Deterrent to Soviet aggression - Cold War veteran shares story of working with the massive B-36 Peacemaker
The service of all veterans is deserving of remembrance and recognition but the contributions of Cold War veterans, who served as a deterrent to Soviet threats in decades past, often goes unrecognized. One local veteran wants to ensure that not only are those with whom he served remembered for their service in times of relative peace, but that the role played by an iconic Cold War bomber is never forgotten.
Raised in a small town in Iowa, Henry Dahl and a friend learned that the G.I. Bill of Rights was set to expire on January 31, 1955, and decided they should hurry and enlist in the Air Force so they could qualify for some educational benefits.
“I settled on the Air Force because I was interested in mechanics and wanted to learn about aircraft,” Dahl recalled. “But when we got to Omaha to swear in, there were so many people there with the same idea, they delayed our induction until February 3, which meant we wouldn’t qualify for the GI Bill.”
The Air Force explained they could back out of their enlistment because of the delay, but Dahl chose to pursue the military career path and was soon on his way to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for his basic training. From there, he traveled to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois in early April 1955, to begin several weeks of training on reciprocating engines.
The veteran explained, “I was there for about six months and we learned the theory of engine operation and how to tear down rebuild, install and operate B-29 (Superfortress) engines.”
The airman was then transferred to his first duty assignment at the newly established Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, where he remained for the next several months maintaining the engines on the Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter, a refueling aircraft. In the early weeks of 1956, he returned to Iowa for a short period of leave before reporting to his next and final duty assignment at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico. Upon arrival, Dahl noted, he was assigned to the maintenance crew of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker—a strategic bomber with six reciprocating engines and four jet engines.
“The plane was the predecessor to the B-52, which became widely known because it is still used by the Air Force,” said Dahl. “The B-36 had a wingspan of 230 feet, was 162 feet long and held 32,000 gallons of fuel … just to give you an idea of how massive it was.”
An article by Daniel Ford appearing in the April 1996 edition of Air & Space Museum magazine noted, “Each airplane had 336 spark plugs, and after a flight lasting a day and a half, a mechanic would have to haul a bucket of replacement plugs to the airplane to service all six engines.”
The serial number for Dahl’s aircraft was “711,” and he remained with the same plane for the duration of his time in Puerto Rico. The veteran mirthfully recalled that the aircraft shook so intensely when idling on the ground that it was nicknamed it “Ol’ Shaky,” and Dahl was granted permission to paint it’s new nickname on its nose. He added, “Our job, as part of the maintenance crew, was to keep the aircraft on flying status, ready to go. We were part of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and there was a B-36 in the air at all times in the region of Puerto Rico as part of SACs strategic bombing mission.”
Early in his assignment, Dahl added, the B-36s were equipped with conventional bombs; however, the aircraft were later updated to carry and deploy the significantly more destructive hydrogen bombs, the latter of which weighed 43,000 pounds each.
The former airman went on to explain that one of the most intense experiences of his Air Force career came with the looming threat of destruction from Hurricane Betsy, which approached Puerto Rico in August 1956.
“We knew it was coming, but like most hurricanes, it came early and we had just enough time to get to the plane off the ground during the calm of the eye of the storm,” he said. “I had only the clothes on my back and a couple of bucks in my wallet, and we stayed the next week at Biggs Air Force Base (Texas) before returning to Ramey.”
Dahl recalled that although there was much destruction across areas of the island, Ramey Air Force Base fared comparatively well since many of the structures on base were built out of concrete. He remained in Puerto Rico until late August 1958, departing the base during the time the B-36s were being phased-out and replaced with the newer B-52s. Following his discharge, Dahl traveled to St. Louis to attend Bailey Technical School, earning several certifications.
As the years passed, Dahl married his fiancée, Dona, and they have since raised two sons. His military experiences and subsequent education later led to his being hired by Central Electric Power Cooperative in Jefferson City, Missouri, with whom he went on to retire as their telecommunications director after 42 years of employment.
The veteran’s personal Cold War experiences, though bursting with interesting circumstances and stories, is not the focus of his recollections; instead, Dahl affirms, he is dedicated to ensuring the role fulfilled by the aircraft he supported years ago is never forgotten.
“That’s my main objective and interest—preserving the legacy of the B-36,” he stated. “It has become a relatively unknown aircraft because of the B-52, but I want the public to understand the critical role it served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression during the height of the Cold War.”
He added, “The B-36 was labeled the ‘Peacemaker’ because it never had to fire a weapon or drop a bomb in a time of war. It was my pleasure to have had the opportunity to work on and around the aircraft, and I want to share its story while I’m still around to furnish the information.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.