He was the guy that made the system correct.
And so they’d listen to him anyway, because he had tremendous background.
Those guys had all the experience -- and I’m gonna tell you one of the big things that you learn pretty fast as a second lieutenant is Murphy’s Law.
I have three books, by the way, of Murphy’s Law and all the corollaries and all that stuff.
And I can tell you Murphy’s Law is every day -- every day. You know you put your keys where they’re supposed to be and they ain’t there. And that’s part of Murphy’s Law.
But the guy that wrote it was an Air Force captain supposedly, and the way he wrote it was "Anything that will go wrong, that can go wrong, will go wrong at the most --"
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Inopportune time?
JIM BILES: Something like that, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: At the wrong time.
JIM BILES: At the wrong time. At the wrong time.
And I’ve got a bunch of stuff that I wrote down to remind me of what -- I could tell you a lot of stuff that went wrong. Because one of the questions you asked -- well, anyway, we’ll get to that.
KAREN BREWSTER: So just to set us in context, you were in training and then you came here in 1967?
JIM BILES: That’s correct.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: How long was the training in total length of time in training then?
JIM BILES: I don’t -- I don’t remember. It was -- well, I went over there in March. And I came up here in June.
So that means it was March, April, May, and part of June.
And then we drove up the Alcan in a ‘67 Volkswagen beetle. It’s a lot like coming up here as a rat in a tin can.
KAREN BREWSTER: Especially on the road at that time when it was still all --
JIM BILES: Oh yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: -- rough dirt road. So what was that trip like?
JIM BILES: Actually, I was married. My wife and I enjoyed it. We were still parent-- or childless, so we had a good time coming up.
It was really interesting. And it wasn’t really -- it really -- I don’t remember it as a bad trip, and I don’t believe she remembers it as bad trip either.
But she’s not here to tell that story so don’t believe that.
It was a -- it was a good trip, and a lot of unintended consequences. I lost my only pair of glasses. I have to -- I have corrective lenses, so -- I lost them on the way up, so she sorta had to do the white-knuckle part on the other side of the Volkswagen.
KAREN BREWSTER: Now did you choose to come to Alaska or the Army just assigned you?
JIM BILES: Well, it was a deal where the Army assigned us, but they did give us an opportunity to -- to write down our preferences.
And so I put Alaska because I’d been here before. I was here as a child. My dad was in the Air Force, so he was stationed at Elmendorf.
And that was in -- during the Korean War. And so I was here from ‘50 to ’53. We went back home in ‘53.
And I remember -- I’m amazed how much I remember. And I was looking for some of these places, and you can’t find them because they’re underneath buildings.
So -- Uh-oh! (interrupted by cell phone ringing) Sorry about that.
Anyway, where were we?
KAREN BREWSTER: So you selected Alaska?
JIM BILES: Yeah. Well, I put Alaska down. Actually, it was my first choice, because I remembered Alaska well from being -- being a kid and I thought, you know, How bad can it be? Ahhh!
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So did you think you would go to Anchorage or did you know you’d be in the Fairbanks area?
JIM BILES: Didn’t matter. They said -- they didn’t give us those kind of opportunities. It was just -- You want to go to Alaska; you want to go to Korea? And do you want to go -- you know -- where you want to go?
And I thought, well, I don’t speak Korean so -- I think I probably speak Alaskan so --
And really, there were, you know, hell, you’re talking about a twenty-three-year-old kid. I mean I was only twenty-three and a lot of the guys were a lot younger than that.
And I’ll tell you more about that.
But I was -- I was actually studying, you know, what -- what was going on around me. In other words, I knew what Nike Hercules meant. I knew what it meant to the Army -- or I thought I did -- and I knew, you know, what I --
You know, as an officer you have to pretty much get an idea of where you’re going and what you’re gonna do, and what’s gonna be next, and then what’s gonna be after that.
You have to know the training that you get and when you’re gonna get it. I really hadn’t planned on making the military a career, but it didn’t matter.
If I had decided then to do that, then I would need to know -- well, we all need to know what the next step is, right?
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you kind of needed to know what you were getting into coming here is an officer?
JIM BILES: I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but I just didn’t know how dangerous.
