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Lee Griffin

Lee Griffin was interviewed on August 1, 2000 by Kathy Price at his office in the Environmental Resources Division in Building 3023 on Fort Wainwright, Alaska. In this interview, Lee talks about U.S. Air Force strategic surveillance and reconnaissence operations based out of interior Alaska during the Cold War. He discusses the difference between strategic and tactical reconnaissance, describes the different types of operations (photo reconnaissance, electronic reconnaissance, weather reconnaissance, and long-range detection), and explains their missions and terminology. Lee also mentions connections between scientific research and military operations.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-92

Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Aug 1, 2000
Narrator(s): Lee Griffin
Interviewer(s): Kathy Price
Transcriber: Jessica Obermiller
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Historical Commission, Alaska Humanities Forum, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Alternate Transcripts
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Personal background and overview of military and civilian career

Overview of strategic reconnaissance operations of the U.S. Air Force in Alaska

Photo reconnaissance flights out of Ladd Airfield and Eielson Air Force Base

Electronic reconnaissance flights

Figuring out what these strange airplanes did

Use of pressurized flight suits for high altitude flying

Weather reconnaissance flights

Collecting air samples to detect Soviet nuclear testing

Military secrecy, and supporting the air missions and airplane maintenance

Use of seismographs to detect underground nuclear tests

Ties between the Air Force and the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute

Soviet monitoring of Alaskan communication systems

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KATHY PRICE: This is Tuesday, August 1st, 2000. And this is an interview with Lee Griffin conducted by Kathy Price. We are at Fort Wainwright in Building 3023.

And I'd like to start the interview off, Lee, with just a little bit of background information about you and your military career. And then we'll get into some of the things we'll be talking about for the interview, if you would.

LEE GRIFFIN: Okay. I first came -- first joined the military in 1968 direct commissioning Air Force ROTC out of Memphis State University.

First assignment was Titan 1 Missile out of Lowry Air Force Base Colorado and the decommissioning of the Titan 1 Missile sites.

Waited around awhile and eventually got into munitions maintenance officer's course. Spent about eight months doing that. Went from there directly to Southeast Asia.

Came directly from Southeast Asia to Alaska in December of 1969. Assigned the 5010th combat support group, Eielson Air Force Base as the base munitions officer, December '69 'til April '76.

Thence to England Air Force Base in Louisiana for a little over a year. Thence to eastern Turkey for a year. Thence back to 6th Strat Wing, Eielson Air Force Base (6th Strategic Wing) until 30 October 1980.

After that, I was released from active duty. Spent several years in the Air Force Reserve doing civil air patrol liaison work for the northern half of Alaska.

Eventually, I got passed over for Major doing that, four-time loser. Then, the rest of my Air Force career was traditional guard's person, 168th Air Refueling Wing. Weekend warrior type with the Air National Guard.

And eventually pulled the plug in, I guess, '97. After a total of 29 years associated with the Air Force in some way, shape, or form.

KATHY PRICE: And then following that, you came to work here at Fort Wainwright?

LEE GRIFFIN: Well, actually, during that. After I got released from active duty in '80, I came to work here at Fort Wainwright as an industrial engineer technical writer, doing the CA stuff in 15 October '82.

And I've been full time civil service since. Currently, employed as an environmental scientist and Director of Public Works here at Fort Wainwright for the Army.

KATHY PRICE: Could you tell me what CA is? LEE GRIFFIN: CA - Commercial Activities.

KATHY PRICE: Okay. LEE GRIFFIN: Wrote the Commercial Activities contract.

KATHY PRICE: And you also had been involved in the cultural resources programs here at the base?

LEE GRIFFIN: Well, when I came to environmental is when I got involved in cultural resources, yes.

KATHY PRICE: Okay. All right. What we were wanting to talk about today was some of the information that you had on the strategic reconnaissance operations that were taking place in interior Alaska.

And just some of the -- the background that you had that you can explain some of the terminologies and some of the types of things that were taking place.

We also were planning to talk a little bit about some of the research that was taking place here in this area on -- scientific research with military connections. Geophysical communications type of research.

