Story submitted by John Andrew Prime
Celebrating and commemorating the historic long-range bombing mission that started Operation Desert Storm in 1991, introducing a paradigm-changing weapon and setting the bar for future air operations, veterans of the long-hushed Secret Squirrel mission met Saturday at LSUS and in downtown Shreveport.
A half-day morning symposium at the university, capped by a an evening banquet featuring the four-star general now in charge of the nation’s bomber and missile command, was the initial public staging by the new Strategy Alternatives Consortium, or SAC. The event marked the 25th anniversary of the Jan. 16-17, 1991 mission that targeted key communications and grid targets in and around Baghdad, Iraq.
“You guys did something 25 years ago that had never ever ever been done,” Gen. Robin Rand, leader of Air Force Global Strike Command, told the almost 40 veterans who gathered at Sam’s Town Casino with an even greater number of family, friends and civic leaders. He summarized what they did with seven B-52 bombers flying a 35.4-hour, 14,000 mile nonstop mission as “nothing short of spectacular.”
The crews lobbed 35 conventional air-launched cruise missiles, or ALCMs, achieving a success rate of greater than 90 percent in the first use of GPS-guided weaponry.
“Frankly, it was untested,” he told the fliers and their spouses, who attended from all corners of the nation. “Frankly, it was unproven. But you did it. And you changed warfare for the next 25 years. You took us into the age of precision, delivered, standoff weapons. You ensured that we remained the greatest Air Force in the world. … We can’t let that die. Your story has to be told.”
It is, through a white paper by historian and author Gary D. Joiner, ongoing oral interview by the R.W. Norton Foundation and gatherings such as that sponsored by the Consortium, the first major public setting honoring the crews. Proclamations from the mayors of Shreveport and Bossier City completed the picture.
But the story almost wasn’t told. Officially called Operation SENIOR SURPRISE, the mission was top secret, with its name not to be spoken or written. So it was dubbed Secret Squirrel by crews of the 596th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base. During the four months of planning that preceded the mission and for a full year after, they couldn’t share their burden with coworkers, friends or family members.
The mission’s B-52Gs, now all scrapped aside from some nose art and other pieces saved in museums and two airframes preserved in museums, weakened the formidable defenses of Baghdad to allow greater success for the F-117, F-15, F-16 and other coalition fighters and bombers the public saw targeting the Iraqi regime.
The morning symposium at LSUS featured short addresses by two Eighth Air Force commanders, current head Maj. Gen. Richard Clark and former commander Robert J. Elder Jr., a retired Air Force lieutenant general and founder and senior adviser of the Consortium. Elder also is a former Air War College commandant and a current research professor at George Mason University.
“The former B-52 aviators who sit before us today made history,” Clark told a crowd of military, family members, locals with an interest in the military and historians who came from as far away as Canada, all gathered in the University Center Theater. “What you accomplished and achieved on this mission established a legacy and helped define our bomber force of today.”
The Senior Surprise/Secret Squirrel mission remained for a decade the longest non-stop combat mission in air warfare history. But it was more than a long-range mission in the tradition of the Doolittle, Ploesti and European air war and Pacific air war campaigns of World War II. Secret Squirrel was the forerunner of today’s global strike strategic thinking.
Secret Squirrel was the first long-range bomber air attack launched from the continental United States, involving coordinated overflight planning, multiple air refuelings per bomber and the first strategic mission that used stand-off munitions in a scenario where American bombers did not penetrate enemy airspace, launching and recovering from a base deep in the U.S. heartland with no intermediate landings.
“We celebrate the mission not only because of the significance of your combat success, but because of the legacy that you left behind,” Clark continued. “Your story epitomizes what we as members of the Mighty Eighth have stood for since the days of Ira Eaker, Curtis LeMay, Jimmy Doolittle, Paul Tibbets and other giants of airpower.”
Two panels featured key flight crew members, maintainers and planners, including the mission commander, retired Col. John “Jay” Beard. Much of the work of tracking down the veterans, assembling them and putting together the myriad aspects of the reunion was done by retired Col. Warren Ward, copilot of the B-52 Grim reaper II, the third sortie of the mission.
