Joe Griffith was interviewed on September 5, 2014 by Karen Brewster and Leslie McCartney at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage Alaska. Joe was one of the keynote speakers at 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 two part interview, Joe explains how he went into the Air Force in the early 1960s, his three tours in Vietnam, and how he came to work at the Pentagon in readiness assesment. He also talks about becoming a commander in Alaska, the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Russians, and reflects how his career was affected by the Cold War.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 5, 2014
Narrator(s): Joe Griffith
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Leslie McCartney
Videographer: Leslie McCartney
Transcriber: Sue Beck
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Background and entering the military
Fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis
Effect of the Cold War on his career
Possible missile launch that turned out to be false alarm
Working at the Pentagon
Coming to Alaska and taking over command of the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing of the US Air Force
Converting to a F-15 group
Incident at the White Alice site in Aniak, Alaska
Early warning systems in Alaska
Intelligence gathering today
Working under the influence of the Cold War
Russian airplane flying over Alaska
Shoot down of Korean Airlines flight
Training exercise for handling Russian spies
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Today is September 5, 2014 and this is Karen Brewster. And we are here in Anchorage with Joe Griffith for the Cold War in Alaska project, and Leslie McCartney is also here running the video camera.
Thank you, Joe, for your time today.
JOE GRIFFITH: My pleasure.
KAREN BREWSTER: So just to get us started before we kinda jump into the Cold War in Alaska part, a little bit about yourself, a little bit of your background.
Apparently, you were born in Oklahoma.
JOE GRIFFITH: Actually, I was born in Arkansas, but grew up in Oklahoma. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
JOE GRIFFITH: Went to the Air Force Academy in 1960. Spent four years there and then from there right into pilot training and a career in the Air Force that continued until 1984, when I retired and stayed in Alaska.
And I’ve been here ever since.
KAREN BREWSTER: And why did you decide to go into the military?
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, as a kid -- I was a youngster when the Korean War broke out and I watched all the John Wayne movies of flying jets and things like that, and for some reason I just had a -- a compelling need to fly airplanes.
And that led to trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and I was a bit of a poor kid so I knew I -- the only way I could get through college was to figure out a way myself.
So I, as a youngster, studied up on West Point and Annapolis. There was no Air Force Academy at that time.
And so I had decided that I was gonna achieve an appointment to one of those service academies and -- and then transfer to the Air Force and fly airplanes.
By the time I reached a senior in high school, I went to -- to my representative and -- and to Carl Albert, who was then speaker of the house as I recall, and asked for an appointment to -- I believe it was Annapolis I asked for.
And my actual representative was a fellow named Tom Steed then, and he said, “Hey, I got a deal for you. I need appointees to this new school in Colorado.”
And I actually knew nothing about the Air Force Academy. It had spooled up about three years earlier, and they were just in the process of moving from Denver to the Colorado Springs site.
So, I took the test for the academies and I passed the one for the Air Force Academy and -- but I wasn’t the primary appointee.
So I ended up being what was called an alternate. That meant you were the number two guy and you might get selected or not.
I did not that first year, so I went to Oklahoma State as a freshman, enrolled in ROTC, and then tried again the next year for the Academy. And again I was a runner-up.
And, you know, I was a little depressed that, gosh, this is not gonna be do-able. And I went down to -- in those days you communicated by telegraph.
You -- nobody called you or you didn’t have text and all that -- and I got the telegraph that said, "Sorry. You’re not the appointee. You’re the -- the alternate."
And I’m all depressed and -- and shortly thereafter the Western Union kid shows up again and here’s another telegram that says, "Congratulations. You’re a qualified alternate. The Air Force is selecting you to go to the Academy."
So on the same day I get the rejection and then a pickup by the Air Force that picked a hundred of my classmates out of the qualified alternate.
And then I spent -- went to the -- that June I went to the Academy and spent the next four years there.
And as soon as I got out, I signed up for pilot training. That was my prime objective. And went to Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
KAREN BREWSTER: So pilot training was separate from the Academy?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes, it was. I did go through what they called pilot indoctrination as a second-classman. That’s a junior.
And went to Selma, Alabama just at the period that all of the -- the race problems were occurring in Selma, and I was at Craig Air Force Base there. And we flew fifteen hours in a T-37 -- right up to solo.
So I had that flying experience.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so how does it feel for you, being in an airplane like that -- those fighter jets?
JOE GRIFFITH: Absolutely wonderful. I’ve -- I’ve loved every minute of it.
I probably have forty-five hundred hours of high-performance time in every aspect that one can imagine.
I’ve flown forty-eight different airplanes, including three or four of the Russian models when people didn’t even know we had Russian models to fly.
And I own a Chinese trainer. It’s out in Birchwood. A military trainer that’s a really fine airplane, also.
KAREN BREWSTER: So we had Russian airplanes in the US military?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes, yes.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: How did you acquire them?
JOE GRIFFITH: I think we probably got ‘em from Israel. They’d captured ‘em in maybe the ’68 and the -- or ’67 and ‘73 war.
Would’ve been ’67, I believe, because they were -- we had them before --
Yeah, it would’ve been that --that period.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so did -- were they having you flying in it as a training so you would know what was happening on the other side?
JOE GRIFFITH: Training, yes. And I wish I’d have had that before I went to Vietnam.
