This is a continuation of an interview with Jim Biles on September 8, 2014 by Karen Brewster and Leslie McCartney at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In this second part of a three part interview, Jim discusses working relationships amongst the men at the Nike Missile Site, Officer Efficiency Reports (OER), the Nike missiles, and possilbe UFO sightings. He also talks about dealing with the boredom, isolation, and cold of being stationed in Alaska, and running a trapline for recreation.
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.
Excitement in the battery about possible missile firing at Russian Bear bomber
Dealing with stressful situations
Effect on crew from bad relations
Interaction between the ranks
Tracking miscellaneous aircraft
Accident with the missile launcher
Isolation and recreational diversions
Going into Fairbanks on days off
A soldier's dyslexia
Cross-training and Army's lack of respect for specialized skills
GI humor and modified qualification badge
Not wanting things to go wrong
Transfer to headquarters
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
JIM BILES: There was a lot of huge eyeballs.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: The tension must have been just horrendous.
JIM BILES: It was pretty scary. I’m not sure that the guys -- except for the section chief in the launcher area -- I’m not sure the guys in the launcher area really knew much about what happened.
But the guys that were in my van -- in the battery control van and the radar guys knew what was going on, because they could hear.
And, of course, as soon as we got the jamming, the word was just like wildfire in the battery. And all these guys are in the building.
And, of course, they have nothing else to do unless they’ve got something planned, so that whole van room was full of guys.
We had guys with their heads -- we had windows that were -- they were all open in the vans, and these guys were looking in the windows and at the door.
And I had to -- when the -- well, after the command post refused to let me go to battle stations, it was shortly thereafter -- because I had reported the jamming and everything else.
So the guy said -- I don’t remember the terminology, but he said -- basically he told us to slew off this target immediately. In other words, take the radars -- the tracking radars off the target.
Now the acquisition radars were also -- those are the ones that pick him up at range. They were also receiving jamming but not near as much as our tracking radars. That’s how we knew that this was an ELINT mission for sure.
So anyway, I had a -- I think it was one of the warrant officers -- his name was Bill Smith. Billy R. Smith. Big guy -- had started out in the Army in pack mortars, which was -- he was a mule skinner. And he was a pretty good-sized man.
And they had -- he had to go into the tracking van and literally pull Dennis away from the screens and the radars or the -- you know -- the scopes.
And we had little wheels and cranked the wheels to get him off of that. He was so focused, he couldn’t even hear anybody.
KAREN BREWSTER: So Dennis Wright, you said? That was the name of the guy --?
JIM BILES: Yeah, Dennis Wright. He was --
KAREN BREWSTER: -- the young guy at the radar? Okay.
JIM BILES: He was the U.S. Army Alaska soldier of the year, I think in 1968.
That was one of the reasons. I mean, the guy was just extremely good.
I have personal email contact with him and he asked me to send him the materials because he can’t -- he couldn’t make it, so --
Anyway, had to literally pull Dennis off of the set because he was so focused.
KAREN BREWSTER: Huge tensions and pressures for you guys -- and young guys. How did people deal with that?
JIM BILES: Actually, you know, the thing about that is we were not -- nobody was shootin’ at us. We weren’t in danger of having our bulletproof fatigue shirts penetrated.
So you deal with that on a different emotional level than you -- you know, when you’re getting shot at it’s pretty visceral, but that wasn’t happening to us.
We weren’t in a combat zone per se, so that was all on a -- that was all on a mental -- completely on a mental level. And there wasn’t a lot of physical threat involved in that.
And they knew that it was unlikely that that bomber was armed at all. He might’ve had something with him, but no telling what that would have been. Might’ve been some missiles to defend itself.
But they don’t arm ELINT bombers. For that reason, because it’s unlikely that they’ll get shot down.
Now, the Russians would shoot our guys down without a bit of problem.
Because as you heard from Dr. Khrushchev, Russians had not progressed into any kind of political correctness at that time. They were pretty primitive.
And so -- that’s not to say that their people were, you know, I’m not trying to demean them or anything else. But their -- they were operating on a completely different level than we were.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So, just in general working at a Nike site where you had nuclear warheads and missiles and explosives, it seems very stressful. And that you’re on hot status and --
JIM BILES: Nah. It was -- the stress was really coexisting with a whole bunch of other young men isolated without a whole lot to do.
I’ll try to tell you before -- before we end this -- what they really had to do up there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Why don’t you tell us now? Go ahead.
JIM BILES: Okay. Let me think. I gotta -- I have to go through this.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Well, and also I just wanted to go back to a comment you made in the very beginning about you said you knew it was dangerous, but you didn’t realize how dangerous, and when did that realization sort of --?
JIM BILES: Well, the how dangerous -- the how dangerous part was interactions. That’s something that you asked about. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yes.
JIM BILES: You know, who did you -- did you interact with the local community? What were the relations like with the people workin’ there?
That was the more -- the more dangerous stuff. I mean you could get electrocuted. You can’t imagine how badly you could get electrocuted with the equipment that we had.
We were dealing with stuff that weighed tons and tons and tons. You could get, you know --
KAREN BREWSTER: It was explosives. JIM BILES: You could get hurt.
You could get hurt, you know, physically injured with that.
You could -- there was only one -- I’m amazed -- there was only one accident in the whole history of Nike.
Which was a Nike Ajax was accidentally set off, and I think it was in -- I think it was in New Jersey.
It was either New Jersey or Maryland, one of the eastern seaboard states.
That was the only accident. That killed about four guys.
That was the only accident like that that ever happened as far as we know.
Now I’m going to tell you, we had an accident at our place. And I know I’m getting off of what you asked -- KAREN BREWSTER: That’s okay.