When you’re that -- when you’re that age, you have different -- you have different viewpoints. I mean, I knew it was dangerous. I knew there was a lot of really dangerous things about it, but what I didn’t know was the personal-interaction dangers.
I’d had a pretty good -- a pretty good life. I got along in high school, got along in college.
You have your share of people that you don’t care for but, you know, I didn’t think mine was real big.
And then I got in the Army and found out it doesn’t have to be big. So anyway, at twenty-three years old, even then I knew that I needed to study where I was going. And that -- we asked for Alaska and got it.
And actually a number of the guys out of my officer basic course, which is where I went the first time I went to Bliss, came up here and came with me to the Fairbanks defense.
I had four or five guys out of the class that came up. And we all went -- I don’t know if they were -- there was a couple of guys that went to Anchorage but -- and I’ll tell you more about that.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So, why don’t you tell us -- so where in Fairbanks were you? Which battery?
JIM BILES: I was at Bravo Battery. It is one of the two remote batteries to the east. I was almost directly east of Eielson Air Force Base.
We were on a mountain. I don’t remember the name of the mountain. Actually, they named the Hercules units by -- they named them Site and then something. And ours was Site Peter.
Actually, I think what happened was there was a lot of change going on in the Army, as I said.
Peter was the phonetic alphabet representation of the letter P. Now that was the old phonetic alphabet. They had just changed it, or they were changing it when I was in ROTC. And it went from Peter to Papa.
And so the old -- our site would’ve been named Papa, but it was named in the ‘50s so -- I think around ‘57 is when they built these sites, so it was named Site Peter. And that was in the old phonetic alphabet.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it’s a little confusing because it seems like they both -- they have both a site name and a battery letter.
JIM BILES: Yeah. Okay. The battery came from the organization. We were in the Second Battalion, 562nd Artillery (Air Defense). And the air defense was in parentheses.
That was another thing that they had just done is they -- they broke the artillery branch into two pieces. One was the tube artillery or field artillery and then ours was air defense artillery.
So, that’s how that got there. So we were Bravo Battery, which was the actual firing unit, and then the Battalion was an organization of five firing batteries, headquarters.
I think the ordnance company was -- was in another headquarters, but we had a couple of ordnance support companies.
We had a headquarters company. I think that was Headquarters -- Headquarters and Headquarters Company.
And then the other support units were part of a -- probably a corps or group level thing. That's going to be Alaska.
KAREN BREWSTER: So was each battery -- each site had a battery of its own? So Site Peter --
JIM BILES: Each site was a battery.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So that’s why the names become somewhat interchangeable when people talk about it.
JIM BILES: Yeah, yeah. Well, we called it -- we called it B Battery. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
JIM BILES: Or Bravo Battery.
KAREN BREWSTER: You didn’t call it Site Peter?
JIM BILES: No. No, as a matter of fact most of the guys didn’t even know that was the name.
KAREN BREWSTER: But like in Anchorage everybody talks about Site Summit. They actually use that name more than battery. Is it A Battery?
JIM BILES: Yeah. They were A Battery. Well, no, Summit was B Battery.
KAREN BREWSTER: B Battery, yeah. Site Point.
JIM BILES: Yeah, Point was A Battery.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. But so, it’s somewhat confusing. But okay.
JIM BILES: Well, and I’ll tell you why that happened. There was group headquarters, an artillery group headquarters in Anchorage.
And that artillery group was organized with our two missile battalions in it. They had something somewhere else -- I think it was down in the Pacific? Or there were several battalion-level organizations.
A battalion’s about four to five hundred people. So they had three or four of these battalions they were responsible for.
That’s the way the Army hierarchy works. There's a -- the basic unit is either a company, you've heard of companies before, well, in Artillery, it’s a battery.
Ordnance -- it would be a company. Those are between a hundred and two hundred people. In the infantry, there are about a hundred seventy-five to two hundred people. I can’t remember exactly.
But that’s the old infantry. Now it’s all different. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, so tell us about Bravo Battery and what happened when you got here.
JIM BILES: Well, that’s another funny thing. I was -- I was assigned to the 562, the second battalion, and I went to Anchorage, I mean, Fairbanks and got my -- got my assignment to B Battery.
And the Battalion headquarters was at Fort Wainwright. And of course we were down the road through the air force base and then thirteen miles up on top of a 2500-foot mountain.
