OXCART at Nellis AFB: My experiences; 1962-1964
This information was furnished to Roadrunners Internationale (RI) for regular membership. RI members, mainly former/retired CIA and Air Force as well as contractor employees, were involved in the testing and development of the A-11/A-12 spy plane at Groom Lake, Nevada (aka: Area 51; aka: "The Ranch") during the 1960s. The A-11 and A-12 OXCART program, which was a successor to the U2 and followed by the SR71, was totally declassified by the US Government in 1991. It was a joint CIA and Air Force program. I was not aware that the program had been declassified until July 2007.
I was a lst Lieutenant, Regular Air Force, assigned as a Special Agent to Detachment 1909 Nellis AFB, Nevada from January 1962 through June 1964.
Sometime around late 1962 I was informed by my AFOSI Detachment Commander, Capt R. A. Noble that I was going to be briefed into a special, very sensitive program.
In preparation for that I was required to complete a detailed DD Form 398 "Statement of Personal History", which included information about my wife Patricia, a naturalized American citizen of Canadian birth. A deep background investigation was conducted on us.
To the best of my recollection I was briefed at the Detachment Office by Mr. Ed White, Area 51 CIA Security Officer on OXCART. He impressed upon me just how secretive the whole project was. I then signed the CIA OXCART secrecy statement. He told me at the time that the high performance aircraft was named A-11 and that it could fly high and at Mach 3.
Shortly thereafter I was accompanied by SA Noble to Area 51 whereupon
we were taken to a hanger where there were a number (maybe 5 to 6) of A-11 aircraft positioned inside all parked very close together. We walked around the aircraft and climbed a ramp and looked into a cockpit of one.
This was a totally mind torqueing experience for me (pee pee in your pants sort of thing). I was totally impressed and astonished. Just as we were about to enter the hanger these was all this loud jet engine noise adjacent. We looked and there was an A-11 just landed and starting to shut down. The pilot was in a special flight suit and he seemed to have a shock of blond hair. He looked so gallant climbing out of the aircraft. That scene is indelibly etched in my memory. It really motivated me!
That whole visit lasted about two hours.
There was another Air Force officer special agent assigned to the project.
He was physically sited at CIA Headquarters. I learned and he was the AFOSI liaison officer between us, the AFOSI Commander (office) and CIA Hq.
On my supervisor's orders I did the following to support role in doing off-site security. At that time OXCART was not public. At those times Area 51 was probably the most secret place on Earth:
1. Establishing an AFOSI Contact Program on base. This sort of program was totally new to me as well as AFOSI. So we actually did the prototype/test version of the contact program. Within about three months I had recruited about 30 persons to the program, mostly enlisted personnel, and then some Air Force civilians. There persons were strategically located where possible indiscreet conversation/loose talk could occur about the program. Briefing these people on what to listen for was a challenge since I couldn't tell them exactly what the main objective of their participation was. I gave a general security briefing and then engaged them in a lot of elicitation interviewing (where I was probing for purpose, but they would be unable to determine of the true nature of the interview regime.)
In all this I contacted each source once a month, encouraging active listening and motivating them all the while. It was a challenge and I learned a lot. During those two years, and doing monthly debriefings of the 30 sources, I probably did 700 elicitation type interviews. I think I got very good at it and could usually detect if anyone was elicitation interviewing me.
We had no office help. I hand typed all debriefing reports. The Commander of the 1129th Special Activities Squadron was always cited as the primary distributee.
2. Debriefing of assigned base pilots, mainly in the fighter training squadrons (F100s and F105s) and Thunderbirds. The base was very busy training F105 pilots as this was early days of Vietnam and that is where they were headed upon completion of training. In training they were flying in the bombing and gunnery ranges to the north like at Indian Springs, Tonopah Test Range, and thereabouts bombing and gunnery ranges.
The Nellis AFB Wing Commander, BG Hubbard, had ordered all flying personnel via squadron commanders (down the chain) to voluntarily report any suspect sightings when flying on the ranges. They responded dutifully and we were very busy. I did almost all the pilot debriefings, finding out what they had seen and then cautioning them not to talk about it further. Just forget it! I always enjoyed talking with the pilots.
As I have looked back on all that I recall that they pilots were the bravest of the brave. All were really nice guys. Again, I enjoyed talking with them. I remembered the names and faces of some.