And we had both agreed that oral history was a good way to get at some of this material because it's -- it's not directly documented in -- in ways that are too accessible to the general public.

So, I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about the difference between reconnaissance and strategic reconnaissance to start off with.

LEE GRIFFIN: Okay, there's two major divisions -- The way I understand the system, there's two major divisions of reconnaissance genre.

Tactical reconnaissance has to do with day-to-day what the good guys are doing vs. what the bad guys are doing. And it’s how to -- you know, it’s more immediate and more narrow scope.

It's, you know, where the bridges are, where the choke points are. That kind of stuff.

Strategic reconnaissance is more global in nature. It's more, you know, for the -- for the -- the big, long term use than -- than the other -- other tactical reconnaissance is.

That's the primary way I understand the difference between the two.

KATHY PRICE: And within strategic reconnaissance, there are a couple of -- of subdivisions. I'm just going to list them out and then we'll go back and talk about each one.

Photo reconnaissance, electronic reconnaissance, weather reconnaissance, and during the early Cold War, long-range detection.

And maybe you could start off a little bit of information about photo reconnaissance and just go from there.

LEE GRIFFIN: Okay. Well, you know, photo's pretty simple. It basically just takes -- take a picture. Photo reconnaissance was primarily done early on through such aircraft as U-2's or B-57's.

And some of the RC-135's, you know, did a limited amount of photo work out of --

Of course, you know, back early early on, you know, the F-13 B-29's did photo reconnaissansure out of Ladd (Airfield, now Fort Wainwright).

So photo reconnaissance goes back, you know, all the way back to the early days of World War II. Used for long damage assessment and looking at, you know, target selection. So photo reconnaissance has quite a history.

A lot of it was done out of -- here at Ladd and a lot of it was done out at Eielson.

KATHY PRICE: Do you have any feel for -- for the divisions between Ladd and Eielson?

How much of the reconnaissance missions shifted over to Eielson, and any idea of how early on that happened? I know it's a little bit before your time at Eielson, but --

LEE GRIFFIN: I think it primarily started out of here and as the -- the Air Force became less and less enchanted with Ladd, as they ran into runway restrictions, as the facility aged and declined in -- in occurrence and usefulness, I think it gradually evolved over to Eielson.

I don't think there was any one particular day where they quit doing it here and started doing it at Eielson. I think it was a gradual evolution process.

KATHY PRICE: Thanks. The next thing we wanted to talk about was electronic reconnaissance and the different types of electronic reconnaissance.

And I know that in my experience this was a little bit more difficult one to understand, so, any enlightenment you could provide on this.

LEE GRIFFIN: I didn't -- It didn't -- By the end -- By the close of World War II, we had developed the capability of -- Basically, anytime you use an electronic device, it produces some sort of electronic noise.

Radars, of course, were big emitters. VHF, UHF radios are big emitters. Telephones are emitters. You know, anything that -- any electronic device basically is an emitter.

It didn't take too long before they discovered that they could locate radar systems. It didn't take very long before they could -- discover they could monitor the bad guy's radio transmissions.

It didn't take too long before they learned to decrypt the bad guy's radio transmissions, and it played a significant role in World War II.

You know, and, of course, you know, systems do evolve. So, got more and more and more capable.

And it was done here out of Ladd early on in the -- in the days of the RB-29's and the F-13's. If you're going to go do reconnaissance, you might as well get as much information as you -- If you're going to fly a 12-hour mission or a 20-hour mission, you might as well get as much information as you can.

So, piggybacked onto the weather recon and, you know, geophysical recon and photo recon. And we'd always -- would almost always be some sort of electronic eavesdropping that occurred.

And the primary kinds of electronic eavesdropping are ELINT, basic electronic -- electronics intelligence.

KATHY PRICE: And that's spelled out E-L-I-N-T?

LEE GRIFFIN: Right. SIGINT, S-I-G-I-N-T - Signals Intelligence. COMMINT - Communications Intelligence.

And, you know, these kinds of things basically, you know, by the middle of World War II were being done routinely. And they were being done out of both Ladd and Eielson, you know, from that time forward.

What got me interested was, I've always been interested in airplanes. I've been an airplane nut since day one.