I -- I had three tours in Vietnam and had I had the experience of knowing what the capability of the Russian airplanes were, I’d have been a lot better fighter pilot in combat.
But at that time, when I went over we didn’t have it. But later we got that capability and ran many of our -- of our fighter pilots through those. And at least let them look at the airplane and see what it was like.
I later had an opportunity, when they flew the first MiG-29 in out here at Elmendorf -- that would’ve been maybe 1990 or ‘91.
They were moving the airplane somewhere in the Lower 48 for some reason, and he landed out here and refueled.
And the military people -- I was by then retired, long since retired, and I was -- they called me up and said, “Would you come out here and look at this airplane?” Because they knew I had a long test and evaluation basis.
And I -- so I got to crawl all over it. And I asked the Russian -- I speak not a too good of Russian, but I can talk to him, and I understand them fairly well.
And I asked the Russian pilot if I could look over his airplane. He said, “Sure.” And I went through it in great detail and I took extensive notes. First one we’d ever seen.
And it was remarkable how they had built an airplane with the same capabilities that our F-15 had, but was -- the technology was thirty or forty years earlier. Yet their performance was equivalent to ours.
I was impressed with the way they did it. To look in the wheel well, it looked like a T-33. And that was a 1950 airplane. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: So, after you finished the Academy and you became a pilot and, as you said, you did tours in Vietnam, I’m gonna skip us ahead a little bit to your work with the Pentagon.
JOE GRIFFITH: Okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: ‘Cause I don’t know if that ended up getting connected to your time here in Alaska or --?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes. You can’t disconnect them. They were all tied together with a thin string and the Cold War was that string.
We were planning to defend our country and Europe from the Russian hordes, we thought.
And we knew fairly well what the Russian capabilities are -- were -- and we also knew they had terrible economic problems.
And eventually that’s, of course, what brought them down was the economy failed and not anything else.
But they -- they did have a formidable armed force and they still do. And fortunately they never -- it never was brought to bear on us nor was ours used against them. But we came close.
That Cuban Missile Crisis was a scary one. That’s as frightened as I have ever been. And -- that we were going to war.
KAREN BREWSTER: And at that point, that was ’62 -- JOE GRIFFITH: ’62.
KAREN BREWSTER: You were in the Academy?
JOE GRIFFITH: At the Academy, yeah. And we were getting daily briefings on what was going on, what the situation -- I didn’t mention it down there today, because I don’t know how much of it is still classified. But probably not a lot, but it’s a long time ago, but it was frightening for all of us and we had drills to get us underground into the -- away from a potential attack.
And I sent notes to my parents that said if -- because they lived in Wichita, Kansas at the time, and my mother was teaching there -- and I was -- feared that Wichita would be a target if we ended up shooting it out with the Russians.
KAREN BREWSTER: Why Wichita?
JOE GRIFFITH: Because it’s a -- a huge construction base for airplanes. And there was at that time Atlas missile sites all around it.
You know, they’ve long since been plowed over and -- and covered up, but -- so I was worried about that.
And made plans with them where I would meet them if the lid did come off.
Because, you know, think about it. You -- all your communications would be down. Your -- many cities would be smoking ruins. We were scared.
KAREN BREWSTER: Was the fear a nuclear attack?
JOE GRIFFITH: Nuclear, yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: In particular.
JOE GRIFFITH: Because we -- I believe we had gone to DEFCON 2. They don’t even use defcons anymore, but one means that you’re -- the people are hovering over the button or it’s been punched. The bombers are en route.
The lid has come off. Two meant that the doors were open. The triggers were cocked.
The bombers were at the failsafe point circling. And as I recall, that’s on the last day of the crisis before Khrushchev backed down that that that’s where we were.
KAREN BREWSTER: We were at two?
JOE GRIFFITH: Two, yeah. And I’m sure that the history books can verify that, but --
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. I don’t think that’s top secret anymore. JOE GRIFFITH: No, I don’t think so.
KAREN BREWSTER: But, Joe, it sounds like, yeah, your upbringing and your military training was all colored by the sentiments and feelings of the Cold War.
JOE GRIFFITH: Totally. Totally. My whole career was oriented one way or another because of the nature of the Cold War. And those were comfortable days notwithstanding the fear during the Cuban Missile standoff.
Because you knew who the enemy was, and you knew what his capabilities were, and you didn’t worry about much of anything else.
And today, you’re not sure where they are or who they are even.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Or what they have.
JOE GRIFFITH: Or what they have and, you know, this latest debacle in Iraq is a frightening thing because -- where’d they come from? Where these people been hanging out?
And they’re so brutal. And it’s frightening to think that there’s that kind of element still in our world out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, yeah. I mean, I can see what you mean, that the Cold War we had such good surveillance and intelligence, we knew what they had. They knew what we had.
Did you ever feel like, other than the Cuban Missile Crisis, that we were on the brink and one side or the other was gonna do anything?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes, I did when I was in the Pentagon. And this is a funny story. We had a -- our central command facility is in Colorado Springs and Cheyenne Mountain for the warning.
And they’re on 24/7, and they’re -- they have to keep working the software, and in those days, that’s been thirty- some years ago now, they had a IBM/36065 computer in downtown Colorado Springs and there they did all their modeling and software upgrades and then they -- and they had a fairly comprehensive link between there and Cheyenne Mountain, but they also severed that link when they were testing.
