B-47 bomber crews loaded with hydrogen bombs were told it was the real thing

Donald Gatrell had just arrived at SAC, Strategic Air Command, in 1960 to become a crew chief on a B-47 “Stratojet,” six-engine jet bomber. He was 21-years old when the picture was taken. Photo provided

Donald Gatrell of Port Charlotte, Fla. was a crew chief on a B-47 “Stratojet” six- engine nuclear bomber during the early 1960s. One mission stands in his mind after more than half a century.

“It was the morning after Thanksgiving Day 1961. About 5 a.m. horns on our SAC base at Little Rock Ark. sounded. This was the real thing, not a drill,” the 72-year-old former Airman 2nd Class explained. “We took off out to the flight line, cranked up our B-47s and sat on the runway with our engines running ready to takeoff. An hour later we were still sitting there, engines running.

“Some of the other SAC squadrons had already taken off to deliver their nuclear bombs to prearranged targets. SAC had a system set up with a special radio only used by the President to launch a nuclear attack. He also had a special code to call off an attack in progress,” Gatrell explained.

This time communications between SAC and its base in Thule, Greenland, part of the “Dew Line,” had gone down. Just before it went off the air someone spotted something on radar. They thought it was incoming Russian missiles.

Before it was too late, SAC got its radar communications monitoring potential enemy air traffic over the top of the world up and running. The President had time to call off our a catastrophic counterattack by America on Russia.

“My job aboard the B-47 when it was in the air was to monitor all the controls and talked to the pilot and copilot about what was happening with the engines and other equipment on board,” Gatrell said. “A B-47 would fly at 600 knots and could reach 50,000 feet or more on a bombing mission.

“It was a good bomber when it had power, but when it didn’t it flew like a brick,” he said.

A B-47 strategic six-engine jet bomber climbs into to the sky in a hurry with rocket-powered assist pods attached to its fuselage. Air Force picture provided

Being a member of SAC was prestigious duty, but it was also a grind. Crews worked long hours and many days without a break. Sometimes it was a deadly job.

“We lost a couple of planes one time when we flew a bunch of bombers on a practice mission to the Arctic Circle and Canada. The B-47s had turned around and were making an approach over Canada when they were intercepted by a group of Canadian fighter pilots,” Gatrell said. “The fighters came up from underneath the bombers in a mock attack and one of the Canadian pilots misjudged the distance and sheared the tail off a B-47. The fighter disintegrated in the air and those aboard the bomber were killed, too.

“Another time one of the members in our squadron was flying out of Little Rock on a mission and suffered a fatal heart attack while at the controls. The aircraft went into a roll and the copilot over corrected and ripped one of the bomber’s wings off. Pieces of the plane landed in an intersection two blocks from the capital. A half dozen people on the ground were killed in the accident and all of the crew, except the copilot, went down with the bomber,” he recalled.

“The copilot was blown out of the bomber and spent the next couple of years recovering from burns in an Air Force hospital in Texas,” Gatrell said. “This happened around 1960.”

This was recruit Donald Gatrell’s training company at Lackland AFB, Texas when he joined the military in 1958. Photo provided

The Boeing B-47 was introduced into the Air Force in 1951 and it continued to be on of this country’s primary strategic bombers built to deliver nuclear payloads around the world for a decade. It never saw combat during the time it was the backbone of SAC’s strike force. The 47 was replace by the Boeing B-52 “Strtatoforgress, an eight-engine, swept wing, heavy bomber that came on line with the Air Force in 1955. The B-52 is still SAC’s primary strategic bomber after more than 50 years in the air.

Gatrell’s job was to see that his B-47 was loaded and ready to go when the crew took to the air during practice missions around the world.

“I liked pulling alert duty. We had the same chow as the flight crew. It was great,” he said. “In addition, for the guys on alert duty there was a volleyball court, a basketball court and a putting green.

