“Look out for that helicopter!!!” yelled his back-seater.  Up until that jolting instant, their mission had been a challenging, but ultimately, satisfying one.  It had come early in U.S. Air Force Captain E.G. “Buck” Shuler, Jr.’s tour flying F-4’s in Vietnam.  “Operation Niagara” was our intense air-effort to end the North Vietnamese Army’s all-out assault on the surrounded U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh (South Vietnam).   On that day, Captain Shuler was flying as wingman to Air Force Major Fred Caldwell.  Caldwell’s F-4 was loaded with 750-lb. ‘high-drags’ (non-precision ‘dumb’ bombs, this version designed for close-to-ground release). Shuler’s with “wall-to-wall” napalm (8 ‘cans’).   A Forward Air Controller (FAC), flying observation over the combat area, radioed word of a reported active enemy gun position either on, or just below, a ridge line running above a deep river canyon, located close to Khe Sanh. 

For this attack, the FAC (call sign: ‘Rash 0-3’) noted that Caldwell’s bombs wouldn’t be the choice, but Shuler’s napalm would.  “So he (FAC) marked the spot, and I rolled in, running south to north” said Shuler.  The preferred altitude/speed combination for delivering napalm, at the time, he noted, was at about 450-knots from around 450-feet.  Shuler made his target-run and dropped napalm on the specified site. “But it blew over the position, rolling over the top of the gun emplacement and down the ridgeline, from what the FAC described,” he recalled.  The FAC then told him to try it again from the reverse direction. 

So, Shuler flew back around the target area, coming in this time from north to south.  But in order to do that, he had to fly down low through that river canyon, a heavily-defended one at that.  “I was right down close to the water, then rose back up and ‘splashed’ the napalm just below the ridgeline,” he recalled.  That did it.  The FAC radioed to Shuler that the gun position was now ‘silent’ (100% effective!).  As Shuler’s primary concentration was then fully on his exit path, pulling off on a right-climbing turn, increasing his speed as he did to about 500-kts., that was the instant back-seater, Captain Stan Czech yelled to warn about a helicopter directly in their path.  “I immediately pulled-wide to avoid colliding with a damn Chinook, that had a 75-mm howitzer hanging beneath it.  I flew past those guys, just scalding them, and that had to have rattled their chains!” remembered Shuler. 

With that certain multiple-fatality, near-death experience still vividly in mind, Shuler stated that “the most dangerous thing about flying in South Vietnam, was not ground fire, although small-arms were certainly down there, but really no big stuff, except up around Khe Sanh.  The biggest danger was mid-air collisions.  Because no matter where you were, you’d put in a piece of ordnance and, immediately, every damn airborne helicopter and other aircraft wanted to come see and watch the show!  So it became a see and be-seen, and try to avoid, type of thing.  We had a number of mid-air collisions because of that,” recalled Shuler.  He also remembered that another thing he and his fellow fighter/attack pilots had to watch out for were B-52 strikes, even though they were generally pre-briefed on those big-bomber missions. 

Captain Shuler’s repeated efforts to eliminate that ridge-top enemy machine gun position, flying fast and very low through small-arms fire in that enemy-infested deep valley, and achieve the goal, earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross (April 5, 1968). 

Cadet Buck Shuler, Senior Year, The Citadel 

Cadet Buck Shuler, Senior Year, The Citadel 

Moving the narrative well back, now, to the point where his distinguished Air Force career began, then-Second Lieutenant E.G. “Buck” Shuler, Jr., commissioned at The Citadel (Charleston, SC) in 1959, successfully progressed through the Air Force flight-school sequence, pinning-on his Silver Wings on September 2, 1960. 

As with most in his graduating class, he was then assigned to multi-engine training.  One of only four new pilots from his class selected to fly B-52’s, Shuler’s clear preference, since he definitely wanted an aircraft “that was operational,” that is, actively involved in front-line combat missions. 

His route to the B-52 flight deck took him first to ground school, followed by additional flight training, then nuclear weapons school, and, finally, survival school.  Note the nuclear weapons training component.  With the Cold War then well underway, America’s B-52’s formed the third-leg of our deterrent nuclear triad (air/submarine/ICBM).  With so many decades between then and now, even for those of us who lived through those times, it’s hard to remember that, for about four decades, how unrelenting, and often times tense, was the stand-off between America and the Soviet Union, within the framework of mutual, nation-ending destruction, the latter, nobody-wins scenario, being the only thing that kept that Cold War from turning devastatingly hot. 


B-52F, Select Crew S-22 at Carswell AFB, Texas, 1st Lt. Shuler is the pilot and Maj. Melvin Apel is the aircraft commander. (Shuler, back row, second from the left; Apel, back row, third from the left). 

B-52F, Select Crew S-22 at Carswell AFB, Texas, 1st Lt. Shuler is the pilot and Maj. Melvin Apel is the aircraft commander. (Shuler, back row, second from the left; Apel, back row, third from the left). 

Shuler and his five-man crew (aircraft commander/pilot/radar-navigator/navigator/electronic warfare officer/gunner) were paired prior to their arrival at the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) Carswell AFB in the Spring of 1961, and were assigned to the 9th Bomb Squadron, 7th Bomb Wing.  Shuler would serve with this same “Select” S-22 crew for the next two and a half years (Major Melvin Apel/Aircraft Commander; First Lieutenant E.G. Shuler/Pilot & Deputy Aircraft Commander; Major Al Herman/Radar-Navigator; Captain Ruel Branham/Navigator; Captain Guy Kreiser/Electronic Warfare Officer; and Master Sergeant Lonnie Plummer/Gunner).   Following flight check-out requirements, now-First Lieutenant Shuler and his crew began pulling Cold War-era ground-alert and airborne duty.  “Of the 16 B-52’s in the Wing,” he recalled, “half were on ground alert at all times,” a continuing requirement imposed by the on-going tension. Which would soon intensify even further, as international concerns and tensions rose due to those unacceptable missile shipments from the Soviets to their Caribbean surrogate: Cuba. 

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis placed additional “alert” stresses, not only on the SAC bomber crews (B-52’s and B-47’s), but on their families as well. “Family life in SAC was tough, demanding a special kind of spouse,” he said.   An assessment certain to be shared by the thousands of military wives, husbands, and families who’ve experienced, and had to adjust to, back then, as now, the lengthy (or shorter but more frequent) deployments demanded of our skilled and courageous war-fighters, and certainly so from the aftermath of 9/11 forward. 

Shuler clearly remembers that when President John F. Kennedy appeared on national television, on a Sunday afternoon, to speak about the impending defense crisis in that all-too-close-to-us island nation, Shuler was then sitting on, by-then, routine ground-alert at Carswell AFB (seven-day cycles, pulled typically twice per month, to include ground and airborne, as well as training flights).  “When this thing really looked serious, as the alert-status was ratcheted-up two-days after the President’s speech, I went home, packed a clean flight suit and more clothes, then went back out and began additional ground alert,” he recalled. 

At that point (1962), Strategic Air Command immediately “cocked” its entire bomber fleet and terminated all training.  As Shuler explained: “Every B-52 and B-47 was put on the ground, and loaded with nuclear weapons.  Some of the 47’s, (having shorter range than the 52’s), went into a cautionary defensive dispersal plan, flown to pre-set overseas airports, as well as domestic, to just sit there under nuclear alert.”   SAC then instituted a 1/8th airborne alert concept. Meaning for those at Carswell, two B-52’s would, henceforth, be in the air, seven days straight, around the clock. 

And those weren’t leisurely domestic flights. Far from it. “In those days,” said Shuler, “we were flying a route that took us from Fort Worth, towards the Mediterranean, then refueling mid-air as we hit the northwest corner of Spain, flying on in by the island of Majorca (off the eastern Spanish coast), before coming back out by Gibraltar, for a second mid-air refueling, bringing the aircraft up to full tanks, then all the way back to Fort Worth.” 

Stretching around the Soviet Union was an imaginary line called the ‘H-Hour Control Line.’  All of our bombers would be required to refuel prior to reaching that invisible point, for obvious reasons.  In addition, the perimeter would provide a timing and positioning check-point, a last line of control for command authority back in the States, for assurances that all was in order with the armada of American aircraft, as they prepared to penetrate actual Soviet airspace and deliver their nuclear weaponry. 

Those ‘what-if’ preparatory missions generally lasted about 24-hours. The longest one he flew went about 25-hours and 20-minutes, as he recalled.  Shuler and his colleagues at Carswell remained in that same flight rotation for the next thirty-days.  During that specific period of international tension created by the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Shuler flew six of those rigorous round-the-clock airborne missions, remaining on ground-alert status in between. 

