I met Dick several years ago when he hired me to write his autobiography. I found his years in Germany to be fascinating as he related the story of the 7405th Support Squadron, one of three squadrons whose mission was covert photo reconnaissance of certain government and high level military targets. Dick often mentioned the navigator he flew with, a man named Don Backer. Don recently sent Dick an email, which he shared with me. These are some excerpts from what Don recalls of the missions he and Dick and others flew:
"Our squadron operated a variety of aircraft on special intelligence gathering assignments around the world but with an everyday assignment and cover story of providing support to the isolated American, British and French area of West Berlin. The Soviet Union, occupying East Germany and other Eastern European countries had agreed to allow overflights to Berlin along three tightly controlled Berlin Air Corridors into and out of Berlin...narrow routes of specifically controlled altitudes monitored closely by Soviet ground radar and fighter aircraft.
"We reported for duty every morning to be given the daily tasking for corridor flights to Berlin and back. Ground visibility was required for locating and photographing targets at distances up to 30 miles from the aircraft but also for the precision navigation that was required to protect the crew and aircraft from being caught out of the Berlin Air Corridor boundaries and shot down by the ever present East European and Soviet aircraft and ground to air missiles."
From my own research and from discussions with Dick, I've learned that the personnel assigned to the 7405th were the best of the best. On the daily flights to Berlin, pilots flew as close to the edges of the flights corridors as they could get (the Corridor Dance), which enabled the photographers on board to allow the cameras to reach as far as possible into Eastern bloc territory. The cameras themselves were classified and "the most sophisticated equipment available," as Don stated, including a gyro stabilized camera that accepted 'drift' settings. (If the aircraft had a heading of 120 degrees but the wind was causing a 5 degree drift, the camera could be adjusted for the drift.) Dick ran the cameras from hidden, often claustrophobic, compartments on the plane, while Don rode up front in the navigator's seat. When a target was in sight, Don gave instructions to the pilot to allow the photographers the best access to the target. They constantly pushed the envelope when it came to staying in the Berlin Air Corridor and, as Dick says, "we took pictures the whole way in and out." Once the plane arrived in Berlin, everyone deboarded, had lunch, and then flew back to Wiesbaden. It was common for them to spot East Germans taking pictures of their own: of the plane, the pilots, the crew, etc.
Don goes on to say that his 'workstation' "was one stool in a window beside the pilot and one beside the copilot. "Once airborne I would unpack and mount a sighting device to receptacles in each of the side cockpit windows. Controls on the devices would allow me to move the larger side-looking cameras as I would locate and aim at a distant target. There were various equipment configurations that an expert like Dick Whipple would have to explain, but in general we had vertical, oblique and longer distance side shooting equipment. Photos were shot from windows revealed when large doors on the fuselage side of the plane were opened. This was a point at which the aircraft was very vulnerable to detection if anyone were to catch the opened door."
On occasion the planes flew at night and used Infrared night vision equipment. On one occasion as they were returning to Wiesbaden they were asked "to swing over the recently opened new Soviet Embassy. The detour drew a lot of protesting over the airwaves but we always were a little slow at following instructions and the task was completed. Our intelligence agencies now knew which rooms in which buildings housed the communications and electronic equipment. The rest was up to them."
The only "detected" violation of Soviet airspace that Don and Dick experienced occurred when they were photographing a new Yak-28P/Firebar interceptor aircraft. As Don recalls, "a special Soviet squadron of the new FIREBAR aircraft had been seen training at a large East German airfield just outside the southern corridor [and] there was a high level request to get shots of an open radome on the nose of the place so that analysts could determine frequencies and equipment. As we approached the target we could see a maintenance stand and workers on the nose of a FIREBAR. I placed our best equipment on the target and coaxed the pilot closer and closer getting pictures all the way. Multilingual hollering in our headsets prompted us to abruptly turn back toward the middle of the corridor as Soviet fighters approached from the rear. Our pilot apologized quickly and profusely for the dumb new man he was training and the compass that seemed to be broken. Back at Wiesbaden we were met by elated Intelligence officers with congratulations from Washington agencies."
Don remarks to his friend, Dick, at the end of the email: "Our small group of dedicated covert crews completed unbelievable missions at locations around the world. Few people knew who we were or what we did, but we all knew that we were accomplishing an important dangerous mission for our country." Even their wives did not know the true mission of the 7405th.
The recent parade in Denver to honor the military, police and firemen made me think of people like Dick and Don, older veterans, as well as the younger men and women returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. They all have stories to tell, missions embarked upon and completed. They put themselves in harm's way for my family and my future grandchildren. The sum total of what they do keeps us free. I don't say 'thank you' enough.
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