And, you know, hanging around the flight line at Eielson you'd see strange airplanes. You know, you'd get out your "Jane's All the World's Airplanes" and look and these airplanes weren't in the book. You know, they weren't standard KC-135's that were ubiquitous. They were -- they looked different. They had, you know, strange appurtenances.

They weren't standard B-57s. They had extra engines and long, long wings. It was pretty easy to ascertain that they flew very, very high.

You know, so, just basic curiosity led me to try to figure out what these airplanes did and why they did it.

Sometimes it took twenty years to figure it out, but one little bit -- piece at a time, eventually, I, you know, got the big picture.

KATHY PRICE: Any particular story come to mind as you think about that?

LEE GRIFFIN: Yeah, the WB-57's were my first primary, you know, what the heck's going on here? You know, why are these guys flying, you know, a fairly old airframe? You know, why have they extensively modified the airplane to make it look so strange?

You know, basically what was going on -- it didn't take -- yeah, six or seven years and I finally, you know, got one little bit and one little piece and another little bit and another piece and figured out what they were doing and why they were doing it.

They were flying both weather and signals intelligence missions out of Eielson against Mother Russia.

Of course, the guys eating strange breakfasts and wearing space suits was, you know, a pretty good clue. They had to have steak and eggs for breakfast, so they didn't -- so it made them high altitude capable.

KATHY PRICE: Can you explain that?

LEE GRIFFIN: It's just a matter of a little gastroenterology. If you -- You don't want to eat, you know -- You certainly don't want to do beans and burritos for breakfast and then go to 65,000 feet. That's the altitude these planes operated at.

So, they ate high protein, low gas foods for breakfast. They sat in pressure suits breathing oxygen in an easy chair for several hours prior to takeoff.

And then they jumped in their extremely high altitude capable airplanes and went up where it was dark.

KATHY PRICE: I wasn't aware of the pressure suits and any of that aspect to it. Have you got anything more to describe about that?

LEE GRIFFIN: Well, it's just, you know, if you're going to go very, very, very high you've got to protect your pilots.

Basically, the astronaut quality pressure suits were used in both U-2's and RB-57's, you know, from the program inception.

KATHY PRICE: You had mentioned a little bit earlier about the -- the weather flights. Maybe we'll address that specifically.

That there were weather reconnaissance flights going on as well, and the other missions were piggybacked onto those. Was that a matter of kind of regular practice than?

LEE GRIFFIN: It was a -- it was a matter of regular practice, but it was also very, very well hidden. It wasn't -- It was extremely close held and not publicized.

And weather reconnaissance has got -- You know, it's not just -- it's not just weather sometimes.

There's a close relationship between weather for day-to-day flying operations. There's a close relationship between weather for strategic recon -- You know, strategic operations. You know, can you get your bombers to target?

And there's also a close relationship between weather and data gathering, in that weather reconnaissance, the long-range detection program, was the only way they could absolutely verify that Mother Russia had ever set off a nuclear device. Or an atomic device. Early, early on.

Because by getting the air samples, they can tell what was used -- You know, what kind of -- whether it was a plutonium or uranium device.

They could tell how efficient it was. They could tell how big it was. And they could tell where it went off.

KATHY PRICE: So that long-range detection program, as I understand, started up around 1947. Even though the Air Force and the military planners didn't expect the Soviets to have that capability that early, they -- they were still checking.

And could you describe how that was done?

LEE GRIFFIN: Basically, they extended filter pods outside the airframe, the fuselage part of the airframe of the aircraft, and they changed filter papers.

They had a system where you could change filter papers in flight. And every so often they would, you know, take out a piece of filter paper that had been -- had lots and lots of air flow through it and put in another one.

And that was the first means we had to detect the fact that the Soviets had actually detonated their first atomic bomb. It was flown out of Eielson.

At the same time, they would also be doing -- You know, they just didn't do this, they would also be, you know, looking at the -- at the -- the actual weather, you know, if it was along the route, too, they would -- The old kill two birds, one rock philosophy. Get as much data per mission as you could.

They'd also have, you know, guys in the back of the airplane doing, at least to a limited degree, some signals intelligence or electronics intelligence.