JIM BILES: But we -- you know, one thing that you asked, "Did everything go as planned?"
And I had to laugh when you says, "Did everything go as planned?" That was just priceless, because they planned a lot of stuff.
As I said, it was really a good system. It was absolutely crude.
As a matter of fact, somebody told me Werner von Braun took a look at one of these rockets and he was amazed. And he said, "I’m amazed at the simplicity of these missiles."
Well, and I -- what I said in my usual manner was -- yeah, simple and crude are the same thing.
They were crude, but they were also state-of-the-art in those days.
Anyway, the interactions were the dangerous part of what we did.
And I just gotta say -- I wrote that down, too. Let me see if I can find it.
The enlisted men -- As far as I was concerned, the enlisted men conducted themselves the way they should. I mean, they were -- they conducted themselves as American citizens.
I can only remember a couple of barracks fights. The guy in both cases -- the guy that got what he got, deserved it. And that ended the problem.
And I never reported them to the battery commander, because I didn’t feel any other discipline -- I mean I thought that was discipline that should happen anyway.
I was pretty crude, too. But the enlisted men conducted themselves very well.
The officers did not. And I’ll tell you that right now. It was probably because -- and a lot of the NCOs in some cases did not.
But I’m critical of officers. I’m not a critic of enlisted people.
They had their jobs to do and they did ‘em and they did them very well.
The officers were more prone to -- an officer job is a tough job. And it’s hard for a twenty-two, twenty-three-year-old guy to have to tell guys to do things that puts them in danger.
And it’s also difficult to discipline them because you know ‘em. Now, you know, in an infantry outfit -- the requirement for certain disciplines is pretty imperative.
In a fixed-site Nike Hercules unit? Not so much.
It was -- Did you do your job? Did you get along? And, you know, how well did you -- How well did you do?
So Nike officers were -- well, frankly, the lieutenants were the same way. ‘Cause, you know, you’re just suckin’ on a fire hose of learning your job and how to deal with people and all that.
Because, you know, about everything you have was what you learned growing up. And then you get in the Army and it’s a whole new game. So anyway.
Most of the lieutenants were -- and captains were pretty good. They tried to do their jobs. They tried to respect their people, and so their behavior was pretty good.
Beyond the captain rank -- and some of the captains -- there was one captain in particular. I won’t say his name.
He was what I -- he was the first example of a toxic leader that I ran into. He was extremely toxic. He was abusive.
He abused his people. I was one of them.
And frankly that’s the reason -- about the only thing the Army could do for me at that point was move me out of the situation. They moved me down to battalion headquarters, because this guy was the battery commander.
And other people had similar problems with him so I, you know, it was partly my fault because I allowed him to bully me.
Because I didn’t really think I had any recourse. ‘Cause, hell, we were fifty miles from the battalion headquarters.
By the way, I didn’t allow the NCOs to bully my enlisted people. As far as I knew. Now I know that probably happened.
Because there are people that just have that in their nature. And in the military -- it allows you, because of the power that you have, to become a much more -- to use your bullying power much more greatly, which is something we already talked about this morning.
Anyway, I thought the -- I thought our senior officers in a lot of cases -- not all that many, but in a lot of cases were not anything -- and this is another one of my expectations in the Army -- there were some things that you learned going in as an officer that your behavior should meet these standards.
Well, not only did they not meet the standards, this bullying and being toxic to the command -- they didn’t -- they were far below the standards. And I just couldn’t imagine.
And again this is, you know, a young guy. I’d had good relationships with people all the way up 'til that. All the way through everything including my Army training, you know. Anyway.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, how did that affect the whole rest of the operation, if you’ve got somebody who’s a bullying leader? It obviously trickles down to the enlisted guys, and they had jobs to do.
JIM BILES: Their morale was terrible, and a whole bunch of them got in trouble. Personally, one of the dog handlers -- I won’t mention his name -- was reduced in rank by this particular commander.
And the way they took care of him was they moved him to -- from our battery, E Battery. He was a dog handler.
KAREN BREWSTER: I think it would be hard to do your jobs and -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Be isolated.
KAREN BREWSTER: -- keep -- and keep that missile armed and ready to go and doing good work with that kind of morale.
JIM BILES: Mm-hm. It was. But fortunately like I said, they moved me after I spent probably six months or so, maybe longer, in hell with this guy, they finally moved me.
He gave me the worst OER anyone in the Alaskan Defense had ever seen.
KAREN BREWSTER: An OER is some kind of --?
JIM BILES: Officer efficiency report. We all had reports, evaluations, or whatever you want to call it.
And it was so bad that Colonel Gray -- Colonel Gray himself had to make a comment to allow that OER to be submitted to the office of personnel management.
It was that bad. And so -- you know, some things the guy said were legit.
But what they expected me to do, there’s no way you could have done all the stuff. I had -- I don’t even have one of my sheets, but I should’ve brought it.
We had so many extra duties, the guys -- the MPs said -- they said, “How come we never see you?”
So I’m inventorying the PX and I’m inventorying the keys and I’m inventorying the classified documents. I was all of those officers.
I think I was even a library officer. I was pay officer.
Every month I went down the hill, came -- got all the money to pay all the guys in cash and brought it back up.
Another humorous incident. The medic forgot to fuel the truck. The medic was my driver. He was called the duty driver.
And so we went down to Fort Wainwright. On the way back we had the money. I had a .45. He had an M14, which was -- not an M16, the old M14, which was a 7.62 NATO.
Anyway, we were walking down the highway. Me with a bag of money and both of us with guns.
KAREN BREWSTER: Because you ran out of gas?
JIM BILES: Walking down the Alcan because we ran out of gas. I’m not sure what happened to that guy.
