If you visited Strategic Air Command's Bellevue headquarters back in the Cold War era, you might have suddenly seen a blue-bereted flash barreling down the corridor bellowing, “Clear the halls!”
And if you didn't flatten yourself against the wall, you could expect to pick yourself up off the carpet — no matter how many stars you wore on your shoulder.
The blue flash would have been a member of the SAC Elite Guard, the special security team set up to guard the Air Force's most sensitive site, rushing to the building's subterranean nerve center on an alarm.
“We were racing full speed,” recalled Bill Marshall, 68, who served in the Elite Guard from 1967 to 1968. “We had to get there in two minutes — no elevators!”
“You had to have a set of lungs on you,” added Tony Smith, 56, an Elite Guard in the late 1970s.
Their Air Force days are long behind them, but today Smith and Marshall are among the leaders of the SAC Elite Guard Association. The group, which is holding a reunion this weekend in La Vista, is dedicated to preserving the memory of what was then the creme de la creme of the service's Air Police.
Gen. Curtis LeMay, SAC's long-serving commander, created Detachment A in late 1956. He wanted hand-picked volunteers, at least 5-foot-10, 21 or older, well-disciplined, intelligent and good-looking. He wanted them to stand out from the rest of the force.
“Gen. LeMay wanted a special uniform,” recalled Tom Craig, 81, of Bellevue, an original member of Detachment A (the Elite Guard moniker was adopted in 1960) and its 20-man rifle drill team. “He called us his 'palace guards.' That's how we came to wear the beret.”
“We was a damn bunch of pretty boys,” said Bob Griffin, 72, an Elite Guard from 1968 to 1970, grinning. “We knew it, and we showed it.”
The unit's primary job was to keep unauthorized people out of SAC's sprawling new headquarters and escort the military brass, political leaders and celebrities who frequently visited.
“We always knew when a celebrity was in the house, because we'd get a call from Protocol,” Marshall recalled.
Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Godfrey, Karen and Richard Carpenter, the cast of “Star Trek,” all trooped to SAC's secret underground bunker. Tom Brokaw hosted “The Today Show” there in the 1970s.
Marshall recalls an assignment to escort Shari Lewis, the ventriloquist and children's TV show host. He asked her about her most famous puppet.
“I said, 'Do you have Lamb Chop with you?' ” he said. Sure enough, she pulled out her woolly companion to chat.
LeMay and his successors expected impeccably neat dress. The Elite Guard served at ceremonies and funerals. They were required to know every Air Force general at the base by sight.
The drill team practiced eight hours a day, reshuffling and tossing their bayoneted rifles with exquisite precision. It was SAC's public face, performing at open houses and air shows.
“You could be an 18- or 19-year-old (performing) at an air show in Iowa, and a kid asks for your autograph,” said Wayne Kester, 72, of Deer Park, Wash., who served with the Elite Guard from 1959 to 1961. “Where else would that happen?”
Marty Shelton, 60, said he had little interest in the military — until he saw the drill team perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the mid-1960s. He liked their sharp uniforms and precise movements.
I said, 'That's what I want to do,' ” recalled Shelton, who lives in Council Bluffs. “The drill team was one of the best recruiting for them.”
|AT WAR, AT HOME: THE COLD WAR|
|The World-Herald takes a special look back at the Nebraskans and Iowans whose courage and commitment helped prevent nuclear war and lift the Iron Curtain. Learn more and order in the OWH Store.|
It was gone by the time he enlisted, disbanded in a 1969 budget-cutting move that still rankles. But he did earn a spot on the Elite Guard and even appeared in uniform on the front page of The World-Herald in 1981.
At times their job was deadly serious. The underground headquarters bristled with activity during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, as the world prepared for the possibility of nuclear war.
Some Elite Guard members were in the bunker with the leaders who would prosecute the war, if it were to happen. They left their families outside, to an uncertain fate.
Shirley Degan remembers her late husband, John, an Elite Guard during the missile crisis, saying goodbye.
“He packed his bags and said, 'I have to go,' ” recalled Degan, of Tucson, Ariz., who is attending her first Elite Guard reunion.
“It was a chilling story,” said Marshall, who served several years later. “They pulled the doors behind them, and they didn't know if they were going to open them again.”
After the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the Elite Guards shifted their focus.
“We weren't worried so much about penetrators, we were worried about the building getting blown up,” Marshall said.
SAC was disbanded in 1992, a casualty of the United States' Cold War victory. The SAC Elite Guard died with it, to the dismay of its alumni, who remember fondly the discipline and esprit de corps.
“It was a big loss,” said Biff Kiley, 72, of Lowell, Mich., who spent 11 years as an Elite Guard. “There was so much camaraderie, togetherness. You never worried about your back.”
“We see things happening in the Air Force that would not have happened under the SAC command,” Marshall said.
A decade or so later, a few of the former Elite Guards gathered informally to drink beer and remember the old times. Thirty of the fellows met at a hotel in Bellevue.
“It was a very emotional reunion for a lot of us,” Griffin said. The group got a huge boost that year, when Marshall put up a website with a home page and seven photos.
Within three years, Marshall said, the group had 400 members who had submitted hundreds of old photos and videos to the ever-expanding site, www.saceliteguard.com. They started holding annual reunions, meeting every second year in Nebraska.
“We come from different decades,” Marshall said. “It doesn't matter. We share a bond.”
Friday, the veterans visited the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, where they rededicated an exhibit about the Elite Guard.
Today, they'll play some golf, visit Omaha's Old Market and share an evening banquet.
“It's to rekindle the friendships we had before — and to grow old together,” said Smith, who was elected president last year.
The big disappointment is that they couldn't arrange a visit to their old headquarters building, now occupied by the U.S. Strategic Command, thanks to the sequester-related budget cuts. StratCom now has its own mission — and its own Elite Guard — but they would like to see the place they pledged to protect. It will probably be replaced before the group's next visit to Nebraska.
“That building's going away,” Smith said. “We're a dying breed. Since 1992, they don't make any more of us.”
All the more reason for the Elite Guard members to stick together. That membership is a source of pride, they say, even for airmen whose military careers were otherwise uneventful.
“We played a huge part in the Cold War. We guarded the assets,” Smith said. “I can say, what did I accomplish? I was the Elite Guard.”