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Joe Griffith, Part 2

This is the continuation of an interview with Joe Griffith on September 5, 2014 by Karen Brewster and Leslie McCartney at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Joe talks about the cooperation between the various services in the military, his work as a commander in Alaska, and Alaska's involvement with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). He also talks about his work with the Air Force's 21st Wing, and reflects on his career.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2014-18-06_PT.2

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

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


Cooperation between military branches in Alaska

Challenging the status quo

Challenges as a commander in Alaska

Best part of Alaska command

Career highlights

Capable weapons systems

Losing aircraft and pilots

Staying in Alaska after military retirement

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: My question -- we were talking before about cooperation between the various services in the military. Talk a little bit about how you made that better here in Alaska.

JOE GRIFFITH: Well, I -- I went to everybody that was here: the Guard people, the Marine Corps reserve units, everybody that was around, and asked them what -- Coast Guard, Army -- because we had a fairly big Army presence and still do today -- as well as the other Air Force installations, and said what do we need to do to have the ability to defend ourselves if we have to?

And each of the commanders that I talked to gave me an idea of what they needed, and we had a communication link set up so we knew how to talk to each other.

And it was, you know, just the kind of thing you do if you’ve got to defend, you want everybody that you can have and that included police departments and things like that.

Because traffic control, if you were to come under attack, it can be a problem. And in Anchorage, you know, there’s one road in and one road out. So --

And a good share of our people lived out in the valley. So we had to be able to get ‘em in. How were we going to do that?

And how are we going to keep them on base if we did come under attack? And all of those things we talked about, just how to deal with that.

What would happen downtown if people tried to escape? You know, if they’re afraid they’re coming under attack.

You can -- it was like Katrina when they tried to get out of New Orleans. Nobody could get out because the traffic couldn’t move.

Until they finally -- somebody had the sense to open the other lane to one-way traffic going out of the town.

And that’s -- we dealt with those kind of things. We worried about what happens if the Eagle River bridges get blown up by a Spetsnaz team. ‘Cause that’s -- if you can’t get over Eagle River, you’re stuck.

And we had -- had Army bridges identified that we could -- Bailey bridges or something they call them -- that we could get in here rather quickly to help us get over that chasm up there where the river is.

So all of those things you do in preparing for any kind of engagement that might occur. Thank heavens it never did.

KAREN BREWSTER: And was there resistance? I mean, those different parts of the military obviously were used to doing things a certain way.

JOE GRIFFITH: They were used to doing things a different way, but my commander, the three-star, Lyn -- I forgot his last name -- Lynwood -- his idea, his instructions to me were, "You’re a war fighting entity and you’d better be ready."

And to me that said do everything that you would have to do to defend the State of Alaska and anywhere else for that matter that you might be called to do that.

And that included -- of course, we were a NORAD element, and NORAD deals principally with the air threat, but we still had the possibility of a ground threat here.

And his guidance was you do what you have to. I never worried a bit about local command having a problem with what I was doing.

There were certain elements in the Pentagon that didn’t like it, but they’re a long way away.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was going to ask you, your mention of the -- you know, altering those planes and putting bombs on -- sounds like there’s some times in your career you did things that maybe you were told not to and you got around them.

JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah. I did.

KAREN BREWSTER: And how did you do that and succeed at that, especially in the military?

JOE GRIFFITH: I just did what was right. And had a good argument. And when called on the carpet, I had a good logic for why I got where I was.

And that to me is what it’s all about. It’s not being politically correct or saying the things you want your commander to hear.

It’s doing what’s right and having a good reason and a logical approach, and that’s what I tried to do.

And here, I defied those majors and lieutenant colonels in the Pentagon to tell me not to defend my base and the people that are here.

And none of them had the guts to stand up and tell their generals who are asking the questions, “Well, we’re going to let him sink out there just because it’s -- he doesn’t have that in his table of allowances.”

When -- and sometimes you have to push on ‘em a little bit. You know, the Pentagon’s a long way from here.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, it sounds to me it also requires some courage and strength on your part to be willing to go up against the higher-ups.

JOE GRIFFITH: Possibly. But again, remember I had a three-star general that I could always fall back on that was saying, “You’re doing the right thing.” That helps a lot.

If I’d have been a lonely colonel out there doing that, even though it’s a one-star position, they’d have cut my head off in a hurry probably.

And there were people in the Pentagon didn’t like what we were doing up here. And -- because it looked too much like an armed camp.

Well, I said, “This is a military installation, kids. We’re not doing this for fun. We’re tryin’ to fight a war here. Now, hopefully, it never comes, but if it does, I intend to be ready."

KAREN BREWSTER: And was cong-- was congressional support important, like, Senator Stevens?

JOE GRIFFITH: Senator Stevens and I talked often about it, and I told him everything we were doing. And I probably talked to him once a month every -- the whole time I was commander out here.

A lot of it was personnel issues, because somebody’s mother was always calling the senator wanting to know why Johnny, who was smoking dope on the flight line, was in jail.

