Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Memories


By the time I pulled into the parking lot at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa, Florida, the Marines were up to their armpits in the battle of Peleliu. Traveling the two hundred miles alone from Port Charlotte to the TAC Missileer mini-reunion in Cocoa allowed me to indulge myself in music I normally do not crank up at home, and I relished the opportunity to play all of Richard Rodger's Victory at Sea on my iPod from start to to finish without interruption. Through the car's stereo, of course. And as loud as I wanted! Peleliu, by the way, is the 3rd cut on the “B” side of volume 2 in the set, or about 150 miles or so into the whole playlist. I won’t listen to Victory at Sea on the return trip, but it was a blast listening to it once again after all these years! Just like the tour of old memories at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I was in Cocoa, Florida, to attend a TAC Missileer mini-reunion conceived and planned by Max Butler, Membership Director/Treasurer of the TAC Missileers Association. It was all put together in about six weeks.  
Dave Cooper, Max Butler, Len Calkins, George Mindling

Max did another one of his bang-up jobs putting the mini-reunion together. Having a get-together for dinner is something many of us missileers who live in Florida, especially during the winter months, have talked about off and on for several years. Max finally said “Let's do it,” so we did. Originally planned as an informal get-together for those who would make a day trip for the meeting, it soon became clear most wanted more than just dinner, and soon the mini-reunion was open to all TAC missileers.

Max arranged a very special tour of the Air Force Space and Missile Museum located at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to be held on Friday, March 21st. Max also arranged an air-conditioned tour bus to pick up our 35 or so members and guests at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa at nine am. Collecting names and license numbers, and some other info required ahead of time, made access to the normally restricted facility easy.

An informal dinner was held Thursday evening at a local Barbeque restaurant for those out-of-towners who arrived a day early. The restaurant cordially handled the unexpected twenty guests with aplomb. Most of Thursday's arrivals stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa, also arranged by Max. Jim and Susan Cagle from Atlanta may have traveled the furthest of the attendees, while many missileers lived in the surrounding area and drove to the hotel on Friday morning. Several missileers brought wives and their grown children, and even grandkids for the tour. Everyone met at the hotel Friday morning to board the big, white bus for a tour of the area, where for some of us TAC Missileers, it all started.

We were soon craning our necks trying to remember where Camp Happiness was located as we drove into the area many of us had only seen from blue Air Force school buses when we toured the facility back in the late 50's and early 60's. Port Canaveral has altered beyond any recognition, and will continue to do so as it grows to its planned facility as the largest cruise ship port in the United States. The old days are long gone.
Inside the Blockhouse at Pad 26

We stopped by the entrance to the Space and Missile Museum to pick up our tour guide, Jim Hale. Jim, a retired Air Force veteran, had a clear, resonant voice and an in-depth knowledge of the museum that captured everyone’s attention. Our first stop at the Blockhouse on pad 26, launch place of Explorer, the US's first satellite, displayed Jim's astonishing knowledge and familiarity with the Cape and its history. The Blockhouse was the first stop on our four and half hour tour, and gave Roger St. Germain the honor of “launching” a missile. From there we toured the open display area known as the “Missile Garden” and the adjacent Exhibit Hall. Again, Jim's fascinating explanations and descriptions brought special meaning to the displays.
Jim Hale explains a rocket motor on display in the Exhibit Hall

The bus tour eventually led to an area many of us have seen in the past, the old maintenance area, and just a few yards beyond, Pads 21 and 22, the Mace B launch pads that have recently been restored. While we didn't get to walk the area, it was still impressive to see the old launch pads. They looked like they had just been vacated.
The Exhibit Hall

The next stop at Complex 14 on  ICBM Road allowed us a look at the pad where not only the first American ICBM was launched, but where John Glenn hurtled into space aboard an Atlas LV-3B carrying a Mercury capsule known as Friendship 7, putting an American astronaut in orbit for the first time. 
Pads 21 & 22 - Mace "B" launch pads

The next stop was Complex 34, site of the accident that killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee. The massive complex remains as a silent monument to all those who served and gave their lives in service to our country. We dismounted the bus for an extensive walking tour of the pad.

Hangar “R” was our last stop of the day, and for many of us, was a nostalgic moment. Hangar R has a unique collection of early missiles and rockets, including the original Matador named “Florida Ranger” that graced the entrance to Orlando Air Force Base. Orlando Air Force Base is where almost everyone who served in the Matador or Mace missile programs was trained. Also in the Hangar “R” collection is a Mace sitting on a beautifully restored translauncher. 
John Gibbs, 1st PBS, Bitburg
One of the amazing, delightful, memories of this tour was meeting John Gibbs, a former member of the 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron. The 1st PBS, the very first operational, combat ready missile squadron in the United States Air Force, trained at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before its deployment to Bitburg, Germany, in March of 1954. John contributed many details and stories used in Bob Bolton's and my book, U.S. Air Force Tactical Missiles 1949 -1969 The Pioneers, including the incident when a Matador dumped nose-first over its launcher in an aborted launch. John was in the detail sent into the palmetto scrub to find the missing hold-back bolt. John is also one of the few people we have a photograph of while on duty with a tactical missile. In the section on Wheelus, figure 18, page 138, John is the airman on the far left with his elbow up. It was a very special moment meeting John and his beautiful wife of 51 years, Dianne. They are tentatively planning on attending the reunion in Boston next year.While every missile in the collection has been painstakingly restored, both the Matador and the Mace missiles have been restored to astonishing condition. A group photo was taken in front of the Mace, and of course I had to get a photo of John Gibbs in front of the Matador.

George Mindling with Jim Hale, tour guide extraodinaire.
I had another highlight of the trip that I hadn't expected: Jim Hale asked me to sign his copy of our book! That was an honor for me. I certainly appreciate the time and patience Jim took with our diverse group, answering every question and handling every comment with professionalism and charm. Anyone who gets Jim as a guide of the Space and Missile Museum will have a special insight to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and its history.
Bobby Williams shows a Kadena memento

The Space and Missile Museum web page at http://afspacemuseum.org/ has details on tours and visiting the museum, as well as a virtual tour that can be taken from your PC. They also maintain a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/afspacemuseum. Visit both pages, and be sure to like the Facebook page.




1 comment:

Bill Simpson said...

Thanks George for giving us the insight on the mini reunion. Sounds like you guys and gals had a great time. Bill Simpson