KATHY PRICE: So, they would essentially be -- be listening for any radio signals that -- that were coming along in the flight path? Not necessarily radar nets, but any type of communications that they could hone in on?

LEE GRIFFIN: You know, depending on where they were going, they could have, you know, radar -- radar guys in the back or they could have signals guys in the back, they could have communications guys in the back.

Depending on what their flight profiles and where they actually went.

KATHY PRICE: You were saying that you observed, you know, the aircraft that came into Eielson. Was there any other -- Were -- did you have the opportunity to participate in any of -- of the reconnaissance programs in the -- ?

LEE GRIFFIN: Not during my first tour. We -- You know, being the -- the garrison part of the base, we provided support to them. But very, very indirectly involved.

KATHY PRICE: And then in your second tour, with the 6th Strat Wing, what -- what can you tell us about that?

LEE GRIFFIN: This was a whole lot more intimate involvement for being a spy.

The 6th Strat Wing operated out of Eielson. They supported RC-135-S Cobra Ball missions, which were primarily to look at the Soviet missile program.

And they supported RC-135V and W missions, Burning Wind missions that were to basically fly SIGNIT, ELINT, COMMINT missions against Mother Russia.

We also supported the Alaska Tank Taskforce that provided tankers to support both the Cobra Ball and the RC-135V/W aircraft.

So, we were pretty heavily involved in being good spies.

KATHY PRICE: And I -- I imagine that the -- the particulars of the activities of that time would -- would still remain proprietary information for the Air Force.

LEE GRIFFIN: No, most of the -- You know, most of -- Most of the stuff we did back in that era has been published. You know, exact times and dates, you know, kinds of stuff. It's all been published and it's all pretty much available if you carefully read between the lines in some of the Aviation Week articles.

We used to call it "Aviation Leak" back in those days.

But, yeah, it's -- it's fairly -- fairly widely known and it has been published, so I'm not divulging national secrets.

We also -- because we were the KCRC-135 experts, even though it was a different major air command -- We were SAC, Strategic Air Command. Military Airlift Command (AMC) did all the WC-135 missions.

KATHY PRICE: Which would be the weather?

LEE GRIFFIN: Weather, right. But because there were times the WC-135s were on high priority long-range detection sniffing missions for nuclear tests, and they did not seem to get a whole lot of support out of the air base group at Eielson, we kind of adopted the philosophy that when the WC-135's would come up on their long-range detection missions, we would adopt them.

Provide them with logistic support, parts, maintenance, and give them some assistance. So, we did. We helped those guys quite a bit when they were on their high priority missions, because they couldn't get help anywhere else.

So we kind of adopted an AMC mission because we had some extra piece in making their airplanes go.

KATHY PRICE: Were there special considerations or special opportunities for these missions because they were based in Alaska or in Interior Alaska? I mean weather considerations or climate or location?

LEE GRIFFIN: Just, you know, we were close to Russia, basically. Most of the RC-135S Cobra Ball missions were actually flown out of Shemya. So we had to provide maintenance and logistic support to Shemya Eareckson Air Force Station (actual name is Eareckson Air Station, and formerly called Shemya Air Force Base) to support the aircraft.

So we would fly, you know, weekly logistic re-supply missions out to Shemya. And the -- the RC-135S aircraft spent most of their operational lives actually flying out of Shemya and would come into Eielson for major maintenance or repairs.

Or, if they really needed, you know, reconfiguration or heavy, heavy maintenance, they'd go down to E-Systems in Greenville, Texas.

We had two RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft and generally one of them would be operational while the other one was down at E-Systems being modified, upgraded, reconfigured.

The aircraft changed -- would change basically everything inside the airplane every 18 -- 18 to 24 months.

So, you'd launch the airplane down to Greenville, get it back a year and a half later and it would be entirely new stuff inside the -- inside the fuselage. Major modifications went off. Trying to keep the systems up-to-date and capable.

KATHY PRICE: So those aircraft, as far as reconnaissance aircraft, were really the top of the line in -- in the US aircraft fleet at that time?

