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Jim Biles, Part 3

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 third part of a three part interview, Jim describes his duties as an assistant operations officer, missile functions, and the role of the platoon leader. He also tells a story about driving a Jeepster Commando at 72 degrees below zero from the remote missile site into Fairbanks, and reflects on his time in the U.S Army and in Alaska.


Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2014-18-09_PT.3

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
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Historical Commission, Alaska Humanities Forum, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


A good commander

Working as assistant operations officer

Observing a missile test launch

Design of the missiles and warheads

Chain of command for missile launching

Leaving Fairbanks

Driving at 72 degrees below zero to a New Year's Day reception

Leaving the military

Revisiting the memories and traumatic stress

Serving in the National Guard

Tracking commercial pilots on the radar

Job secrecy

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Reflection on meaning of the Nike Missile site experience in his life

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


KAREN BREWSTER: Okay, so Bray was this really good --

JIM BILES: Yeah, real top-notch NCO. Guy was a excellent planner, knew how to handle -- knew how to handle his people, took care of his people, trained them.

You know, if they didn’t know something, that was not a war stopper or anything like that. There was no -- for Bray there wasn’t a reason to ridicule anybody or anything like that.

If you didn’t know, he taught you. And if he discovered that you didn’t know and you thought you knew, he could straighten you out without being offensive about it or anything like that.

Bray was just a real -- Bray was my idea of a -- of a really top-notch NCO.

And he had some really good enlisted men as a result of that. And they were comfortable with their jobs.

And there was never any concern about, you know, "Oh, if I screw this up, what’s gonna happen?"

Most of all, they wouldn’t screw it up because he had ‘em trained in the way that they should do stuff.

But the other side of it was they could go to him and ask him a question and get a reasonable answer. And not get, "You don’t know that!"

KAREN BREWSTER: Right. And so as assistant operations officer, what does that mean? What did you do?

JIM BILES: I did all the stuff to support the major. I set up, wrote, ran exercises.

I would go out to the -- we had an alternate air defense command post, and it was out at King Salmon or Galena or someplace like that. I don’t even know where it was now.

But we would be in a Otter -- de Havilland Otter -- for about four hours to get out there.

And it was cold. That was a cold airplane. Everybody was freezin’ in it.

Anyway, I would go out there and perform as the -- as the operations officer in the alternate AADCP for the Army. That’s air defense command post.

We just did a lotta -- we did a lotta stuff. I helped run inspections. I couldn’t go to B Battery, but I could pretty much go to the other ones.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you didn’t go back to B Battery at all? They didn’t let you go there, even on official business?

JIM BILES: I did. I did. It was really kinda odd. There was a guy on the bus with me that was in the same helicopter with me in 1969.

We did a surface to surface shot. And I went out to the site where the missile actually hit -- where it actually impacted on the side of the mountain.

And because I was where I was, I knew the calculations and I could see where that warhead actually went off.

And it was within fifty feet of where it was supposed to be.

And I think the biggest -- there were x, y, and h. H is altitude. And it was about twenty-five feet below where it should have gone off when it went off. And I’m not sure exactly --

I don’t really know about the x and y, but you could see that it was -- because it was a high-explosive warhead, it went off about twenty-five feet below where it should have.

KAREN BREWSTER: And that was out here?

JIM BILES: Yeah. It was -- it’s -- there’s a name for the mountain, and I can’t remember.

KAREN BREWSTER: But you shot that test from B Battery.

JIM BILES: Yeah, the missile was fired -- it was -- I don’t know whether it was a Fairbanks or Anchorage battery that fired it, but they did all the calculations and -- that would have been a nuclear mission.

So, but everything we did was with HE, you know, ‘cause it’s all innocuous.

And I actually stepped on a piece of the warhead that was about -- there’s a ring on those warheads and I think it was a piece of that ring.

And it was about that -- that big. I thought it was a rock. I thought it was a big ol’ rock that I stepped on.

‘Cause it moved underneath my foot. All this stuff was under the snow, ‘cause we fired the missile and then we had a snowstorm and, of course, when we got out there -- we had to set up tents on the site and everything else -- a lotta holes in ‘em, but they weren’t real visible to start out with.

And then when you got close to it, they were just riddled with shrapnel.

And so that missile woulda done whatever it was supposed to do. There wouldn't have been a top on that mountain.

KAREN BREWSTER: Now were these missiles designed to shoot single aircrafts or were they designed to shoot a whole group of planes?