“During one mission my B-47 flew to Casablanca, Morocco in North Africa, Gatrell said. “We usually went sightseeing when we landed. This time we toured the palace where the Yalta Conference was held during World War II attended by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

“There was a World War II invasion beach just north of Casablanca. There were rusty remains of tanks and other junk equipment of war on the beach. Signs were up all over warning people to stay off the beach because there might be unexploded ordinances buried. That didn’t stop us. We were young and invincible,” he said.

After four years in the Air Force, in October 1962, he went in the Active Reserve for a couple more years. Gatrell hooked up with a C-130 transport squadron out of Cleveland, Ohio and went to Thailand for a few months during the Vietnam War.

In civilian life he worked for an outfit named FilmCo that pioneered the use of plastic wrap they sold to every major grocery store chain in the country. He worked for them for 26 years until he retired. He and his wife, Marilyn, moved to Port Charlotte in July 2004, just in time for Hurricane Charley that struck this area and did considerable damage a few weeks later. They both have two grown children from earlier marriages.

Gatrell’s’ File

Name: Donald Edwin Gatrell
D.O.B: 27 October 1938
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 18 Nov. 1958
Discharged: 12 Nov. 1964
Rank: Crew Chief B-47 Bomber, Airman 2nd Class
Unit: Strategic Air Command
Commendations: Presidential Unit Citation, Bronze Star, Outstanding Unit Award, Good Conduct Medal


This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, June 30, 2011. Republished with permission.

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

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  1. Thanks Don, enjoyed your post, I was also in SAC (310th A&E, Bomb/Nav, Jan. 1955 – Aprial 1963) Smokey Hill AFB latter to become Schilling AFB.

    I was Team Chief of 380th Bomb/Nav and also spent many hours as 4th man in flight.

    The Air Force gave me a great start in life and am so proud to have been a part of SAC.


    • DON have pix you at beach in Casablanca ever hear from any of the guys Alex jeep matherson hankel etc I launched tail # 1414 that crashed in little rock in1960 spend time now around boca raton fl email me clseller100@gmail.com joe Bellini

      • Don HAPPY 78th many more. The copiolt on 1414 stated the hand of God laid him on the ground he later became a minister.THe crash not my fault but I was immediately transferred from fligh line to the docks and then to alert duty. Altruistic fligh crews,the best mechanics.

  2. hello ,my name is James Dutton A1st class I was in SAC from 1960 till 1964 at Mt,Home A.F.B. 15th AF and Ernest Harmon A.F.B..in Newfoundland under the 8th AF I spent many an day on alert and night too. I loved the alert reflexes on Tuesdays I think they were. During the Cuban missel deal when the country went to Defcon 2 (the only time America ever went to Defcon 2) I worked 56 hours straight before I got off the flight line. The bombers kept running up for checks and I kept topping them off with what they liked JP-4 (I was in P.O.L. by the way (In Newfoundland we were not to far from Russia, sometimes Russian Subs would surface and watch us do Alert Reflex turn a round’s .we would land 15 aircraft park them and launch 15 more 0ff the runway in 20 mins.

    • My name is Dorris Ray Bruce #2929047 DOB 12/25/1934
      WE my 2 brothers and I left the very small school and town of Baxter, TN to be part of the AIR FORCE Team In 1954. Bobby Hershel and I went to Lackland for basic James Calbert went to New York and then to Shepard AFB, Booby wet Went OJT on the C-119 dragnet program and I went to Chanute AFB Jet engine School and then to MT Home AFB Idaho. And did Field Maintaintence on the B-47 during the Cold War and all those alerts.

  3. REMEMBER WELL THE SAC ALERTS !!1956- 1957-1958 Awful stressful, an Nerve racking…. Your head would roar for Day’s !! I know why Russia stood down ! LOL I was Hit BY Lighting while on alert like to have killed me Still have problems 59 years later !!I salute all pilots and grew members that made it happen !!!!

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