Well, one night they failed to sever the link. And while they were testing, all of a sudden the guy’s sitting on the desk out there and BOOM!
All the lights come on that say launches from all of these sites and everything.
And we were having an exercise at that time at the Pentagon, and I happened to be on the command -- I was sitting in the command post as the main controller there for the Air Force command post two stories underground in the Pentagon.
When it looks like the lid’s coming off again and you’ve got no choice but to get the president up. And it was two in the morning.
And I immediately called the White House duty officer and I said, “Get President Reagan out of bed and brief him on what this is, but I've got launch indications coming from Colorado Springs in all directions.”
And the guy said -- you know, he was aghast, too, because there was no crisis. There was no reason that they would be shooting at us.
And for that reason I really thought it was a flaw, but I didn’t know. I had no choice.
That spooked me a little bit. And the guy who was -- I knew the individual who was the duty officer at Cheyenne Mountain at the time, and when the lid -- when all of the lights came on and the warnings, and they started showing the trajectories?
He froze. He just couldn’t do anything at all. And he was a good friend of mine, but they moved him out, sent another guy in on the desk.
And we were huckledybuck scramblin’ there for about a fifteen-minute period. And finally they figured out what it was.
That it was the guys downtown testing software that had failed to trip the switch, so that the information didn’t get into the main battle control room up there.
But we got the president up anyway. So, and that was -- you can imagine the next morning. There was all sorts of -- several people got fired over it.
KAREN BREWSTER: Probably a few heads rolled on that one.
JOE GRIFFITH: A few heads rolled, and lo and behold, thirty days later they did it again.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh no!
JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah. Only this time I wasn’t on the -- on the command post at that time. Somebody else was sittin’ in, but they fortunately they said, “Boy, this looks a lot like what we had a month ago.” And didn’t get the president out of bed.
But Reagan took it pretty well, his guy said, that when they woke him up and -- of course, you have to. You call the bombers. You call all the missile silos.
And they’re sitting there, everything cocked. You can’t take a chance that it’s false.
That spooked me a little when that happened. But, you know, that Cuban Missile Crisis was by far the scariest period I had in my whole career. Other than several times in combat, but that’s normal.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so what did you do? What was your job at the Pentagon?
JOE GRIFFITH: I had -- I was -- I had a division of four entities. One of them was readiness assessment. We kept the worldwide records, the daily worldwide records of Air Force readiness all over the world, of all units.
And they reported those on a daily basis. Checkmate was one of my divisions, and it was the war gaming element in operations and for the whole Pentagon, and we ran various study -- heavy study scenarios figuring out what we thought the Russian capability under various circumstances would be, and briefed senior officers. And actually briefed the president on one occasion.
I mean, not in the Pentagon. We took it to the White House and briefed him. And many senators and members of the house, as well as most senior officers that came in would come down and get a look at what we thought was going to be the -- the war of the future if we got involved with one.
And in the process you defined what the shortcomings were. What -- where you were short of resources to be able to conduct the operations.
And at that time, it was airlift. And we had plans to take over the airliners that -- should we need it, had the Russians come across -- and there was a great fear in those days that they would come across the North German plain with -- with their thousands of tanks and armored artillery and mobile artillery.
And just roll over northern Europe.
KAREN BREWSTER: Not coming across through Alaska anymore?
JOE GRIFFITH: Ah, well, that would -- if that had happened in northern Europe, Alaska would involve. They’d have had to take out Elmendorf. No doubt about it.
Because that was the one thorn in their side for any aviation strikes into the Lower 48 or the Canadian centers of population and capability.
They have to come across Alaska, because their airplanes just didn’t have any other way to get here. They just didn’t have the legs to do it.
So, that -- we did those kinds of studies. Several different scenario studies. We did a big one on -- after the Iranian crisis, we did one there on --
KAREN BREWSTER: The hostage crisis?
JOE GRIFFITH: Hostage crisis. And one of my divisions did the planning or was involved in, heavily involved in, the planning for the rescue of the -- the hostages.
I mentioned that downstairs. The Sea King, that’s what those helicopters were called. The Sea Kings. I’ll never forget ‘em. Hate ‘em. But --
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, yeah, so it sounds like at the Pentagon you really got a feeling for the worldwide --
JOE GRIFFITH: I forgot to tell you. I was also the -- I had the operational budget. At that time, the Air Force operational budget that was about two and half, three billion dollars, something like that.
And that included the -- some of the research and development efforts. A little beyond basic research, but once the equipment came online.
And I had done a lot of tests and evaluation myself in my earlier career on both fire controls and missiles and guns, so that was a natural for me.
And I had one other division. What was it? Escapes me at the moment.
KAREN BREWSTER: Readiness, Checkmate --
JOE GRIFFITH: Readiness, Checkmate, the budgetary thing, and there was one other. Oh, Joint Matters.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what's that?
JOE GRIFFITH: That’s the purple armed forces, where you have joint activities. We don’t fight as a service. We fight as a purple service. Altogether.
So the war plans all have them all melded together and there'll be a -- a commander in the various units and then they’re -- it’s defined how they support the -- each other in what they’re doing.
And that was one of my things up here is when I came up here, there was no capability to support the Army.
And the Army commander called me one day and said, “What are you gonna do if I need air support?” And I said, “Gosh, I don’t know. I don't have any airplanes that do that.”