I think -- I think there was -- the battery commander that had him understood and didn’t Article 15 him. But everybody at the site knew about it. So he got -- he got disciplined from his own guys.
I mean it was, “You mean you almost didn’t get us paid, if the lieutenant hadn’t gotten it?” Anyway.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when you were doing all these different jobs -- the pay officer and all that -- is that when you were executive officer?
JIM BILES: No! I did that was a platoon leader. Yeah. Yeah, ‘cause like I said, they moved officers in and out of that battery all the time.
One of the finest officers I met -- actually the first battery commander and the exec when I got there, the battery commander was Jim Gray and the XO was Lou Mosley.
Those were really good officers. Lou was one of the best guys I met in the Army.
Lou was the kind of guy that would go get the wives of his service members jobs. He would call the PX manager and say I have a young lady that’s married and she’s up here.
You know, this is the enlisted guys. He would go get their wives jobs and things like that.
Good guy! I mean, this is what to me -- this is what officers do to take care of their people.
Because that keeps, you know -- ain’t nobody happy if Mama’s not happy, and he knew that.
And basically I don’t think that was really his motivation. It was just that he knew that he could do something for a young man and he did it.
That was the kind of officer I thought the Army should have. I thought that the Army should have people that brought along the younger guys, you know, that kept us from making the same mistakes they did. That’s what I tried to do.
You know, behind me. Because they’re, you know, they’re marching behind you. They’re coming along -- anyway.
KAREN BREWSTER: Now you didn’t live at the site?
JIM BILES: No. Well, practically yeah!
KAREN BREWSTER: You know, you said there was this sort of caste system, so was there interaction between enlisted and officers?
JIM BILES: Well, there was for me. You know, I don’t know about the rest of the guys but a guy named Ron Bridge -- one day I heard Ron -- Ron was a missile crewmen.
I think he was an E-4. And I heard him say, “Hey, JC’s on site.”
And then he turned around and saw me and got this ashen look. And I looked at him and I said, “JC, huh?”
And he said, “Well, yeah. You’re, you know, you’re like kinda Jesus Christ kinda. You came and you made everything better,” and all this -- and I said, “Oh God, Ron. Don’t do that to me.”
And then I thought, oh geez, if I got that nickname I’m in bad shape.
And so I went and asked my warrant officers how do I get rid of that. They said you’re stuck with that, LT, 'til you leave.
KAREN BREWSTER: But, so there was interaction? I mean --
JIM BILES: Oh yeah. Yeah, and you know it was good to have a nickname. Boy, if you didn’t have a nickname I think you were probably in trouble.
I didn’t like mine but, you know, that didn’t mean anything. And I would go talk to the guys because I really wanted to know.
One of the things that I was thinking -- see, I stopped thinking about all this stuff, I don't know, forty-five years ago. Whenever 1970 -- yeah, forty-five years ago.
And I stopped completely thinking about it until within the last five years.
KAREN BREWSTER: Why did you stop thinking about it?
JIM BILES: ‘Cause it was ugly. The last part of it -- had it not been for that toxic leader that I ran into, my career would’ve been pretty good. I might’ve stayed.
Might have gone to Vietnam and all that kind of stuff. But under those circumstances with all the things that you have to think about, when you run into something like that -- you got a bad OER.
That was what they used then, you know, and, of course, they had -- the draft was going on, the Vietnam war was going on. They could get officers, tons of them.
So you didn’t want to have -- even as a lieutenant, you did want to have a bad OER. It was an easy decision to get out.
KAREN BREWSTER: So it was an ugly experience because of this bad commander?
JIM BILES: Yeah. Exactly.
KAREN BREWSTER: But the other parts of it were --
JIM BILES: Nothing. I mean, you had drunk pilots flying in from the North Slope. They forgot to turn on their IFF. I’ve got a plot from one of those.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you caught them on the radar and didn’t know who they were?
JIM BILES: I actually called. I asked to go to battle stations on one of those guys. It was a little premature, ‘cause I was kind of a cowboy.
That’s what I like about that Air Force Colonel. He was a cowboy.
And I prematurely asked to go to battle stations. And then when the system finally settled, airspeed on the target was two hundred and fifty knots.
I mean, hell, I could almost ride a bicycle that fast. Not really.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you knew it wasn’t a --
JIM BILES: I knew it was not any kind of a danger to us. Some drunk air crew from the North Slope forgot to turn on their IFF and they were flying way out of where they should have been.
They were meeting all of our criteria to challenge them and everything. So we did and, like I said, it’s kinda embarrassing in a way. But we’ve -- I’ve got the plot ‘cause it was never classified.
The plot on the Bear was classified. It was classified secret so it’s probably burned up by now or something. It was in a safe for a long time.
Anyway, it was -- there was all kinds of stuff that happened. One of the things that occurred was a malfunction. And it was something I was mentioning earlier.
We were in the middle of a crew drill. This was after I became exec.
These missiles were on these huge carriages, big steel stuff.
And it was going out, and what happened is the missile on the launcher was -- had been pulled by hydraulics and cables and it was in motion. I don’t know how fast it was traveling, but it was probably maximum speed.
And what happens is that there’s a hydraulic and air buffer at the end of the travel so at a certain point, underneath everything all of this stuff matches and it slows this launcher down at a slow pace, and finally --
KAREN BREWSTER: As it gets closer to its --
JIM BILES: To the end of travel. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
JIM BILES: And then this huge locking pin goes into a hole designed for it underneath all that stuff to hold the launcher in place if they fire the missile.
And it’s a pretty good-sized pin. Well, unfortunately that pin drifted out. Now this -- I don’t know how many times this happened, because nobody ever told us anything at the sites.