JIM BILES: Both. Both. One of the theories that we didn’t -- we concentrated on a single aircraft.

One of the theories behind those nuclear warheads -- they have a very large yield -- it wasn’t that large, but it was for a missile that size -- that, man, I mean, it woulda lit up the sky.

It probably woulda burned all the oxygen outta the air and all that kinda stuff. But that would’ve been to take out a whole bunch of bombers all comin’ in, you know, together at the same time.

But we concentrated -- all of our drills were on single aircraft.

And we -- I don’t know -- man, I’ll you what, I don’t know if we woulda used -- the problem was we had the array. We had both large and small warheads so -- besides the high explosive -- but I don’t know what we would’ve used.

I left that to smarter people than me. Now, once I got to become the battery commander I woulda been concerned about that. But I never was, so my main job was to -- to get those missiles where they belonged.

Everybody else was supposed to do -- that’s why I deferred and asked, you know, battle stations for the AADCP. Because I knew -- you know, even then I was smart enough to know there were gonna be political implications to shootin’ a Russian down. And besides that I was gonna kill an aircrew.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So as platoon leader you’d get a message to say, load up this type of missile or this type of warhead. Somebody else was deciding what type to use?

JIM BILES: Yeah. Primarily, the platoon leader probably -- well, in those cases we would not have a platoon leader in there, ‘cause it woulda either been the battery commander or the platoon leader that would have been in the seat as the battery control officer.

So the NCO’s woulda been -- and warrant officers -- woulda been runnin’ what’s goin’ on in the section.

That’s what happened is that the -- remember I was tellin’ you that there was a -- I think it was a yellow light at Murphy Dome that told the guy that there was a high-explosive warhead.

Well, I just told the section chief to select the other section. Well, that was what’s goin’ on down in the launcher area.

And, you know, they’re pretty much runnin’ autonomous.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right, but they’re being told what missiles to load up from -- ?

JIM BILES: Yeah, I told ‘em from the control van.

KAREN BREWSTER: The control van.

JIM BILES: And I would have told him what missile to select in that case or at least what yield warhead to select.

And he would have known, you know, which one was which. They had a panel with switches.

And those missiles -- there would have been -- you know, I don’t know what’s declassified, but I think there were -- there would’ve been eight missiles out.

We would’ve had four in one section and four in another section.

And he would’ve had an array of eight missiles he could have selected from.

Well, if we were in a actual wartime mode, all he would’ve had to select from were large and small nuclear warheads. And would they have worked? I don’t know. I’m sure they would’ve. Everything else worked, so -- KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

JIM BILES: I mean, you know. Given Murphy’s Law. Like I said, I only saw two of twenty-six missiles malfunction.

KAREN BREWSTER: So the launchers and missiles, they were in a building and you’d roll ‘em out if you were gonna fire ‘em?

‘Cause I know in some in the Lower 48 they were down below ground and they’d raise them up.

JIM BILES: No, I think permafrost had a lot to do with what was constructed up here. I knew about permafrost from when I was a kid.


JIM BILES: ‘Cause it was hard to dig a basement.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So you left here in 1970. And were you happy to go?

JIM BILES: Yeah. Actually, I wasn’t really happy to go because I was leavin’ behind something that I’d worked at for three years. I was leaving behind a potential career, and I really didn’t have anything on the horizon at that point.

Because, you know, I’m up here. I had considered and looked at and talked to some people about a job with the pipeline or, you know, somethin’ like that that was goin’ on.

But back then there wasn’t a whole lot of -- unless you were Alaska native. And by that, I mean somebody who was born here, had lived here for a long time. Getting a job here was not all that easy.

KAREN BREWSTER: If it’d been a couple of years later you wouldn’t have had a problem.

JIM BILES: Well, actually I wasn’t gonna have a problem then, but did I wanna stay?

I gotta, I gotta go back -- let me tell you about this incident. Because this is probably the seminal incident for the rest of my career in the Army.

In -- ’67 and ’68 were some pretty remarkable years in Alaska. '67 was the Chena flood -- that was a thirty, sixty year flood, somethin’ like that. I don’t even know if you’ve ever had another one like it.

KAREN BREWSTER: No, we haven’t. We have a dam now.

JIM BILES: Yeah, okay. But New Year’s Day 1968, I was ordered to --

I was the acting battery commander because our battery commander had gone on leave and gone home for Christmas and New Year’s.