Here are some of the pilots I debriefed:
Colonel (then Major)Lawrence Guarino, USAF
Previously erroneously reported he was killed in Vietnam in F-105. See this link for description of his distinguished service record of 30 years on active duty in the USAF: http://www.pownetwork.org/bios/g/g063.htm
Major Guarino was shot down in his F-105 over Vietnam on June 14, 1965 and was released from captivity as a POW on February 12, 1972, nearly eight years in prison. His is an awesome story, read the link.http://www.talkingproud.us/HistoryThudC.html
Colonel Guarino retired from the Air Force in 1975; see this link for more information about him (it's towards the end of the online article.) Colonel Guarino flew many aircraft in his military career from P-51 Mustangs with the Flying Tigers in China to the F-105 in Vietnam. He received many distinguished military decorations, including the Air Force Cross.
Colonel (then Major) Fred Cherry, USAF
Added information, see link: http://www.pownetwork.org/bios/c/c082.htm 51 missions in an F84G in Korea and 52 missions in an F-105 in Vietnam. Shot down on October 22, 1965 and released from captivity as a POW on February 12, 1972, after nearly eight years in prison. Colonel Cherry had horrific experiences in captivity at the "Zoo" and at Hanoi Hilton. He was America's first black POW of the Vietnam War and he was subjected to days upon days of harsh physical and psychological torture (associated with his race). Colonel Cherry received the Air Force Cross.
Major (then Captain) Frank Leithan, USAF
Previously erroneously reported as killed in take off from Nellis AFB. Oct. 12, 1966: Maj. Frank Leithan and Capt. Robert Morgan, both members of the Air Force Thunderbirds, were killed during a flight at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field in Nevada. Leithan was to have taken command of the field.
All these write ups of pilot debriefings were sent directly to the Commander 1129th SAS with copy to the Commander AFOSI, BG
Cappucci in Washington, D.C. or his deputy.
This whole support program kept me busy almost full time. At the same time I was carrying a full load of criminal and personnel security investigations.
I was debriefed out of OXCART in June 1964 when I departed for one year of graduate school at Michigan State University. If you can believe it going to graduate school was sort of a vacation after the workload I had experienced at Nellis AFB.
After MSU I was assigned to RAF Upper Heyford, England. At some point in time Colonel Robert S. Holbury was assigned at Commander of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (RF101s).
It was there that we both discovered we had known of each other (sort of) from OXCART and Area 51 days. He had been Commander of the 1129th Special Activities Squadron and I had never known by name who the commander of that unit was. It was blind reporting to me. Colonel Holbury was another tremendous person, leader and Air Force officer. I have always hoped that some of him (his style) rubbed off on me.
I consider OXCART one of three highlights of my Air Force career. It was really a challenge to do the job and I absolutely thrived doing it. In terms of my Air Force career, I'm not sure it helped me too much. OXCART was so secret and hush hush that any reference to it in my Air Force Officer Effectiveness Reports (performance reports) were very brief and vague. if at all. How does one justify an exemplary write up if you just can't talk or write about it? Also, because of this I didn't receive any other form of Air Force recognition for the effort. However, in my own mind I absolutely knew I had done something significant over the period and this was extremely gratifying if only to me and no or few others. As I discovered in my military career this same sort of thing happened to others, so I was not alone. It comes with the territory of being in the military.
Other Thoughts on Oxcart:
1. As an Air Force Special Agent, I wore civilian clothes all the time since 1960 when I had finished AFOSI Basic School in Washington D.C. and started carrying credentials on me for identification.
2. In early 1962, upon invitation from the Air Force, I received a commission as a Regular Officer. I always deported myself as such even though wearing civilian clothes. When reporting in to a senior officer, be it in AFOSI or to a Base or Wing Commander, I always reported in with a salute and reporting as "Sir! Lt (Captain) Rogers reporting, Sir!" and to that effect. If I ever saw the Base of Wing Commander driving by on base while I was afoot I always rendered a military salute while in civilian clothes. The salutes were always returned and the commander would read my lips of greeting and greet back and solute back. Whenever I was on base I would always go to official Air Force social events like New Years Day receptions or Air Force Dining Ins in my Air Force Mess Dress uniform. I wanted to announce myself as an Air Force officer and not some smug super-spook puke.
The regular caseload at Nellis AFB involved criminal investigations, which usually involved what I call "crumb bums," who had committed dumb crimes to which I would have to testify at various court martial or administrative hearings. The other work involved personnel security investigations on and off base for persons needing top secret clearances. This was important but b-o-r-i-n-g work.
So OXCART was something completely new and invigorating to me. In our business we called it counterintelligence collections. In light of all of the above, whenever I would debrief a pilot on sightings I would always make it a non- threatening experience, done in a friendly, professional tone. Plus, I valued the fact that they were making reports "voluntarily," so that must be respected. I did not want the pilots in the squadrons or the squadron commanders to anyway think of us as "those assholes up at OSI." After a debriefing if I saw one of the pilots around the base we would exchange greetings, but only if I or he determined if was comfortable to do so. It was refreshing and Air Force motivating to talk to these "cream of the crop" people as opposed to the "bottom of the heap" people.