That’s when I decided that I was gonna put bombs on my trainers and bombs on my air-to-air airplanes and that way I could defend the Army to the degree I could with the resources I had, albeit small.
I think I only had maybe twenty-two F-15s and fifteen or twenty T-33’s, so you aren’t going to be able to beat off a big force with that, but you can sure make their life uncomfortable.
KAREN BREWSTER: I always assumed all the parts of the military -- the Air Force and Army did work together. That they’re the ground troops and you're the air ones supporting them and --
JOE GRIFFITH: That’s a great concept. Doesn’t work that way.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s interesting.
JOE GRIFFITH: And you -- the major war plans are all developed in that vein. And each each service has it’s defined missions. But there -- there’s always a tension between who gets to use -- does air fall under the ground commander or how do you do that?
And that’s been a tension in the Armed Forces since day one. Does artillery belong to the infantry commander?
Does the Marine Corps belong to the Navy? How does all this fit together? And it -- believe me, it’s a challenge.
KAREN BREWSTER: I can imagine.
JOE GRIFFITH: And one of my divisions worked principally on that as well as anything that went before the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the operational side.
That was my division that worked that.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so you started at the Pentagon in what year?
JOE GRIFFITH: Seventy-nine.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. And then you came to Alaska in 1982? JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: And why did you come to Alaska?
JOE GRIFFITH: Because the general that was commander up here gave me a call one night while I was at the National War College about to finish the course of study there and said, “I need you up here tomorrow. I just fired the 21st Tac Fighter wing commander, and you’re the new one.”
And get up here tomorrow. I said, ”Geez, that’s tough. I got a family.” And he said, “Well, get up here soon as you can.”
So I threw everything I could in one of my cars and drove up here in four and a half days from Washington.
KAREN BREWSTER: And do you know why you were selected?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah. Because I was a young hotshot colonel and I’d filled all the squares up to that point and I was on a general-officer track.
And that -- one of the criteria to become a general was to be a wing commander.
KAREN BREWSTER: So they -- they were following your career? They knew who you were?
JOE GRIFFITH: Oh yeah. Oh yes. They follow it closely. Almost from day one.
And I had been promoted early to the three previous ranks. So I was very young and a very senior officer, and that was a bad combination. They used to call me the kiddie colonel.
KAREN BREWSTER: So tell us about coming to Alaska and starting here.
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, I came to Alaska, as I said, to take over the 21st wing that had just abysmally failed at operational readiness inspection. It was the worse debacle I’d ever seen.
And it was so bad that the general relieved the commander the next morning after they -- they finally stopped the evaluation it was so bad.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s why they needed a new commander? JOE GRIFFITH: Oh yeah.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Had it consistently been low in the ranks? Every time? Or was it --
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, nobody had ever really tested it. So it had -- they had grown their own little way of doing business up here, and it didn’t relate much to anything else that we had -- that anybody had been doing. And, you know, Alaska's a long way from anywhere, so we don’t worry much about it.
But this general that was my boss was concerned about that. And for that reason, he -- he had this ORI conducted.
And they came out of -- most of them who did the test -- and it’s a team that comes in and checks everything.
You just -- I mean, from nuts and bolts in your supply to your ability to generate airplanes and fly combat sorties, personnel, every aspect that you can imagine they -- they wirebrush it.
These guys came out of PACAF and they were, I’m convinced, were instructed to "you give these guys a good brushing and let me know how it looks." And they failed the first -- what’s called a generation. That is to bring up your fleet and be able to fight.
And you don’t do that overnight. You have to be sure the airplanes are fully operationally ready. You gotta arm ‘em, load ‘em, have the crews ready, and you call everybody into the base and it’s a huge effort that’s -- that’s involved in it.
And they failed it miserably. And they failed it at Galena. They failed at King Salmon and they failed it here.
So all of -- the two outlying forward operating bases flunked it, as did Elmendorf. So, that was really bad news.
So he relieved the commander after they called the exercise off when they had failed it so badly, and called me up here to fix it.
I did. It took me six weeks of pretty hard grinding with the F-4 fleet. At the same time, I was having to get ready to convert to the F-15s.
And I had already had an F-15 unit at Nellis, so I knew the airplane. I had flown it quite a bit and I knew what it took to make it operate.
And fortunately for me, a classmate of mine from the Academy was the item manager at Warner Robins Air Force Base, where the logistics supply for the F-15 was located.
And that really helped me. So, I made it through the ORI.
In fact, they called me, and I was very proud of that. They called me in on the last day and said, “This is the team.”
You know, they're -- it’s like stepping into the dark room. The lights are on. And they said, “Well, Colonel, you guys -- your guys are doing really remarkably well here, but we want you to know that you’re not going to get an outstanding."
And I said, “Why is that? Are we performing outstandingly?” And they said, “Yes. But if we give you an outstanding six weeks after we busted the former commander, everybody’s gonna say this is a brother-in-law job. So, we can’t do that. You’re going to get a satisfactory.”
And I said, “Okay, I’ll take that.” Because I had to instantly, once I got through that piece, step into converting to the F-15, which is a major effort.
And I was the first wing to convert all by myself to a brand-new airplane. And nobody else had ever done it. They’d all gone to some other F-15 group, got spooled up, and then moved as a unit. We made it.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what does it entail to convert from one to another?