So I was the acting battery commander as the second lieutenant, and I was required to order my officers to drive down to Eielson -- or from Eielson and from the battery down to Fort Wainwright --

the Officers’ Club at Fort Wainwright to attend a New Year’s Day reception hosted by the deputy USARAK commander who was a brigadier general.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you were commanded, you --

JIM BILES: I was required to do that, and I requested exemption from that.

Because when I drove my Jeepster Commando station wagon with me and two other people in it through North Pole, it was seventy-two below zero.

And I thought that was absolutely one of the most disrespectful things anyone could do.

Because that little Jeep was makin’ noises I had never heard any vehicle ever make. And I had seen stuff I would never believed.

‘Cause grease freezes. I don’t know where it freezes, but at seventy-two below zero just about everything’s frozen. And we had a hell of a time navigatin’ that vehicle down and back.

Course we were all -- we were in our Army blue uniform, but underneath it was all of our gear and over top of it was all of our gear.

And I think the thing that really irritated me the most about it was, I had asked for exemption. I said, you know, we don’t wanna drive thirty miles in seventy-two below zero to get to the Officer’s Club for a New Year’s Day reception.

This is not a training mission, this is not a -- we’re not fightin’ the Russians.

You know, we’re here to fight Russians, or we’re here to keep Russians from gettin’ through or, you know, whatever we’re here for. We’re not here to attend New Year’s Day receptions and have alcohol at seventy-two below zero.

And I think that to this day, I think I resent that among the most disrespectful things I can imagine an officer doing to the people that work for him.

You know, maybe you can relate to that, but maybe you can’t. But I was there, man, I was in that Jeep at seventy-two below zero.

And I just thought that was so disrespectful. You know, and I apologized to the people that were working for me. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

JIM BILES: But we all had to go.

KAREN BREWSTER: But then somebody had to stay on site and man the --

JIM BILES: Well, we did have one guy that lucked out. But the rest of us --

KAREN BREWSTER: Really, they took the whole crew?

JIM BILES: Well, no, it was just the officers.

KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, just the officers. Okay.

JIM BILES: There was three in my vehicle, and we had two others that took -- we had -- there was only --

at that time there may have been one more lieutenant assigned to the battery.

But the battery commander was down the hill, so -- no, just me. I was the only commissioned officer that went ‘cause there was only two others of us.

I think Tom Martin was the other lieutenant at the time ‘cause Lou was already gone.

It was a -- I think that was one of the things that taught me, think about what you’re doin’ to your people before you do it.

‘Cause I just thought that was just -- that was one of the most ugly things that I had to look at.

I mean, you gotta tell people to go kill other people and get shot at and things like that.

‘Cause later on I was in other branches of the Army. But I just thought that was just stupid.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you were putting your life on the line at seventy-two below to drive across town.

JIM BILES: The thing is, it wasn’t across town.

KAREN BREWSTER: To me it’s a long way.

JIM BILES: Twenty-five miles up the Alcan.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. And seventy-two below is a life-threatening temperature.

JIM BILES: If we had a -- if something had happened to that little Jeep, I don’t know what the hell we woulda done.

KAREN BREWSTER: You would have been running.

JIM BILES: Possibly.

KAREN BREWSTER: So 1970 you left Alaska -- you continued in the military?

JIM BILES: No. No, I got out of the Army in 1970.

And what -- the best time -- you know, another one of the best times I remember was goin’ down the inland waterway.

I drove my little Commando down to Haines, got on the ferry at Haines and went down to Seattle.

We went through the inland passage and all that. God, that was beautiful. Four days, nobody could talk to me. No cell phones. There was --

KAREN BREWSTER: So this was a vacation? Did you guys -- ?

JIM BILES: It was for me. I mean, I was goin’ home lookin’ down the gun barrel at no job and --

KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, this was when you left?


JIM BILES: ‘Cause I was getting’ out of the Army. I think I processed out at Fort Lewis. Pretty sure I did.

I don’t even remember any of that. All I remember is, I just wanna go home.

KAREN BREWSTER: You were done with the Army?

JIM BILES: Yep. And I, you know, like I said, I locked up all the memories. It took -- all of a sudden all this stuff comes back. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

JIM BILES: And there are -- there were some strange, strange feelings that I had to deal with when I first started into this.