And so he would call and I would tell him what -- why Johnny was in jail. But it -- he knew what we were doing and he supported it fully.

He never did tell me to back off, you’re causing too much trouble here in Washington.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, that’s what I was wondering. Is it -- I know he was a strong supporter of the military here in Alaska.

JOE GRIFFITH: Very strong.

KAREN BREWSTER: And that that would’ve helped you with some of the ruckus in the Pentagon, if the senior senator is behind it.

JOE GRIFFITH: Probably did. I never saw that because I never was called to Washington to go explain anything. It was either my three-star out here did the explanation or I talked on the phone to some action officer in the Pentagon if there was a problem.

They -- they objected to the fact that I had access to F-15 parts. Like I said, I had the number one readiness of the F-15’s in the whole world.

But that’s because I could pick up the phone and say, “Bob, I need some parts, and here’s what I need.” And he’d get ‘em to me.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, so, even in the military, it’s who you know, huh?

JOE GRIFFITH: It’s who you know. And if you go to school with them and you're good friends with them, it helps.

KAREN BREWSTER: What would you say was one of your biggest challenges during your command here in Alaska?

JOE GRIFFITH: The biggest challenge by far was first getting the wing into a whole different concept of doing business. To become a war fighting entity rather than a fishing entity.

In fact, the first day I was here I flew a T-33 to King Salmon to meet the commanders at Galena and King Salmon. And they were dutifully standing out there as I taxied up in the airplane.

And on their hats and on their fatigues was a patch that said: "King Salmon Air Force Station: Fishin’ is the Mission."

They had just blown an operational readiness inspection, the worst I’d ever seen.

I called those three guys that were standing there, a lieutenant colonel and two majors, over, and I said, “I’ve got a knife right here. You cut those patches off. Fishin’ is no longer the mission in Alaska.”

And when I retired in 1984, they gave me a plaque with one of those patches. And I made ‘em burn the hats and patches right there.

I said, "Get rid of ‘em. Your fishin’ isn’t the mission anymore. We’re now a war fighting entity." And we became that. And that was a challenge.

Conversion to the F-15 by ourselves with no help was a big challenge, also.

KAREN BREWSTER: I was thinking you might not have been the most popular commander with some of those choices.

JOE GRIFFITH: Well, I -- I don’t know. You’d have to ask the people that worked for me. I always thought I had a pretty good relationship with them.

I pushed them hard, but I gave them something to live for and to work for, and something that they thought they were supposed to be doing.

And my experience has been that no matter who you got out there, if you give them a challenge and the right assets they need to work that, they’ll do a good job for you. And they have never ever in all of my life let me down.

And I’m -- this is fifty years in the workforce, including twenty-four years in the Air Force.

And I have taken what other people said were a bunch of slugs that couldn’t do anything, and be able to head them in the right direction and give ‘em the support and put your arm around 'em and help them do it and, by golly, they’ll get the job done.

Americans are pretty dang good at doing that. And that’s what happened out here. It was the same people that passed that ORI that flunked it six weeks earlier.

What was the difference? I gave them their heads. Somebody else didn’t.


JOE GRIFFITH: And they knew what to do, and they went out and did it.

KAREN BREWSTER: So what was the best part of your command period?

JOE GRIFFITH: Out here? The best part? Oh, I think it was standing in front of that ORI team when they told me I could no longer -- I couldn’t get an outstanding because it would look too much like a brother-in-law situation. That was a very pleasant period.

But I don’t think there was anything that was really unpleasant other than losing a couple of airplanes. That was troubling to me, but the -- I truly enjoyed the command aspect out here.

KAREN BREWSTER: What about your whole career in general? Is there something in particular that stands out as a highlight?

JOE GRIFFITH: Highlights? I’ve had really what one would characterize as a gilded career. I had all of the right schooling. I had all of the right bases. I survived three tours in Vietnam.

I flew the finest airplanes first that we had. I had the finest command jobs that you get.

I was promoted early to major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel, so I can’t say there’s any aspect of my career that I didn’t think was absolutely superb.

Even today, I daresay there’s no one in the Air Force that has fired more air-to-air missiles than I did. I fired, I don’t know, twenty-five or thirty. And that’s a big deal for pilots.

KAREN BREWSTER: As a pilot? JOE GRIFFITH: As a pilot. Yeah, from an airplane. And --

KAREN BREWSTER: And that was in Vietnam?

JOE GRIFFITH: No, this was in test and evaluation. I did fire a bunch of ‘em in Vietnam. I did. I fought bad guys in Vietnam, air to air.

That’s where I really lost faith in the missiles, because I fired a lot of missiles that didn’t hit anybody.

And that’s troubling, because they had told me when I was a young pilot that these things were -- they sensed the pilot’s heartbeat and drilled them in the middle of the back. Well, they didn’t.

So, no, I think as a whole I truly enjoyed my Air Force career.