JOE GRIFFITH: Everything changes. The skills, the manning, the bits and pieces, the supply chain, the -- everything you can imagine that it takes to support a tactical fight -- the munitions. Everything is different.
KAREN BREWSTER: Different nuts and bolts probably, too.
JOE GRIFFITH: Absolutely. Yes. And they don’t fit the former airplane. The stuff doesn’t fit the current. And you literally have to run -- you gotta re-train aircrews, re-train maintenance, and it just goes on and on.
And the chain goes all the way down to, you know, is your base exchange and commissary big enough to handle the influx of people? Things like that.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, how long did it take you to do that conversion?
JOE GRIFFITH: I did it in six months, and that’s -- was also another heroic effort that we were very -- and again, a lot of it -- and at the time I retired, this F-15 wing was the number one in the world for readiness.
And while I love to take credit for that, a lot of it goes to my classmate who was at -- the item manager. And I could call him up and say, “Hey, Bob, I need a couple of engines, bad.”
And the next C-141 that came in would have a couple of engines on it. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: And the F-15’s are bomber planes?
JOE GRIFFITH: No, they’re fighters. KAREN BREWSTER: They're fighter planes.
JOE GRIFFITH: But they do have a tremendous air to ground capability. And I had never operated them in that mode, but I did it. And I was carrying air/ground munitions on them.
The guys in the Pentagon went berserk over that, “You can’t do that! That’s an air to air fighter.” I don’t care. "This army guy out at Fort Rich has asked me for support. What am I gonna tell him? That I can’t do it? I’m gonna load bombs up."
He said, “Well, you’re not authorized any bombs.” Okay. But they brought me the bombs.
I had other contacts that brought the -- the air to ground ordnance in. And the F-15E model has been the finest air to ground machine we’ve ever built.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you said you did that also with T-33’s?
JOE GRIFFITH: T-33’s -- we had -- we were able to drop bombs from T-33’s. We could carry two 500-pounders, plus I put cameras on them, so we could use them as reconnaissance airplanes. Take pictures.
In fact, I had a big incident at -- when we closed the White Alice site at Aniak. Those huge transformers. And they were three or four times the size of this room and fifty feet tall that provided the power for that microwave communication link were full of oil.
And it was all -- well, later I found it was all PCBs-laced oil, too, but we would drain the oil out of the transformers and then cut them up and haul them in, or throw them in the dump somewhere.
And we had many of these barrels of oil sittin’ around that we knew had PCBs in it, and that’s early on in the PCB carcinogen knowledge the base was beginning to be built.
And so we lined it up out there and then we sent a C-130 out to pick it up to haul it back into here so we could dispose of it, it wasn’t there.
And the C-130 guys called back in and said, “The stuff isn’t out here. What are we going to do?” Well, my civil engineer that was running it called me up and said, “What do I do now?” I said, “I bet you somebody stole it out there.”
KAREN BREWSTER: Barrels of fuel?
JOE GRIFFITH: Barrels of fuel, although laced with PCBs.
KAREN BREWSTER: But they wouldn’t know that.
JOE GRIFFITH: They didn’t know that. So I sent a T-33 out there. And I don’t know if you’ve seen -- Aniak has a runway right down the middle of town.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I’ve been to Aniak.
JOE GRIFFITH: And so I had him make several passes taking pictures. And Aniak called the state -- somebody at the state -- I believe, the governor and -- who was was Bill Sheffield at the time as I recall, and said, “We’re under attack out here! The Air Force has got airplanes flying” -- and they were flying about five hundred feet, taking pictures.
And sure enough we found the barrels with those pictures. The guy flies back here, we developed the pictures.
Guess what? It was the chairman of the school board out there that had stolen the PCBs and had them in his backyard.
So, we sent a note out. I sent my attorney out there. I said, “You go talk to him. Say, if he’ll carry it back up there, we won’t say anything about it. We’ll just forget it. Otherwise, I’m going to the troopers."
And sure enough he delivered them all back there and the next C-130 comes in and picks them up and -- end of story. But it was kind of cute.
But we did really used the T-33’s for the reconnaissance.
KAREN BREWSTER: You had mentioned OR -- I’m just going back to some of the acronyms you used. ORI?
JOE GRIFFITH: Operational Readiness Inspection.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. And then you mentioned PACAF.
JOE GRIFFITH: PACAF. Pacific Air Forces. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
JOE GRIFFITH: At that time, Alaska was a separate entity. Today, it’s actually under Pacific Air Forces.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so when you came here, you came to Elmendorf (Air Force Base). And you were in charge of the 21st wing at Elmendorf and that covered Galena and King Salmon?
JOE GRIFFITH: Galena and King Salmon was one of my units, and I had a logistic responsibility for all of the radar sites and partially for the DEW-line sites that were being closed down at that time.
KAREN BREWSTER: So the force that is based out of Eielson is under a different command.
JOE GRIFFITH: That was a different commander. But they didn’t have the statewide responsibility that I had.
And that logistics meant fuel, food, mail, the whole shebang, other than plus to defend them if they -- if I had to.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so you mentioned cleaning up the White Alice sites. So those were closing down or had already closed?
JOE GRIFFITH: They had been closed already. About the time the whole White Alice system got fully built out, it was obsolete. Because the satellites replaced it and you didn’t need it anymore.