In the panels, the people who were “hands on” with the mission shared its successes and challenges, from the exhilaration of “weapons away” and tense moments of radio silence until the first post-combat refueling told them their efforts had not been in vain, to the travails caused by hung weapons, headwinds that made the trip home heart-stopping and engines that conked out.
Even using the new weapons for the first time presented challenges, since they were so secret that procedures for loading and checking them hadn’t been formalized.
“From the enlisted man’s perspective, this mission should have never gone,” retired weapons loading superintendent Paul LaFlame, now retired and president of the local Air Force Association chapter. “For all of us that were in SAC (Strategic Air Command), we didn’t do anything that wasn’t written down. We had regulations, procedures, tech data, and everything was by the letter of the law, and there was no deviation. SAC never thought ‘outside the box.’ Secret Squirrel was so far outside the box… somehow, these munitions got loaded, put on aircraft, launched and dropped and there was no practice involved. I was totally amazed at that.” When he asked to see the technical data on the weapons, “they went, opened the safe and pulled out these checklists …. and they were 5 by 7 index cards with Sharpie writing on them. I said ‘Are you kidding me? You’re loading them using this?'”
Stories like those, including anecdotes from the flight and gripes about the food, the travails of drinking 30-hour-old cold coffee and using a bucket loo at altitude fleshed out the history of the secret mission.
Elder closed the daytime part of the gathering with remarks at a noon luncheon in the University Center, laying out the vision of the new Consortium.
“To improve the appreciation of the Air Force as a critical tool of national security, the Strategy Alternatives Consortium, in cooperation with the Air Force Association, is advancing an initiative to educate airmen, the American public and senior U.S. decision-makers about the unique, multifaceted value of the Air Force to U.S. national security,” Elder said.
He noted that in future events the Strategy Alternatives Consortium hopes to address topics ranging from Soviet containment operations in the 1950s and 1960s and the Paris Peace Talks that concluded the Vietnam conflict to the full range of DESERT STORM air operations and the conflict in Bosnia where the U.S. Air Force enabled indigenous forces and contributed to diplomatic endeavors. Topics also could include Kosovo, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Libya.
“The goal of this program is to provide Air Force supporters with the information they need to advocate for Air Force requirements with OSD and Congress,” Elder said. “You can be part of this effort by joining the Air Force Association, supporting future Strategy Alternative Consortium events and helping us ensure Congress understands the value of the Air Force to national security, and the need to resource it properly to ensure the nation has capabilities to influence international actors to behave favorably relative to U.S. interests, reduce the risk of casualties due to conflict, as well as to ensure the U.S. and its partners prevail in combat operations.”
The presentation of commemorative coins, a major symbolic component of a military exploit, also capped the daytime event.
Friday, Secret Squirrel crew members were escorted out to the Barksdale flight line for the unveiling of new nose art on B-52H 61-002, replicating the 25th Anniversary Secret Squirrel patch. The airplane is with the 96th Bomb Squadron, which carries the heritage of the 596th Bomb Squadron, which was retired shortly after Desert Storm.
They also visited the Global Power Museum on base, where a display honored the mission. There, they drank a toast from special glasses etched with crew names, following a tradition established by the 1942 Doolittle Raiders. In a raid that set a standard for audacity, 16 B-25 bombers attacked Tokyo, Japan, in a morale-boosting long-range mission launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The ceremonial glasses and toast fulfilled a long-held vision of the late H.D. “Buck” Rigg, founding director and originator of the Eighth Air Force Museum at Barksdale, now the Barksdale Global Power Museum. The glasses were provided by the museum’s supporting association and Ward. Plans to establish a memorial bench at the museum honoring Rigg also were announced.
“The bottle will be saved until the Squirrel members have their last toast, a long time in the future,” said Russ Mathers, copilot of the B-52 El Lobo II, one of the two mission B-52s that survived the last 25 years. “The crews raised a glass honoring the four crew members who have ‘gone west’ and have passed away since their mission.”