Maj. Gen. James Andrews had his ‘Fail-Safe’ moment one day in 1977

Maj. Gen. Jim Andrews is pictured at the controls of a KC-135 tanker. He had just completed a flight from Bosnia to Italy as part of a Strategic Air Command exercise. Photo provided

Maj. Gen. James Andrews of Punta Gorda, Fla. graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1970. He spent most of his 30-plus years in the service flying Strategic Air Command tankers, commanding air wings and serving in various capacities from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Air Mobility Commander and Inspector General.

The two-star general’s most harrowing moment in the military came one day in 1977 while working for SAC. He was flying a KC-135 tanker at Amarillo, Texas during a strategic alert. The Soviet Union appeared on the brink of starting a nuclear war.

“I think it was 1977 and the military decided we needed to disburse our capabilities because the Russians had developed missiles with multiple warheads,” Andrews explained. “For our monthly ‘War Alert’ we would fly out to different Air Force Bases and practice.

“This particular week we flew to Amarillo, Texas, an old World War II base with a 12,000 foot runway which we needed. During these alerts we would sit in our airplanes or close by so we could be airborne in seconds.

“SAC was very, very disciplined. When you were back in the States at your regular base you’d spend a week each month practicing for a nuclear alert. The B-52 bombers would be on the runway with their atomic bombs ready to go. We would be there, too, with our KC-135 tankers ready to provide the fuel.

“We had just flown in to Amarillo and were getting ready to relax in our bunker when the horn went off. We were billeted a few steps away from our airplanes. It was an alert and we were told to report to our airplanes.

He was the man in charge, or so it says on the side of the airplane that he’s standing in. Photo provided

“As we sat there on the runway at Amarillo we learned it was the real thing. We were ordered to start our engines. Once that happened we knew it was for real,” Andrews said. “As we started to moved down the runway we got a coded message indicating the Russians had fired missiles and they were incoming.

“I asked my boom-operator to double check the navigator’s codes and make sure he was correct.

“I said to him, “The next message just came in. What is it?’

“‘I don’t know, but I think it’s worse,’ came the boom-man’s reply.”

Andrews and his crew were ready to fight a nuclear war!

“We knew there were incoming Russian missiles. We knew what our mission was and what was expected of us. As we reached the end of the runway another coded message came in.

“Our Fail-Safe device worked! The counterattack was called off at the last instant!

“What had happened, NORAD (North American Air Defense Command’s) computers falsely identified some stuff on their scopes as incoming Russian missiles,” Andrews said. “SAC was within seconds of launching its Nuclear Strike Force which amounted to 30 percent of SAC’s whole force when it was called off,” he said.

The Cold War was still very much a reality.

A couple of years out of the academy, Andrews went to the Philippines with his KC-135 wing. They would provide flying gas stations for the American fighter planes pounding both North and South Vietnam.

“I flew 60 combat missions out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and Thailand. I took part in the Christmas bombing of Hanoi just before the peace treaty was signed. ‘Operation Linebacker II’ is what it was called. It was the biggest bombing raid since World War II. There were 150 B-52s that took part in that raid,” he said

“I was flying missions when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese., I was stationed in Thailand on the last day of the war for us,” Andrews recalled. “The whole sky was filled with South Vietnamese World War II airplanes escaping to Thailand. A whole South Vietnamese family would climb out of a single-seat fighter.”

He was an Air Force brat. Andrews’ father was a master sergeant in the Air Force who served from 1947 to ’66. During World War II his dad had been in the Marines.

The family was stationed at George Air Force Base in California in the high desert country near Edwards Air Force Base. He was first sergeant for a squadron of WW II and Korean War aces commanded by Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier.

“The 1st Fighter Squadron based at George was the first unit to get F-100 Super Sabres this country’s first supersonic fighter plane,” Andrews said. “My father was real close to Yeager.

Jim Andrews had just flown to his home base in New York. Photo provided

“He went to Spain (where they were based) with the 1st Fighter Squadron in the 1950s when the Libyan Crisis broke out. Yeager was like a movie star in Spain.

“My father said every weekend the King of Spain would send his personal plane down to the field and pick Yeager up and fly him some place for the weekend. He was never around the base on the weekends.”

“My father became ill while they were over in Spain and was about to be Medevacced to a hospital in Germany when Yeager found out. He came and got my dad and told him, ‘You’re not going to be Medevacced, I’m going to fly you to the hospital.

“My father had never flown in a fighter plane before, but Yeager put him in the back seat of his F-100 Super Sabre and flew him to Germany. On the way they broke the sound barrier,” Andrews said. “At the time I believe my father was the only NCO in the Air Force who had broken the sound barrier. He had a certificate saying he was an official member of the ‘Mach Buster Club.’

“Years later, during the 50th Anniversary Celebration for the Air Force at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas in 1997, I was a brigadier general standing on the flight line when Yeager walked up to me,” Andrews recalled. “Yeager said, ‘Are you related to Andy Andrews?’

“‘He’s my father,’ I told him. “It had been 40 years and he still remembered my father.”

Andrews retired an Air Force two-star general. He and his wife, Margaret, moved to Punta Gorda Isles in 2001. They have one son, Cliff, who serves as a crew chief in the Air Force Reserve.

Andrews’ File

Name: James Edward Andrews
D.O.B: 13 Sept. 1946
Hometown: St. Stephen – New Brunswick, Canada
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 3 Jan 1970
Discharged: 15 April 2001
Rank: Major General
Unit: Office of Secretary of Defense, Reserve Affairs
War, operation, or conflict served in: Vietnam, Bosnia, El Salvador
Battles/campaigns: Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Cold War, Strategic Nuclear Alert
Special duties/highlights/achievements: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Commanded 3 Combat Wings, Air Mobility Command, Inspector General

This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 9, 2011 and is republished with permission.

Click here to view Don Moore’s War Tales Facebook fan page.

Click here to view Andrews’ Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

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