And talk about intense.  America’s Air Force “had four B-52’s refueling near Spain every 30-minutes, with pre-assigned targets ready to go (in the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact nations, and others).  All that was needed to initiate our nuclear response was the ‘Go Code,’ which could only be transmitted by the U.S. President,” said Shuler.  The SAC fleet eventually came out of that particular period of military intensity, with its unthinkable potential for global destruction, when, thankfully for those of us alive, back then and today, the Soviets ‘blinked.’ 

At this point, it’s important to note that the Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command had the authority to launch the bomber force for reasons of survivability, but only the President had the authority and responsibility to execute the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan committing the forces to the use of nuclear weapons. 

While we were normally in a Cold War Defense Condition 4, during those years, the Cuban emergency had elevated the ‘DefCon’ all the way to Condition 2.  “It was a dicey period of time, as I recollect.  I thought we probably had a 50-50 chance of going to war. As it turned out, we didn’t,” said Shuler. And thankfully so, for then-current and future generations of Americans, as well as all peoples who would have inevitably suffered the wide-spread and lasting brutality of nuclear war, certainly something we’ve been conscience of here in the U.S., watching international frictions develop, along with justifiable concern for nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states or terrorists. 

One of SAC’s other taskings during that time of international tension, was the use of its airborne-alert aircraft, when crossing the Atlantic, to be on the look-out for Soviet ships, helping our Navy spot and track any shipments of munitions, missiles, and light-bombers to Cuba. 

As the intensity of the crisis in Cuba thankfully became less so, with Shuler and his same crew from Carswell AFB then moving on to Dyess AFB (Texas) in September, 1963, the alert flights continued, but were reduced back to one B-52 at a time, and with a different flying route, this one heading from Texas to Massachusetts, refueling, then on up to Greenland (making communication checks with the Distant Early Warning (DEW Line) personnel, proceeding close to the North Pole, before turning back south to Point Barrow, Alaska, refueling, then out to the end of the Aleutian Islands, before turning back down the U.S. West coast to home station at Dyess AFB. 

As he recalled, with an understatement:  “Long missions!  With my crew, we set up a routine where we’d keep one pilot in the seat, with either the gunner or the EW Officer monitoring the radios, leaving one of the navigators in the seat, as well. Then the rest of us would try to get four-hours of rest.  You couldn’t actually sleep on the aircraft due to the engine noise (and on air mattresses, no bunks!).   You could only rest, that was about it.  Then we’d swap-out every four-hours. The only exception to the rest rotation was that all crew members had to be in their seats during the critical phases of the flight: take-off, mid-air refueling, and landing.” 

As Shuler remembered it, the ‘fly-away’ cost of each B-52 produced when it first became the primary bomber for SAC (1955), with its crew of six, was about $ 11-million each.  “That was all a pretty heady responsibility for a 27-year-old Air Force Captain, and, by then, an aircraft commander as well, at a time when the average age of the squadron’s aircraft commanders at Dyess AFB was 39.5-years!! 

Real old heads with a lot of experience,” said Shuler.  Not only had he earned the aircraft commander designation at a remarkably early age and rank, but he also earned the assignment of commanding a “lead” crew, meaning one at the very top of assessment and mission responsibility.  The crew progression sequence back then began with ‘Ready,’ advanced with qualification achievement to ‘Lead,’ and then finally to ‘Select,’ based on performance proficiency.  As Shuler indicated, pretty ‘heady’ stuff, indeed! 

He recalled that the basic weight of the B-52 was about 184,000-pounds. The actual weight at take-off, with full combat load (fuel, crew and munitions), rose to about 456,000-pounds.  Like the airfield at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, back then, as it remains today, SAC runways were normally at least 10,000-feet in length, with an additional 500-feet of ‘overrun” at both ends.  “Even with normal training weight,” recalled Shuler, “many take-offs had to use water-injection in each of the eight engines to get airborne.  I can remember having to use a full 10,000 feet on very hot days at Dyess.  Even with helmets on, you could clearly hear the engines, and as you rolled down the runway, the noise from the straining engines increased to a high-pitched scream.” 

When asked about the degree of difficulty in piloting such an enormous aircraft, in both weight and exterior size, he responded:  “The analogy that many crew members used to describe it was that it felt like you were driving an eighteen-wheeler.  Big, and with no boosted-controls, it was very tiring to fly.”  And beyond normal flight demands, with the notorious Texas cross-winds, landing a B-52 safely back at base could be made additionally stressful. 

Fortunately, the aircraft did have the ability to deal with that condition, to a point!  “The B-52 had cross-wind ‘crab-landing’ capability.  The system moved the quadri-cycle gear-trucks up to a 12-degree maximum, based on the wind readings from the tower.  I can remember landing a B-52 looking out the pilot’s side window, which is rather spooky!  But that capability did make a landing there possible, rather than having to divert to another SAC base,” he said. 

“For all of those reasons, I found the aircraft to be a real challenge, not only to fly, but also to lead and coordinate the crew, so that, if it ever came to that eventuality, we got those bombs on-target. But one of the greatest stresses with many of those B-52 missions, especially the Cuban-era, high-alert overseas ones, was the sheer fatigue from their duration, often 24-hours+, adding enormously to the normal, everyday, physical effort it took to fly that aircraft,” remembered Shuler. 

Going back to the air-attack munitions load, during the Cuban crisis, it’s important to realize that Shuler’s aircraft, along with many of his sister ‘52’s, routinely carried two nuclear weapons on their prescribed overseas missions. 

In addition, some of the bombers actually carried the ’Hound Dog’ cruise missile on their flights to the Soviet Union or related potential targets, if it became necessary to fight their way into the target. The missiles provided the muscle for the Soviet bloc attack plan, which was to “shoot and penetrate,” recalled Shuler. 

Along with the airborne bombs and cruise missiles, the other potent element for our nuclear response would be the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.  Depending on ground or sea (submarine) launch point, the ICBM flight time to target would be about 30-minutes, leaving little time to avoid mutual destruction between the two powerful nuclear nations. 

Hard to imagine now, but ultimate reality for crew, nation, and human-kind back then, in a so-called Cold War, it was always just one action by the President away from turning irreversibly hot!  As such, it goes without saying, but regardless bears repeating, that it was a time of 24/7 tension and fatigue for crews tasked with making those SAC flights, armed with the capability to produce incredible devastation. 

And due to the classified nature of these potentially-deadly defensive flights, especially during the actual period of the Cuban Crisis, the American public was largely shielded from the stark reality that their nation and planet were wavering, as never before, on the very edge of its continued existence.  But there was certainly awareness, though with widely-varying levels of concern, about what civilians here could do, unrealistic as it may be. 

Actually, well before the Cuban missile situation, during the 1950’s especially, in the event of that feared nuclear attack, school students were drilled in “safety” procedures, such as lining the school hallways, or simply putting heads under desks (clearly desk construction and survivability then were superior to today’s models!).  All ineffective, of course, but making at least a naive effort to plan something, anything, for the nation’s children before threat became reality. 

And, for America’s concerned adults (as all were who were paying attention), month after month, magazines like “Popular Mechanics,” “Popular Science,” and doubtless others, featured plans for building a family’s own, in-ground, backyard fall-out shelter.  Some were basic, little more than a large hole in the ground, with a reinforced roof and filtered air-intake), stocked with some non-perishable food, and cots for sleeping (bathroom solution primitive).  Others, for the more prosperous, were well-outfitted and comparatively lavish, ready for the presumed longer-haul. Then, the moral/ethical dilemma of the day for shelter owners became, what to do if someone knocked frantically on your shelter door once the bombs had hit, as the forewarned deadly radiation spread. Would you endanger your own family by opening the door to try to save others? The universal answer became, pretty much, NO! 

All of this intensity of concern and planning peaked in the 1950’s and 1960’s, overshadowed later on in that latter decade, by the public’s increasing desire to get American troops out of Vietnam, along with other political/social/economic issues closer to home.  But the Cold War would continue, though perhaps with lessened intensity and public attention, for many more years, with the SAC ground-alert status actually continuing until President George H.W. Bush finally ordered the stand-down in late 1991.  And one historic note for those in Coastal Georgia: The test program for SAC’s ground-alert status, employing the nuclear-capable B-47 aircraft, actually began in 1958, at Hunter Field in Savannah, Georgia. 

Returning to those extreme crisis days, brought to peak intensity by the Cuban Crisis, the around-the-clock U.S. air missions of our lethally-loaded aircraft would take off, each with two targets assigned, in the event the alert-mission turned active.   Depending on real-time circumstances, target change-orders might well come while in flight. 