I remember I would -- I would find myself with these -- with my facial expressions that I actually had to re-adjust with my hand. My cheeks were so -- I’d be givin’ it this to try and get my face back into --

KAREN BREWSTER: They’re hard memories.

JIM BILES: Yeah. And I told another guy this, but I think he misunderstood what I was tryin’ to say.

I can fully understand how these young men that are, that are -- they came back from Vietnam and had seen, you know, a whole lot more horrible stuff than I’ve ever seen.

I can understand how those guys can have traumatic stress.

And I can understand how they still have -- I have friends that still have nightmares.

Some guy wrote a little piece recently about, "Were you in Vietnam?" "Yeah, I was just there last night."

And I can understand that just from the experience that I had. Because dealing with it after forty years -- it was about forty-two years -- was really instructive.

And it really brought some visceral memories up. And some reactions that were not real good, frankly.

I put a lotta years in the National Guard. I put -- I was on active duty from 1985 till I retired in ’95. And I was servin’ with Army units then -- I got to serve with the seventh infantry division, the twenty-fourth infantry division, headquarters, Fort Irwin, the national training center, and headquarters first Army.

My last job was workin’ with a three-star general, and it was probably another one of the worst jobs I ever had in the Army. Because those people had nothin’ to do but, you know, make life miserable for each other. It was terrible.

And a lot of ‘em were very old. Lot of ‘em had been in the civil service system a long time, so it was -- and they were experts at throwin’ barriers up.

So that was -- workin’ for the general was good, ‘cause he was a really good guy.

And I met one of my lifelong Army buddies there. We’ve already taken a cruise together, our families -- my wife and I and his wife and I.

He and I went to Sturgis in ’09 together. He rode up from Louisiana. I rode from California. Met up there.

KAREN BREWSTER: It’s interesting that, you know, it was a difficult experience here and you wanted nothing to do with the Army, but then you did go and serve in the National Guard.

JIM BILES: Mm-hm. Whole different experience. Completely different experience.

One of the things was, I was a air defense officer. And I was goin’ to officer advance courses -- how it got done -- and the guys in the tank battalion said, “Hey, you know, why don’t you come -- why don’t you join the Guard? Come on, get in the tank battalion.”

Because I told ‘em -- I made the mistake of tellin’ ‘em I’d always wanted to be armor.


JIM BILES: And sure enough they took me out to Fort Irwin, and I’m gonna tell you, that was another one of those really great experiences.

And I had a whole bunch of great experiences after that. And my time in the Guard was good because Guard officers will do the things that I expected Army officers to do.

And I’m not sure what’s behind that.

Because there’s politics in the National Guard. I mean, there’s real politics in the National Guard.

Because once you get up to about the O-6 level those jobs are political. Literally political, where they will re-branch an attorney to become an armor officer so that he can command an infantry division.

‘Cause that’s what the state adjutant general wants. You know, they’re buddies -- he’s an attorney, and I don’t know what they do with each other, but --

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, we only have a few minutes left before your parking meter runs out, so I don’t want you to get a ticket.

So have we covered all of the things you had noted in your preparation?

JIM BILES: Yeah. I think so. I --

KAREN BREWSTER: Is there more you wanna tell me about?

JIM BILES: I don’t think we ever completed a coherent thought. But one of the things was those pilots from the North Slope. It was just crazy. I mean, these guys knew that we had a job to do.

KAREN BREWSTER: They were commercial pilots?

JIM BILES: Yeah. Commercial pilots. They worked for the pipeline company. They worked for somebody up at Barrow or something like that and, you know -- I don’t know that they were all drunk.

One of ‘em was definitely drunk, because they pulled his pilot’s license.


JIM BILES: Because of the incident with us. But I don’t know, I think we -- I think we pretty much covered it.

One thing about -- you said, could you talk about your work and did our spouses know much about it.

Not really. Because for officers it went up to top secret cryptographic access, so it was --

the only time you could vent was with other officers and you had to be careful where you did it. ‘Cause you know, you couldn’t sit in the Officer’s Club downtown Eielson Air Force Base and talk about your job, because it was all secret.


JIM BILES: Not all of it, but you know, we could talk about some of the day to day stuff.

But the really scary stuff was when we had to pull out the nuclear authenticators to be able to fire, you know, a nuclear warhead. And there was all kinds of stuff involved in that.

KAREN BREWSTER: So was that hard that you couldn’t talk about it?

JIM BILES: Yeah, I think so. You can tell that I’m an extroverted thinker.