We had a lot of business on the debriefings. I believe had the pilots believed their military careers were in jeopardy by reporting in we would have had no program at all and the mission of understanding what was going on in the air by our pilots up around the target area would not have been achieved. Yes, there was a concern about damage to military careers over this voluntary reporting. I recall Captain Frank Leithan, above, approach me the in the base housing area where we lived with grave concerns about his reporting and the prospect of damage to his military career. I assured Frank that he had done what he had been ordered to do and there was absolutely no problem to his military career. Frank was a Naval Academy graduate and I believed he would likely be a four star general eventually. His death was a great loss to the Air Force.
Even though everything was hush hush I'm sure word got around in the squadrons about what was going on. Know and recall that these were very experienced pilots and officers, naturally observant and curious about anything flying around in "their space" especially sleek, strange stuff.
I believe that the cumulative reporting by the pilots helped create a greater understanding of what was going on in the target area, such that it was useful to the Area 51 Commander and other decision makers on exposure of the A11/A12 aircraft while operational. In 1964 President Johnson publicly disclosed the OXCART program and part of the rationale had to do with the increased number of sighting by aircraft in the area including commercial airliners.
I recall on one occasion one of my sources reported overhearing a pilot engaging in loose talk about what he had observed in the air in the target area. The source immediately contacted me and I wrote up a full report and hand carried it to the Wing Commander's office. Shortly, I received a telephone call from BG Hubbard. He asked me to repeat exactly what had been reported which I did. He then put me on the speaker phone to repeat the report. I could hear what I believed to be the alleged offender pilot in the background denying the report. I don't know what happened with the pilot; but, I later thought that word might have gotten around the squadrons to "just watch it!" It also showed that BG Hubbard was right on top of the situation. No messing around! Period! Looking back, I'm sure the source reporting was valid because he did not know an exact objective for his reporting until he heard the infraction. The total elapsed time from initial report to when the General called me was about an hour. So the reporting system worked: that pilot must have left the General's carpet in a daze as well as with blazing saddles wondering just how fast everything had happened.
3. Last OXCART vignette: On the deep investigation done on Pat and me: We heard from Uncle Roy in Canada, a Canadian GE executive, that one day the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (civilian clothes types, not the guys in red tunics, smoky bear hats) appeared at his office and asked questions about his nephew in the American Air Force. Roy couldn't offer much as we had not met. This "Mounties-Uncle Roy" story circulated in the family for years: "Remember the time the Mounties questioned Uncle Roy about Jerry?" I knew then why Uncle Roy had been contacted but never told my wife about it and never disclosed my participation in OXCART, including up through the time of her passing away in 1998. Pat never knew. Uncle Roy is alive and well in Canada and I intend to share this story with him, perhaps while fishing up at his cabin at Lake Okanogan, B.C. I know he will get a real kick out of it. Pat would have gotten a real charge out of this story had she known. Hey Pat!: remember the "Mounties-Uncle Roy" thing?
4. A totally unrelated to OXCART occurrence at Nellis AFB: Normally, aircraft departing the base flew east bound over the desert and then straight up to the gunnery and bombing ranges, about 50-75 miles to the north. Because of winds on this one day a solo, single engine fighter aircraft took off in the other direction over populated North Las Vegas. As he got airborne the pilot experienced engine problems; I think a flameout. Pat was an elementary school teacher at a school in North Las Vegas and within the flight path of departing aircraft. The pilot crashed the aircraft in an open field and thus avoided the school which was in session with a lot of school children as well as the densely populated surrounding civilian housing area. People on the ground reported seeing the pilot move his helmeted head around just before crashing. He did not eject but instead deadsticked the aircraft into the ground at a vacant piece of land, killing only himself and hazarding no one else. Though I never talked to pilots about it I believe they must go over in their minds "worst case scenarios" and how they would respond. He would have pre-thought the "what ifs" and then, in the immediacy of the situation, run though all those "what ifs" again. The worst case in this case was flame out over a populated area. I believe that this pilot in the diminishing seconds had already pre-decided what he would do: no ejection, fly the aircraft into the ground deadsticking it. In the final seconds this pilot must have been struggling hard with the controls to crash land the aircraft with no loss of life on the ground and only his own. He had run though all the "what ifs" and . . . it was over! There was a report of the accident in the local newspaper. Likely the pilot's identity is only known to the Air Force and members of his family. The accident is probably long forgotten in the neighborhood. BUT, I never forgot about it and still do remember it from time to time, as here, even 40 plus years afterwards. Lesson: in the military there is no guarantee you're going to get out alive or even in one piece. Where appropriate, go through your "what ifs." Through all his "what ifs" this pilot was getting it "just right" and he got it "just right!"