William James Gregory’s Tennessee ancestors understood what has come to be known in this more erudite age as terroir: the concept that fruits, vegetables, and other crops and farm products are shaped by their genetics, horticulture, and environment. Just as hops, tomatoes, and good Tennessee tobacco bear their own terroir, so too does the character of a Tennessean. Regardless of what unimagined future may await him, a man born of Tennessee soil is forever the product of that place and his people. And that is undoubtedly true for William James Gregory, whose own terroir would inform every stage of his most astonishing life.
Farming was hard for Sam and Ola, but it was a life they both knew. As with most of the state’s farmers in the 1920s and 30s, being a farmer meant a subsistence living, and that meant living in poverty, in one form or another, and to one degree or another. The Gregorys lived like everyone else along the creek. Farming land owned by Ola’s father meant that they were poor, but not dirt poor. The living was harsh, but it was not without hope or joy. The old adage “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do” was hardly a cliché for the Gregorys—it was how they lived each day.
Wrestling with a mule-drawn plow, or sweating over the ’baccer crop, Greg began gradually, probably imperceptibly, to develop an approach to living that would characterize much of his life. Foremost was the recognition that creating change in his life would inevitably require risk and consequence—whether for good or for ill. He was able, even at a young age, to recognize unfairness when he saw it, and to value kindness. He was becoming increasingly aware that he could trust his judgment, a judgment informed by the firmly rooted ethics that grew from family and faith. And finally, he acquired the habit of making his decisions based mostly on his own counsel—in important matters of his early life, he did not especially seek the counsel of others. This was a trait that would serve him well, but would, in at least one noteworthy situation, cause some consternation.
He reached the bridge over Little Goose Creek on the outskirts of Hartsville late in the afternoon of the second day of travel, and there yet remained a four-mile hike to his house out in the country. It was the second bridge Greg met on this trip. Earlier, he had eagerly crossed the bridge to the campus of Berea College, full of hope that a good result waited for him on the other side. And now this bridge, the one he knew so well. Crossing this bridge would bring a far different prospect, dreary by comparison. For Greg, it smacked of giving up, of surrendering to that grim future.
Pilots’ views on transitioning to the P-38 were expressed in William Gray’s article in the August 16, 1943 issue of Life Magazine, addressing what could be a daunting transition for pilots: “Double controls (for twin engines) worried student pilots and bred the talk of “too much plane.” The cockpit is about the size of a very deep bathtub fitted with a bus seat. In front on a black instrument panel are 21 clock-like dials, and the maze of other gadgets in the cockpit includes three dozen switches, 22 levers, five cranks, two plungers, half a dozen thumb buttons and radio controls. One pilot peered into the cockpit and gasped, ‘It looks like a plumber and an electrician got together and had a nightmare."
In early May Greg was introduced to the P-38. At this time in the war, transition training varied among the fighter squadrons. Some new P-38 squadrons benefited from a “piggy-back ride” in a P-38 in which the radio had been removed from behind the pilot, making room for a student observer. But not for the new 83rd squadron. Greg, and all his squadron mates, went from the single-seat AT-6 to the twin-engine P-38, and would solo the P-38 in their first flight.
The dangers of flight training continued, and the 78th Fighter Group’s transition to the P-38 carried a steep and costly learning curve. With new pilots flying dangerous combat maneuvers in still-unfamiliar high-performance aircraft, the level of risk remained high. And the consequences were equally severe.
Greg and Bill Neely, along with their friend Charley Stuart, who had been cadet colonel at Advanced school at Moore Field, were scheduled for a 1:00 p.m. flight with an instructor. The instructor took off, and then Lt. Stuart. It was my second flight in a P-38; probably Stuart’s second flight as well. I lined up for takeoff, and I could see as he was going down the runway that his right engine was cutting out and blowing smoke. I was hoping he would stop, but he went on and got off. He got over the power lines at the end of the runway, made it to about 300 feet, then lost control, crashed nose down and was lost. He went straight in—a big smoke.
Greg would quickly begin to acquire the mental toughness that was a common trait among experienced combat pilots. His early experiences with disappointments and the personal resolve that he had shown in the face of those disappointments prepared him, however slightly, for the tough situations he would face in combat. He had learned that being aggressive was an acquired trait, and as the number of his combat sorties began to climb, he felt confidence in his own abilities growing as well.
The only way to get prepared is to get in combat. You have to do your best, and if you survive the first few missions, your chances actually improve. You learn fast in combat. You want to get (a new pilot) through his first mission.
