Silent night, Cold War night; memories of a Navy Christmas Eve, 1952

My first Christmas away from home came in 1952.
I joined the Naval Reserve in 1948, while still in high school. After I graduated the following year, I went on active duty. A year later, I reported to Pensacola for flight training, just prior to the start of the Korean War. My first overseas deployment was aboard the USS Midway (CVB-41), leaving Norfolk, Va., in mid-November 1952.
I was a green-as-grass ensign and awed by the size of the USS Midway - at the time, one of the three largest ships in the world. Of course, there were many other ensign aviators aboard, but I was the only one who was night carrier-qualified and a nuclear-weapon delivery pilot. In 1952, these qualifications were held by only a few dozen Navy pilots.
The USS Midway was assigned to the Sixth Fleet, which was operating in the Mediterranean Sea. The expense of the Korean War resulted in Sixth-Fleet ships spending a lot of time in port. The USS Midway anchored in Golfe Juan (Cannes), France, on Dec. 20, and then moved to Marseilles on Dec. 27.
Christmas Eve brought a cold north wind, and it was a long boat ride to shore. Thus, most of the crew stayed aboard or returned to the ship early.
The ship served a suitable turkey dinner, with all the trimmings. A large tree decorated the hangar deck, but without the usual presents. Most of the ship's aircraft were parked on the flight deck, leaving little space topside for even Santa Claus to land.
After dinner, I returned to our squadron's ready room. Weeks of training had brought my shipmates together like family, and I wanted to be with them on this holiday. I didn't know what to expect: maybe a movie or some Christmas activity.
Instead, I was told to grab some sleep and report back later that eve-ning. At first I thought the order was a twist on the old "snipe hunt" joke, but the officer was unusually serious.
The last liberty boat returned about midnight, and the ship quickly turned quiet. Only the sound of ventilator fans could be heard on the hangar deck. The fire doors to hangar bay two were nearly closed, with a pair of Marines standing guard. After checking our names against their list, we entered the enclosed hangar bay.
An AD-4B Skyraider was parked on one side of the tree and an F2H-2N Banshee on the other. Otherwise, the hangar bay was empty. The fire doors were fully closed, the few hatches were secured, and a half-dozen armed Marines stood guard.
I had been training in the single-seat Skyraider. Powered by a piston engine, it was a marvelous aircraft, rugged and forgiving. On nuclear training missions, we flew with 600 gallons of external fuel and one 2,000-pound bomb, simulating a nuclear weapon. One typical training mission, called a "butt-buster," began with a predawn launch and ended with a night carrier landing almost 12 hours later. This versatile aircraft served aboard Navy carriers until 1968, then served with the Air Force until the end of the Vietnam War.
Our meeting in hangar bay two had nothing to do with catching Santa Claus in the act. The ship's Christmas tree was in one corner of the bay. Two canvas-covered "gifts" under the tree were real nuclear weapons neatly nestled on yellow cradles. This session was a practice loading drill, the timing selected purely for security reasons. One bomb was a small version of Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The other was a small version of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Both were early fission weapons, not like the high-yield thermonuclear (fission-fusion) weapons of today.
Using a long and detailed checklist for each weapon and each aircraft, the crews took turns loading the weapons on the aircraft. We finished our loading drills about 3 a.m., with only one minor interruption.
The Shore Patrol boat returned about 2 a.m., along with one very drunk sailor. Finding the normal route to his berthing compartment blocked by the closed fire doors to the hangar bay, the drunk pushed the open button. Then he found his way blocked by two armed Marines. We all stopped working like safecrackers caught in the act. The Marines got the fire doors closed again and directed the drunk to another passageway.
Secrecy and security were the rule with nuclear weapons in 1952. However, too much secrecy was counterproductive. The Soviets had to know with certainty our Navy had the capability of destroying their Black Sea Fleet with nuclear weapons. We never made any secret about training for that possibility. Yet, we looked on this training a little like going to the dentist - something that just had to be done.
The Cold War gradually turned into a nuclear-arms race. Both sides built thousands of nuclear weapons, and the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear holocaust.
We should all be thankful that neither side gave that awful order. My first Christmas away from home was an unusual moment in that Cold War.

Freelance writer Scott Smith is a Magnolia resident and a member in good standing of the Magnolia Historical Society Board.

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