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Silent Warriors, Incredible Courage

10 December 2020

Silent Warriors, Incredible Courage: the Declassified Stories of Cold War Reconnaissance Flights and the Men Who Flew Them, Wolfgang W.E. Samuel, 2019, ISBN 9781496822802, 291 pp.

The author, Wolfgang Samuel, is a retired colonel from the USAF and knows of what he writes—as well as many of the persons mentioned in the two dozen often spell-binding chapters. Much of the text is written in their own words—essentially as military after action reporting. Thankfully much, if not most, of the text is written by Samuel as if it is occurring. Whether it’s the intense cold of the northern latitudes, the solitude of a radio silent 12+ hour deep penetration mission or flying virtually the same route a recce aircraft was shot down on just weeks or months before—the tales are gripping.

It’s said that fighter pilots make movies and bomber pilots make history. Recce crews often fly alone, usually with the manta, “One pass and haul ass!” Samuel’s experience flying a multitude of Cold War missions, especially early on, helps when explaining the flight planning as well as the strategic need of the Soviet Union overflights and the peripheral flights there—as well as the former East Germany, Communist China and North Korea. Amazingly, these peripheral flights were unescorted though many shoot downs occurred and continued to occur. The deep penetration flights were spectacular and were done with such secrecy that base commanders often were unaware of their tasking, becoming frustrated at lack of assets they thought would be available to them. These aircraft crews briefed in secret, debriefed in secret and broke radio silence only in dire emergencies and for landing instructions. Take off traffic control and in-flight refueling was done by light signal.

Also interesting is the mission planning when KC-97s were used to refuel RB-47s with two being required for each RB-47 and a spare or two (engine reliability issues) depending on the number of RB-47s on the mission. Curiously three or five RB-47s would be used with individual aircraft breaking off at various points leaving one or two for the final recon mission—in order to obtain the radar order of battle (ROB) as well as fighter intercept information. The in-flight refueling was done with the piston engined KC-97s flying as fast as they could with the RB-47s as going as slow as they could. Not mentioned was how most often the KC-97s had to also be in a shallow descent during in-flight refueling and how half the fuel taken aboard the RB-47 would if be used to get back to cruise altitude and cruise speed.

Samuel goes into wonderful detail for the majority of this period in history. Curiously, the first Cold War mission recce mission shoot down (a Navy PB4Y-2 with a loss of 10 crew) is hardly mentioned as are the overflights of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rudy Anderson’s stellar career is addressed in detail though not his loss piloting a U-2 which was shot down by a SAM-2 over Cuba—which helped to end the crisis. Initial overflights are described in the crisis as are the previously unmentioned, by others, peripheral flights identifying the Cuban ROB as well as AA sites.

The final chapter—“The Price We Paid (1945-1993)”–is sobering as it lists 51 shoot down incidents with a loss of hundreds of lives. Some “cold” war. These crew flew knowing they’d get no escort, sometimes no chance of rescue if they had to ditch, not receiving recognition higher than what the USAF commander could award (higher awards required briefing Congress) yet on they flew. They obtained the obvious information required by the military—the ROB, fighter intercept abilities, etc. Additionally, perhaps more importantly, these flights obtained information which lowered the temperature, keeping the war from becoming hot by determining bombers had not been placed forward, troops had not been transferred, there was no missile or bomber gap, etc.

Military commanders will never say they have too much intelligence and Samuel documents the history behind the riveting though thankless work of our recce flight crews when the world was teetering on a massive nuclear exchange—they helped to keep the lid on the simmering pot for decades. This book is welcome in its publication, indeed.

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