So, I went out there. I could tell -- I have stories about the old NCOs out there and all that.
I first started -- because of the distance -- you know, it was around fifty miles to get out there, so we would all get together and we’d leave the house at Fort Wainwright, which was where I was living at the time. I was temporarily in the housing out there.
And we’d go down the Alcan to the air force base and then go through the air force base and up the hill. I would ride with some of the NCOs and that -- that was very interesting.
KAREN BREWSTER: In what way?
JIM BILES: Well, basically, you know, I’m a sponge. Because at twenty-three as a second lieutenant, I’m trying to figure out who the hell I am and who these people are that I’m working with.
And I was working with some old-time NCOs. Some of these guys were not politically correct at all.
And so it was -- irreverent might be a better term, but it was -- it was very interesting.
But one thing that it did for me is I was assigned as a launcher platoon leader. And it allowed me to know what the NCO’s plan for the day was.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Because I’m sure the fifty miles was on not great roads, so it would have taken you quite a while to get --
JIM BILES: It wasn't -- they weren’t bad. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh. Okay.
JIM BILES: We were on the Alcan, I would say sixty-six percent of the way, so -- Then, you know, we’d go through the air force base.
The road up to the battery could be pretty treacherous, nothing like the one -- did you go on the tour? Nothing like the one to B Battery at Site -- what was it? Summit? Yeah.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: I guess my point is that you had a good chunk of time with these people on your way up there.
JIM BILES: Yeah. Yeah. But in the morning we mostly -- we slept, but they started waking up about air force base and so then we would -- then they would start telling what they were going to do for the day and all that.
They kind of let me know what -- basically where things were heading for the day and I -- that was valuable. There were other things that -- I realize that, you know, maybe it would be better that I didn’t ride.
One of the NCOs -- as a matter of fact his name was Sergeant Barnett and he was an E-6. He’d been in the Army marksmanship program. He’d lost the sight in one eye. He was driving. He had a Rambler.
And one of the things that got said one morning -- this was early in the game. He said -- I said, “Well, where’d you get that?”
And he said, “Lieutenant, you don’t want to know that.” And I said, “Why not?” He said -- he turns around -- fully around and looks me right in the eye in the backseat and he says, “Because then you’d become an accessory.”
And I said, ”Well said, Sergeant Barnett.”
And it was right after that that I stopped riding with the NCOs, but I also had been transferred up to Eielson. We had housing at Eielson Air Force Base, so I didn’t have to ride that far. It was only up to the battery then, so.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you were living either at Wainwright or Eielson because you were an officer and you had a wife, so you lived off site?
JIM BILES: Yes. Correct. Yeah. Good point.
One thing that happened -- I’m sitting right now at -- what’s it called? Pike’s Waterfront Lodge. I’m sitting right on the Chena River.
Well, my house -- well, actually it was a quadraplex or something like that. There was about eight apartments in the house at Fort Wainwright. Was -- I mean, I looked almost over the banks of the Chena River.
Well, you might remember in 1967 it flooded. And we were -- literally, I had just gotten out of the hospital. I’d gotten in an accident on the Alcan with my Volkswagen and I was pretty tore up. So I spent three days at Bassett (Army Hospital) and then I went home. And then it flooded.
And then they finally evacuated us in a armored personnel carrier nearly a week after the flood occurred. And we were still flooded.
And that was pretty interesting -- that whole thing.
So we moved up with one of the warrant officers to Fairbanks -- or to Eielson, and we stayed with them for a while. Of course, that sort of bonded us with the warrant officer and his family.
He had small children, six or seven or eight -- something like that.
He had a little girl that was maybe younger than six, and so -- and you know, you learn -- you learn family -- well, that -- that kind of affects your life, too, so --
Anyway, that’s what happened at -- during the flood. Right after that, fortunately we -- we moved what was left of our household belongings up to Eielson.
I don’t know what they did with those quarters. They probably had to -- they probably had to hose out the basement and everything else. It didn’t get in the house.
KAREN BREWSTER: That was my question. Were you living in a flooded apartment?
JIM BILES: The river came that far from the top of the door sill. It didn’t -- it didn’t come over the --
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Threshold area?