But this pin drifted out and that -- the front-end of that pin housing made contact with that pin and stopped the launcher before it started slowin’ down -- or before it had slowed down enough.
And there’s -- the missile sat on the launching rail two places. One was at the tail of the jato, the booster?
And the other was the forward -- I can’t remember -- it’s the forward retaining yoke or something like that.
This was a big yoke, you know, circular in shape that went up under the nose of the missile and held the missile in place.
And there was this big pin. And I don’t know what kind of material, probably aluminum, that went through that to hold it up. Well, that would do a good job unless the launcher was traveling too fast.
And it sheared that pin, and the whole missile moved forward on the rail and fell down.
And this rail is probably something about like this? KAREN BREWSTER: Like two feet?
JIM BILES: It fell down -- well, it was probably more like a foot, foot and a half.
But it fell hard enough to where it just gouged the skin underneath the nose of the missile.
Which was right in the area of the warhead. I think. I don’t remember. This is all stuff that I just remembered.
Anyway, when that happened there’s -- at that time there was a procedure in place called nuclear accident incident program.
And we did not know whether we’d had a nuclear accident. If you damaged the warhead -- and I don’t know if it was in any way or if was just if you damage the warhead skin -- you know, the container on the outside of the warhead -- if that was considered an accident.
Now an incident had anything to do with potential damage to the warhead or something that happened to the warhead. And so we had one of these on our hands. We didn’t really know what it was.
And so here we are in the middle of a crew drill, and what do you do?
Well, you know, there’s a lot of procedures. But we’re all standing there. And you know what everybody said, all at once.
So, we’re all looking at this thing and -- actually, I don’t think I was there, but I’ve got it in my mind.
I can see everybody looking at this thing and just going, "Oh, no. What do we do now?" You know.
We all knew what we had to do, but it was one of those things like, "Oh, God! Murphy kicked in again."
So anyway -- not supposed to happen. Didn’t go as planned.
I mean we did this -- well, we did this every day in every section, so all this stuff was pretty routine.
KAREN BREWSTER: But, accidents happen.
JIM BILES: Yep. And it got out of hand, boy. I mean --
KAREN BREWSTER: So would you stop what you’re doing and report it and --
JIM BILES: Everything. Yep. We reported it. I’m not sure -- I don’t remember if we were on hot status. I don’t remember -- other than I just remember it was a crew drill.
And I remember the incident that happened because I talked to -- I love talking to the enlisted guys because they had so much information. So they were telling me all this.
So pretty soon I developed, you know, as if I were there -- what happened.
Because again, I was launcher platoon leader for a while, and so I knew what went on down there. And so I could just imagine all that stuff happening.
Anyway, they cleaned it all up. The warrant officers, of course, were busy. I think the warrants came up and led -- we had what we called a BOQ on site.
It was just a little room where there were some beds. And I think the warrant officers lived there for about a week until we cleaned that thing up.
And it really -- there was not -- it was -- it was -- all that stuff was difficult, but it was just time consuming.
Because then what they had to do was they had to figure out a way -- and they did -- to get the missile off the launcher.
We had to raise it up. I think there was a -- there was a crane out there that we could do this stuff with. And they raised -- they raised the missile up. Now there's between -- are you familiar with the Nike missile?
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Only from pictures.
JIM BILES: Pieces. There’s two pieces of it. Okay, the booster separated from the actual rocket.
Well, between the two of them is a little -- some kind of metal. Again, it’s a -- it’s a lanyard between the two.
And when the booster separates, that pulls away and it fires the igniter for the missile rocket motor. So that turns -- that turns the -- it lets go of the elevons, which are the control system on the missile.
And it lets -- it lets that missile be itself. ‘Cause up 'til then it’s under control of the jato, the booster.
So that thing had been pulled back, I mean, to the point where it was -- it would almost have activated that missile rocket motor.
Well, it wouldn’t have set it off. because there’s also -- it has to have -- it’s called a -- it’s a centrifugal switch.
Inertia -- gravity, basically, turns the switch down. Spins down and that allows the missile to actually fire -- the missile rocket motor to fire.
So -- But it was -- I mean, you know, it could’ve. Because all of us knew well that stuff happened. We had -- I was talking to one of the guys, one of the launcher crewmen down in Anchorage.
They had a hot missile one time, which meant there was stray voltage in it and nobody knew what was going on.
We had to do a stray voltage check to make sure when they plugged that baby in that they weren’t going to have ‘em go down range.
So anyway, they had a hot missile, so stuff like that happened.
And I remember -- I remember those warrant officers were sweating. There was a thumbwheel on that thing. Now you know the righty-tighty rule?
KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
JIM BILES: Can you remember which side of that? Because there’s two sides, you know, and they come together in the middle of the thumbwheel.
Which side is the side that is righty tighty and lefty loosey?
Now these warrant officers were not young men. They were in their late forties, early fifties.
And so I think -- of course, you know, these guys were experts and everything else. So they probably really didn’t have that -- that sweat.
But as I remember, the two guys talking about it was Howard Houston, who was the oldest one on the site, and Ivy Thompson. He was -- I think Thompson was a W-2. Houston was a W-4.
And Houston was probably the one that did it. Loosened it up so it quit pulling on that igniter switch. Anyway.
That kind of thing, you know, it just takes forever to get that kind of stuff done.
Well, you got a booster that’s forward on the rail and that thing, you know, if you don’t take that whole thing apart right -- because there’s a boat tail and that has a gradual slope so the booster’s already nose down, and as you pull that out it’s going down further, so I don’t know how they did it. But --
KAREN BREWSTER: But there wasn’t anything leaking or fuel spilled or anything?