Combat fatigue is there, and we all had to deal with it. It affected some more than others. You just don’t go out, mission after mission, and lose so many friends, without it affecting you. There were times where we were losing so many, you get to wonder how long… I think Knott did a study one time, and he figured that the luckiest of us would have maybe 20 more days, or something like that, at the rate we were going… Of course, it doesn’t work that way, because as you gain experience you become a better survivor. But you think about the odds of being killed. You have to because it’s real.
The German fighters managed to get in very close on one or two of their passes, and Capt. Decker’s plane was hit in the wild melee that ensued. With Decker’s plane badly damaged, Greg made an audacious head-on attack against an attacking Me-109, giving Decker enough time to stabilize his aircraft, feather his props, and descend for a water landing. He escaped the sinking P-38 and deployed his survival dinghy.
The new aircraft was qualitatively different from the B-29: it was much faster and so aerodynamically clean that it was much more difficult to slow down than its propeller-powered predecessor. Pilots commented that flying the B-47 was like going from “a Model ‘T’ to a Ferrari.”
The aircraft was as fast as fighter jets then in development, making forward-firing defensive armament unnecessary. A tail turret equipped with twin 20 mm Browning machine guns, fired by the copilot using remotely controlled, radar-directed fire control, was deemed sufficient.
The B-47 was a major part of the US strategic reconnaissance and nuclear strike force, and represented a new and sobering threat to the Soviets: “The aircraft was specifically designed as a high-altitude, high-speed bomber, to either photograph or destroy the Soviets’ major infrastructure—factories, rail yards, and airbases. The B-47 was especially feared by our enemies because it gave the United States an unstoppable nuclear strike force.”
In April 1955, as the flight crews of the 19th began their last phase of training, the wing scheduled a series of training missions designed to simulate combat conditions for the B-47 crews. The first mission was flown on April 7, designated Operation Free Beer, with each of the 19th’s three squadrons putting up three aircraft on simulated bombing runs against American cities, including Avon Park and Fort Pierce in Florida, Atlanta, Birmingham, Little Rock, and Clarksdale, Missouri. The mission included four bombing runs for each of the aircraft. As it happened, the schedule was a bit too aggressive. Of the nine aircraft, one returned to base with a mechanical issue, and four others had failures of their K-system bombsights.
Nonetheless, in the chilling language of the Cold War Air Force: “In general, the mission was considered to be a success. Based on the assumption that the standard nuclear weapon of 83 kilotons was used, every target would have been extensively damaged. Avon Park would have been almost completely destroyed, and Atlanta would have received extensive damage. The center of Birmingham would have been demolished, while the steel mills, 12 miles southwest of the target area would have been partially damaged but not put out of operation. Little Rock would have been completely wiped out.”
When the deployment was over, Greg flew home—a long flight, requiring two night refuelings, on a course that took them near Thule, Greenland, for navigation purposes, and then into Orlando. Just as we were going to descend to rendezvous with the tanker for refueling, all my instruments went blank—I lost all instruments.
Greg had to make the spiraling, high-speed descent using only a needle, ball, and airspeed—the same instruments he used when first learning to fly the 40 horsepower Piper Cub. His copilot also lost his instruments, and was in no position to offer any help whatsoever. Don [Todt, navigator] had an analog compass and read out the degrees as we spiraled down, letting me know how quickly I was turning.
This type of spiraling descent was the preferred method for losing altitude prior to taking on fuel. It usually would have taken a couple of minutes to make his descent. It goes pretty fast. You are going down in a circle, very fast, your nose is way down. It is a good way to do it because you don’t cover a lot of area. You are in a tight area. Greg had done this many times, but always with a full complement of flight instruments.
There was no option for us—I had to have the gas, and we had no chance of reaching any other refueling station. We were somewhere around Greenland, and survival would be a matter of a minute or two if we had to ditch. I broke out of the clouds and lo and behold there was the tanker right in front of me. I got onto the boom of the tanker and did not let go until I had a full load of fuel.
Even as the new B-57s and RB-57As were coming off the Martin assembly line, the intelligence community—both within the CIA and within elements of the Air Force—recognized that satellite surveillance would represent the ultimate reconnaissance platform. It also realized that those systems were still years in the future. The U-2 spyplane had been in development since 1953, but the Air Force needed one more “stop-gap” platform, an expedient that would at least approach the high-altitude capability then considered necessary, altitudes that were beyond the capabilities of the RB-57A, and would be beyond the reach of Soviet fighters.