JIM BILES: Yeah, threshold. That’s the word I was lookin’ for. I’m gonna do that a lot. That happens.
KAREN BREWSTER: But so you guys couldn’t go anywhere. You were isolated in the house? JIM BILES: Mm-hm.
KAREN BREWSTER: For a week?
JIM BILES: Well, yeah. Unless you wanted to walk around in the river. And I was pretty beat up so I wasn’t -- you know, mostly facial and upper body injuries. So, I just didn’t feel like getting in the water, because I did put my foot in it.
I was gonna go out there and walk around, and I can’t remember if I had rubber boots. That’s -- those details are gone, but I put my foot in that water one time and I said, no, we’re gonna -- we’re gonna --
I think what had happened is that we needed to move.
Our toilets were our trash cans and plastic bags. They did have plastic bags at that level then.
There were a lot of things -- I’m gonna say things that are gonna sound weird, but we didn’t have all this stuff back then.
We didn’t have all the neat emergency stuff that we’ve got now.
And I didn’t really start thinking about it until I was writing some of this stuff down. And I thought, wow, what kind of plastic bags did we use in those trash cans?
And I don’t know if you’ve ever had to try to sit on a rectangular trash can, but that’s pretty interesting.
Anyway, we had fifty-five gallon drums that were weighted somehow so the river didn’t take ‘em off. And that’s what everybody in the apartment building was putting their effluent in.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, it’s amazing you had trash bags to be able to use.
JIM BILES: I’m not sure where those bags came from.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you had enough food and everything? Supplies in the house? Because you had no electricity probably either.
JIM BILES: No. There was nothing. And we didn’t even have water. They had to -- again, another -- another thing. There was no bottled water per se in those days.
It was a -- I think it was, like, in milk cartons, and it wasn’t -- it wasn’t drinking water. It was distilled water.
Because we did use distilled water back then, but they didn’t -- we didn’t have, you know, the Sunny Spring water back in those days.
We were drinking distilled water. Have you ever consumed distilled water? Ain’t fun. It does not -- it’s flat. It tastes very flat. Anyway --
KAREN BREWSTER: So, but did the Army come around and provide these you supplies to you?
JIM BILES: Yeah! They actually did after they got their stuff together. It took two or three days before -- we only had -- there was only a couple of days.
There was some kind of trash bags I remember back then. I don’t remember what they were.
KAREN BREWSTER: And I was thinking that it meant you couldn’t -- the flood meant you couldn’t get out to the site to work, but you are on medical anyway, so it wouldn’t have mattered.
Or would you have been going to work otherwise?
JIM BILES: I would’ve been going to work otherwise. And I would have --
A lot of the guys that weren’t in the flood zone continued to go to work from Wainwright. Because there were guys that stayed at Wainwright the whole time they were here.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, really? JIM BILES: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So it didn’t affect operations at your site anyway.
JIM BILES: Oh yeah! It did.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, it did? JIM BILES: Yeah, seriously.
I might as well go ahead and give you the breakdown. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh yeah.
JIM BILES: The whole time that I was at Bravo Battery, our average manning was officers at fifty percent. Fortunately, we had a hundred percent of our warrant officers.
But there were fifty percent officers and there were only four officers assigned to a battery, so there were two.
Now in some cases, the battery commander had the option of not pulling -- what we call pulling duties.
He didn’t have to -- he didn’t have to perform duty officer, which you had to have -- as I remember, we had to have an officer on site.
No, not until we were on twenty-minute status did -- we had to have an officer on site then. Up until that point we could have a duty NCO on site.
And those -- well, they were senior NCOs, E-6s or E-7s.
The E-8, we only had one, I think -- E-8 -- and he -- the first sergeant -- and he didn’t --he didn’t pull duty NCO.
Anyway, the -- the point being, if you were not the battery commander, you pulled a lot of duty, a lot of it. And we were on twenty-minute status for at least seven days at a time.
And if our successor battery couldn’t take over the mission of what we call hot battery, you were just there.
And so you took a duffel bag full of shorts and socks and stuff like that and an extra uniform if you were smart, and your ditty bag, and went up the hill. And you stayed there. And that’s what we called it, going up the hill.
