The Creation of the Missile Shop at the 48th TFW,
RAF Lakenheath, England, 1980
The Answer is yes, now, what’s the question?
This was painted on the personnel door to the Missile Shop at RAF Lakenheath in 1980. It’s been over 30 years, but I thought I would try to recount the development of the missile shop at RAF Lakenheath. I’m sure there are some holes in this story as I had cancer a couple of years ago due to Agent Orange exposure and my memory isn’t what it used to be.
As the first NCOIC of the shop I thought I would try to tell the story of how the shop came to be and mention some of the very outstanding Ammo troops that made this organization a success. Our munitions branch chief in 1979 was SMSgt (Chief Selectee) Larry J.W. Eaton, now working in the big bomb dump in the sky. We also had Chief Stiefel Johnson who floated between the 463 shop and AFK in those days. I had just arrived from Kwang Ju AB Korea and was a recently promoted TSgt working in the Munitions Inspection section with TSgts Jackie Hail and Don Berry, SSgts Don Thompson, Matt Sanders, Joe Gast, and A1Cs Barry Ray and Bob Harmon. I happened to attend a staff meeting for Jackie Hail in the fall of ’79 when Chief Eaton announced we were adding laser guided bombs to the F-111Fs already formidable arsenal. While maintenance and inspection of LGB guidance sections would have normally fallen to the missile shop, Lakenheath had no missile shop and no missile AFSC (316X1l) personnel. To make matters worse, the 316X1L career field was being absorbed into the 461 career field at that time. Chief Eaton needed someone to step up and build the shop. I remember there was considerable grumbling about how we were already maxed out and adding another system would break us. Being the new kid and just sitting in for Jackie Hail at the meeting, I kept my opinion to myself. After the meeting, I told Chief Eaton, I would be glad to take on the task of setting up the Missile Maintenance Section as the Inspection Section was already staffed with some of the best of the best and I was one of 3 TSgts. He invited me to attend the next staff meeting. Chief Eaton calmly announced that I would be standing up the new Missile Shop and that I would be selecting people from the other shops to help standup the organization. He explained that this was non-negotiable and all the other NCOICs were to provide their full support. There was some grumbling but Chief Eaton quickly and aggressively reiterated this was nonnegotiable. (For those of you who might have known Chief Eaton, you know I’ve cleaned up the language here.) For a facility, Chief Eaton gave me the old 463 shop inside the 463 area. A new 463 shop had been constructed several years before and the old single bay shop had been neglected since that time. Its only use had been housing a sand bag filling area for various sandbagging projects around the bomb dump and the base. You can imagine how it looked as there were about 10 cubic yards of sand and various sand bag filling items strewn about the once pristine maintenance bay. Understanding that I had to start from scratch, I needed a great supply and paperwork guy. I stole (with Chief Eaton’s full support) SSgt Mark Morrison from the Storage Section. Mark was a wizard at setting up supply accounts, ordering materials and equipment. I knew I needed a strong number two, so I brought SSgt Don Thompson, better known as DT, on as my Assistant NCOIC from the Inspection Section. DT had been at Lakenheath for many years and was not only a great Ammo man, but knew everyone that was anybody on Lakenheath. He could scrounge anything from anyone and was a key in getting anything to set up the shop that Mark couldn’t get through legitimate channels. To this day, I still don’t know how he managed to get us a six pack Dodge truck for the shop. With my leadership team in place, the three of us met to flesh out the shop. Chief Eaton had given me authorization for 11 people, which he pulled from other shops to make up our UMD. That meant me and two crews of five each, the yellow team and the blue team (the PAVETACK logo was half yellow and half blue with an eagle in the middle). That would provide a crew of 5 on each of the 12-hour shifts we often exercised in. As Mark and DT had both been at Lakenheath a long time and knew the people much better than I, they gave me a list of people we wanted. They included the first female 461 at Lakenheath, A1C Tonya Laughlin (who married a 462 named Brown shortly after joining the team so we remember her as Tonya Brown). AIC Greg Ezzell, SSgt Selectee Richard Sheriff, A1C Brent Wyont, and SrA Johnny Lamb are the significant names I can remember. Each was selected for a special skill, Tonya had the patience of Job and was a masterful painter. Greg was a super carpenter who built our test stands and work benches. Rich was a wizard with all things electronic, Brent was the one that kept us all on an even keel, and Johnny could fix about anything mechanical. Chief Eaton’s replacement, Chief Tom Jackson did give us our fair share of “special needs” troops. One in particular was A1C Dave Caravella. With a lot of mentoring by all of us, especially Rich, he turned his life around for about a year, until he got drunk one night, went up on the roof of the barracks and poured 5 gallons of yellow paint onto a car in the parking lot. I think it was originally a blue MG that belonged to a SSgt. Needless to say, he couldn’t be saved after that incident on top of all his others and we said goodbye to him at the Mildehall MAC terminal with his discharge papers in hand. Chief Jackson also gave us another young lady named Mary, but even Tonya couldn’t get her to stop worrying about breaking her nails while unbolting a container of MAU-157s. On one occasion, she was posted as a berm guard for a mass load out during a bitter cold and snowy night shift. She decided she was cold and left her M-16 lying in the snow to go inside and warm up. As she was warming up, the Chief in charge of the night shift asked her who her relief was, she said no one, he asked her where her M-16 was, she said she left it on top of the berm. She was discharged without much fanfare.