So for those of us that were extroverted thinkers, you know, that’s how you think. That’s how you develop -- you know, you hear what you say. People give you input.

Yeah, it was difficult for me, but I don’t think -- not everyone’s extroverted thinking so --


JIM BILES: Your personality type probably had a lot to do with that, as much as it does -- as much as it does PTSD, because a buddy of mine was infantry in Vietnam.

I have two guys that I can talk about. One of ‘em was Special Forces, really, the other was infantry -- just plain old dirt infantry.

And the dirt infantry guy says, “Ron, I don’t know what the hell your problem is with this PTSD stuff. I don’t have it and I did two tours and you only did one.”

And I’m thinkin’, "Al, dang, man!" ‘Cause I can see Ron has all these problems. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

JIM BILES: And Al doesn’t so --

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and it sounds like, you know, you didn’t see the things they saw in the combat, but you’ve obviously been affected by what you saw and did here.

The fact that you pushed it away for forty years says something.

JIM BILES: Yeah. That’s what I was sayin’. I’ve had some experience with it, but nothin’ -- nothin’ at all like those guys.

I mean, you know, as a lieutenant, if you order some guys to go do somethin’ and some of ‘em get killed, that has got to be a horrible experience.


JIM BILES: And then, you know, where do you go from there? Then you’ve got company commanders that are doin’ it, and they’re getting’ a lot more guys.

KAREN BREWSTER: So for you it was -- the ugly part was this bad commanding officer?

JIM BILES: I think that was probably -- yeah, that was probably a breaking point for me.

You know, would I have made a different decision, you know, if I didn’t have the bad OER, I might’ve.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right. But the rest of the job and before all that, did that negatively affect you, too. Those pressures and -- ?

JIM BILES: No. No, because, you know, I went in with the attitude my job was to get in there, you know, and I had some training to let me do the job, so let me go do it then I’ll learn.

And like I said, I had some really good people to teach me stuff. ‘Specially the enlisted men. You know, you learn.

And that was what I figured the Army was all about.

But when you run into -- when you run into a bully that you can’t be defended from, then you really have a problem. And that was --

KAREN BREWSTER: So overall, how do you assess your experience up here? And what it’s meant to your life in the bigger picture?

JIM BILES: You know, yeah -- that’s really hard to say and I was tryin’ to -- you asked that. And I was tryin’ to figure out how to answer that the best way.

I guess what I would say is -- experience with the enlisted people was as I already described it. Those guys came, they did their jobs, they went home. I’m up here with a bunch of guys that are extremely successful in everything they did.

Some of ‘em say their experience in the military helped ‘em to do what they’re doing now.

These guys run their own companies, they’re doin’ all kinds of stuff.

That part was extremely good. The personal -- you know, you can see that I like interaction with people. And that part of it was really good.

And the difference between the way the officers treated each other was vastly different between my active Army experience and my National Guard experience.

But again we were -- we were in a different -- we were in a Vietnam/Cold War experience here.

And when I went home, the Vietnam issue had pretty much fallen out of the equation. Because first of all, the National Guard really didn’t think they were gonna get deployed to Vietnam although that’s what we trained to do.

Or we got, you know -- we actually had Cold War scenarios where we went to Europe and Korea and those sorts of things.

So, you know, there were some different parameters down there, but basically I think it was just a -- it was a different level of respect among the officers in the Guard then there is in the --

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, can you say you’re glad you served in the Army and were up here, or you wish it’d never happened?

JIM BILES: Well, you know, it’s really the basis of what -- what the stuff that I did later on. And I’m glad that it -- I’m glad that I -- I have a great life.

So I’m glad that it went the way it did. And I think, you know, probably I did -- I made it -- some Air Force guy told me one time, it’s not how you fall, it’s how you recover.

And so, you know, I feel like I recovered pretty well. So, this part was -- I had to recover from it, but thereafter, you know, I had a great life.

And it was partially I would say because of the basic training, basis in training that I got starting at Fort Bliss. Well, actually even before that. ROTC and stuff like that.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, thank you very much. I don’t wanna get you a parking ticket.

JIM BILES: Okay. I appreciate that.

KAREN BREWSTER: So I really appreciate your time. And hopefully we’ve covered everything you wanted to cover.

JIM BILES: Actually, you know, again that was up to you, so I hope we got what you wanted to cover.

KAREN BREWSTER: Definitely. And thanks.

JIM BILES: Thanks.