And so -- and we all pretty much -- well, A Battery was down on the flat. Moose Creek was down on the flats, so I don’t think they called it that, but all the rest of us were on hills. And so anybody that was in a Nike battery would say, “Well, we’re going up the hill.” That meant you were going to work. I mean, we’re going to the battery.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Can you walk us through an average day? Or was there such a thing?
JIM BILES: Well, again it depended. If you were -- if you were on hot status, it was -- we had crew drills every day no matter what.
And you had to go through daily checks of the system to make sure everything was right, because with electric -- especially -- well, that was a vacuum-tube Army.
We didn’t have a lot of transistors in these systems and they were -- what they were doing is modifying the circuit.
They were making transistor circuit boards for this system as quickly as they could. But really, transistors didn’t really get into popular use until the very late 50s, like, ’58-’59, and then the system was designed before that.
So anyway, because it was a vacuum-tube Army you never knew when something was going to wrong. And a lot of times you didn’t know it was wrong until you started checking it.
And so we did checks every six to twelve hours when we were on hot status. When we were not, we were still doing our checks, but we were doing a lot of maintenance, too.
When you were on -- I can’t remember what they called that, because we didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was mostly mostly maintenance. We could pull the system apart.
I mean, it would be completely down and we’d have chassis out -- the computer chassis and all -- the whole thing was -- was basically computer controlled.
And so with all those electronics tied together, we had cables that were somewhere in that neighborhood to carry all the electronics. And so with those -- with that going on, I mean, cable could go bad.
Things were just -- the -- the state of electronics then was not as reliable as it is today.
I mean, I don’t know that you could’ve had a real computer, a real -- a today computer, one of these things tied in with that system the way that it was because it was just terribly unreliable.
And actually, you know, the thing about it is, once you get one of these systems working right? Holy cow! I wouldn’t want to have been the Russian that I was tracking one day.
Because I had a -- I had a young -- we were all young then. He was only about eighteen or nineteen years old.
He was a target tracking radar operator and, I say that because I didn’t say the TTR. He was our target tracking radar operator.
He was one of the two radars that tracked an inbound aircraft that was our target.
And there was a -- we found out later it was a Russian Bear -- but this Bear was coming in. He was what we called at the time a ELINT bomber, an electronic intelligence bomber, and he was trying to find out how much jamming it took to get us off track, so that he could break lock on him.
Because when he came in, our radars would lock on him, and then if we fired a missile the information from those radars would go through the computer to the missile -- because the missile tracking radar guided the missile to the target.
And I wouldn’t have wanted to have been one of those guys, ‘cause we would have got him.
I fired -- I was personally there for twenty-six missile firings, and I only saw two that malfunctioned out of the twenty-six the whole time I was there.
And part of the time I got reassigned from Bravo Battery down to the battalion headquarters.
And even those that were fired, you know, after I left the battery -- we fired from our battery. Our battery was the Asa P. Gray Alaska Missile -- I think it was called -- test range or firing range -- something like that.
It was actually a live Army range designated. And was named after the group commander that was here when I first got here.
That guy was a -- that guy was a real gentleman. And he was killed in Vietnam in an ambush.
Full colonel and -- anyway. That kind of demoralized some of us for a little while, because his successor was not a gentleman.
This guy really was. He was what -- he was really what I thought an Army colonel should be. The guy, Gray. The following guy was not.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what was the guy’s -- the gentleman’s name?
JIM BILES: His name was Asa P. Gray. A-S-A, middle initial P. I won’t forget him.
We’re gonna go up there, and I’m going to look around. I doubt that the plaque would still be there, but when they dedicated the range, they actually put a brass plaque up there.
And I don’t -- the battery’s gone basically, as I understand it. I haven’t been back since then.
I’ve looked at it on Google Earth and for -- because the concrete is still there, it -- it really looks ghostly. It’s really kind of a weird thing to look at on Google Earth, but --
LESLIE McCARTNEY: You had said that you shot twenty-six --
JIM BILES: Twenty-six.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Were these practice missiles then?
JIM BILES: Yes. But they all had high explosive warheads. LESLIE McCARTNEY: They did. JIM BILES: Yeah.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And was there much target that they -- you had?
JIM BILES: You -- we couldn’t see it. There wasn't an actual target. It was -- we had what -- a test set that was called a T-1, had a big trailer.
