By Any Means Necessary, by William E. Burrows
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001; 416 pp., $26 — ISBN 0374117470).
Wow! What a book about the Cold War and the casualties in classified recce programs! There are many misconceptions about the cost of the Cold War and American lives. In 1999 noted scientist Dr. Edward Teller wrote in The New York Times, “The Cold War had the distinction of not costing any lives.” Not so! At least 149 airmen were killed during the Cold War period. Add to that number the losses on USS Liberty and USS Pueblo, and submarines lost for unspecified reasons.
The recce programs started at the end of WWII. Aircrews flew obsolete propeller-driven planes, “the mongrels” of the fleet The U.S. knew the Soviets were not to be trusted. An ambassador stated flatly to the White House that the Baltic nations feared the Russians more than the Germans. The famous 306th Bomb Group (the unit “12 o’clock High” was based on) started flying “Casey Jones” missions to photo recce all of middle and eastern Europe just 34 days after the war in Europe ended. The USN took a “Privateer” recce plane to Siberia three months after the Pacific war ended, And the Brits? They flew twin-engine jet recce missions all the way to the Baltic and to Moscow! That rattled Soviet air defense officers badly. There was a major difference in these recce missions as opposed to practice bombing and refueling missions by SAC. The Russians knew those missions were practice. They left them alone. However, this was not the case with recce birds. They became fair game.
In spite of equipment limitations, the crews were efficient. Ancient C-54s roamed up and down the borders of Eastern Europe, monitoring the radar systems. The Russians knew that to detect their radar the recce birds had to approach close enough to give them reason to turn the systems on. When they did, then the fighters would scramble. Many Soviet pilots were furious because they knew the planes deliberately remained out of range of AAA. Thus, the shootdowns came from Russian fighters, who in most cases shot down unarmed planes, such as a C130 not far from the Turkish border.
The photo capabilities were superb as the state of the art improved. An RB-36 made clear photos of golf balls from 35,000 feet over Fort Worth. Their pictures on the Baltic were first-class. Intelligence can glean much information from changes in runway length, or whether buildings are used in winter when no snow is on the roofs.
Much of this program, especially in Europe, was caged “BIG SAFARI.” I happened to have been a minor part of it, not in Europe, many years later. The author goes into specific missions where planes were shot down. Intelligence knew there were survivors. What happened to them? Those crews are part of the “missing mosaic” of their fellows who did not come back from Viet-Nam.
Some called these crews “Ravens,” because the ravens “steal.” That’s what they did, and did very well in intelligence collection, as Burrows shows so well, at the cost of good men’s lives.
Their accomplishments are awesome. I would like to see this book in more libraries, especially on the bases — it’s a keeper!