The Air Force began considering existing airframes that could with modification meet the operating requirements for a high-altitude overflight aircraft. It naturally turned to the B-57—now its most performant bomber—to become the platform for its aerial reconnaissance program, recognizing that the aircraft would create a “bridge” to the U-2, which itself would “bridge” to satellite systems. The resultant aircraft, after having received extensive modifications, was designated the RB-57D. Very much a bespoke aircraft, only twenty were built, in three distinct variants. Thirteen of them, designated RB-57D-0, were single-pilot aircraft equipped with K-38 and KC-1 cameras for high-altitude photography. Of these, seven were configured for inflight refueling. One aircraft, designated RB-57D-1, also a single-pilot aircraft, was built for radar mapping, and was equipped with AN/APQ-56 Side Looking Radar (SLR). The other six aircraft, designated the RB-57D-2, were built for electronic intelligence, and were also equipped for inflight refueling. With the heavy crew workload, this aircraft operated with a two-man crew.
He soon moved on to the RB-57D. It was the first airplane that would fly to 67,000 ft. and there was no trouble getting to that altitude. We really didn’t know what to expect when we reached that altitude because no one had flown that high before. Greg and his fellow pilots became the first “Stratonauts.” They began flying the RB-57Ds at Turner AFB, Albany, in May 1956 and spent a year there before transferring to Laughlin AFB at Del Rio.
The American intelligence community, including the CIA and those within the military services, actively considered a range of overflight reconnaissance options, each with its own unique set of technical requirements, system limitations, costs, and timelines. The two most encouraging options were high-altitude fixed-wing aircraft—the short-term best option—and satellite reconnaissance platforms, the preferred long-term option.
For the fixed-wing system, it was believed that the solution to both detection and tracking lay in altitude. Experts believe that “an aircraft that could ascend to 65,000 feet before entering an area being swept by the early warning radar would go undetected, because the target-tracking radars would not be activated.” Thus, the earliest discussions related to the high-altitude U-2 operated under the critical, and what would be persistent, assumption that the aircraft would be neither detected nor tracked.
With stall speed and Mach speed varying with altitude, the pilots were challenged to operate the aircraft fast enough to prevent a stall, but slowly enough to prevent buffeting. In modern jets, the margin between stall speed and Mach speed is wide. But at the ultra-high altitudes in which the U-2 operated, the stall speed and the Mach speeds approached the same number. In fact, if a pilot turned too sharply, the inside wing could be in “stall buffet” (going too slowly) while the outside wing could be in “Mach buffet” (too fast). In the majority of missions, the pilots had a very narrow window in which to maintain safe operations; as little as five knots when at altitude. Pilots were dependent on the aircraft’s much-improved autopilot to keep in the correct flight configuration, and detailed flight profiles were provided to the pilots for each mission, advising them precisely how to operate.
By 1960, overflights of the Soviet Union had been occurring intermittently for four years, always detected and tracked, always with a Soviet interception attempted but never succeeding. But all involved in U-2 operations, including pilots, were aware that overflights had become much riskier. Soviet improvements to their surface-to-air missiles had steadily increased the danger for these missions, and led the CIA to conclude internally in March that Soviet SAMS had “a high probability of a successful intercept at 70,000 feet (21,300 m) providing that detection is made in sufficient time to alert the site.”
. . . The second mission, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, the CIA’s most experienced pilot with 27 prior U-2 missions to his credit, was more ambitious.Ericson’s previous flight had been, like all prior U-2 missions over the Soviet Union, a “there-and-back” mission, overflying a relatively small sector of Soviet territory. In contrast, Powers’ mission, codename Grand Slam, would transit the entire Soviet Union from south to north, originating at Peshawar and ending at Bodo, Norway. The mission intended to first overfly the Tyuratam Missile Test Range. Then, knowing that the Soviet ICBMs were closely dependent on the rail system, the CIA directed Powers to photograph railroad networks in the north-central region of the Soviet Union, generating information the CIA could use to locate and characterize new Soviet SS-6 ICBM nuclear sites.
If the Soviets were able to track Powers’ aircraft early in the mission, it would place him in great jeopardy.
And that is precisely what happened. Powers’ U-2 lifted off from Peshawar in the early morning hours of May 1, 1960; Soviet radar began tracking him when he was still 15 miles south of the Soviet-Afghan border and continued to do so as he flew across the Central Asian republics.
Four hours into the mission, with Powers deep into Soviet airspace, his autopilot began to malfunction. Normally this would have been an abort situation, but Powers was already far into the mission. He did everything he could to get the autopilot working again, while continuing to hand-fly the airplane, and was intent on completing the mission with or without the autopilot.
Thirty minutes later, a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile detonated just behind Powers’ aircraft, knocking off its tail at 70,500 ft.
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