JIM BILES: Not that I know of. No. No, and all that stuff’s solid propellant anyway.
But the problem with it is if you -- if you get a spark around. Our flashlights -- they were special flashlights that would not make sparks.
You had to leave all of your -- smoking was real common back then. You had to leave all your smoking paraphernalia in the main building.
And so, anyway, it was a very, very interesting thing but, you know, stuff happened out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, this fits in that, you know, everything was all planned and you had a process. But it did not always go according to plan.
JIM BILES: No. No. And, you know, there’s tons more than that. Remind me to tell you about the UFO.
KAREN BREWSTER: Go ahead. Tell us.
JIM BILES: You know there’s a lot of people that are real skeptical and there’s a lot of opinions about UFOs.
And I was not -- I don’t know. I’ve thought that conspiracy theories and all that kind of stuff were interesting but, you know, I’m one of those guys that believes that God has a plan and, you know, all that other crap is outside of the plan, you know.
When if it goes out, it’s not coming back, so --
You know, I was skeptical about UFOs until one night at B Battery. We saw some that were real questionable, so --
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Is this on the radar you’re coming across stuff?
JIM BILES: Uh-huh. Yeah. We had -- we had -- well, we were in the middle of a crew drill and all of a sudden this very large object appears on the screen.
Normal -- the normal aircraft paint even for the 707’s, things like the DC-3’s and 2’s and that --those aircraft painted with a -- about the size of a conventional sewing pin on our acquisition scopes.
We had two different -- we had the short-range, the low-power, and then the -- we had an ABAR. And the ABAR went out to three hundred thousand yards -- probably beyond that, but our scopes only went out to three hundred thousand yards so they painted with small dots. This thing was the size of -- I don’t know, a Tic-Tac or something like that. Pretty good size.
Now I -- my two best operators were on the system that night. It was kind of funny how that worked.
Tom Freitas was low-power operator and Larry Young was the -- Young was an E-5. Young was drafted.
I can’t remember if Tom enlisted. I knew that Larry Young was drafted and he was married.
Anyway, these two guys are both hitting their heads, “What the hell is that?” And so it just sat there.
And it was close to three hundred thousand yards out.
And it seems like to me it was -- if you were looking north from Fairbanks or off a little bit to the east anyway -- but it was up in the northeastern part of the segment. Out -- I don’t even know how far out it is. There’s Poker Flats out there way the hell -- it was beyond. It was close to ninety miles out.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And did Murphy Dome pick this up, too?
JIM BILES: I don’t know. Because that’s stuff they’d never tell you.
And, of course, a lot of the guys at Murphy Dome were Air Force, and they didn’t like to talk to Army anyway, so --
I mean, there were so many dynamics in the system, you never knew. So we didn’t even bother.
Anyway, we’re looking at this thing. And so finally when the radar -- when the tracking radar operators got up, I said -- and this is the way officers work, you know.
I told -- I think it was -- I told Larry, “Designate that one.”
And so he whips around and puts the designation on. Pow! Sends the information over to the tracking van, and the target tracking radar guy slews over to pick this thing up. As soon as his -- he said he just barely even got it in the gate -- he saw it.
There was something at that range that was that big. And he barely got it in the gate and it disappeared on him.
And the radar went around about like this -- that was one paint -- it was about like that.
It didn’t even get around and the damn thing painted almost completely across the scope.
We’re talking about in the neighborhood of three hundred thousand yards. I don’t know what that is.
That would be, let’s see, you’d divide it by three? Or multiply it by that, Whatever you want to do. But anyway, that’s a lot of distance.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: In an instant.
JIM BILES: I mean -- well, one paint. Now we don’t know how long it actually took him to get from here to here, but the radar moved about like that and he paints here.
And everybody’s looking at each other, and again you got eyes about that big.
Because we already know that the target tracking radar actually said that there was something there.
But as soon as -- as soon as our radar touched it, it moved. It moved a lot, and it was big.
So we played with that thing for probably twenty minutes. And it would do the same thing. Designate it. Target tracker would hit it. Gone.
And then it would be all the way across the scope. Now this guy was probably playing with us -- whatever it was.
I don’t know if -- you know, you never know if these -- if these things know, you know, what our capabilities are or anything else.
I would suspect -- because he stayed in our airspace --whatever it was had a pretty good idea of what the capabilities of our systems were.
But I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what. There’s a bunch of guys that were in that truck -- the tracking vans that night -- who believe in UFOs now.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Did you have to fill out a report and report any of this at the end of the evening?
JIM BILES: You know, I don’t know if we did. Primarily -- okay.
Then you have the personnel reliability program. Now for me that meant if I started becoming unstable and having, you know, personality problems or psychological problems or something like that, my career is over. They just pull me out of there and send me home.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So you report a UFO and all of a sudden you’re going back to the farm.
JIM BILES: Exactly. Yeah. So. We looked at each other, said it’s something to tell the grandchildren, and moved on.
I really think that’s what happened, because that’s kind of what I remember. I just -- I think we just kind of looked at each other and did the Three Stooges.
KAREN BREWSTER: Because it just didn’t -- there was no way it was anything -- any aircraft that you knew about that it would’ve fit that description?
JIM BILES: Absolutely nothing could’ve done that, that we knew about.
SR-71 could move that fast. I mean, they would paint couple times across the scopes, but -- because they’re -- those -- that’s a Mach 3.
KAREN BREWSTER: But it wouldn’t have been that big though?
JIM BILES: Oh, no. Oh, no. Matter of fact, it was hard to see an SR-71 because they’re -- they were made to reject radar anyway -- or deflect another direction so that you didn’t --
You have to have a surface that will return the radar back to the -- it’s kind of like sonar if you’ve seen all the "Red October" movies and stuff.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you had talked about the isolation at this particular site. And can you talk about how that affected the personnel out there? And the relationships?