The trailer was not as -- not quite as large as this room but, you know, that’s an approximation. From one end to the other it was reasonably close. It was about eight feet wide.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. Like twenty feet long?
JIM BILES: Yeah. Oh, easily -- probably more like thirty.
Anyway, it was full of electronic test equipment. And what it would do was we would bring it in, plug it into the -- to our system, and it would introduce all of the information that appeared to be targets.
It appeared to be aircraft inbound and all that.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: There it was just a message saying that there was something. It would simulate it?
JIM BILES: Yeah. It was a simulated electronic -- I don’t know what you -- it was a data point. And they put a lot of those in there.
And we had -- it would do what we -- in those days we had interrogation Friend or Foe. All of the airliners, all of the people on -- I’ll tell you about another one of those.
All of the people on any commercial aircraft had to have identification, Friend or Foe system with them and it transmitted certain codes.
And so that -- that T-1 would give us those, too.
So anyway, what we would do is they would introduce one of those targets into the system and fire on it.
And what really didn’t matter to me was how accurate it was when it got down range. In other words, was it within twenty-five feet of an aircraft, because with nuclear weapons you didn’t need that.
The other part of that was what was it gonna do to the people on the ground?
You know, were there gonna be any people on the ground? And then, what would it do to our own equipment?
And us. But as a -- as a young person, you don’t really think about that that much.
Because the mission -- in the Army the mission is first. People are second. And, you know, if you have to wipe your own side out to do it, well, you just do it.
That’s just the way the Army thinks. And they train you from the very beginning to do that. And, of course, they had me for four years that I don’t get credit for.
But, you know, they started brainwashing us right off the bat. And that was the term from back in the day -- brainwashing.
And they had Doctor -- what was that "Doctor Strangelove" movie that they had. That was a -- we had stuff like "The Manchurian Candidate" and all those kind of movies.
And that was when you had all the rioting -- or not rioting, demonstrating. Even had --
I love cowboys. I've always loved cowboys. I wasn’t really a cowboy myself. I did ride horses a lot and -- and we slop the hogs and fed the cows and that sort of thing, but the -- the cowboys at Cal Poly were just great.
Because we had a bunch of hippie protesters come in one time. As ROTC, we would line up as a brigade on -- in front of the library on a big lawn out there.
And then after we got muster over with, we would march off -- march down to the -- to the football field and do our drilling ceremonies down there.
Well, they got in front of us one time. So I had a guy that was smarter than me. I had -- I had the headquarters company and he just told me -- he said, “Turn around. Just have them do an about-face.”
So they about-faced and started walking and about that time the cowboys showed up. And demonstrating on Cal Poly was not the thing to do in the sixties, because there were cowboys and they didn’t like it.
And it got -- it -- behind us it got pretty ugly, but we were all smiling.
Because that was another part of the deal in my era. The American people, especially young people, blamed the wars on us.
I mean personally blamed soldiers for the wars. And that’s just ‘cause they were stupid and as far as I was concerned. Because we knew we were only part of the problem.
But if you didn’t do what you were told, you could have -- you could have a bunch of problems that you didn’t want.
Because you could get out of the Army -- you know, back in those days if you got out of the Army with a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge, there were a lot of guys that wouldn’t hire you. Construction companies -- they just wouldn’t hire you because that meant you were a -- a problem.
So -- and back in the day, there were a lot of guys that wanted to work, could work, had the skills to work, and you didn’t need to -- you could be real selective.
And then, of course, there wasn’t all the politically correct crap about, you know, discrimination. Well, if you’re an employer, I think you have the right to discriminate.
They could say, "Look, you know, we don’t want these guys." And they did frequently.
So back in the day you were motivated to get out of the Army with at least a regular discharge. And so --
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you have just mentioned this Russian Bear Bomber and --
JIM BILES: I didn’t finish it?
KAREN BREWSTER: You mentioned it in the information you sent me, and so I wanted to hear more about what happened and what that’s about.
JIM BILES: You heard -- you heard the way that I felt from that Air Force colonel that talked. There was not even -- they knew that was a Bear. They knew he was unescorted.
He was all by himself up there in the airspace.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you thought -- you -- you found him on your radar and said that --?