One primary bomb target assigned to his crew remains clearly fixed in Shuler’s mind, and for obvious reasons: “I can remember having the southwest corner of the Kremlin as our aiming point.” Recall that those (nuclear) bombs on the B-52’s existed well before the precision guided ones of today.  If the target was a specific military facility, a pilot would actually have to fly to, and drop the bomb, there!  Important to note, also, that our bombers would be flying to, and hopefully back from, the target area without American fighter escort. He recalled that, if they survived the flight through Soviet airspace, the bomber crews were assigned headings for post-strike Allied bases over seas.  “Once you delivered your weapons, you were kinda on your own,” said Shuler. 

During those extended years of ground and air alert status, all of our military nuclear capabilities were grouped under a Single Integrated Operational Plan, known by the acronym ‘SIOP.’  It “coordinated all nuclear weapon strikes, B-47’s, B-52’s, ICBM’s, and SLBM’s (submarine launched), as well as planned the time on-target, how many weapons to be aimed at each, and de-conflicted the routes of the bombers, so as to avoid previous bomb-strike areas.” 

“Basically, the first priority,” remembered Shuler, “was to neutralize the strategic rocket forces and bombers of the Soviet Union.  Priority #2 was to take-out their leadership.  And the third target was the Soviet’s conventional forces, the Russian Army, and the Warsaw Pact armies, assuming that they would then be attempting to penetrate Western Europe.”  Again, all pretty scary to contemplate, with sincere gratitude that none of that, in the end, had to occur. May the same hold true for the political and military challenges we face today! 

“We watched the Soviets 24/7,” said Shuler.  The daily intelligence briefings always focused heavily on the Soviets, and questions about what their forces were doing: “Were they in garrison, were they exercising, were they deployed?  Were their strategic air forces at home bases or had they deployed up to their Arctic Circle bases, which would indicate a possible impending strike,” recounted Shuler. 

“When we weren’t on ground-alert, we were target-studying, completing training requirements, and planning training missions. By the way, our training missions in those days were anywhere from 8 to 14 hours long.” 

“With the training missions, we’d do essentially the same thing we’d do in an actual war mission:  Take off, then, later, do an in-flight refueling.  When flying in the dark, we’d perform a celestial-navigation leg.  And we’d always do low-level penetration, which in those days, and with those non-satellite-guided weapons, low-level was required for accurate delivery,” he recalled vividly.  There were sophisticated (for the time) practice target-scoring sites, located throughout the United States, which could provide the aircraft real-time, accuracy-on-target feedback. 

“A SAC crew member work week typically ran as many as 110-hours.  And you were constantly being tested and evaluated. Written exams, and then on alert status, we’d have to take a positive control test to demonstrate that we fully understood what we were expected to do if we got the ‘Go-Code,’” Shuler recalled.  So then, in flight, how would that activate notice be received? 

“The Go-Code was transmitted in a message format, with alpha-numeric numbers and letters.  The code was embedded within that sequence.  Recall that on a B-52, there were three primary crew members: aircraft commander, pilot, and radar navigator.  Each had the actual code sealed in a small, plastic envelope, worn with their dog tags around the neck.  Each would copy down the just-transmitted alpha-numeric code, then break-open their individual envelope and compare it with what was in the ‘Go-Code’ message.  All three had to be in agreement.  If so, then it was a valid, authenticated message, and you were to carry out your instructions,” he remembered. 

Later on, with the need for imposing even more security, given the obvious gravity of the situation and the catastrophic result of a mis-step, the authentication information was contained within a metal box sealed by three locks.  With the ‘Go-Code’ received, each of the three primary crew members, with their own individual lock, would go separately to the box and open their lock. Again, all three had to agree that the code in the box matched the code received in-flight, before activating their pre-set instructions, meaning to actually proceed to their designated targets and release their nuclear bomb load. 

Generally, radio silence was observed on the overseas, what-if, alert missions, with the exception of pre-determined times for brief, in-flight check-ins with SAC, via high-frequency radio, to confirm that the aircraft was ‘operation-normal.’  Years later, direct satellite communication would replace reliance on high-frequency radio use. 

Was there ever a time, beyond all of the preparation and practice, when Shuler thought they might actually receive a real mission alert?    “Yes.  We had two events that really got our attention,” he recalled. 

To set the stage for those ‘events,’, there were three types of message formats that could be received by Shuler and his fellow aircraft commanders. Color-coded ‘Dot” messages that indicated either training information, or notification of a change in SAC alert status (for instance, the order to taxi to the head of the runway, then leave engines running or shut down, depending on perceived Soviet status), or, ultimately, a final ‘Dot’ which was an actual combat-triggering message, giving the aircraft the ‘Go-Code’ for either the send-off to war, or instruction to fly east to an initial control point for further instruction, that location varying with specific combat targeting. 

Should a real-world, final ‘Dot’ message/’Go-Code’ be received, while underway in flight, and now well beyond the initial control point, with a mandatory mid-air refueling completed, the next pre-established command and control clearance was called the ‘H-Hour Control Line,’ an invisible ring stretching around the total circumference of the Soviet Union.  This imaginary perimeter line in the air was the final critical check-point used by the ‘SIOP’ (Single Integrated Operational Plan) to insure that all of our bombers heading to war were still on-schedule and that their flight positioning remained de-conflicted (i.e., adequate flight path separation within the American armada) according to that overall attack plan, as the fateful final run into the set target(s) began. “You had to cross that final, critical control line (on time), so as to strike your target at the precise time that SIOP indicated,” said Shuler. 

Returning to those events that remain vivid in his mind.  “For that first one, we were on ground-alert (at a time not during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still very much in the Cold War).  In the dead of night, the claxon goes off.  We jump up, get our flight suits and boots on, get in the vehicle, and head quickly to the flight line. As the aircraft was powered up, we got on the radio to hear the senior controller at the command post reading an alert-status message, instructing response aircraft to head to the runway and prepare for take-of. Our radar-navigator kept saying ‘it’s just a practice.’  I had to quickly remind him that this was NOT a practice message!!  This is real world!  And so we did exactly what we were instructed to do, we taxied on out there,” recalled Shuler.  Fortunately, although a very real alert, for Shuler and crew, this one proved to be a false alarm. 

He later learned that some geese had “spooked” the Ballistic Early Warning System (Canada/Greenland), which was interpreted by NORAD to be a possible penetration by Soviet aircraft. Thus, the real world/real threat reaction was triggered, until it was determined that NORAD had, thankfully, only been falsely alerted by Mother Goose! 

But Shuler well-remembered that it was, back then, “so early in the ground-alert program, that when the senior controller radioed that we could all taxi back to our assigned parking area, nobody moved. SAC had not yet provided for an authenticated message system to get us back to the alert area and to stand-down!”  Illustrating the power of training and strict adherence to procedures, despite what proved to be the benign nature of that particular incident. 

“The next thing that happened was when I was a Wing Commander of the 19th Bomb Wing at Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia (1979-80).  Again, in the dead of night, I sat straight up in bed, because I head the alert force bombers and tankers start engines!  I knew immediately something was wrong, because, with any exercise, the Wing Commander is always alerted, so he can be out there to supervise.  Before I could even get up, the red phone which sat at the side of my bed rang.  My senior controller said, ‘Colonel, you need to come to the command post ASAP.’  I got into my flight suit and jumped into my vehicle.  As I drove out, I went past the alert area. I could see the engines running and the lights flashing.  As I arrived at the command post, it looked like a real-world situation,” recalled Shuler. 

Fortunately, yet again, a false alarm.  At NORAD headquarters, a pre-programmed practice tape was inadvertently played, and it went out to the entire SAC network.  Merely an exercise tape, not a real-world situation after all.  But true to their repeated training and practice, “it caused a normal reaction, a reaction just as it should have,” said Shuler. 

Regarding practice ground-alert exercises, Shuler reviewed the two types then in use for the SAC bomber crews.  “You had a start engines, but stay in position.  That was called a ‘Bravo.’ You had a start engines and taxi.  That’s a ‘Cocoa.’ With that one, you go to the ‘hammer-head’ (final stop prior to entering the active runway), get clearance, pull onto the runway, set take-off power, roll 400 or 500 hundred feet, then, in a normal practice scenario, as directed, cut back power and return to your normal parking spot.” 