But it was a massive undertaking. I never did see the total dollars that went into it, but it would be worth looking at just to see how much that cost us.
KAREN BREWSTER: But it did operate for a while.
JOE GRIFFITH: It operated for a while and, yeah, it was used for -- but by the time we got it fully built out, it was obsolete.
KAREN BREWSTER: But the Dew-lines also -- you mentioned they were still -- some of those were still operational?
JOE GRIFFITH: As I recall, I don’t know, maybe four or six of the sites in Alaska were still operational. I think the Canadians may have closed all theirs down by that time.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I used to live in Barrow and there's a DEW-line right there, and then they were closing down some of the other ones.
Maybe you can answer the question of, they were shutting them down, did they cut them off completely, or they made them computerized or --?
JOE GRIFFITH: No. They -- they just shut ‘em down and took whatever was of value out of there or left the rest of it. The ones that -- the radar sites now were upgraded to what was called a minimally attended radar.
And we went from probably thirty people on these sites to maintain the old radar systems to a new automated one that fed into the central NORAD component here on Elmendorf.
And those had five or six people there. So it was a much less rigorous logistics need for those sites. And that’s -- I don’t -- I think we had, I don’t know, ten or eleven of them. I can’t remember the count now. And they’re all out there still operating today.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, yeah, there’s still a need for --
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes, that's the early warning today.
KAREN BREWSTER: The early warning. There was still a need for that.
JOE GRIFFITH: Mm-hm. Oh yes. Now our satellite system today is far, far better than these radars, but even those, you know, the missile-defense system uses Cobra Dane and the one at -- up at -- outside of Nenana at Clear.
And I think -- I don’t know whether they've finished the floating one, but I know they were working on a floating one to be able to defend against anything the Koreans, North Koreans might be inclined to send over here.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, the Nike sites were closed because we didn’t need the missiles to send out, but the DEW-line, we still needed the information coming in?
JOE GRIFFITH: We needed -- we needed that infomation -- that was our immediate intelligence information.
And today it’s far, far better than what we had then, but that was all we had. It was the radar system from the, well, north of Dutch Harbor all the way around to Barrow. There’s, I don’t know, ten or eleven of them out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you think with all the technology today, that they’d have advanced to something more than that.
JOE GRIFFITH: We have. We have. But still, if you want really good information, real-time type, the satellites provide good information, of course, and you’re able to move the satellites as necessary to watch certain sectors.
And you saw an example of that with the shootdown of that airliner in -- in Ukraine.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: The Malaysian airliner.
JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah. They put a satellite over the top of ‘em and watched it, what happened. So -- The -- that’s where the information came from.
But even that, you still need that immediate -- if you’re going to pick up incoming aircraft, you really do need that radar system out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: And, you know, we’ve been talking about the Cold War, and for many people they think of, you know, Cuban Missile Crisis and the 60s and, you know, your experiences here in the early 80s, you were clearly still working under Cold War --
Can you talk about that a little bit?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes, it was -- the Cold War as far as we were concerned was still on. There was no indication that it was ended.
We had had a rapprochement at the highest level certainly, and Gorbachev and that group was backing off from some of their -- the kind of things that Mister Khrushchev did, where he beat on the table with his shoe in the United Nations.
I noticed Sergei never commented on that last night. I was gonna ask him about it, but I didn’t get to. But he would’ve been a kid then, too.
Yes. It -- all of that still was influencing our strategic and tactical thoughts in those days. All of our war plans and everything assumed that the bad guys were the Russians.
And no matter what happened, something that popped up in the world would have a Cold War element to it wherever it occurred.
And it really did. It influenced -- like I said in the talk this morning, it influenced heavily what went on in Vietnam. Because Lyndon Johnson and his great minds that were working for him at the time feared what they thought was a Chin -- land war in Asia with China.
And I don’t think that ever would’ve happened. The Chinese would just have been as happy as could be if we’d have totally taken Vietnam out. But you never know.
So that governed an awful lot of what we did in Vietnam. And how much force we put in there. And were we gonna really seriously defend those people in South Vietnam that were crooked as a snake’s back, too. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: And then your decision-making here in Alaska for your building up your forces and going out on test missions was all influenced by a focus on the Russian --?
JOE GRIFFITH: Focus on the Russian threat. And that’s what we trained against. I sent teams of fighters and maintenance people to Las Vegas, Nellis Air Force Base, to train in that arena, on the Red Flag arena.
At the same time, we were trying to build our own Red Flag effort up here, which we do now have today.
KAREN BREWSTER: Those are the training operations here? So were there pilots from here flying out over Russian airspace and taking pictures and --
JOE GRIFFITH: No, not over Russia. We didn’t -- the only time you would do that is if it really got hostile.
We had overhead satellite photos. We knew what their bases looked like and how many airplanes they had there and all that kind of stuff. But it -- we didn’t have anybody flying over ‘em like Gary Powers.
KAREN BREWSTER: He was the U-2 --
JOE GRIFFITH: U2. 1962 U-2 incident.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm mm. Was there ever a time that Russian planes flew over Alaska?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah. They flew over Nunivak Island, as I mentioned.
KAREN BREWSTER: Maybe you can tell that story.
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, they -- they were shadowing us, because we had some kind of an exercise goin’ on. And I can’t remember details of it, but they -- the two Bears came in and flew parallel to the north side of the Aleutian chain.