LEE GRIFFIN: Yeah, they were -- The Cobra Ball RC-135S was the highest priority of the strategic reconnaissance airplanes in the world.

The RC-135V/W's weren't too far behind, and they were doing COMMINT, SIGNIT, and ELINT, but watching the Soviet missile program was the number one priority.

The Cobra Ball was primarily an optical airplane, in that it looked at re-entry vehicles coming back in the atmosphere. But it also did COMMINT and SIGNIT in that it could monitor the telemetry of the re-entry vehicles.

It could monitor the test range telemetry. It could monitor the test range communications. To see, you know, how the Soviets tested their missiles.

KATHY PRICE: I've heard Alaska described as a great big fat listening post in a VFW magazine article. Basically, because of the strategic location being so close to -- to the Russian far east. And, is there anything to add about other --

You had mentioned to me one time about ground-based listening systems.

LEE GRIFFIN: There were also ground-based listening and ground-based transmission systems around Eielson.

There were also ground-based -- This is where we can kind of tie the Geophysical Institute (at the University of Alaska Fairbanks) into it.

There were ground-based seismic systems that they had fairly early figured out could detect above-ground and underground nuclear -- nuclear tests.

Back in the -- '74, I guess, some Air Force guys and Geophysical guys came to my facility and said they wanted to install a seismograph, because we had a fairly quiet facility out in one of the munitions storage areas.

So we installed seismographs in some of our buildings and provide additional data to the seismic system for detecting either above-ground or underground nuclear tests.

So, I kind of got involved in that program kind of early. It took me -- took me a while to figure out why they were interested in seismographs, but being eternally curious, it didn't take too long to -- to make the connection.

And then, you know, twenty years later, I got the connection confirmed when the Detachment 460 came out of the black and started publicizing what they'd been doing and why they were doing it.

KATHY PRICE: Detachment 460 was out of Eielson?

LEE GRIFFIN: Detachment 460 was out of Eielson. Detachment 460 was strange. It was kind of a strange outfit.

They were originally founded as a laboratory for analyzing the chemical characteristics of the filter papers, and --

KATHY PRICE: For the long-range detection?

LEE GRIFFIN: For the long-range detection program. But as long-range detection, you know, became less and less important because there were less and less above-ground nuclear tests going off and more and more emphasis on underground nuclear tests, Detachment 460 evolved into basically a seismic station.

And it took me about thirty years to figure out what those guys did and why they did it. Well, not quite that long. But to really get the entire picture of what that 460 did and why they did it, took about thirty years to figure it out.

They're -- you know, they're still there, they're still doing seismic work. They still run seismographs all over Alaska.

And they're still listening basically for, you know, somebody in the world setting off an underground nuclear test.

They're part of Air Force Technical Application Center out of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

KATHY PRICE: Maybe this would be a good time to -- to talk some more about ties between the Air Force and the local research facilities like the Geophysical Institute.

I'm aware that Geophysical Institute had a number of contracts from the Air Force Cambridge Research Labs in the late '40s and early '50s.

Those may or may not have had logistic support from the Air Force sites here at Eielson or at Ladd. But is there any information you can add about the -- ?

LEE GRIFFIN: The Poker Flats rocket research facility was fairly heavily supported by the Department of Defense. Both the Army and the Air Force. Most of their rocket boosters were, you know, surplus military.

My first few weeks at Eielson, we had this basically World War II airplane land with one engine out, and had a liquid fuel rocket in the back of it going to Poker Flats.

It was about 55 below zero and the rocket was temperature sensitive, so we had to quickly, quickly figure out how to get this airplane out of the cold into a warm spot to protect the rocket. Then we had to figure out how to unload the rocket inside the hangar and transship it to Poker Flats.

And that was all Geophysical Institute work all done under contract. Primarily, through the Army.

It was an Army airplane. But he had a little problem, so he landed at Eielson, and we provided him assistance to make the mission go.

So that goes back a long, long time. Their Geophysical Institute's research into aurora had direct implications on military communications, because solar activity and auroral disturbances disrupt military communications, so there was a pretty good link there.

KATHY PRICE: And, of course, Alaska was a -- a major site for early warning and there was a very high need for accurate and continuous access to communication.