JIM BILES: Well, it pressurized guys because they’re all living together. And, I mean, they’re living in --
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And working together.
JIM BILES: And they’re living in conditions that are not -- I mean, it seemed like the more experienced guys, I guess, they --
Well, some guys lived in what was called a squad bay. I can’t remember -- eleven or twelve, thirteen people all in the same room. Bunks.
And then the senior -- more senior guys it seemed like to me, lived in four-man rooms. What’s the difference?
And again you got bunks. You got two bunks stacked and everything else. You got lockers.
So you really can’t have anything.
You know, what do you do? I mean, there's -- We had a day room. We had a kind of a library of sorts. We did have movies. I was the theater officer, too, so --
And we had to take a quarter off of these guys to let them in. I’ll tell you how that worked if you want to know how stupid the Army is.
We had to -- and actually this is the -- it was the PX system back then. They called it the PX -- Post Exchange.
It’s called the AAFES now, Army and Air Force Exchange System.
Well, they would actually have us take a quarter off of our enlisted men for admission to the theater. Now they would -- I -- we got to see some pretty damn good movies. I didn’t mind paying a quarter.
‘Cause I made something like three hundred and -- was it -- it was a Chevy engine block -- three twenty-seven a month.
And the enlisted guys were making something like a hundred and ten a month. But they made us take a quarter off of these guys.
So what we would do is, we would collect the money all week. But we still had -- we didn’t -- we didn’t make the change until Monday. Of films.
So weekends was freebies, man. And we had a couple that -- we would get as many guys as we could qualified on the projectors and we’d just run movies all weekend.
And I think they had beer. I don’t remember -- that was it. Wasn’t any hard alcohol up there.
And again, you drink enough beer, you’re drunk. And a lot of guys get nasty when they have beer, so anyway.
That was pretty much one of the diversions. If I’d of had any sense as an officer, what I would’ve done is find out how many guys were interested in a shooting range.
‘Cause we had ammo. We had weapons.
So we would have been -- we would’ve had a whole bunch of guys that were much better qualified on small arms than they were. And we could’ve shot in any direction and not hit anybody.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: What about outdoor activities? Did you have, you know, cross country skis --?
JIM BILES: Oh, they did -- those guys -- GIs are so imaginative. I mean, you know, you want to get a bad nickname, you’re gonna get it.
Kilroy -- you saw "Kelly’s Heroes" where, when they left they had Kilroy on the wall? That’s GIs.
The American GI has the greatest sense of humor as far as I’m concerned of anyone in the world.
That’s why they like Bob Hope so much. But, God, you do not want to be the butt of GI humor. Anyway.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you ran a trap line, you said.
JIM BILES: I ran a trap line. A couple of guys ran a trap line. We just avoided being where the other guys were.
And of course there was different stuff to trap. I mean, I was trapping small stuff. I really wanted to get the lynx. They’re beautiful.
And I really wanted to get one. Never did. Got a lot of birds. Got a lot of ermine -- weasels.
I wanted to get a marten, too, but I never did.
I’ll tell you one of the things that I remember from my trip up here. There was a black bear jacket in a little store downtown. It was three hundred bucks.
And that was a month’s pay for me. I didn’t get it, and thank God I didn’t, because it would’ve been a medium and I take extra-large now. But anyway, it was beautiful!
KAREN BREWSTER: This trap line, were you running it from the site or you were doing it --?
JIM BILES: Yeah. I started -- I started when I was the launcher platoon leader. So it was right outside the gate of the launcher platoon. The guys knew me.
So I could snowshoe around the fence and start at the top of the line and then you went down. Well, your line needed to go up and down the hills because the temperature changes.
When it gets really cold the animals come up. When it gets warmer they go down.
So you needed to run the trap -- anyway, a bunch of us knew about all that stuff. And then you got hunters.
We had one of the SFCs -- the E-7s in the fire control area shot a little black bear that was rooting around in our dumpster.
Took a .44 Magnum, walked out there, said, “Hey, bear.” The bear pulled out of the dumpster, turned around, and he shot him in the chest.
That bear went quite a ways before they finally found his carcass. That was interesting. That was a .44 Magnum. Anyway, and bear’s pretty good. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
JIM BILES: I never ever got one myself, but there was a lot of hunting. A lot of guys went fishing.
We had a deuce and a half (truck) and a carryall. The carryall was the equivalent of today’s Suburban.
And we could send the guys down the -- down the hill in those. And we’d take them down to Fairbanks and drop them off and they’d get in trouble and then come back home and --
I guess they got in fights downtown. Some of them didn’t look too good when they got back. They were eighteen-year-old kids, twenty-year-old kids.
KAREN BREWSTER: So they get days off, they come into town and go to the bars?
JIM BILES: Sometimes. I don’t -- I don’t remember there being a lot of that. And I don’t remember anybody --
There was one guy that we had that was a weirdo, and I think he got kicked out of the Army. Thank goodness, because he was just a creep, but there was only one of those guys.
The only thing was, he was kind of a -- he was married and living downtown, and so he was influencing some of the other guys.
And I heard some of the stories from those guys, and I said, “And you actually put up with that?” "Well, we didn’t have much choice. The deuce and a half’s wasn't coming back until tomorrow."
So anyway. You know, there was a lot of stuff to do. The guys that wanted to do it did it. The guys that didn’t care, didn’t.
There was a kid named -- I think his name was Dale Bradshaw. He was shorter than I was. Slim little guy, you know, one of those athletic -- really good athletic guys.