Looking back at those continuing and incredibly tense Cold War years, one simply cannot comprehend the understandable stress experienced by those B-47 and B-52 crew members (along with those others manning the remaining two-legs of our nation’s nuclear triad) should a ‘Go-Code’ activation and authentication have ever actually been sent for real.  Yes, they were all well-trained, repeatedly tested (including the maintainers), and thoroughly screened for these missions, and would have, without hesitation, carried them out as ordered.  But the reality of what faced them (along with the likely obliteration of all that was below them), and, conversely, the obvious concern for what America might look like, after the Soviet pre- or counter-launch. And specific concern, as well, for the status of their families (alive or dead), when, andif, those air crews were actually able to return from what could quite easily have become a one-way mission. 

All of that, no longer fictional “War-of-the Worlds” (Orson Welles’ 1938 radio drama), but very real scenario, decades back, is hard to imagine, just as, regrettably, it is today with the increasingly unstable, aggressive, nuclear-reality that lurks out there before us, and our allies, yet again.  Back then, in those turbulent, dangerous-in-an-instant, early-1960’s, thank heavens those authenticated ‘Go-Codes’ were never received by courageous air crews flying our nuclear-armed bombers.    And may there never be the necessity of our current B-52, B-1 or B-2 pilots, or other delivery vehicles, receiving such today, and frankly, ever after.  Nuclear weaponry brings annihilation of structures, and all things living, within its kill-radius, abruptly shortening eternity’s time-frame in, and to, an instant. 

Before Captain Shuler was transitioned by the Air Force from multi-engine bomber duty to piloting jet attack aircraft, some parting facts and experiential thoughts on the B-52.  As it happened, its first recorded flight took place, corresponding by chance to its numeric designation, in April of 1952!  The B-52’s went operational with SAC in June, 1955.  That powerful aircraft was created specifically to carry nuclear weaponry during the Cold War, and was capable of transporting up to 70,000-lbs of ordnance. 

The B-52 was designed as a high-altitude bomber.  True to that intent, “I can recall making simulated bomb runs at 48,000-feet,” said Shuler. “But in the late 1950’s, when the Soviets dramatically increased and improved their air-defense capabilities, including surface-to-air missiles, and early-warning radars out the ‘gazoo,’ all around their major cities, like Moscow and Leningrad.  We then began flying the B-52 in a low-level regimen on practice missions, developing our potential for sneaking under those radars.  Doing so, however, put a lot of wear and tear on the aircraft, accelerating the need for, not just routine, but major maintenance.”  Regardless, lacking any fighter escort, doing all in their power to make it to the target as undetected as possible, for as long as possible, made the low-level flight approach and delivery, mandatory. 

Cold War nuclear devices were, by then, more compact in size than our Pacific War originals, but still capable of delivering a devastating punch.  Rather than the detonate-on-impact World War II version, upon delivery, the weapons then were ‘drogue-parachute-retarded.’  “You would release the bomb(s), and a timer would kick in,” explained Shuler.  “The bomb(s) would float down and land in the target area, sit there and tick until the timer ran down, at which point the weapon would detonate.  In the meantime, we would have the time needed to get away.” 

Even though a nuclear bomb would be delivered on-target with a delaying-device, rather than World War II’s detonate-on-impact version, what, then, was the specific SAC plan for getting aircraft and crew clear of the explosion site?  Shuler well-remembered the prescribed post-bomb-delivery procedure: “Once the weapon(s) were delivered, you were on your own.  You were working for yourself! We would immediately make, what was called, a ‘break-away turn,’ left or right, roll the aircraft into about a 60-degee bank, pull it around to about 180-degrees, then fly away from the detonation point, at full-throttles to escape the frag-pattern.” 

“When Tibbets delivered the A-Bomb on Hiroshima, he, too, did a break-away turn,” said Shuler.  “But you still felt the shock-wave.  It’s gonna get you, one way or another. The break-away procedure was designed to diminish it to the point where it wouldn’t knock you out of the air.  While Tibbets dropped his bomb at a lower altitude than ours would’ve been, it was actually a much smaller impact weapon than the ones we were scheduled to deploy.” 

“Early on, even though the weapons were drogue-retarded,” said Shuler, “we had to deliver them using two different tactics.  One was called ‘short-look;’ the other a ‘long-look.’  The short version, depending on the weapon, meant that you would go in at about 500-feet, and then, just after the ‘IP’ (Initial Point, the formal start of the bomb run, a designation dating back to WW II), start a climb to 8-to-10,000-feet, deliver the weapon on target, then make the turn described earlier, while descending back down to the 500-foot regime.  With some bombs, the larger ones, you’d do a long-look, beginning with the same procedure, hitting the IP at around 500-feet, then climb to 18-to-20,000-feet, deliver the weapon, and immediately turn, descend, full-power, again hopefully escaping the frag-envelope of the weapon. Later, the bombs got even better, where you could just over-fly the target and drop the time-release weapon, then fly away,” recalled Shuler. 

To further assist the safe fly-away of our B-52’s and B-47’s, special exterior paint was used.  “The undersides were coated with an anti-nuclear radiation paint.  The resulting white underbelly was applied to reflect the nuclear energy released,” he said. 

After the rapid, hopefully safe, departure from the detonation area, each mission had a predetermined, post-strike recovery base, generally somewhere in Southwest Asia or other Pacific Rim locations.  If the mission plan called for penetrating the Soviet Union on a more northerly route, recovery would then most likely be directed more toward one of the Scandinavian nations. 

“If you made it to a pre-planned base, but found it destroyed,” said Shuler, “you’d then search for an alternate in the region, either military or civilian.  Land and scrounge whatever fuel you could get, beg, borrow, steal, whatever it took.  Then, if your airplane was still operational, you were scheduled to fly back to the Continental United States.”  However, if there was no ability to re-fuel during the return flight, they would not be able to get back to the U.S., in which case they were to “hunker down” in a designated, so-called “safe area” to await the end of the war. After which, whenever possible, remaining U.S. forces would be dispatched to try to locate and rescue our aircrews on the ground.  There were identifiers to be used for validation, followed by likely evacuation by helicopter. Remembering, once again, all of those post-strike what-if’s and fend-for-yourself contingencies, Shuler then commented, with wry understatement: “Those were not very comforting thoughts!” 

But given that scenario, for whatever reason, not being able to make it back to America, what about capture?  Shuler’s response: “With post-strike damage so horrific over there, frankly, we didn’t worry about being captured.” The harsh reality was that likely many of the bomber crews would not have survived these missions, or in any event, would not make it home to what remained of our nation anytime soon. 

On a more positive note, assuming a return to the U.S. was feasible, Shuler recalled that “we had a very detailed re-entry program.  Now, understanding nuclear warfare, and this being our first response to a Soviet strike, we knew that, by then, most, if not all, of the 40+ SAC bases, plus Washington, D.C. and SAC headquarters, would’ve been destroyed in a nuclear exchange.  So then we had a list of options, depending on our routing coming back into the U.S.  For instance, if we were coming back across the mid-Atlantic, options would include South Carolina or Georgia.  You’d look for a place like Atlanta (Hartsfield-Jackson), and land there.  We’d have had recovery teams dispatched to those major, alternate locations at the start of the conflict, with maintenance guys, nuclear weapons for re-arming/re-loading, etc.  Then you would await your assignment to fly another strike mission, or whatever they wanted you to do,” he remembered. 

Assuming, again, that SAC headquarters would’ve been destroyed at some point during the first flurry of Soviet missiles, any follow-on flight or return strike orders would have originated from the sky.  Flying around the clock, throughout the Cold War years, was a command and control aircraft, the electronics-laden EC-135 (code name: ‘Looking Glass’).  With an Air Force Flag Officer always on board (Airborne Emergency Action Officer), ‘Looking Glass’ became the command authority for returning bomber subsequent orders, whether to find a functioning airfield, land and stay, or to land, take on fuel, get food, re-arm, and head back for a second strike overseas.  In addition to coordinating the whereabouts, welfare, and any follow-on missions for our bombers, in-silo ICBM’s could actually be launched from ‘Looking Glass’ as well, if normal ground controls were incapacitated. 

And that need for repeat strike missions was all dependent on how important the specific targets were, and how effective our first ICBM and aircraft had been putting nuclear weapons on target, that is, each having successfully delivered their assigned ‘PK’ (Probability of Kill).  The plan, then, was for the operational bombers to return to the continental U.S., if possible.  Easy enough to say, type, and read, now over 50-years after the fact and well away from the fray.  But frightening beyond comprehension to think about the post-nuclear reality that might have been, given that the Soviet goal quite likely would have been the destruction of our nation, as well. 

Made all the more intense by the fact that “our stated nuclear philosophy, at the time, was that we would take and absorb the first blow (by the Soviets), and only then, respond. That’s why we sat nuclear alert seven-days at a time, and why we practiced these airborne alert missions (aka ‘unexecuted combat missions’) repeatedly and so intently,” remembered Shuler. 