As I remember it, here are some of the very important people who helped ensure the missile shop was a success. The Commander was Major/Lt Col Neil White, who left shortly after we started up and went to the USAFE IG Team. I later worked for Col White when he was the TAC LGW at Langley AFB when I was a SMSgt. The Deputy Commander for Maintenance was Col Ed Bracken, who went on to be the Vice Wing Commander and eventually the Wing Commander. Col Bracken retired as a Major General. When Col Bracken moved to the Vice Wing CC job, he was replaced by Col Herbert Place, who went on to 3rd AF and was replaced by Col David Reed. Col Reed later was the Commander of Air University when I was the Chief at the Academic Instructor School at Maxwell AFB. We had a great relationship in both of those positions. Major General Reed and I often spoke to various groups at Air University about our days wearing the “green” at Lakenheath standing up the missile shop. Sharing our leadership challenges with young NCOs and Officers became very popular after the El Dorado Canyon operation where LGBs were employed by the Lakenheath F-111s against Libya in April 1986.
When Chief Eaton PCSed, he was replaced by Chief Tommy Jackson, a true Chief and gentleman. Our OIC was Capt Joe Glenn who was replaced about that time by Capt Frank Graham, who moved up to the Maintenance Super position when he made Major. Captain Lisa Miller, without a doubt, the finest Ammo Captain I’ve ever known, replaced Captain Graham. (My respect for Capt Miller was such that when I married my wife at Bury St Edmunds in 1982, Capt Miller was my wife’s Maid of Honor (DT was my Best Man.) MSgt Mike Curran arrived to lead the Storage section, which was particularly important as we began receiving thousands of LGB kits, which required receiving inspections. Our Munitions Control and scheduling NCOIC was MSgt Gary Shoals who helped keep our workload on track. One of his young controllers, A1C Dan Fry was our liaison in the control room and he often visited the shop and enthusiastically supported our work. I think Dan went on to great things in the Air Force. Gary also introduced me to a key person who provided unbelievable support at 3rd Air Force Headquarters, SMSgt Fred O’Hern, who taught me how to deal with USAFE LGW who really had no interest in our new venture in the early days. Colleague TSgts Al Porter, Bruce Knapp, Mike LaFond and Dwight Howard were also key in those days to getting things working to support us “outside the double fence”. I also have to mention SMSgt (Chief Selectee at the time) Bob Smith, who ran the 463 shop. Bob was stunned when he arrived at Lakenheath in 1981 and found us “squatters” inside “his” double fenced area. After a few chats, he realized we had a very important part to play in the overall mission and since Mark, Rich, DT and I had the coveted E (escort) on our exchange badges, along with appropriate security clearances, we really could help him meet his mission also. Bob and I became close professional friends and he relied on the Missile team often when he was shorthanded or particularly under the gun. When he became frustrated with his troops (which was often) he would walk over to the Missile Shop for a Coke and a chat to calm down. Bob was the first person to give me a set of MSgt stripes when I made E-7. He somehow knew I had made it before the list was released on base. Bob was also the one that Mary told she had left her M-16 lying in the snow on top of the berm. That did not go over well with him.
The Air Force Personnel Center never failed to surprise us in those days and that came in the form of a brand new Airman named Jim Thompson. He was in the last of the 316 tech school classes. Why AFPC would send a 3 level to this kind of assignment is beyond me, but there he was. I attended the USAFE NCO Academy in the spring of 1980 and happened to be in the seminar with the NCOIC of the RAF Bentwaters Missile Shop. MSgt Doug Goodman was a great asset in helping me stand up the shop at Lakenheath. I called him many times for technical advice and we even made several visits to his shop for informal training. He also somehow managed to send me a genuine 31651L SSgt, named Frank Mondlak. Frank was a real electronic genius and when no one else could figure out a guidance unit electrical problem, Frank could usually fix it. As his initials were FM, which also stood for “F—— Magic”, Frank became our resident magician who spent plenty of time calibrating the very cantankerous GJM-50 test set used for the older MAU-157 guidance units. When we received the newer MAU-169 and its supporting digital test equipment, we almost put Frank out of a job. As one of the first 316s to become a 461, Frank wasn’t thrilled at becoming a 461 at first but when he saw how important the overall team was to the mission at Lakenheath, be embraced the career field and was a great success.