And I remember he showed up in some mukluks. I think they were Air Force mukluks. I’d never seen them before.
And he was running around outside. They were gonna do some skiing and stuff. And these mukluks -- VB boots (vapor barrier? Bunny boots?) were not real good for the skiing stuff.
Cross country was okay. But in -- I guess snowshoes were okay.
But they all had these Air Force ones. And, man, he could snowshoe like a -- and these guys would go out and they'd snowshoe and ski.
We had cross-country skis. We had snowshoes. The guys that really were serious about it got their own, because Army snowshoes suck.
KAREN BREWSTER: Army cross-country skis aren’t the greatest either, I don’t think.
JIM BILES: I was going to say the same thing about them, but you did.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, that’s cool though that you ran a trapline.
JIM BILES: Yeah, it was really a good diversion as far as I was concerned. I’m not sure the wife cared much for that. Because I wasn’t home enough as it was anyway.
And then I was out there by myself. Now I did carry a Ruger .357 Magnum with me.
My father-in-law was a gunsmith, and he gave me -- I can’t remember if I bought that or he he gave me a couple of guns.
And I did have an M1 carbine that I could’ve taken with a .30 cal.
But pretty soon you get out there, and there really weren’t -- the Kodiak or the grizzly was not really prevalent in our area, so the only thing I was really concerned with was a moose.
And there were some big enough trees to where I figured I could, you know, stay away from the moose. I don’t know -- man, I’ve seen what happens when you tangle with a moose, and I don’t even want to get there.
We had a couple of Delta Battery warrant officers who said that moose destroyed their car and put a couple of them in the hospital -- and they were in the car.
KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. So did the cold and dark affect you at all?
JIM BILES: You know, I don’t know that it affected me. It did affect my wife. Cabin fever and that kinda stuff, but she was depressed anyway and I didn’t know it.
Or we didn’t know what it was. You know, back then there wasn’t -- hell, I had to fight with the Army about dyslexia.
Because I went to college, we had some psychology -- I had heard of dyslexia.
Well, I had an E-4 engineer when I was executive officer. He was a guy that kept these huge 250 KW generators working.
He knew how to transfer from commercial power to tactical power with all the -- man, I’ll tell you what. The panels are just impressive to see that.
He operated a road grader, operated the circular snowblower. The guy was just a jack of all trades.
Really a good guy. He was -- seems like he was from Tennessee, Missouri, someplace like that.
And it was coming on time for him to re-enlist. Well, he had to take what we call an MOS test at that time.
And he leveled with me 'cause I guess they, after a while they figured that they could actually level with me. And he said -- and he wouldn’t do that with the first sergeant.
But he said, “ Lieutenant, I can’t read.” And I said, “Mac? What do you mean, you can’t read?”
And he said, “I can’t read. The words are all messed up.” And I thought, oh, I’ve heard about this. This is probably dyslexia. He’s probably got it.
I said, “How did you get through high school?” He said “They just got tired of messin’ with me and passed me on.”
He said, “I know how to do all this stuff.” He said, “I’m okay with numbers.”
How do they do that? I don’t know. And I said, “Well, what about engineer schematics?” No problem.
You know, he could read wiring diagrams and all that kind of stuff. He didn’t have any trouble with that stuff. But words?
He couldn’t read the questions on the MOS test. So I said -- I begged the command sergeant major to let me administer the test so I could read him the questions.
He wouldn’t do it. And I told him, I said, “You’re going to lose a really good soldier here, ‘cause he’ll stay. All you gotta do is let him pass the MOS test and he’ll re-up.”
And then as I’m finishing all this stuff up, I’m apologizing to Mac, because I really felt bad.
And he said, “That’s okay, Lieutenant. I’m just gonna go home. And I’m gonna make a lot more money at home, because my family has a heavy equipment business. That’s what we do. We’re construction.”
And I said, “I wondered how you knew all this stuff?”
And I thought to myself, I said, “Mac, if you had just told me that at the start of this, I wouldn’t have gone through all of this stuff.”
But that’s how dumb the Army was. I mean, okay? So he’s going to need -- and back in those days, I’m gonna tell you that reading requirement was really limited, especially for the noncommissioned officers.
Mac, with his temperament, Mac would have really made a good first sergeant, command sergeant -- well, not a first sergeant, but a command sergeant major.
He would’ve taken care of his soldiers. He -- and he was a really good technical guy and a good trainer.
Because he was training some of the other guys. We had what we called cross training. So he may have --
You asked something about, did everybody do the same thing all the time? Well, no. We had cross training.
I know MPs -- one guy started out as launcher crewman and he ended up in the MPs, so they made him an MP and they said you’re an MP.
Well, they did that to me later on, but fortunately a lot of it crossed over, so it wasn’t -- not so bad.
But, you know, if you’re working on the nuclear shield, you really need to be doing your job.
And I felt, you know, it’s hard to criticize because, you know, I’ve done some of this stuff myself. And partly it was because the GIs wanted to do it.
Maybe they weren’t quite so happy as an MP -- we really needed somebody else to do something, and so we let them transition. But Mac was a really good cross trainer.
KAREN BREWSTER: So the cross training -- so if you were trained in, you know, putting the missile together and then they moved you to something else --
JIM BILES: Military police. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it seems like -- JIM BILES: What transfers? The saluting?
KAREN BREWSTER: It seems like you would need to have these guys very specialized to know exactly what to do and keep them there.
JIM BILES: That’s what I thought, but --
KAREN BREWSTER: But they didn’t always do that?
JIM BILES: That was that was never a particular reverence thing for the Army. In my day.
And, you know, it’s the resources that you had. We were -- believe it or not, we were not a high priority. Vietnam was the priority -- getting everybody to Vietnam.