With 650-700 B-52’s then in our arsenal, 1/8th of them (80+ aircraft) were always in the air during the Cuban Crisis, flying their pre-assigned airborne-alert training missions, rather than about half that many (40+) flying at all times during the more ‘normal’ Cold War intensity.  Due to their more limited range, the nuke-capable B-47’s were mostly prepositioned overseas (North Africa, United Kingdom, Spain, etc.), reducing their required strike distance, while sitting alert at rotating 90-day intervals.  Also at that time, some of the B-47’s were loaded, not with bombs, but with electronic surveillance equipment, as they flew continual reconnaissance missions around the Soviet perimeter.  As you might imagine, these flights sometimes did attract the attention of Soviet fighter jets. With only a 50-cal. tail gun for defense, the Soviets did manage to shoot down one of our B-47’s, resulting in some of the crew members being killed, while others were imprisoned.  That particular event was chronicled in the book, LittleToyDog (William L. White). 

Along with surveillance from the pre-positioned B-47’s, the U.S. also had RC-135’s doing reconnaissance flights up and down the Soviet coastline and borders.  These specialty aircraft were equipped for electronic surveillance, pinpointing Soviet radars so as to determine better ingress/egress routes for our B-52’s, in an effort to better avoid their missiles and fighters.  The RC-135’s also carried Air Force linguists on-aboard, fluent in Russian, to detect and translate important voice communication, for both real-time information, analysis, and contingency planning use. 

While we were conducting continuous surveillance flights very near the Soviet Union, with increased intensity during the Crisis, especially, perhaps not surprisingly, the Soviets were doing some of the same, sending their long-range aircraft up and down our East Coast shoreline, from the legal vantage point of international Atlantic waters.  But, as Shuler remembers, while they were, indeed, doing reconnaissance, in his view, what they were doing was nowhere near as comprehensive as SAC and DoD’s plans and missions designed to carry out our retaliatory response, aimed at the “complete destruction of the Soviet Union.” 

As mentioned earlier, the nuclear weapon load per bomber, during Shuler’s time piloting B-52’s, was two.  Later on, it was possible for each aircraft to deliver four such weapons.  “They were loaded onto a clip which fit into the bomb-bay.  Those weapons were each in the 1-mega-ton range (vs. the earlier 3-to-9-mega-ton range),” he remembered. 

Shuler recalled and mentioned, again, that some of the bombers, in other units, carried the ‘Hound Dog’ missile.  These were nuclear-tipped, two per bomber, and carried externally on the weapon hard-points under the B-52 wings.  Many of those aircraft also carried nuclear bombs internally.  As mentioned earlier, SAC’s operational plan for those dual-capability bombers was to ‘shoot-and-penetrate.’  “Those guys would pound their way in, using the missiles to take out targets that might have been able to take them, or other of our aircraft out, then continue on to deliver their internally-carried weapons,” said Shuler. 

These dual-equipped B-52’s were based mostly in the northern sector of the U.S., reducing their flight time to the Soviet Union.  The plan was for them to go in after our ICBM’s, and before our bombs-only aircraft, like Shuler’s, which were stationed then mainly in the southern states, like Texas. 

“Once we got our ICBM’s up, with their fly-out time to target of 30-to-35 minutes (from continental U.S. to Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact nations), with their mission to take-out major enemy targets before launching our follow-on B-52/B-47 strike-force, those ICBM’s would become an important, timely, retaliatory, return first-punch, since the flight time to target for our bombers was roughly 12-to-14-hours before we actually delivered our weapons,” said Shuler. 

By the late 1960’s, as a result of the comprehensive Soviet anti-aircraft defensive build-up, the B-52 was “no longer a viable penetrator, so we starting producing stand-off weapons, like the air-launched cruise missiles, as well as bringing the B-1 and B-2 bombers on-board, both of which could far more effectively defeat Soviet radars and surface-to-air missile systems,” said Shuler. 

All told, there were a total of 744 B-52’s built, and, today, just 85 remain in active service (back in 1991, the START Treaty with the Soviets dictated the destruction of the others remaining).   Our production of B-52’s ended in 1962, making all those produced that year (i.e., the ‘newest’!), now 55-years old!  During “Operation Desert Storm” (First Gulf War/1991), our B-52’s, carrying conventional weapons, dropped 40% of those delivered by air.  And finally, believe it or not, our remaining fleet of B-52’s is expected to continue serving America’s defense needs on into the 2050-decade, which at this point, would seem to be on track to set a single military airframe longevity record! 

And for the B-52’s human-impact honor roll, Shuler indicated that, from March, 1946 (SAC’s activation), until SAC’s de-activation, on June 1, 1991, over 2,500 combat crew members (B-52, B-47, EC-135, KC-97, KC-135, RC-135, and U-2) lost their lives in either training accidents or in combat.  Far beyond the cost of the aircraft destroyed over that 45-year SAC operational period, those combat crew members who perished, in service to our nation, became the real toll, the real price paid, for the defense of America throughout that time of unremitting challenge and tension.  A time and tension sadly and, frankly, now either forgotten, or never even known, by far too many of our citizens, who were never factually instructed.  Those (especially in positions of national authority) who remain ignorant of our past, through negligence or by design, are destined to repeat it, as wise men have sagely told us.  And in all likelihood, America (and Americans) could well be seriously harmed, if not destroyed, by this now-rampant lack of awareness of our past world of nuclear threat and tension. There was simply far too much at stake back then, just as there is today, for the sake and survival of both our nation and precious freedoms, to remain blissfully complacent or ignorant. 

Returning again to that Post-Cuban Crisis/Cold War era, along with all of that full-time ground-alert and air operational status during his two-year+ assignment at Dyess AFB, Captain Shuler had somehow managed to wedge-in graduate engineering coursework, under the auspices of the Air Force Institute of Technology (he began his Air Force career with a civil engineering undergraduate degree).  Then, in 1966, he was selected to enter the Master of Science degree program in Engineering Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.   There, despite the demands of full-time graduate studies at a prestigious engineering school, he was still required to maintain his flight proficiency, so he managed to complete those needed air-hours, flying the U-3A twin Cessna out of Stewart AFB, near Newburgh, New York. 

After earning his Master’s Degree from RPI in 1967, Shuler received a directed-duty assignment to the civil engineering career field, which was intended to be a three-year tour (selection for one-year of graduate school obligated the officer-graduate to three-years of duty in that field). 

That said, why then, after being selected for advanced professional study, was his civil engineering assignment abruptly halted and put on hold?  And, why in its place would this B-52 aircraft commander, with 2,500-hours of multi-engine military flying time behind him, receive orders to transition instead, and unexpectedly, to F-4 fighter-attack pilot training?  The answer, as it is with all unexpected transfers,  proved to be quite simple. As those who have served know well, the needs of the service branch, in his case, the Air Force, prevailed. 

And here was the need:  At that time, the Summer of 1967, the war in Southeast Asia was heating up.  By then, all of the Air Force’s existing tactical fighter pilots had already served a combat tour in that region.  “So they made a rule that the rest of us multi-engine pilots, from the Military Airlift Command, from SAC, and guys from Air Training Command, who hadn’t been to Southeast Asia, had to go there, before they would send our veteran tactical fighter pilots back for a second tour,” recalled Shuler. “I had not been over there yet, so they said I had to do a combat tour before entering the civil engineering career field.” 

Also at that time, the Air Force had a ‘Choose Your Weapons” program, allowing pilots to volunteer for a specific type of fighter.  Shuler elected to go with the F-4.  A world of difference in all ways from the B-52, but he had, of course, actually flown a single-engine military aircraft (T-33) as a part of his initial pilot training, so the transition wasn’t as stark for him as might be expected. Especially since he would start out his re-familiarization by flying an AT-33, a trainer-modification now equipped with 50-cal. guns. 

To do that, he was assigned to the 68th Tactical Fighter Squadron at George AFB in California, as a replacement training-unit fighter pilot in the F-4D Phantom II.  There he underwent extensive training in fighter aircraft requirements and tactics, with both flying time (15-hours in the AT-33, plus 6-months in the F-4), along with classroom instruction and evaluations.  Of significant training value for Shuler, his instructor pilot was on an exchange program from the Navy, and one who had already flown combat in Vietnam in the F-8! 

Training modules and practice in California included: air refueling, lots of air-to-ground work (dive-bombing, skip-bombing, rocketry, and strafing), and low-level navigation.  “We got to fire the Sparrow missile (radar-guided anti-aircraft).  The F-4 carried four ‘Sparrows,’ and depending on the configuration and mission requirement, we’d also carry four ‘Sidewinder’ missiles (heat-seeking air-to-air), as well.  The Sparrows always remained on the aircraft, regardless of the mission we were flying,” recalled Shuler. 

