by Byron Breese
– a memory of Operation El Dorado Canyon
We were in the midst of a NATO wargame and, once again, I was sitting in the intel vault in one of the fighter squadrons from eighteen-hundred to zero-six. This was my war duty because I was not, in fact, an intel officer. I was a personnel officer assigned to a special duty for my real job. When it came to preparing for nuclear war, then, I needed a war job, so I was made an “intel augmentee.”
In 1983 I had entered extended active duty to be trained for what the Air Force called “Social Actions.” My job was born of two 20th century American issues that Vietnam made real: civil rights and drugs. After my first assignment to a Strategic Air Command base in Arkansas, I was sent to the United Kingdom in late-1985. Assigned to the wing staff of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, I was the Officer-in-Charge of Substance Abuse Control at RAF Lakenheath.
I wanted the job because I wanted to work directly with people and help them. Any average military person would and did find that desire on the part of a line officer bizarre. Indeed, from 2002 to 2006 when I was an Air Force ROTC instructor at Cornell University, I would introduce myself to new cadets as “the one officer you’ll ever meet who had the only lefty-pinko jobs in the Air Force: substance abuse rehab, and equal opportunity and treatment.”
I arrived in England with that non-conformist attitude. I was intrigued to go to the place my family name came from. My other family-name-places were not available at the time: Hungary and Poland. Simply put, I fell in love with East Anglia. It didn’t matter, as I learned, that many Brits regarded Suffolk and Norfolk as many coastal Americans regard Kansas or North Dakota: “out there,” provincial. The fact that East Anglia was the island-aircraft-carrier for the US Army Air Forces during WWII made it all the more meaningful, having been raised on stories of all that. I made it a point to never live on-base; by living on the economy, I discovered the vast “more” of East Anglia: from Queen Boudicca to John Bunyan to Constable, from The Backs to The Fens, Kettles Yard to Byron’s Pool. But this story is about one night in particular.
That night shift of 14-15 April 1986 began typical of any NATO wargame. Yes, it was interesting to see the real world of planning for nuclear war, as much as it was infuriating. Technically I couldn’t do anything because I had only a Secret security clearance, but after I thrice warned the intel officers that I didn’t have a Top Secret clearance, they’d persist and I’d participate in the mission brief for FB-111 pilots who would fly up to Scotland or over to Germany and pretend to nuke Hungary. It was like that during the Cold War: what did it matter, I thought, pretending here when if the real thing happened we’d all end up vaporized – begin conventional, escalate to nuclear – just as every wargame ordinarily concluded? During an earlier wargame some crypto went missing – the squares of paper that had the numeric codes for the aircrews to squawk friend or foe identifications – and the real intel officers, my peers in fact, tried to hang it on me. Losing crypto was career-ending. I reminded them that I worked for the Wing Commander, they worked for a mere Squadron Commander, so don’t screw with me. They didn’t.
Master Sergeant “Mac” McClelland, a.k.a. “Big Mac,” was in the vault too that April. He was gregarious and somewhat uncouth in his way, which, as I saw it, was perfectly appropriate for a Vietnam vet. Big Mac drove an armed river boat in Vietnam. I gave Mac his due and he tolerated me as a young officer who had a good heart and zero real-world experience. I liked Mac; he tacitly taught me a lot – especially by watching him interact with Senior Master Sergeant Ellis Spann who was also a Vietnam vet, but Air Force all the way through. SMS Spann, who was also African-American, bluntly said that to survive the ghetto he joined up, even if it meant potentially going to Vietnam. He got lucky in that he became a B-52 mechanic on Guam the whole time. He and Mac could not have been more different: spit and polish versus down and dirty. They totally disagreed about how to be a senior non-commissioned officer. Observing them on the job was profoundly instructive for a twenty-something kid from central New Jersey. These two men, to put it frankly, knew the shit. And they each embodied two parallel intelligences on how to survive it.
That nightshift in 1986 began as usual, playing the game, but very quickly all of the real intel people silently disappeared, and hardly any of the aircrew were around either. Honestly, I didn’t think much of it because there were always lulls in the “action” during wargames. I always brought books to read on nightshifts, just for those times of full boredom in the vault. Sitting against one of the walls, in my chem-warfare gear, I was reading Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends. Seemed appropriate enough. After an unusually extended period of non-activity, I put my helmet on my head to block out the screaming fluorescent light. I crossed my arms, put my chin in my chest and essentially, intentionally went to sleep, NATO be damned.
I guess it was around 0200 when this tall, lanky intel officer waltzed into the vault. I looked up and he said, “Wellp, we did it.”
“Did what?” I croaked in reply.