KAREN BREWSTER: Now you’ve got me interested in this thing about the missiles and your change of thinking about them based on that experience in Vietnam.

You continued, though, to use those same weapons here in Alaska, right?

JOE GRIFFITH: But I fixed ‘em before we got here. The -- I had two and a half years at the Tactical Air Warfare Center at Eglin and I was in charge of the fleet of missiles and I fixed ‘em all.

And a lot of it was just we weren’t maintaining them right. They hadn’t been designed right. And no pilots had been in there and told the design engineers what they needed.

We fixed ‘em. And in fact the AIM-4 and the AIM-9’s and the AIM-7’s all became pretty formidable and fairly accurate weapons and -- by the time they got to the current versions of them.

And they’re still out there, the same ones. They’re highly capable weapon systems. A lot of it was fire control.

And nobody had ever really gone into the fire control who understood it.

I was an engineer, had a graduate engineering degree at the time, still do, and I could go in and figure out what was happening.

What the radar was saying, how it was working, and what it was telling the missile. And that was part of what was wrong with them. And we fixed all of that in about a two-year period.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, so when you were here, you had confidence in the systems?

JOE GRIFFITH: I had confidence in the weapons and I made my weapons people -- I went down and talked to them, told them what you had to do to maintain these munitions. They are like wristwatches.

And the only thing that’s more like a wristwatch, a Rolex, is -- are the nuclear weapons. And that’s because they have to last forever, and they never get used.

But these air-to-air missiles today, if you go out the base and look at them, they're -- they look like top of the line pieces of gear.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you mentioned losing some aircraft. That also included losing some pilots.

JOE GRIFFITH: I lost one pilot -- two pilots. There were two men in a T-33 that crashed out here at the end of the runway.

He was doing a simulated flame out and stalled the airplane on final and spun it in. Killed ‘em both. That was a terrible, terrible experience.

And another one was one of my F-15 pilots jumped out of one out near Stony -- out in the Stony area, right south of --

KAREN BREWSTER: The Stony River below McGrath?

JOE GRIFFITH: Yeah. Stony River area. And in the airplane I think is still laying out there. And he spun the airplane and tried to get it out. Couldn’t get it out of the spin and jumped out of it.

And the rule of thumb with the F-15 was always, if it’s doing something that you didn’t ask it to do, my rule of thumb was you wind the clock and you reach down and change your transponder code.

And that meant you took your hands off the controls and it would recover. He didn’t do that. He tried to horse it out and in the process made it worse and then couldn’t get out -- had to jump out of the airplane.

KAREN BREWSTER: And he survived?

JOE GRIFFITH: He survived. But we lost the airplane.

KAREN BREWSTER: And this was just on a regular--?

JOE GRIFFITH: Regular air-to-air training mission, yeah. He somehow got it into a spin, and it was hard to spin an F-15. You had to work at it.

I never forgave him for that. I didn’t let him fly again as long as I was out here. Just because of that.

KAREN BREWSTER: Only two is pretty good, I would think.

JOE GRIFFITH: Well, you -- as a wing commander, you don’t want to lose any. That -- my rule of thumb was don’t lose any, and I -- I particularly was hurt by the T-33 at the end of the runway out here.

‘Cause I had to go talk to their parents and their wives and all of that. That’s hard.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I -- just to wrap up -- apparently you liked it in Alaska, because after you retired in 1984, you stayed. And that's not always the case with the military stationed here in Alaska.

JOE GRIFFITH: No, I bought a house out on Hiland Road in Eagle River, and I had one kid going into grade school, one kid going into junior high, and one kid going into high school.

So I said I’m done with -- at that time I had moved twenty-two times, I believe, in twenty years in the Air Force. And that was it. I'd had all I could stand.

KAREN BREWSTER: So what was it about Alaska that made you want to stay?

JOE GRIFFITH: The beauty, the people, the opportunity that I saw, and the ability to fly anywhere, anytime, anyway you want to without all of the paraphernalia that goes with it in the Lower 48.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, just to conclude, is there anything else about this topic of Cold War in Alaska, the role Alaska has played?

JOE GRIFFITH: Alaska’s played a key role in it. And I was fortunate to be -- have a two-year stint in -- right toward the tail end when it really peaked out with some of the issues that began to tail off, probably in the late ‘80s. So --

But by then I was workin' down here in the Hill Building, so --

KAREN BREWSTER: So, in your mind the end of the Cold War was the fall of the Berlin wall and the Gorbachev and Reagan meeting?

JOE GRIFFITH: Yes. That -- it took a period of time for it to come about. But I think all of us who had studied any economics of the Soviet Union knew it was going to fail. We just didn’t know when.

In fact, my people in the Pentagon that studied it when I was head of the Checkmate division there, they predicted almost to the year that the economy would run out of gas. And sure enough it did.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right. Well, thank you so much for your time this morning. I really appreciate it.

JOE GRIFFITH: My pleasure. Thank you.