from C-C-Cold War Syndrome
“We’re launching the ready alert,” announced the voice on the other end of the phone. “There’s a briefing in operations in five minutes.”
“On our way,” I responded. I slipped into my flight jacket and, along with my two copilots and the tactical members of my crew, headed for operations. The remaining crewmembers hustled out to the flight line to spool up the P-3’s electronics and have the plane ready for launch as soon as we arrived. Having fully pre-flighted the ready alert aircraft earlier that morning, we should have no trouble getting airborne in the prescribed 45 minutes.
Normally the ready alert would launch for operational reasons—to investigate an unidentified submarine reported to be in our area, to carry out a search and rescue mission, something like that. This flight would be different.
At the time, VP-23 was at its home base, Naval Air Station, Brunswick, Maine, between five-month deployments to Iceland. Of the five P-3 squadrons based in Brunswick, two were deployed, two were in training and one remained ready to pick up any operational tasking that might come along. It was our turn in the barrel as the ready squadron.
After takeoff we headed south; our destination, Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. According to our pre-launch briefing, we were to pick up an ABC network television crew, fly out to a training area over the Atlantic and give them an airborne demonstration of the P-3’s antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Our demonstration would be featured on Nightline with Ted Koppel.
My squadron commanding officer, “Big Ed,” an affable Lilliputian of a man with a passion for public relations, had elected to come along to fly the plane. He settled into the left seat and asked me to take charge of the television crew.
“Aye, aye, sir,” I said, obediently.
The TV people, their equipment and a representative from the Navy’s Public Affairs Office were standing by when we landed at Andrews. We took them aboard then launched again, bound for our Atlantic training area.
ABC had sent a cameraman, a soundman, a producer and its ace field reporter, John McWethy. I guided McWethy to a seat at the galley table and toggled coffee into paper cups as he explained his network’s sudden interest in our business.
Seems a Soviet submarine had run aground inside the territorial waters of Sweden and had been hung up on the rocks there for the last couple of days. We knew that; it was in all the papers.
What we didn’t know was the depth of public concern the incident had generated in the United States. Could a Soviet submarine, particularly one of those nasty ballistic missile jobs, get as close to the U.S. coast without being detected? That was the question ABC wanted us to answer.
While the cameraman taped my tactical crewmembers working away at their assigned stations, McWethy and I chatted in the galley. For more than two hours, I briefed while he asked questions and took notes.
What a golden opportunity! Who wouldn’t love to speak ad nauseam to a captive audience about what you did for a living. And the beauty part was that McWethy really wanted to know.
“The P in P-3 stands for patrol,” I said. “Welcome to patrol aviation.”
“Thanks,” said John. Pleasant fellow.
“Our patrol designation would probably lead you to believe that we fly up and down the U.S. coasts peering through binoculars looking for bad guys.”
“Right. Isn’t that what you do?”
What an opening!
I took advantage of it. With a pencil and paper, I sketched out a rough map of the Atlantic with Greenland, Iceland and the UK at its center. The narrow stretches of water that separated the three countries, I explained, were known collectively as the “GIUK (Gee-yook) Gap.”
McWethy got the idea. One glance at the map made it clear to him that Soviet North Fleet submarines had to pass through that gap when transiting to the Mediterranean or to the western Atlantic. He began to understand why P-3 squadrons deployed for months at a time to places like Iceland, the Azores and Bermuda.
Of course for security reasons, there were things I couldn’t tell any reporter. He understood that as well and did a good job using his intellect to fill in the blanks.
And I didn’t want him to think that P-3s were our only means of dealing with the submarine threat. There were complementary antisubmarine warfare assets, such as carrier-based aircraft, surface ships and submarines he ought to mention in his report. McWethy scribbled furiously.
Later, after we’d completed our demonstration and returned to Andrews, he interviewed Big Ed on camera. Both of them did nicely.
Our feature aired the next night on Nightline. Big Ed's executive officer, Wild Mike, hosted a party for my crew at his house where we huddled in front of his TV set to watch the show.
As a general rule, military people have little regard for press people, whose disrespect for classification protocol and penchant for misquoting, muffing their facts and being overly dramatic condition us to view them as untrustworthy. But, to his professional credit, McWethy got it right.
He’d converted his pages of hand-written notes on all the platforms we’d discussed to file footage and done additional homework after our briefing. His comprehensive report painted an accurate, factual picture of our ability to keep hostile submarines, particularly Soviet submarines, off our rocks.
The X.O.’s party was a good one. We had cause to celebrate. We were proud of what we did for a living and our story had been well told by John McWethy.
“Skipper, last night while you were at the club some of us planned to break into your room and short-sheet your bed. But we decided you’d never notice.”
—Author to the diminutive Big Ed in Keflavik, Iceland.
(Left) Nightline’s Koppel
(Right) McWethy, now ABC’s Chief National Security Correspondent
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