I lost the Secrets

From 1960 through 1965 I served in the USAF as a navigator in the 30th ATS at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. That was a memorable, as well as, an educational experience, on world geography and cultures. During that period I logged over 4,000 hours in the McDonald Douglas built C-118 Liftmasters.

After OTC at Lackland AFB and Nav. training at Harlingen AFB I began my military tour as a line navigator. Later I was upgraded to instructor and during the last year, an air crew standardization officer and flight examiner. The mission was primarily passenger transport and occasionally freight. In the earlier years, the trips were scheduled flights from McGuire to bases and cities throughout Europe, South America, Greenland and the UK. However, in the early 1960's the Air Force began contracting out passenger service to civilian airlines so we gradually transitioned into special missions which took us into almost every continent on the planet. The UN Belgium Congo Operation, Viet Nam and the Cuban crisis are examples of those special missions. 

I left the Air Force in 1965 to enter the corporate world. A smooth and well-planned departure. That is, until the very last mission which I feared I might end up court-martialed, or at least held up from separation in legal proceedings. The story, fortunately, has a happy ending.

On February 5, 1965 I was scheduled on a two-day round trip from McGuire to Norfolk NAS to Guantanimo (GITMO) and return. A fairly routine trip that I had made many times before. This one was only 10 days before I was to enter inactive reserve status and start a new job with Ford Motor Company. I logged my last 14 flight hours on that trip.

As some military air crew will remember during that era, each time a flight departed on a trip, one officer had to sign for the encrypted documents that are used in radio communications in the event of DEFCON condition and other secret operations. Remember, the Cold War was on during that time. As best I can recall, they were called by some acronym like KAC(?) but, we just called them "The Secrets." I had signed them out at the GITMO base operatiosn as part of our pre-flight planning and had carried the sealed envelope to a snack bar during lunch.

The crew climbed above MATS 33243 and we headed North toward Norfolk. Several hours out, I was looking through my briefcase for a chart or something and I suddenly discovered that the secrets envelope was not there! Frantically, I emptied the bag and examined its contents. It was gone!! My mind raced to recall the last time I could remember seeing that envelope. Yes, it was while sitting with the crew at lunch. I must have left it on the table. Oh, God, I've lost government classified documents!! Left them at GITMO.. How could I have been so stupid?

For a minute I tried to think how I could tell the A/C of my mistake. After all, he was in charge and would be held accountable along with me. Finally, I tapped him on the shoulder and said,I think I left the secrets back at GITMO.  You what? , he exclaimed. Captain Goodwin, are you sure? 

Yes, I do not have them after looking everywhere in the cockpit.  Damn, he said and immediately directed me to develop a flight plan to return to GITMO. I quickly plotted a course and time to reverse course and gave it to the co-pilot. He picked up his mic and contacted the area traffic controller (somewhere East of the Bahamas). In a few minutes, I could hear him reading back the clearance to reverse course and head for Cuba.

My mind raced, thinking of how much trouble I was in and how my blunder could effect my transfer to inactive reserve and probably my entire career! As a few minutes passed, I noticed that the A/C had not initiated the planned course change? In fact, both pilots just sat there acting as though there was no emergency. I told them we needed to take up the new heading quickly or else I had to revise our ETA. Both of them began to chuckle, then laughed aloud. The co-pilot reached beside his seat and handed me the secrets  envelope. It had all been a farewell joke on me. Apparently, the co-pilot picked up the envelope when I wasn't looking and brought it on board at GITMO.

On that memorable day in 1965, I went back toward McGuire to the start of a new civilian career. The military's secret communication codes were secure but I shall never forget my last mission as a USAF transport navigator.