The team in the Maintenance Shop was tasked to build the LGBs; fins, fuzes and guidance unit attachment collar. I don’t remember all their names, but I do remember they had the biggest torque wrench I’d ever seen used to attach the collar to Mk-84s. One of their important leaders was TSgt Jackie Martin who provided great leadership and support in the Maintenance Section.
In order to be fully operational, we needed to understand the laser end of the Pave Tack system. I made friends with a TSgt in the laser pod shop named Mike O’Boyle. As it turned out, Mike and I both made Chief in 1986 and joined the faculty at the Senior NCO Academy at Gunter AFS in Montgomery AL. Funny how things work out.
Our work for the first few weeks consisted of clearing out the building, refurbishing the maintenance bay with new tile, paint, finding furniture for the office (what Mark couldn’t get through supply, DT managed to magically find), getting the power converter in the building to run again (we had to convert the commercial 220 VAC, 50 Hertz power to 120 VAC, 60 Hertz power for the very delicate electronic test equipment). This required many “trades” with the local British PSA bosses to get this converter running. If you’ve ever been assigned in England, you know all the normal Civil Engineering functions are run by PSA (a British government organization) and not normal USAF CE troops. Always a challenge under the best of circumstances, but DT “spoke the language” and was key to getting along with the many PSA people that came to the shop to do maintenance work. And for the first several months, every time Mark tried to order something for the “Missile Shop” he was repeatedly told, “there is no missile shop on Lakenheath”. It took about a year before that mantra finally died.
We took turns going to the USAFE Missile FTD at Hahn AB Germany to learn the details of the Paveway system and other missile systems as well. Since we absorbed the 316 field, we would start being testing on our SKT in the WAPS testing program. Going to FTD was a way to learn about the various missiles. I conducted classes on AGM-65s, AIM-7 and AIM-9 missiles for all in the bomb dump that wanted to learn. The smart ones understood they were going to be tested on them and to get promoted, it was smart to learn the systems. Mark made sure we had every T.O. that was applicable to use as study references. I remember one significant trip that Mark, Tonya and I were on. In those days, there was a C-130 rotator that flew from RAF Mildenhall to Ramstein AB Germany, to Torrejon Spain. This was the routine way to get from Lakenheath to Germany and back. The FTD was about a month long and we had enjoyed several weekend cruises on the Mosel River before heading back to Lakenheath. As it turns out, Tonya was pregnant with her first child and could not fit into her blue uniform that was a requirement to fly on the C-130 (which was truly stupid). The geniuses at the MAC terminal at Ramstein were not going to let her on the C-130 in fatigues, which she could still fit into. I failed to persuade the NCOIC but after I made a telephone call to Chief Jackson, Tonya received an apology from the MAC terminal NCOIC and she was allowed to fly home in fatigues. The power of the Ammo Chief should never be doubted!
As we had pretty much Carte Blanch in those days to order anything we needed to get going, we had all new tools and equipment. We had two new oscilloscopes that had to be calibrated by the PMEL lab located out at the RAF Feltwell. As the o-scopes were brand new, the first calibration was fine. DT was our PMEL monitor and set all the equipment up on a staggered schedule so that we would never be without an item. When one of the o-scopes went in for its second 60-day calibration, DT was told it was broken. This was strange since it was brand new and had only been used a few times. After several repeat visits over the ensuing weeks, the story was always the same, it’s still broken. One of my nighttime college classmates was the MSgt NCOIC of the PMEL lab. DT and I decided to visit him at the PMEL shop at Feltwell, unannounced. We weren’t surprised when we found the PMEL shop using the o-scope to do their own calibrations. It was newer and better than any they had and they had decided to just tell us it was broken. You can imagine the NCOICs’ embarrassment when we confronted him with this info. We never had any more problems with our PMEL equipment after that visit.
Once we were trained, organized and equipped, we entertained many dignitaries to showcase this new weapons capability for the F-111. The VIP visit location list always included a tour of the PAVE TACK laser pod shop and for people who could get through our double fence, a visit to the missile shop also. One of the most significant visits was Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Vessey when General Vessey was on his inaugural tour of bases after taking over as Chairman in 1982. We had coffee cups made with the 48 TFW patch, the missile badge, and the Ammo pisspot printed on them along with the words “I visited the Missile Shop at RAF Lakenheath”. Mark and Tonya presented the cups to the Secretary and General Vessey after completing their demonstration. By this time we were no longer MMS and had become part of the Equipment Maintenance Squadron (EMS), a designation which we all despised, so we never used the EMS name on anything if we could avoid it. Although one time I wrote a white paper for Captain Miller on how we had bedded down the thousands of GBUs and typed the signature block as “48th Explosives Maintenance Squadron”. She laughed a lot but made me retype it.