And I sent fighters out from King Salmon to intercept them. And they picked ‘em up probably in the Dutch Harbor area.
And they were still outside the thirteen -- twelve-mile limit, so there wasn’t a problem. But, you know, he talked -- the general mentioned fifty miles? These guys were coming in to fifteen miles, so we didn’t know whether they were playing games or they were serious.
But my fighters ran out of fuel. The bombers were probably fifty to seventy-five miles short of Nunivak Island. It’s right out on the point out there.
And so we diverted them to King Salmon to fuel up and launched fighters from Galena, but they weren’t there yet.
And those two Russian bombers flew right across the middle of Nunivak Island. That’s the state of Alaska.
I was -- I couldn’t believe what I was seeing there! And I had my duty officer on the call -- the State Department duty officer, and said, “I got two Russians just flew across Nunivak. I want authority to shoot ‘em down.”
And, oh my goodness, you can imagine the lid came off in Washington. And I don’t know how far up it went, but I -- fifteen minutes later I get a screaming response that says, “Don’t shoot anybody!”
So the first question was, “Do you have live ordnance on those airplanes?” And I said, “Yeah. My airplanes from Galena are on the bombers as we speak that -- that flew over Nunivak and they have live ordnance."
And, “No, no! Don’t shoot anybody!” And there was never another word said about it. I wrote up a report and submitted it. Don’t know whatever happened to it.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so did those Russian planes veer off?
JOE GRIFFITH: No. They just kept truckin’ about twenty miles offshore, went right over Nunivak Island, right up there, and then finally turned west and back home.
They did it intentionally. It was -- of course, it wasn’t an accident. They did that intentionally to poke us. Said, “Ha-ha-ha. See, we can do this.”
KAREN BREWSTER: And you’re each monitoring -- you knew where their planes were from radars or satellites or --?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah, we were tracking ‘em on the radar. And that’s what I was watching, was my own radar feedback of where they were.
And you could see our airplanes come up and join ‘em. And soon as those guys peeled off, they flew right over Nunivak Island.
And didn’t seem to bother anybody but me, but --
KAREN BREWSTER: I wonder what the people on Nunivak Island thought?
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, they (the airplanes) were probably so high that they didn’t even notice it or they didn’t know who it was. You know, they were probably thirty-some thousand feet at the time, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, okay. And then you also talked about this KL-007?
JOE GRIFFITH: KAL-007, yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you tell us about that, for some people who don’t know what that is?
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, that was a shootdown by the Russians of a 747, a KAL-747 that was en route from -- and I’m not sure where he departed from. Whether he came from here -- or -- I believe he was -- came from -- from Anchorage and he was going to Seoul, Korea.
And in the process he somehow drifted quite north of his track.
And once air traffic control lost him from distance-wise, then he was on his own until he could be picked up by the Japanese air traffic control.
And that’s -- there is a wide spot in there where nobody -- and it’s close to Chukotski Peninsula and right south of Sakhalin (Island), and somehow he drifted quite a bit north and flew over the peninsula that Petropavlovsk is on.
And the Russians got pretty excited about it and eventually launched a fighter and gave him clearance to fire on them.
He had trouble finding them. The fighter did. And as I mentioned earlier there’s been a -- all of that traffic that was recorded is -- has been released.
KAREN BREWSTER: So the communications was recorded?
JOE GRIFFITH: The communications was recorded, but the Russian communications -- but we had no means here, even though we knew what was going on, we had no means to communicate with them.
And I’ve always wondered if I shouldn’t have done something different at the time to -- but it was a little sketchy information. We are having to -- it took time to translate it even though I had Russian-speaking people listening to them.
It -- it -- the translations were sometimes lost in it. And in the process, this guy finally got a sighting on ’em and shot that airliner down.
Killed two hundred sixty-nine people for probably two pilots in the front of that airplane that just weren’t paying attention to where they were.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, so you were able to monitor that whole communication?
JOE GRIFFITH: Yes. But it -- you’re listening to Russian communication talk. So, if you don’t speak Russian, it’s like like Greek to you.
KAREN BREWSTER: You were -- but what about the 747’s communication? Were you able to communicate with them?
JOE GRIFFITH: No. We had no ability to communicate with him. He was out of our -- out of our radio range.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And not in anybody else’s radio range either?
JOE GRIFFITH: Not at that time. He -- I don’t know whether they have HF radios or not. HF radios are single sideband and you can talk all over the world with them, but whether they have it or not -- they may have had it to their own operation people.
Some of them do have that, so they can talk to their ops people anywhere. But air traffic control is on a VHF frequency and it’s line of sight.
KAREN BREWSTER: And now, was there ever a discussion about aircraft being sent from here to intervene?
JOE GRIFFITH: No. We could never have got there. We’d have been out of fuel long before we could’ve got there. There was nothing we could have done.
And you get there, what are you gonna do? Shoot down a Russian fighter in his own airspace? That would’ve been another mess.
KAREN BREWSTER: So was it ever discovered? Did the Russians know it was a civilian commercial flight?
JOE GRIFFITH: I believe the pilot saw the airplane. It was dark. So, you know, he was looking at something that wasn’t too clear. And of course the lights were on on the airplane, so you can see the windows lit up to some degree at night.