LEE GRIFFIN: If you go back a little bit to White Alice program, it was, you know, the first ever really attempt to do tropospheric scatter long-range communications.

And the auroral activity, you know, disrupted tropospheric scatter.

KATHY PRICE: And tropospheric scatter is when you send a signal up to the -- the part of the atmosphere known as the troposphere and it bounces back down? LEE GRIFFIN: Yeah, it bounces back down.

But, so, yeah, you know, a lot of interrelationships went on there in trying to make White Alice work. To try to figure out when White Alice didn't work, why it wasn't working. And that was related to solar and magnetic storm activity in the troposphere.

And Geophysical Institute was involved in a lot of that. It tied directly to their auroral research programs, and how to, you know, sampling and detection of magnetic anomalies and those kinds of things. So it all worked together.

KATHY PRICE: Is there anything else you'd like to add about the science connection or anything else that comes to mind?

LEE GRIFFIN: Well, you know, most of the Geophysical Institute’s equipment was -- probably came out of DRMO. KATHY PRICE: Which is?

LEE GRIFFIN: Defense Marketing Reutilization Office. They keep changing the names. It was DPDO, Defense Property Disposal Office for a while. It was --

Anyway, it's gone through several iterations of names, but it's the military's bargain warehouse over here, you know, at the -- on the corner of Badger Road and the Richardson Highway.

You know, heaters, you know, forklifts, vehicles, you know, you name it. The Poker Flats folks used -- You know, a lot of that was acquired through DRMO, or Defense Reutilization Marketing Office.

KATHY PRICE: I think we've covered a lot of the just general information I wanted to talk about today, but I'd like to just open it up for a few minutes if you had any particular stories to share or interesting moments or crises, or -- You name it.

LEE GRIFFIN: The -- the hardest part was the -- was the relationship of, you know, of all the bits and pieces. You know, when you're trying -- You know, what was going on with -- Communications is a very, very important program. You've got to be able to communicate.

Any time you communicate electronically, you leave yourself open to being monitored. So that was all going on.

At one time, in, oh, probably about '76, we were informed that 100% of all of the telephone conversations in Alaska were being monitored by the Soviets. You know, so everything that was being said in Alaska.

They didn't, you know, personally listen to each and every, you know, "Honey, I love you" conversation that went on between, you know, Fairbanks and Omaha, Nebraska.

But, if they would filter feed -- Basically, they would sit and listen and if something like, you know, "Burning Winds" or "Giant Safari" (program was actually called Big Safari) or, you know, something that they were interested in, was mentioned, then they would go back and replay the conversation and see what was said.

But, yeah, they -- you know, there was a lot -- A lot of it was, still is, a lot of listening going on because you can tell a lot just by listening.

And if you learn to -- to filter listen and pick out important salient points and important programs and important kinds of things, you can -- you can gather a lot of intelligence just by listening on the telephone.

And all of the telephones in Alaska by the -- Well, after White -- By the early '50s, all the telephones in Alaska either went tropospheric scatter or microwave shot. And it was all imminently detectable.

KATHY PRICE: How does something like that work? How -- how can, and this is the layman talking here, how can -- how can Russian listeners just cope with that kind of volume of constant communication signals and make any sense out of it?

LEE GRIFFIN: Well, originally the original program required lots and lots of people that spoke and understood English.

That was their -- You know, they had have a -- a vast cadre of people that could speak and understand English. And they recorded it all. You know, the infamous --

(to person who enters the room) I'll be there. UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay, I need you here in a couple seconds. LEE GRIFFIN: Okay. UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It'll just take --

KATHY PRICE: Brief interruption.

LEE GRIFFIN: Even the Soviet trawlers, you know, is a classic example, where they took fishing boats, hid the antennas in the -- in the railing systems. Hid the antennas in the structure of the ship, and sail right up to the -- to the boundary of US waters.

And, you know, every one of those Soviet trawlers was a listening post. And they intercepted electronic signals by the, you know, billions.

Okay, I've got to take a break.

KATHY PRICE: Alright, well, I'd like to thank you very much for your time, Lee, and -- and for the information. I appreciate it.