Following fighter pilot graduation, he went to Tactical Sea Survival School in Homestead, Florida (“where you learned how to parachute into a water environment and survive!”).  Then it was on to Jungle Survival Training (‘Snake School’) at Clark AFB in the Philippines. “Along with collateral classroom work, we went out on escape and evasion training (day/night), up in the hills beyond the base.  There, native youth were used to track down the hiding U.S. aviators.  For every one found, the young boys were given a bag of rice,” remembered Shuler. 

As it turned out, finding the ‘hidden’ Americans in the jungle proved to be a lot easier than the pilots had assumed.  The boys had quickly learned to simply follow the tracks left by the larger American boots!  When asked if the youngsters had been able to find him and his fellow students, Shuler replied: “Yep, they caught every damn one of us!” 

Among other events in that escape training sequence was a very important one, but one these Vietnam-bound pilots hoped they’d never need to experience: extraction following a bail-out. “We practiced being hoisted out of the jungle on a ‘tree penetrator.’  As the helicopter hovered overhead, they’d drop the ‘penetrator’ down and we’d strap onto it, as they pulled us out of there.  We practiced all manner of rescue operations,” Shuler remembered. 

In that particular fighter training program with Shuler was fellow Citadel graduate (Class of 1951), Rudy Nunn, who went on to fly Skyraiders in Vietnam, based in Laos.  Within just 30-days after his graduation with Shuler from “Snake School,” while flying a combat mission in an A-1E aircraft, Nunn was shot down and killed.  A stark memory of a friend, colleague, and fellow pilot who lost his life in defense of freedom, not unlike so many similar military member remembrances of comrades lost in combat, from all past wars right through to present day Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps other locations yet to come. 

Upon final completion of his transitional flight, sea survival, and evasion/rescue training, in March of 1968, Shuler transferred to the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, South Vietnam, to begin his year-long tour as an F-4 aircraft command pilot.  He arrived first at Tan Son Nhut Air Base (7th Air Force HQ), at the same time his brother Jake was stationed there.  “My parents were not too happy about having both of us over there at the same time.  We had about a six-month overlap. Our Dad had spent two-years in the Pacific during World War II, so Mother felt like she had already contributed enough!” he recalled. 

Once at Cam Ranh Bay, the “check-out” required of newly arriving pilots was flying five missions.  “The first mission you flew in the backseat with an instructor pilot, kind of an orientation,” remembered Shuler.  “From then on, you flew in the front seat, and were married-up with your ‘GIB’ (back seater, known among Phantom pilots simply as, the ‘Guy in Back’!).  In this case, it was Lieutenant Bill Reed.  I flew with a lot of different GIB’s, but Bill and I flew the majority of our combat missions together (Sadly, Reed was killed on his second combat tour, while flying over Laos in an F-4D). The fifth and final check-out mission was a status evaluation flight, with a supervising officer in the backseat, just to see how you were doing,” said Shuler. 

The primary mission of the 12thTactical Fighter Wing at Cam Ranh Bay was close-air support for the Army and Marines on the ground.  A secondary mission was enemy supply interdiction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and elsewhere.  Shuler’s F-4C carried a variety of ordinance: Napalm; or bombs of varying application and destructive power (500-lb,  750-lb, and/or 2,000-lb).  Some of the bombs were ‘slicks,’ while others were ‘high-drag,’ released at low altitude, around 450-to-500-feet, at an aircraft speed of about 450-to-500-knots.  With the ‘high-drag,’ fins would pop out, retarding the fall of the bomb, allowing time for the aircraft to exit the target area before ground impact and detonation.    The Phantom F-4C also had an exterior 20-mm cannon attached to the center-line of the aircraft (later on, the F-4E was equipped, instead, with an internal cannon), capable of a firing speed of 6,000-rounds-per-minute.  The typical mission load carried was around 1,200-rounds, allowing for sufficient short, pulverizing bursts, making the Phantom’s presence abundantly clear! 

Back in January of 1968, following a massive enemy artillery bombardment poured down upon the 5,000 U.S. Marines garrisoned at the Khe Sanh base in northwest South Vietnam (near the border with Laos), a huge wave of North Vietnamese soldiers then pushed forward to surround our troops.  The lengthy engagement (January-July, 1968) that followed is considered to have been one of the bloodiest battles of the war. 

“The first operation I became involved with in-country was the siege of Khe Sanh,” related Shuler.  “I flew six missions in support of our Marines there.  Called ‘Operation Niagara,’ which was appropriate campaign name, because of our heavy, continually-flowing tactical air strikes to neutralize the targets that had Khe Sanh surrounded, with air support from B-52’s, as well.”  Of necessity, many of those air-strikes came very close to our Marines and their base’s fortified perimeter.  In the midst of the surrounding chaos, continual re-supply of the compound was required.  That was achieved, primarily, and continually, by Air Force C-130’s delivering ammunition, food, water, etc.  Given the heavy ground fire from the North Vietnamese surrounding the base, they weren’t able to land as normal.  Instead, the C-130’s came in high, then dropped down over the compound’s runway, pushing out drogue-chuted supply pallets in-flight, before quickly regaining altitude to safely depart the area.  “We finally broke the siege with ‘Operation Pegasus.’  Lord only knows how many of the enemy we killed, but they finally quit.  Then the Marines could get out of the confines of the base and mop up the rest of it,” Shuler recalled. 

“I also flew several missions interdicting roads and ferry crossings in Laos.  Then I flew another six missions interdicting and hitting bridges in the panhandle of North Vietnam.  Otherwise we were primarily close air support.  And the most rewarding missions were when we had troops in contact (with enemy forces), and were able to go in and help relieve those conditions.  A lot of missions were termed ‘jungle busting,’” said Shuler.  Meaning putting concentrated air-power on valued targets around the clock (sarcastically referred to by pilots as “knocking down trees and killing monkeys”). 

“We also flew missions we called ‘sky spot,’ which is where you bomb from altitude in level flight, weather permitting.  In cases where it didn’t, rather than scoring our own bomb hits, as had been done previously, several of our ground radars sites were moved into South Vietnam. That way, putting them closer to the fighting, our radar guys were actually locating the intended targets, with us on their screens as well, and then directing us in, at the right altitude, and airspeed, with the right weaponry.  We simply followed their instructions in-flight, made any corrections, left or right, then flew down to the mission point.  It became so precise, they would even tell us when to release our bombs!  We used this radar-directed method when weather conditions wouldn’t permit us to strike visually,” said Shuler. 

Shuler’s initial Vietnam deployment assignment had been with the 558th Fighter Squadron of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing.  But when he arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, of all things, the 558th was in Korea!  This was the time of the unprovoked capture-at-sea of our intelligence-gathering vessel, the “USS Pueblo,” by the North Koreans, sparking a major crisis.  Thus, more tactical air assets were required to bolster our response capability in Korea.  Although he would’ve preferred otherwise, the Air Force then ‘suggested’ that he needed to join them.  Before temporarily departing Vietnam (April, 1968), just a month after his arrival, as indicated, he had already flown his first in-country combat missions (a total of seventeen) with the 391st Squadron, which quite effectively “got my feet wet,” he recalled. 

“Our primary mission in Korea was flying ‘MIG Cap’ for the RC-130 reconnaissance flights, which meant flying up both coasts of North Korea and along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone, separating the two Koreas).  We’d fly in a two-ship compliment (F-4’s), weaving over the C-130’s, with our 200-mile-range radars, looking into North Korea to detect any MIG’s that might be heading to try to knock down our ‘130’ platforms,” said Shuler. 

While he was there, but not in the air, the North Koreans did shoot down one of our helicopters along the DMZ.    Then, after he left, they shot down a Navy RC-121 reconnaissance aircraft (with the loss of all personnel onboard), and another helicopter.  So, needless to say, those protective RC-130 ‘MIG Cap’ flights were both important and dangerous.  Shuler ended up flying 15 of those combat support missions in Korea, along with 57 regular training sorties, to include qualification for nuclear weapons delivery with the F-4. 

After five months in Korea, a U.S. fighter squadron stationed in Japan came in to relieve the 558th so they could return to the fight in Vietnam (September, 1968).  “During that time, I had become ‘lead-qualified,’ both for two and four-ship flights.  Those first 17 missions in Vietnam, I flew as a wingman. So that when I got back to Cam Ranh Bay, I could then lead missions. Out of the total missions I flew, I led about a third of them.  And not everyone became lead-qualified.  I had lieutenant-colonels flying my wing who never became flight leaders,” recalled Shuler. 

