As Capt. Tom Davis stands at the tailgate of the military cargo plane, the night air sweeps through the hold. His eyes search the black terrain 1,200 feet below. He grips the canvas of his reserve parachute and takes a deep breath.
Davis and the men who make up his Special Forces A-team are among the most highly trained soldiers in the U.S. Army. It’s 1972, and Davis isn’t far removed from a tour in Vietnam, where he operated along the Cambodian border. His communications sergeant served in Command and Control North, which was responsible for some of the most daring operations in the heart of North Vietnamese territory. But none of the men has ever been on a mission like this before.
Their plan: drop into Eastern Europe, make their way undetected through forested mountains, and destroy a heavy-water plant used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
Leading up to the operation, during four days of preparation, Army regional experts briefed them on routes of infiltration and anticipated enemy patrols. The team pored over aerial photographs and an elaborate mock-up of the target — a large, slightly U-shaped building. It’s situated in a wide, open area with a roving guard, but at least the team won’t have to sneak inside. Hanging awkwardly from the parachute harness of Davis’s intelligence sergeant is a 58-pound nuclear bomb. With a weapon this powerful, they can just lay it against a wall, crank the timers, and let fission do its work.
Davis had planned to follow in the footsteps of his family’s prominent jurists — his father was a lawyer; his grandfather a federal court judge — until a notice from the draft board arrived during his first year of law school. Rather than be drafted, Davis signed up for officer candidate school and volunteered for Special Forces, graduating from the demanding “Q course” as a second lieutenant. From there, it was on to Vietnamese language school and off to the war in Southeast Asia, where he served as a civil affairs/psychological operations officer.
As a first lieutenant, Davis got his own A-team. His team sergeant suggested they volunteer for training with what the Army called Special Atomic Demolition Munitions — tactical nukes designed to be used on the battlefield in a war with the Soviets. “What the hell. Why not?” he responded. Their company commander forwarded their names and the team was accepted for training.
As the plane approaches the drop zone, the jump commands come quickly, shouted over the frigid, deafening wind. “Check static lines!” The men sound off for equipment check from the back of the chalk forward. “Stand by!” The light turns green, and each man is tapped out: “Go!” the soldiers, each carrying something on the order of 70 pounds of gear in addition to 30 pounds of parachute rigging, don’t so much jump from the plane as waddle off the back of it and fall to the ground at about 20 feet per second.
At half-second intervals, their silhouettes emerge from the rear of the plane, their deflated parachutes streaming behind like comets’ tails. Canopies catch air and expand, and the team speeds downward, fast enough to avoid being spotted (or shot at) but just slow enough not to be killed when the men collide with the ground. Once the team has landed and released and cached their parachutes, they skulk to a predetermined rally point hidden in trees and shadows, where they unseal the special jump container and assess its contents for damage, making sure their payload is intact and not leaking radiation. Then they slip the bomb into a rucksack, bury the container, and set out through the mountains, moving only at night so as not to be seen.
It takes them about two days to make their way to the target. On D-day, they set the device at the plant — and run.
Capt. Davis’s “mission” was, of course, an exercise. In reality, he and his men parachuted not into Eastern Europe, but near the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. The heavy-water plant was actually a shuttered paper mill in the nearby town of Lincoln, and the bomb was a training dummy.
The mission wasn’t real, but the job was.
For 25 years, during the latter half of the Cold War, the United States actually did deploy man-portable nuclear destruction in the form of the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM).
Soldiers from elite Army engineer and Special Forces units, as well as Navy SEALs and select Marines, trained to use the bombs, known as “backpack nukes,” on battlefronts from Eastern Europe to Korea to Iran — part of the U.S. military’s effort to ensure the containment and, if necessary, defeat of communist forces.
Throughout the standoff with the Soviet Union, the West had to wrestle with the fact that, in terms of sheer manpower and conventional armaments, Warsaw Pact forces had their NATO counterparts woefully outnumbered. For the United States, nuclear weapons were the great equalizer. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower went a step further, unveiling the “New Look,” which sought to deter Soviet aggression on the cheap by threatening to respond to any attack with a nuclear onslaught of apocalyptic proportions — a doctrine known as “massive retaliation.” In this way, Ike thought he could hold back communism abroad and the military-industrial complex at home.
The strategy had a major flaw, however. Though massive retaliation was economical, it allowed the United States almost no flexibility in how it responded to enemy aggression. In the event that communist forces launched a limited, non-nuclear attack, the president would have to choose between defeat at the hands of a superior conventional force or a staggeringly disproportionate (and potentially suicidal) strategic nuclear exchange that would kill hundreds of millions of people.
To provide options between “red” and “dead,” the United States soon embraced the concept of limited nuclear war, championing tactical atomic weapons designed for use in combat. If Warsaw Pact forces ever bolted from East Germany and Czechoslovakia toward Western Europe, the United States could resort to nukes to at least delay the communist advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive. These “small” weapons, many of them more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have obliterated any battlefield and irradiated much of the surrounding area. But they provided options.