“We bombed Libya.” No triumphalism, no gloating, just this easy Southern drawl stating a fact after the fact: the planes had dropped their bombs and were on their way home. He may even have had his hands in his pockets as he said it. But with that simple announcement I was very much awake. I looked over at Mac. The expression on his face was other than I expected; his mind was already rushing ahead in time. Quietly he said, “Lieutenant, I don’t like the sound of this.” Only then did I begin to experience something that felt like trepidation; not fear that portended lethal threat, but a sense of something shifting in the world around me. This was not the “game” we had been playing with its inevitable conclusion of utter annihilation. Rather this was a kind of gestalt, albeit imperceptibly shifting in that moment toward what would only become apparent after 1989, and then not again in “the real world” until after 2001.
If I was in anyway being philosophical in that moment I was soon smashed out of it by a bull in the intel china shop. A captain in his flight suit, a bowie knife literally strapped to his leg, charged into the vault yelling, “Gimme a map! Where’s a fucking map? I have to find out where they went!” And both Mac and I instantly knew why this guy had been left behind. It was a simultaneously terrifying and pathetic addition to the surreal nature of the night. One almost could feel a little sorry for him because his raison d’être in the Air Force had been denied him: we hadn’t gone to war since Vietnam, and this aviator didn’t get to go. The NATO wargame this time had been the planned cover for the real thing.
We soon learned it had not been a game at all when word circulated that one of our FB-111s did not return to Lakenheath. First we heard that a plane landed elsewhere due to a malfunction, but then we heard much worse than that. Another plane had actually been shot down. The entire base was stunned silent. The sense of shock traveled from “This doesn’t happen to us!” to the first emotions of genuine grief. These were the first Air Force combat deaths since Vietnam, and we had become completely unaccustomed to anything but playing at theoretical vaporization or believing in our own invulnerability. Later in life, I would say in conversation that I believed we could call Operation El Dorado Canyon the beginning of the so-called and now seemingly interminable War on Terror.
But, in the immediate aftermath, there was chatter that the IRA would do a favor for Colonel Qaddafi, drive one of its bread-trucks-with-a-mortar-inside down the Brandon Road and lob a round into the DoD School. Maybe this was hype. Or British urban mythology transferred from Northern Ireland. Or was it the factual American fear of those who bombed the discotheque in Berlin which, ostensibly, motivated Reagan to launch El Dorado Canyon in the first place – the “who” in that moment being Arab or Islamist militants? For a year thereafter RAF Lakenheath went to a state of alert inconceivable to all but the most highly-briefed officers in the wing. Not only were there more security forces at the gates, but they remained in BDUs and kept their war-fighting weapons, no mere side-arms. Along with individual ID checks, cars were searched, at a minimum with a mirror examining the undercarriage. Commercial trucks and all vehicles without a base sticker had their interiors and boots searched. The base perimeter foxholes were kept manned on twelve-hour shifts; one of my staff members effectively disappeared for a year. What unnerved most, especially the families at Lakenheath, were ID-checks to enter every building on base. In other words, in April of 1986 the people who lived and worked on RAF Lakenheath entered a “post-9/11” world.
Big Mac was looking out the window of the office toward the parking lot one afternoon. He saw a couple of civilians get out of a car and walk away. To him these men looked suspicious. They were neither white nor black. Mac went directly to the phone, called the cops and I heard him say, “I just saw two guys get out of a car, look around it and walk away. They look Arab to me.” Decades later, after the Twin Towers were destroyed, I would warn my cadets in ROTC to not “Abu Graib the world,” but to first be rational, ethical officers, as much as be aware of any dangers in their future environments.
Two or three weeks after Operation El Dorado Canyon, there was a memorial service in one of the hangars for the crew we lost. I don’t remember a single word used to memorialize the dead. I only recall the sea of personnel filling the cavernous space, an FB-111 parked near a stage, the wife of one airman, and the parents of another and the wing commander on the stage. Or, at least I believe I remember seeing that sight. But there is one thing that is indelibly captured in my mind from three decades ago: music. If I were Hispanic perhaps I would have recognized the song played for Captain Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci, guitar strummed and Spanish sung sweetly from a cassette tape over the PA system. But it was the music played for Captain Paul F. Lorence that really struck me, taking me out of ordinary time and connecting me with him unexpectedly. I grew up on classical music, and in college came to almost worship Aaron Copland. For Captain Lorence’s memory was played Copland’s “Quiet City,” which begins with a plaintive solo-trumpet calling moderately, neither brassy nor muzzled. Six soft but sharp notes followed by a seventh note sustained, then varied and elaborated up a scale as though searching, until the breath of the final solo note is held; then the strings, flute and English horn gently sweep in again, as though to lift up the solitary player. The full ten minutes of this instrumental concert piece were played; no one dared interrupt or complain. When the last note at the end of the piece faded, and the hangar was still silent, I had heard all I truly needed to hear. I left the hangar before the medals were given, as the chaplain started to pray.