Shuler flew missions within all four ‘corps’ of South Vietnam, as well as up North, some with our troops in enemy contact, but most of the time, not.  “If we were going on an interdiction mission to North Vietnam or Laos,” he remembered, “we’d generally take a ‘four-ship’ (aircraft) flight, but due to the distance, and carrying a full ordnance load, that always required us to refuel between Pleiku and Da Nang, with a KC-135 tanker aircraft.  Most of the ‘in-country’ missions were ‘two-ship’.  If we were going against fortified emplacements, you’d have one aircraft with 500 or 750-lb. ‘high-drags,’ and the other guy would have wall-to-wall napalm. So we’d go in, the lead with the ‘high-drags’ to open up the bunkers.  Then the second aircraft would come in behind us and pour the napalm,” said Shuler. 

“We also flew ‘top cover,’ if you will, for the C-123 ‘ranch-hand’ mission.  That’s where they (the 123’s) would fly low to put out the jungle defoliant, via spray-bars on the wings (killing the trees and leaves). We would fly over them, and then down in front of them, to try to draw ground-fire, keeping one F-4 up on the ‘perch.’  If we did get ground-fire, then the guy on the perch was ready to go in and strike the area.” 

Shuler then recounted a couple of his other missions, specific, memorable ones that he referred to as ‘interesting’!  “And let me say, first, I was fortunate. I got shot at a few times, but I was never hit.  I was damn lucky!”  By contrast, his friend, Major Don Lyon, was flying in an F-4 over Laos, on his very first combat mission in the back seat.  His aircraft was shot down and Lyon was killed.  First mission! Thinking back to the high rate of American bomber crew losses, most pronounced in the early months and years of World War II, Shuler’s “damn lucky” rings fatefully true, even to present day combat, and, regrettably, sometimes with training flights, as well. 

Those ‘interesting’ flights he spoke of, occurred while serving in Vietnam.  During one such, he was leading a two-ship mission over to the tri-border area (Laos/Cambodia/South Vietnam).  That area was considered to be a very fluid border confluence, with North Vietnamese troops frequently coming through it.  On this particular interdiction mission, said Shuler, “I made contact with my Forward Air Controller (FAC).  Anytime we struck in South Vietnam, we always had a Forward Air Controller.  There were no free-fire zones.  The Air Force FAC, flying an L-19 “Bird Dog” or an O-2-B Cessna, would mark the target with a smoke rocket, then give us directions where best to drop the ordnance.”  The FAC then told him to stand-by, while coordination was clarified with a couple of Army FAC’s also flying over the designated target area, since there were U.S. troops in the vicinity, as well as enemy.  “Then, the next think I heard over the radio, recalled Shuler, was, “Oh, my God!”  Those two Army FAC’s had collided in the air, and gone down.  A helicopter was quickly summoned, and a rescue team inserted.  Regrettably, one pilot was killed; the other, severely injured (he was immediately extracted and flown back for treatment). 

With the attack delayed due to the accident, Shuler and his wingman remained overhead in the area until their fuel level approached “bingo” state (i.e., needing to depart and refuel).  The Air Force FAC then radioed Shuler:  “OK, if you’ve got to leave. I’m going to show you the target area, and I just want you to dump your whole load!  So he fired a smoke rocket in there.  Then I rolled in, released everything, ‘pickled’ all the bombs off, and pulled out.  Then, I heard the FAC on the radio yelling: ‘They’re shooting at you. They’re shooting at you!!’  My wingman got his bombs off OK, and then we beat feet back to Cam Ranh Bay.” Shuler recalled that, at times, he could actually see the ground fire, especially in Laos and North Vietnam (heavier guns). 

On another ‘interesting’ mission, this time carrying, and then dropping, napalm over the target area, his wingman, as was customary, had done a visual check of Shuler’s jet, and immediately radioed him that a ‘can ‘ had gotten hung-up under his aircraft.  That apparently had resulted when the forward ‘lug’ had released, but the rear one had not, causing the napalm ‘can’ to twist in the slipstream, and in short order was punctured by the ‘sway brace,” creating a very serious situation.  “All that jelly gasoline was siphoned out and, as his wingman had indicated, was sticking to the bottom of the airplane, practically covering it,” remembered Shuler.  With his wingman alongside, but now at a safe distance, Shuler returned at once back to Cam Ranh, declared an emergency, flew a straight-in approach, and landed, fire trucks on either side, as he brought the aircraft to a halt and quickly shut the engines down!  He and his rear-seater exited the aircraft and then got their first real look at their plane, coated in napalm.  “I don’t know that anything would’ve set it off,” said Shuler. “But had it torched, we’d probably have been crispy critters!” 

When asked what could have set it off, he shared a story from that time and locale about his brother, Jake Shuler, who was an F-105 pilot. That particular day, Jake was in a 16-aircraft strike-force flying up to the Hanoi area. As they approached, the enemy began shooting SAM missiles at them.  So the flight leader called for a ‘SAM break,’ meaning the pilots were to hit their after-burners, immediately push over and head down to the ground as close as they could safely get.  The F-105’s had an external fuel drain-line (an overflow spout) on their tanks, sending any excess out the back end of the aircraft.  When his brother hit his ‘burners’ to rapidly accelerate, and swung hard toward the ground, the draining fuel, at the rear of his aircraft, burst into flames.   His wingman looked over and saw a huge ball of fire and called for Jake to bail-out.  Jake immediately checked his gauges and all readings appeared normal.  He then checked his mirror and could see the fire behind him, but decided to keep going, telling his brother later that “he wasn’t about to bail-out over downtown Hanoi!” Fortunately, as he pulled out of his dive, no longer needed for extra thrust, the after-burners shut off, and the fire went out on its own!  A safe ending to a tense event for brother Jake.  And an example of what could have happened to set-off that napalm which had coated the entire underside of Shuler’s aircraft. 

Continuing to reflect back, he remembered that, at that time, we were actually bombing in Laos, a fact closely-held, although air strikes there were authorized.   “The rules of engagement were rather stringent,” remembered Shuler.  We had written tests, monthly, on rules of engagement, what you could and couldn’t do.  It was pretty serious business.  Also, we were not allowed to fly into Cambodia, even thought that border was very porous,” he said. “That’s where the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail came into South Vietnam.” 

“Then, in October of 1968, we mounted what was probably the most massive tactical air campaign up to that time,” said Shuler.  “Seventh Air Force headquarters decided that we were going to put a stop to that Ho Chi Minh Trail traffic. So, the Air Force picked out the critical junctions, and maintained tactical air over those points 24-hours a day.  We bombed that place, those nodes, to the point where, as we found out later, it became so tough for the North Vietnam Army troops (NVA), that they had to withdraw three divisions, including some Viet Cong, because they couldn’t re-supply them, they couldn’t feed them, they couldn’t arm them.  We definitely put a stop to it all. We really had them pinned down,” recalled Shuler. 

The principal objective had been to render the “Trail” impassable, effectively collapsing it.  Non-stop Air Force bombing had done so.  Said Shuler: “We had used some unique ordnance to do that. We carried the CBU-49’s, a bomb-type that opens up after release and spreads little bomblets all over the place.  They’re time-delayed.  You don’t know when they’re going off.  So we’d put that on the roadways, nodes, and junctions. Beyond road damage, they were very effective against personnel and trucks, as well.” 

“The other thing we carried was something called BLU-52’s.  That was a finned, napalm canister, that had a ‘CS-agent’ in it.  Again, on the roads, and all, that thing would open up and spread this dust all over the place, causing enemy troops to vomit, impair them mentally, and basically lose all bodily control. One of my colleagues reported to me that he watched an enemy bulldozer driver drive off a damn cliff. Obviously, he’d gotten into some of that stuff!” 

Capt. Buck Shuler with his F-4C, named after his wife, “Annette”, January 1969 at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, South Vietnam

Capt. Buck Shuler with his F-4C, named after his wife, “Annette”, January 1969 at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, South Vietnam

Overall, by employing the special ordinance elements he outlined, the results proved to be very effective, the mission deemed a success.  “At the very least, it made their (enemy) lives miserable,” recalled Shuler. 

Given the impressive results of superior American air power, as in the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail example, our bombing campaigns were having a definite negative impact on enemy intentions, and especially on their ground forces.  No question, then, that the one thing the enemy most needed, at that critical point in time, was a bombing-halt.  And, regrettably for our war fighters, and especially for all those who’d sacrificed their lives, American politics, starting with the President, over-rode mission-sense, and promptly answered their wish. 