When I was ready to leave the Army, I called the officer branch and asked them what my next assignment would be. They said, “Well, Vietnam, of course.”
And I said, again, you know, you study where you’re -- there's no air defense mission in Vietnam. There was none at all.
I don’t even remember -- actually they took the Hawks out of there before I got to Alaska.
So I said there’s no air defense mission in Vietnam. And the guy -- I swear what he said was, “It’s the only war we have.”
And what he said was the only war we got. And so --
KAREN BREWSTER: So you came to Fairbanks in ’67. JIM BILES: Mm-hm.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how long were you here?
JIM BILES: 'Til ’70. I left in March of ’70.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
JIM BILES: You know, when you were asking about what the enlisted men did for fun? KAREN BREWSTER: Yes.
JIM BILES: One of the guys -- I was told that this was done somewhere else. But I’ve actually seen this thing hanging on the wall.
So, one of our guys -- now I’ll see if I can remember his name in a minute -- actually did it.
This is cardboard and it’s charcoal. And it’s a big piece of cardboard shaped like this. It goes all the way down here.
This was an expert qualification badge. Normally, this had these bars underneath it and it said rifle, pistol, bazooka, or whatever. And actually, missile was on there.
So -- and you could have multiple of the bars down below this. And we actually had officers that wore these things.
Significance of the buffer, that’s kinda where I was going. I was collecting my thoughts.
The significance of the buffer is that everybody in the battery that was enlisted became an expert with a floor buffer. Because they waxed the floors.
They had -- it seems like to me it was continuous red linoleum, if I’m not mistaken. It may have been tile.
But it just seems like it was just -- maybe I’m thinking of my basic training days. It may have been tile.
But they shone. They were -- they were just glass. This is GI humor. I have some more of these, so I’m just going to give you that one.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, great. Thank you.
JIM BILES: That’s -- that’s GI humor right there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, that’s good.
JIM BILES: That’s sarcasm.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Helps to break the tensions and stresses -- boredom.
JIM BILES: Yeah. That was one guy’s work. We had a bunch of different stuff and it was -- again, I don’t know what it was.
Up until we had the toxic battery commander, everybody pretty much got along. And these guys would do -- their humor was just wondrous. I mean it was wonderful. They would just -- they had humor for everything.
And I suppose that’s probably one of the ways -- you asked me how they dealt with it? Well, we did deal with it that way.
And we would say -- I don’t know -- there’s a ton of different apropos sayings in the Army for -- they’re all sarcasm.
And it’s humor and you just deal with the situation that way and move on.
I used to -- when I was in the brigade headquarters, I was in infantry brigade headquarters, and these -- one of my expressions was, "Oh, it’s all in the toilet now."
And that got to be -- they actually -- the guys in my section actually gave me a toilet out of one of the little tugboats. The toilet about like this?
And they painted -- they painted BILES CRISIS CENTER. Because I used the expression so much.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, they heard you say it so many times. JIM BILES: Mm-hm.
KAREN BREWSTER: I mean, you guys spent a lot of time together.
JIM BILES: Yeah. There’s an old expression in the Army that says, "No operations plan survives first contact."
Well, that’s true in a lot of -- but there’s things that you really don’t want to go wrong.
I mean, you know, if you’re gonna do an operations plan and go do a military operation, it’s the other guy’s job to keep you from doing that. So you know that stuff’s going to happen with that.
But you don’t want the brigade commander’s communications equipment to go bad. You just don’t want that, because, you know, then who takes over and what happens and how mad is he gonna be ‘cause you can’t do anything.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, when you’re launching missiles, there’s definitely certain aspects that you don’t want to go wrong.
JIM BILES: Yeah. You definitely don’t want a missile to fall on the rail. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
JIM BILES: And now the guys in the -- man, I can just imagine what it must’ve been like during the earthquake, after the earthquake.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. It's a pretty scary story.
JIM BILES: Yeah, 'cause we weren’t -- we didn’t have any of the gyros running. We didn’t have a gyro running or anything like that I don’t think.
Our missile -- our accident was pretty benign. But there is a list. There’s on -- you can find it on the Internet somewhere, there’s a website that you can click through to a list of nuclear accident incident reports.
Ours is not up there. Matter of fact, I didn’t see one from Nike Hercules. Most of them are Air Force. There was a couple of Army ones. But it’s not even there.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you had mentioned that you were transferred to headquarters. So what did you do when you were at headquarters?
JIM BILES: I was the assistant operations officer and -- frankly, I was under a cloud.
Because, you know, if you get transferred because you can’t handle a situation in one unit, what makes anybody think you’re going to be able to do okay in the next?
KAREN BREWSTER: So it appeared that it was your problem, not that it was a bad CO?
JIM BILES: Yeah. And that’s gonna be true, especially if you're reading a bad OER and the battery commander talks to the senior guys and all that kind of stuff.
So I went for -- I went to work for a major named George Bristow. I would really like to find that guy.
There are two guys that I met down there. In the S-3 shop.
The operations sergeant was Clarence Bray. I still have email contact with him, periodically.
But he’s not interested in the Army anymore. At all.
So I don’t talk to him all that often and, you know, he’s -- the guy was an absolutely top-notch NCO.
I believe he was from -- well, he was from Alabama.
And I remember some kid told him he was from Carbon Hill, and Bray told me, “I know where he’s from. He’s not from Carbon Hill.” He’s from this place that was considered, you know, across the tracks or something like that.
Anyway, Bray went back to Alabama. Actually, he’s a command sergeant major for Redstone Arsenal.
Anyway, this guy was a -- this guy was everything I had looked for in a non-commissioned officer and hadn’t found up until that time.