JIM BILES: No. We had some earlier warning that he was incoming. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
JIM BILES: But nobody really knew who he was -- knew who he was. When we -- when our radars locked up on him, he immediately started jamming our system.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And how does he know that?
JIM BILES: Well, they have radar -- they had detection systems. Their whole purpose was to come here to find out the capabilities of our -- of our system.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how did they jam your system? What are they -- what are they doing?
JIM BILES: Well, they -- they're just putting out what they call electronic countermeasures. It was -- they just put out signals that would confuse the radar screens.
But they did not -- they did not confuse Dennis Wright that day. And they couldn’t.
And I was -- I was talking to -- I think you know Gordon Lunn. He’s with the Nike Historical Society. He was another senior Nike guy.
And we were talking and I had told him about this jamming incident and everything else. And I told him -- and I still believe this -- that there was chaff involved.
Chaff is a bunch of little chopped-up tinfoil and stuff like that. They drop it out of the plane.
Well, it looks like another plane until it really disperses. Once it disperses it’s just tinsel scattered all over the ground.
But that confuses your radar operators. They thought.
Anyway, that guy was using everything that he could to break our radar operator’s lock. Now I don’t know that he actually used everything he could, but he was -- he was using -- the scopes were -- back in the day, I think those scopes were green. But they may have been, you know, black-and-white. I just don’t remember.
KAREN BREWSTER: But so you guys locked onto him and you were ready to fire at him?
JIM BILES: Mm-hm.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And what happened? Did he just turned around and go --
JIM BILES: Well, it’s interesting. I’m going to go right through -- in the Army they train you for all this stuff. Now, it was a good thing that I forgot something that Gordon told me, because I didn’t really need to do what I did.
But first of all, when -- when I got the indication -- we were going through our -- our preparation. We had twenty minutes to come to full firing capability.
And we started getting jammin’ off of this aircraft as soon as they -- as soon as he got into range, which is about a hundred miles. Between ninety and a hundred miles out.
And my radars were already startin’ to lock on him and gettin’ an indication that he was jammin’ us.
And so even as a second lieutenant I knew that -- that I was not going to be permitted to fire a nuclear round against one of those type of aircraft. Well, the other part of it is, our standard operating procedure said we always loaded the whole array that we had of nukes.
They could be big or small and we could choose which kind we fired, but we put the nukes out first. Because that was what we were expecting. We were expecting a whole bunch of bombers comin’ through.
Anyway, I said, “No, that’s not gonna happen.” So I told my platoon sergeant or section chief in the launcher area to load a high-explosive round. Which is not normal. And I wasn’t sure I could get court-martialed over that, because it wasn’t, you know, standard procedure.
But I did it anyway. Because I figured if I was gonna have a Russian Francis Gary Powers, I was not going to lose the opportunity to get him because my guys had to take a nuke round down, put it back in the section, put the -- move the HE (High Explosive) onto the rail, move it back out.
That would’ve taken, God knows, ten minutes to do that whole operation.
And you gotta go through all your checks. And we didn’t use the HE's very often, so you never knew whether you were going to have stray voltage or something like that with it.
So I had ‘em do it right off the bat. Well, what I didn’t know was that we had a microwave system and that microwave system actually tied the information coming from the launcher sections to Murphy Dome at the ADCAP.
And they -- the operator -- the duty officer at Murphy Dome asked me if I had loaded a high-explosive warhead.
Now this was all done in jargon, but I’m sure that the -- the Russians knew about this.
And it was right after that. It was within two or three minutes or four minutes after that -- this whole thing seemed forever -- after that, and we were -- we were coming up in status and I could tell that we were about to achieve five-minute -- in other words we were able to shoot in five minutes.
Well, we were going to be able to shoot as soon as we got there, because I told these guys -- This is a Russian in the system.
Nobody else’s gonna jam us. So anyway, all these guys are jumping through it to get it done, because we were really excited, you know.
We might actually get to shoot some guy down! That’s the way kids think, you know.
I’m not sure I would do something like that today, but I really wanted to scatter this guy all over the Alaskan countryside.
Just because -- this is an act of war, okay. That’s what Gordon reminded me of -- is that jamming and the use of chaff are acts of war. Okay.