“The last day of October, I flew a mission,” said Shuler. “That night, at mid-night or thereabouts, LBJ (President Lyndon B. Johnson) called a halt to all bombing in North Vietnam!  Later, I saw reconnaissance photos of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and I’ll tell you, it looked like a busy interstate.  They were able to come in there, with heavy equipment, and repair all of the bomb damage, bring the roads back up to speed, and the trucks rolled, and rolled and rolled” said Shuler, with no little disgust in his voice, the memory still vivid, even to this day. 

The U.S. had experimented at least once earlier with bombing halts in the north.  And even prior to that, Air Force aircraft had actually been forbidden to strike any airfields in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, or any other targets within that entire zone.  Even though the North Vietnamese Air Force had Mig-21’s lined up in plain sight on base ramps, almost as if to taunt.  Regardless, American aircraft were not permitted to strike them, a source of major frustration, to put it mildly, since parked down there before them, were the very enemy aircraft being used to shoot down American pilots. 

“Later, “recalled Shuler, “after I came home, they (U.S. Air Force) initiated operations named ‘Linebacker One’ (May-October, 1972), and ‘Linebacker Two’ (December, 1972), with ‘Two’ being the so-called ‘11-Day War,’ where Nixon (President Richard Nixon) unleased the B-52’s against both Hanoi and Haiphong.  That’s when we had them hanging on the ropes for sure.  We literally ran them out of surface-to-air missiles.  And our planes shot everything they had.  So that, by about the tenth day or so, we could fly up there with impunity.  We did, however, end up losing some B-52’s (about 15 total during the entire war)” he said. 

Going back to the tail end of his Vietnam tour, at Cam Ranh Bay, by January of 1969, even then, Shuler could tell the war was beginning to wind down.  One telling sign: The Wing began a base beautification project!  Among other things, they started planting palm trees along the base avenue. And the Wing Commander made the decision that flight suits could only be worn by personnel scheduled to fly; otherwise, khakis.  That “didn’t sit well with a bunch of damn fighter pilots,” recalled Shuler. 

Aircraft attrition there also became a sign that our participation was becoming less intense.  “By the time I left the 558th, they had only 11 airplanes when they normally would’ve had between 18 and 24,” he remembered. And that reduced number of aircraft made it even more difficult to get on the flying schedule.  “My philosophy was, if you’re going to be there, I’d just as soon fly every day. I’d flown as many as three combat sorties in a single day.  Now, it became tougher and tougher to even get on the schedule.” 

“In the year I was there (1968-69), we lost ten pilots and sixteen airplanes, two of which crash-landed at Cam Ranh Bay with battle damage.  But our loss rate was far less than those guys flying out of Thailand, way up north into the Hanoi-Haiphong area.  The first 51-days my brother Jake was based in Thailand (Khorat Air Base), that Wing, the 388th TAC Fighter Wing and the 355th TAC Fighter Wing (Takli AirBase) combined, lost 48 F-105’s, including among those pilots, two full-colonels,” said Shuler.  All of that in just 51-days! 

Captain Shuler returning from his combat tour in Vietnam, greeted by sons, young Buck and Frank, Mobile, Alabama on March 2, 1969. 

Captain Shuler returning from his combat tour in Vietnam, greeted by sons, young Buck and Frank, Mobile, Alabama on March 2, 1969. 

All told, then, during the 12-months he was deployed, first to Vietnam, then Korea, and then back to Vietnam, Shuler flew a total of 180 missions (122 combat + 58 training), over North and South Vietnam, and Laos. 

“I think most of us (air crews) came back from Southeast Asia with a real sour taste,” said Shuler.   “I think the consensus was that we had not been permitted to apply air-power as it should’ve been.  For instance, the first build-up began in about 1965.  If ‘Linebacker Two’ had occurred in December of ’65, rather than December of ’72, no question, the war’s outcome may well have been dramatically different.” And thousands of American military lives could have been saved. 

Shuler was asked what one word might best sum-up his feelings about the Vietnam War.  That word:  “Disappointed, to put it mildly.  If I had to use a stronger word directed at senior leadership, I would say failure, referring mostly to the civilian administration at the time, and to some degree, military leadership, as well, but not nearly as much.” Years later, then-Vietnam War-era U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara freely admitted in his book (The Fog of War / 2003), said Shuler, that we (civilian leadership) made “serious mistakes.” 

Earlier in the war, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave him (President Johnson) a game plan that included a blockade of Haiphong Harbor,” said Shuler. “All the things we ended up doing in December of ’72, that should’ve been done much earlier.  LBJ was apparently worried about getting into a shooting war with the Chinese, so that plan was never approved when presented by our military leadership.” 

“And let me tell you the other thing”, continued Shuler, “and I only learned about this about a year ago, through documentation. Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State at the time (1961-1969), admitted that, through back-channels, he had actually revealed to the North Vietnamese the targets we were going to hit!  Meaning, we now know, that anyone of our guys who flew those missions, ‘Rolling Thunder’ (March, 1965-November, 1968) and the like, were then even more at risk.”  This secret Administrative policy, uncovered years later, was apparently aimed at limiting ‘collateral damage’ (killing Vietnamese civilians).  While perhaps laudable from a purely self-serving political posture, it proved to be treacherous (if not traitorous) from the standpoint of our military aviators who then faced even greater danger, and heightened potential for shoot-down, with the enemy knowing our targeting objectives in advance.  Hard to believe, and harder to accept, that politics could so callously over-ride the well-being of our nation’s war effort, and in particular, of course, the very lives of our war-fighters.  But perhaps the Rusk travesty, as ordered by the President he served, shouldn’t surprise us in hindsight.   History has now shown that, while the American-led forces finally had the North Vietnamese, by their own subsequent admission, ‘on the ropes,’ with costly, hard-fought victory at hand, it proved to be America’s over-ruling political leadership who finally chose to simply conclude that war, rather than win it. 

In March, 1969, then-Captain Shuler returned to the States, with an assignment to Second Air Force at Barksdale AFB (Louisiana), finally in the well-prepared, long-awaited role of industrial engineer on the Headquarters engineering staff, soon advancing to Deputy Chief of the engineering division.  In January, 1970, he was promoted to Major. 

As he continued to excel in his duties and tours, additional well-earned opportunities and promotions would continually come, culminating in his 1988 assignment as Commander of the legendary 8th Air Force at the rank of Lieutenant-General. 

Lt. General Shuler’s mother, Mrs. Berta W. Shuler, and his wife, Annette, help to unfurl his three star flag at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, on March 26, 1988, prior to his assumption of command of the 8th Air Force. 

Lt. General Shuler’s mother, Mrs. Berta W. Shuler, and his wife, Annette, help to unfurl his three star flag at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, on March 26, 1988, prior to his assumption of command of the 8th Air Force. 

General Shuler retired from the United States Air Force, effective June 1, 1991, completing 32-years of military service, with more than 7,600 flying hours, including 209 of those in combat during the Vietnam War.  He spent a total of 23-years serving with the Strategic Air Command, ten of which as a General Officer, flying 358 missions as the Action Officer with the emergency airborne command post (EC-135 “Looking Glass”) during the four-decade long Cold War. 

General Shuler’s military awards include the Distinguished Service Medal (with oak leaf cluster), Legion of Merit (with oak leaf cluster), Distinguished Flying Cross (for actions described previously), the Air Medal (w/five oak leaf clusters), and the Air Force Commendation medal (with oak leaf cluster), along with many other decorations and ribbons. 

General Shuler and his wife Annette have three sons and eight grandchildren, and reside in Columbia, South Carolina. 

Lt. General Shuler’s aircraft,”Annette”, tail number 64-816, on the Citadel parade ground, dedicated to the memory of the 67 Citadel graduates lost in the Vietnam War. 

Lt. General Shuler’s aircraft,”Annette”, tail number 64-816, on the Citadel parade ground, dedicated to the memory of the 67 Citadel graduates lost in the Vietnam War. 

In 1996, General Shuler and distinguished World War II 8th Air Force veteran, Major-General Lewis Lyle, founded the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum (now officially: The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force) in Pooler, Georgia (a suburb of Savannah).  He went on to serve as the Museum’s first CEO, and continues, now, to hold a permanent seat on the Board as Museum Founder. 

In 2013, General Shuler was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 2014, his alma mater, The Citadel (Charleston, SC) awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Aerospace Science. 

Lt. General E. G. “Buck” Shuler, Jr. 

Lt. General E. G. “Buck” Shuler, Jr. 

A truly outstanding American, Lieutenant-General E.G.”Buck” Shuler, Jr. has served the Air Force and his nation with great courage, dedication and distinction. 


(Copyright 2018 William L. Cathcart, Ph.D.) 

Reprinted here with permission.