We made the Lakenheath newspaper and the following account and pics are from the newspaper article.
When Col Bracken took over as the Wing Commander, he made routine visits to the Missile Shop. I think he came to understand the Pave Tack system like few in senior leadership positions did and came to trust us to meet the mission. He called me one morning and asked me to come to his office. OK, actually it was a brusque order to get my ass up to his office immediately. This was not altogether unusual, but there was urgency in his voice I had not heard. Normally, his civilian secretary would call me. When DT and I entered his office, he quickly asked what we knew about AGM-45 missiles. I responded, not much, but we had the T.O.s in the shop. He told us to get the T.O.s and get up to RAF Waddington to teach the RAF how to use them immediately. Turns out, the US had provided some AGM-45s to the British RAF to use in their Falkland Islands war and the RAF didn’t have a clue what to do with them. DT and I took a team to RAF Waddington to help them figure out how to employ the AGM-45s on their Vulcan bombers. It was quite a week for us to see the RAF “ordnance engineers” go from staring at all the bolts holding the various AGM-45 containers together to seeing all up rounds on the Vulcans. Here is a link to an account of how their missions went. https://theaviationist.com/author/dario1484/
Another day, Col Bracken asked us to load our equipment and go to RAF Alconbury to help the Alconbury missile shop get its annual inspections caught up. Seems they had failed an IG inspection and needed some help from the experts at Lakenheath to answer the IG report. We had recently sailed through our IG inspection with an Outstanding rating. After meeting with the Alconbury missile shop team I understood why they failed. They were all 316s who were very distressed as becoming 461s and their attitude was showing.
Another interesting meeting with Col Bracken occurred concerning loading AIM-9s on the F-111s. Chief Jackson, Captain Miller and I entered the Col’s office when a 462 TSgt (name of dumbass withheld) was explaining to Col Bracken that there was not enough clearance on the pylon to load AIM-9s on the F-111. For whatever reason, Col Bracken was furious at hearing this information, and was on a tirade. The Chief, Captain and I all knew it was best to keep quiet, no matter the facts. The Col threw all of us out of his office with some choice words about our ability to contribute to the mission. Knowing that we could in fact, physically load AIM-9s on the F-111, I called my mentor and friend, MSgt Doug Goodman, NCOIC of the missile shop at RAF Bentwaters. Doug not only confirmed this, but also offered to loan me the appropriate smaller fins and standoff doughnuts needed to demonstrate this fact from the RAF Bentwaters WRM stock. I drove to Bentwaters that afternoon and borrowed the items. The next day I presented these items to Capt Miller and Chief Jackson who called for an appointment with Col Bracken, who was much calmer that day. The Chief, Captain and I laid the fins and accessories on Col Bracken’s desk with the appropriate T.O. pages to explain. Col Bracken looked over our case, stood, shook our hands and apologized. It was a good day to be a 461 but not such a good day to be a TSgt 462 who had lied, even if unwittingly, to the Wing Commander.
We hosted technical reps from the manufacturer of the PAVETACK systems, Texas Instruments, in the spring of 1982. This contact resulted in VIP tickets for several of us, including Col Bracken, to the Farnborough Air Show that summer. We were wined and dined like a young man had never seen. TI treated us like royalty, as we were their only USAF customers at Farnborough actively using their products.
Mark Morrison left PCS in early 1982 and was replaced by SSgt Johnny Williams. He fit in super and was a great team player. When my wife and I left Lakenheath for our next assignment, Johnny and Frank Mondlak drove us to Heathrow to catch our plane. I left the team reluctantly, but knew it was in good hands with Johnny, DT and Rich still on board and new adventures awaiting in my next assignment at the 37th TFW, George AFB, CA.
Standing up the shop was a massive team effort and these are some of the people that helped make it happen. I’m sure there were many others, but as I said, my memory isn’t what it used to be and I apologize for omitting so many who were critical to our success.
This was a significant 4 years in my life, an opportunity to build a shop with unlimited support from the greatest colleagues anyone could ever want. All of the names I’ve recounted are long retired and most of the names of the enlisted are now retired Chiefs. My only regret is not keeping better records of all the outstanding people involved in this endeavor. I hope I have captured in some small way how so many made this organization a success. For those I’ve missed, I apologize for my failing memory. Please feel free to adjust my memory as you recall the events. I can be reached at [email protected].
Joseph A. Stuart, CMSgt, USAF, Retired