Herb Francis of Punta Gorda, Fla. had been in the U.S. Air Force a few years when he got a chance to join the super secret Security Service. It was 1964, in the middle of the “Cold War,” when he became an airborne spy.
“It was a top secret, highly classified Air Force operation,” the 76-year-old former sergeant explained. “My job was intelligence worldwide.
“My first airborne assignments were in Alaska where I went on a number of intelligence flights. We were flying aboard Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircrafts. It was my job to keep the intelligence gathering equipment on board functioning.
“I began my secret missions in Alaska flying out of Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. I took care of the intercept equipment aboard the plane. We would try and intercept any signals broadcast by the enemy.
“On a routine mission with the aircraft we would be briefed in the morning, usually two or three hours before our flight, Then we would go out to the airplane and get all our stuff in order. Then we would take a 13 to 16 hour flight in international waters along the enemy coast.
“We would fly along the coast of Russia. During this period we also flew missions in the vicinity of Korea and China or wherever they wanted us to fly,” Francis said. “Our mission, intercept anything the Russians sent out by signal. We tried to find out as much as we could about the capabilities of our adversary.”
There were spy missions where he and the crew of the spy plane ran into enemy aircrafts. However, even 50 years later he didn’t want to talk much about these encounters.
“I better not say much about that. However, I can tell you there were occasions where we sighted enemy aircraft, but they never shot at us,” he said.
After spending time flying out of Eielson, Francis was relocated to Shemya Air Force Base in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. He was part of the crew who flew the first successful mission aboard the top secret RC-135 dubbed “Rivet Amber.” The airplane was equipped with a highly classified radar used to spy on the Russian missile program.
“The radar built into this plane was so powerful they wouldn’t turn it on until they got into the air,” he said. “If they ran it on the ground it was so powerful it would set the grass on fire.
“I was on the first flight aboard ‘Rivet Amber’ when it first tracked a Russian missile. We got word the Secretary of the Air Force was delighted about the plane’s performance.”
Sgt. Francis spent three years flying as the maintenance man aboard these Alaskan spy planes from June 1965 until December 1967. After that mission he was assigned to Southeast Asia. Flying aboard World War II twin-engine C-47 “Gooney Birds” equipped with all kinds of electronic gathering equipment.
“They loaded these planes with electronics and used them to track the enemy. We tracked enemy troop concentrations flying from bases in Thailand and Laos,” Francis recalled. We listened to the communications of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and the Vietcong. We would pinpoint the enemy’s location and call in their coordinates.”
Like in Alaska, he flew aboard these C-47s spy planes in case they experienced an equipment failure. He would fix it in the air.
While serving in the Air Force’s 6994th Security Squadron during the Vietnam War Francis received a glowing evaluation from Capt. James R. Clapper, Jr., his commander over there. Today the same James Clapper is the Director of National Intelligence.
He wrote on May 28, 1971: “Sgt. Francis’ able performance here has been a major reason why this unit’s maintenance function has sustained its high level of production. An outstanding technician, Sgt. Francis has time and again resolved complex technical problems related to the equipment aboard our mission aircraft. “
“Capt. Clapper was my boss over there. He was a good guy,” Francis said.
When he returned from Southeast Asia, he was sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La. It was a Strategic Air Command base for B-52 “Stratofortresses.” bombers. They were built for delivering atomic bombs to an enemy worldwide.
“I went back to working on electronic jamming equipment. My job was to maintain the equipment that could screw up the enemy’s radar,” Francis said. “Right after I got there the whole bomber wing was sent to Guam. This was at the time President Johnson started using B-52s to bomb North Vietnam.”
He spent six months in Guam with the unit. Then his whole career changed. He requested a job in Air Force Recruiting.
“I spent the next couple of years as a recruiting sergeant. I helped run a recruiting center in downtown Pique, Ohio. It’s about 25 miles outside Dayton,” Francis said. “There was a slump in the U.S. economy in the mid 1970s, at the time when I was in the recruiting business. We had people knocking on our door to get in the Air Force.”
In 1976, his last year in the Air Force, he went to work for Tactical Air Command. His job was to maintain F-4 “Phantom II” fighter planes at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
‘I didn’t enjoy this assignment at all because they didn’t keep regular hours” he said. “They’d call you at 3 a.m. and tell you to report for duty.”
After Francis got out of the Air Force he and his wife, Judy, moved to Punta Gorda in 1979.
“I went to work at Medical Center Hospital in Punta Gorda. For 10 years I worked there on medical equipment until I finally retired.”
The couple has two adult sons: Randall and Art.
Name: Albert Herbert Francis
D.O.B: 12 Mar 1939
Hometown: Pittsburg, KS
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 12 March 1956
Rank: Master Sergeant
Unit: 6994th Security Squadron
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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