Wednesday, October 30, 2013

TOP STORY >> Ex-sheriff kept eye on Titans

Leader editor

Not long after former Lonoke County Sheriff J.O. Isaac arrived at Little Rock Air Force Base in the late 1950s, he joined the 308th Missile Wing, which was just getting organized.

“I was the 18th or 19th person to join,” recalled Isaac, who had a 30-year career in the military, mostly in the Air Force. He first joined the Navy in 1947, when he was 17, and joined the Air Force a decade later.

The wing took control of 18 Titan II missiles in Arkansas for the next 25 years. The Titans had nine-megaton warheads and were America’s most powerful nuclear missiles.

Isaac was born in 1930 in Naylor, Mo., but grew up on a farm in Piggott, near the Pfeiffer home where Ernest Hemingway one summer wrote parts of “A Farewell to Arms” on top of a barn.

Issac has been a propeller specialist, a flight engineer, an amphibious aircraft supervisor and an instructor. He became a missile-maintenance supervisor at three silos.

Isaac, who was inducted into the Cabot Hal of Fame in 2010, was the first Air Force JROTC instructor at Cabot High School. He taught JROTC for nine and a half years.

When a devastating tornado headed toward Cabot in 1976, he probably saved the lives of many students when he told his JROTC cadets to get the kids off the school buses and into the elementary schools for safety.

He was Lonoke County sheriff for 14 years, from 1983 to 1996, and was elected to seven two-year terms.

For a master sergeant, he had some pretty serious duties once the Titans began arriving in the mid-1960s. He had the combination to a fire-proof safe that contained the launch codes that authorized the launching of Titan II missiles from 18 silos within 60 miles of the base.

The codes were in a folder he had to initial every time he opened the safe. His responsibilities also included doing maintenance on three missile silos north of Cabot, where he’s lived since 1957.

Every day, he’d take the narrow roads to the air base and to the silos at Hwy. 16 near Searcy, Hwy. 31 at Antioch and Hwy. 5 near Heber Springs.

He helped restore a silo in the Joy Community west of Searcy after a fire in August 1965 killed 53 people, most of them civilians who were doing construction work in the silo.

The missile didn’t have a warhead while construction was going on, but by an amazing coincidence, that missile was eventually moved to a silo near Damascus, which blew up 15 years later with its warhead thrown several hundred feet in the air without exploding.

The Damascus and Searcy incidents make up a large part of Eric Schlosser’s recent book, “Command and Control,” which we reviewed here.

Isaac called us after the review appeared in The Leader and told us he had a lot more local information than what was in Schlosser’s book.

Isaac wasn’t at the Searcy silo the day the workers were killed, but he helped clean up the silo the next day after the bodies were removed.

He remembers every floor of the Searcy silo where carpenters, painters, millwrights, electricians and pipe fitters were refitting the site for a Titan II missile when a worker accidentally cut a high-pressure hydraulic line with a torch.

Isaac said the worker “was cutting a 12-inch, heavy steel I-beam off this wall. Right above there was a four-inch, 3,500-pound hydraulic line that opened a 148-ton door. That thing was four-feet thick.

“His boss distracted him by tapping him on the shoulder. As he turned, he turned his cutting instrument and cut a whole in that hydraulic line. It hit this wall, and right below, the fluid hit this commercial transformer. It blew, and it was like putting paper in a jar and setting it on fire. It sucked out all the oxygen, and it was what killed them. They were asphyxiated,” Isaac said.

The silo closure door was closed, trapping most of the workers. Rescue workers saw “black soot was hanging on the walls,” Isaac said. “The workers had asphyxiated.”

Isaac has almost total recall: He rattles off the numbers of the three missile silos — 3-2, 3-3, and 3-5 — and just about every commanding officer he worked under, from the Navy to the Strategic Air Command.

Isaac remembers it all: He can describe the eight levels inside a missile silo and the length and width of cableways or access tunnels (10 feet wide, 100 feet long) and the nine blast doors to restrict entry.

He can diagram the silos on a napkin and tell you about the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 that had his wing on high alert.

“The Cuban missile crisis was the closest time in history that this world would have been destroyed,” Isaac said. “They told us to see your family and get things squared away.”

Nuclear war seemed inevitable until the Soviets backed down and removed their missiles from Cuba.

Isaac had been assigned to Strategic Air Command in 1956, two  years before he came to the air base. SAC, under Gen. Curtis LeMay, was in charge of the nation’s 200 intercontinental missiles, which would eventually grow to several thousand.

Most of the 18 missiles that were installed in the next decade around north-central Arkansas were in Rep. Wilbur Mills’ congressional district because he was the head of the House Ways and Means Committee, which meant he controlled the federal budget, and he wanted them close to home. The Titans also carried the Gemini astronauts into space.

When the Air Force sent Isaac down to Texas for training in the late 1950s, he was the only enlisted man in the bunch. There was supposedly a senior airman in the group, but he was no ordinary airman, Isaac found out later back at the base.

“I always thought he was a sharp guy,” the former sheriff recalled. “His name was Anderson. I thought he was a bit old to be a senior airman.  We had the inspector general come in, and we passed the inspection. It was 11 o’clock at night. Anderson came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘I’m leaving. I’m a major in the Army.’”

Even that may not have been the whole truth: “He was a CIA agent,” Isaac said.