At that point, then our standing operating procedure said we became weapons free, which means I didn’t have to ask permission from the ADCAP to shoot this guy. I could have shot him.
I’d forgotten that, so I asked permission. What I did is I asked him -- As soon as we were capable, I said, “Request permission to go to battle stations.”
We were in a training status. At that time the code was Blazing Skies.
Okay. And so -- ‘cause it was BS. So --
And I thought that was so appropriate. All of us did.
Anyway, I asked him permission to go to battle stations. And I’m telling you, the silence was deafening.
The silence on the communications link was deafening. I mean, it was just -- I thought it was never gonna end.
And the guys sittin’ around me? I mean, you saw eyes this big, because at that point they knew that if they gave me permission to go to battle stations, I was gonna shoot him.
And they knew we could, because they’d all seen the system work.
And it is an extremely impressive system to watch, even as crude as it was. And it was crude.
But it was, you know -- what do you call it? Technology of the day or state-of-the-art or whatever you want to call it.
And I wouldn’t have wanted to have been that guy. I really wouldn’t want it.
I was -- I was happy to be me, because at that point I was not going to use a warhead that would have probably done an electromagnetic pulse that would have destroyed all the radars in the whole area.
And no telling what it would have done if it hit the ground.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you ended up not firing?
JIM BILES: Yeah, the ADCAP wouldn’t give me permission to go to battle stations. And I considered that -- I considered that the key.
If they’d have given me the permission to go battle stations, then I probably would’ve shot the guy, because they couldn’t have court-martialed me then.
Because the Army was good for that. I think the thing that -- I was a reader when I was in high school and before that.
And I think the thing that let me know about that was the incident of the Indianapolis, the cruiser that was coming back from -- ah, I’ll get it -- but he was coming back.
He had just delivered the parts of the Fat Man and Little Boy nuclear weapons that were used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And a Japanese submarine torpedoed the cruiser.
And they court-martialed that commander because he was -- he was trying to get back expeditiously and he didn’t zigzag.
And the Japanese commander of the submarine -- they had a Japanese enemy commander testify against the commander of the Indianapolis, the cruiser.
And they kicked the guy out of the Navy. They destroyed his career. They destroyed -- this guy was a full colonel -- or, yeah. A captain. That’s a captain in the Navy.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what happened to that Soviet Bear pilot?
JIM BILES: He turned around and went back out. More expeditiously than he came in, believe me. He was -- he was cookin’.
So I think what had happened is the guy’s -- I mean, these -- well, I think at the time they were F-102s. The Alaska NORAD region had -- I don’t know why -- didn’t have much in the way of interceptor aircraft back in those days.
I think there were only six or eight interceptors in the whole system up here, and most of them are stationed down at Eielson.
I don’t know if we had any interceptors at -- I mean, not Eielson -- at Elmendorf. Too E's.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So was this a one-off? Or was this fairly frequent where you’d get Russian --?
JIM BILES: I know that I did it and I asked the guys in the San Francisco defense -- I’d gotten in California National Guard and they had -- I don’t even know how many -- they had a couple or three battalions of Nike in the California Guard.
And so I knew a lot of the air defenders down there, because when they -- when they took the system apart, we got all those guys, and at the time I was in an infantry division.
So we got them all and I got a chance to ask those guys. Not any one of them ever even tracked a Soviet aircraft.
They never even -- they never even had the threat of a Soviet aircraft coming into the San Francisco or Los Angeles defenses.
KAREN BREWSTER: So this one here -- were there other incidents like that in Alaska or --?
JIM BILES: I believe so, but one of the problems with all this is we were the only guys that knew about that particular Bear, except for the people at -- maybe at the battalion headquarters and at the ADCAP.
And if there were any others guys that were on the comm link at the other firing batteries up here.
Now I talked to some of the other officers that were assigned up here with me at the time and none of them knew about it.
Because, you know, it just happened. It happened while we were on duty. A lot of guys weren’t listening, and --
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And you didn’t talk about this afterwards with them?
JIM BILES: Well, basically no. Because that -- that whole thing was classified secret, so -- and I really put it out of my -- as I did everything else when I left, I just put it out of my -- my system for forty-eight some-odd years.
Until I found all the Nike websites on the Internet and then started looking for B battery on Google Earth.