10.05 G.M.T.

Moscow: 1.05 p.m., Washington: 5.05 a.m.

AT A HUNDRED LISTENING posts throughout the free world, in hot climates and in cold, out of scorching desert and arctic tundra, the slender radio masts lift their receiving aerials high into the air. These are the stations which maintain a guardian watch, picking up signals from airborne bombers, and sometimes signals from the ground to those bombers. They are the junction points of the invisible spider’s web of radio. They cover the whole of the northern hemisphere and ninety per cent of the southern. They never sleep.

Seven of them received the attack orders to the 843rd Wing. A further four heard the acknowledgment signals from the bombers. Within minutes the signals had been filtered through the listening stations’ sector centres, back through the main area centres, to arrive with a clatter of teletype machines at SAC’s command post in Omaha, Nebraska.

Here again the signals were filtered. They passed through the decoding room, where individual airmen automatically channeled them to the duty officer, as standing orders required when signals included any form of attack instructions. He in turn routed them on to the duty operations officer. Exactly six minutes after the attack orders had gone out from Sonora the first plain language transcript landed on the duty operations officer’s desk. Three minutes later, the last of the individual acknowledgments had landed there too.

The duty operations officer never ranked below full colonel. He had immense discretionary powers. In certain circumstances he could order SAC into the air before obtaining authority from the commander or his deputy. Naturally, he would be called upon to justify such an action when he notified the commander. But if he could prove the emergency was such he felt it right to issue the orders without wasting the two or three minutes which might be necessary to locate the commander and obtain his approval, then his action would be affirmed.

The duty colonel read the first transcript, then dropped it to look intently at the threat board, which was kept up to date at two-minute intervals on information supplied over a closed circuit from NORAD. He read two or three of the acknowledgment transcripts, while he considered his course of action. The SAC commander was in Washington, but the deputy was sleeping peacefully a few hundred feet above the colonel’s head.

The colonel instructed his assistant, a grey haired major without wings who looked after administration and staff details, to get the deputy commander down without delay. Then he picked up the red line phone and asked the operator to get him Sonora. He was a few years junior to Quinten, but ten years previously he had served with him in Berlin. He knew Quinten well, and liked and respected him. In under ten seconds he heard Quinten on the line. He said, “General, duty operations SAC. We have some transcripts of signals supposed to have been exchanged between Sonora and the eight forty-third wing. Did you know about them?”

He listened intently as Quinten began to speak. For half a minute he listened, then held the phone away from his ear after the click from the other end told him Quinten had cut off. He flashed the operator, said urgently: “Get the deputy at Sonora on the second line.”

The operator said, “Pardon me, Colonel, there’s no deputy at Sonora right now, he’s gone to England with the eight forty-third. The exec’s sitting in as deputy for a few days. Major Howard.”

“Howard? Oh sure.” The colonel knew Howard about as well as he knew Quinten. “Get me Howard, then.”

“No can do, Colonel. That line’s out. There’s been a fault on it the last two hours. Matter of fact, General Quinten was worried about it. Got me to check his own line.”

“O.K.” He replaced the phone and sat thinking for a long minute. Then he glanced at the threat board again. Nothing seemed to have changed. He began to give orders. All SAC bases to immediate readiness. Crews to be briefed, and planes positioned at the end of runways with full war load. Establish contact with Sonora through the normal PBX, personal call to Major Howard. Stratotanker bases alerted for maximum effort, every KC-135 they had to be ready to go. Establish contact with Sonora by radio and teletype. All SAC wings already airborne with war load to head for nearest tanker rendezvous. The SAC commander in Washington to be located wherever he might be. There were dozens of details to be seen to, he didn’t know quite how many. He was ploughing steadily through them when the deputy commander arrived.

Very quickly, he outlined what was going on, what he had done. While he was talking he was interrupted twice. Once to say it was impossible to raise Sonora by radio or teletype. No response to signals. Again to inform him Sonora PBX was not accepting inward calls.

The deputy commander was a two star general. He could go way further than a colonel. And did. Two more wings were ordered off, with instructions to head north. Later orders would reach them by the time they got to one of the tanker rendezvous areas. All overseas SAC bases were brought to immediate readiness. Ent Air Force Base at Colorado Springs was contacted, and the NORAD headquarters there alerted to the possibility of enemy air attack. NORAD took the alert in its stride. A major air exercise was already in progress. SAC called off the attacking forces. NORAD brought in all its fighters for refueling and arming, and ordered the Distant Early warning stations from Cape Lisburne to Baffin Island to warning red.

General Franklin, the SAC commander, was located in Washington. The general had attended a long and boring dinner the previous evening. He had a slight hangover and he was not in the best of moods. He demanded to know why the hell he’d been dragged out of bed at that hour.

The deputy commander told him. The two generals spoke for perhaps forty seconds, and then the deputy commander turned to the duty operations officer. “General Franklin wants to hear from you just what Quinten said. Try to remember his exact words.”

The colonel took the phone. “Sir, I asked General Quinten if he knew about the orders received and acknowledged by the eight forty-third wing. As near as I can get to his words, he replied, ‘Sure, the orders came from me. They’re on their way in, and I advise you to get the rest of SAC in after them. My boys will give you the best kind of start. And you sure as hell won’t stop them now.'"

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