And I think that -- that he did report that it would appear to be an airliner, but like John mentioned in the speech down there, they said later they confused it with a KC-135 -- or a C-135 that we had operating out of Shemya at the time, I believe.
KAREN BREWSTER: Which is a cargo plane?
JOE GRIFFITH: No, it’s -- it’s a -- it was a spook airplane, electronic warfare airplane that goes up and watches what they’re doing electronically.
And I forgot what we called them at the time, but they thought -- the conclusion was that the Russians thought that was that 135 that was up looking at ‘em and had intentionally flown across the peninsula out there north of Petropavlovsk, as I recall, and had violated their air space.
And at that time they were shot, they were still in Russian airspace.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what year was this?
JOE GRIFFITH: 1983, I believe.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Are there not on these commercial airplanes instruments that would alert the pilots, like an alarm or lights or something that they’d really flown off their flight path?
JOE GRIFFITH: Not in those days. We didn’t have Garmins (gps device) like we have today that have the magenta line that tell you what you’re supposed to fly along. But even those will trick you at times.
But he had instruments that should’ve told him. He had inertial navigators that -- and it’s possible that his inertial navigator had drifted off.
Instrumentation in those days, even in airliners, was not as good. Any light airplane today has better instrumentation that they had in those days.
And so there was probably no warning whatsoever, other than their interpretation of the instruments they had.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, somebody asked a question this morning after your talk that I wanted to follow-up on. Which was the ground presence of any Soviet quote-unquote spies from their -- I don’t know how to --
JOE GRIFFITH: Spetsnaz. KAREN BREWSTER: Yes.
JOE GRIFFITH: Those are the special forces, Russian special forces.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, were they -- did you ever come across any of that here?
JOE GRIFFITH: Never saw any Russian Spetsnaz other than the friendly guys who were dressed like them.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, yes. You mentioned that you did an exercise training. Can you talk about that?
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, that was -- we assumed always that the first element of any attack that might come from Russia would be Spetsnaz that would be dropped off out here on the beach, and they’d come in to the back door.
And that’s a wide-open large area that would be fairly easy to get across. And could get in and do severe damage to Elmendorf and the airplanes and what have you. So we always assumed that if anything was going to happen, that would be -- the first wave would be Spetsnaz.
And so we were ready for them. When they did the exercise, sure enough the bad guys, albeit dressed as Russians, and they were -- really were our people from Honolulu, come in via boat in the back door of Elmendorf.
But what they didn’t bank on was the fact that I had anticipated that, and I had my security policemen in a big ring around the back side where they would -- could come in. And we caught ‘em all.
And so that part of their exercise failed, because we had caught ‘em.
They also -- I had deployed all the airplanes so I had no airplanes left at Elmendorf except two on alert that would replace the alert airplanes where else they were. But we moved airplanes to Kotzebue.
We took ‘em to Prudhoe Bay, to Deadhorse. We had them -- two airplanes at various sites.
And they hadn’t banked on that either -- that I would actually move my fleet away from what I knew would be the target. So I would be ready to fight another day if they took my home base out.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. That makes sense.
JOE GRIFFITH: Well, it sure did to me. But other people, I guess, never think of that. They just sat there and waited for ‘em to come.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, that’s all part of military strategy, isn’t it?
JOE GRIFFITH: I would think so. At least it was in the strategy courses I took. It said defend yourself, protect yourself, and then be able to respond when they -- if they do attack you.
And the only way I could think about it, because it’s a lovely target. You can see it from downtown if all those airplanes are parked on the ramp.
So when -- as soon as the ORI kicked off, I moved them. I sent them to various places around Alaska. I put two more at Galena, two more at King Salmon, so I had four airplanes at each place there.
I took -- sent -- I believe it was four, to Kotzebue, which moved ‘em, you know, four hundred miles closer to the threat. With the maintenance people that they needed and they carried the munitions with them, so we were ready to go.
KAREN BREWSTER: And then we still have troops stationed at King Salmon and Galena?
JOE GRIFFITH: No, I don’t think there’s any more out there. They closed -- Galena is completely closed and King Salmon may have a kind of a cold storage capability. But I don’t believe there’s any active-duty military there anymore.
It’s a beautiful facility. We -- when I was out here, we upgraded everything there. The hangars, the alert hangars as well as the base-support functions.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it sounds like during your command you did a lot to improve readiness of the troops here and did a lot of training exercises for that.
JOE GRIFFITH: We did, and we trained hard to be able to defend Alaska. And we -- as I said, we believed we were the first line of defense for the United States.
And we were, by golly, going to make it rough on anybody that came over.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and luckily nobody tried to come.
JOE GRIFFITH: Nobody came. And of course, nobody wants them to do that, but we had to -- we had to assume they would.
It’s -- I had President Reagan up here on a visit and I took my finest sharpshooters and I put ‘em on top of every building around while he was transiting from the airplane up to the hangar where he gave his speeches.
And his chief of staff, when I briefed them on -- before the president came said, “My goodness, this is an armed camp.” And I said, “Yes, it is. There's -- no president’s gonna have a problem on my installation.”
And these guys, you know, the best we had were -- at every point they could watch the president’s car. And it’s just a matter of readiness.
And same with the airplanes. Don’t leave ‘em there if somebody’s going to try to come out here and blow ‘em up.
KAREN BREWSTER: I have another question, but I want to change tapes so I don't run out and -- JOE GRIFFITH: Okay.