In March 1981, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane crashed on approach to its base in the Aleutian Islands during a blizzard. Six of the 24 men on board died. Among those injured was Second Lieutenant Kerry Crooks ’79, who was on the flight as an electronic warfare officer.
Crooks later received the Airman’s Medal for Valor, the Major Norman C. Miller Award for Heroism, and other honors in recognition of his efforts to pull others to safety after the crash.
In 2002, as a senior administrator at the University of Florida, Crooks received the Alumni Association’s Citizenship Award, which honors those who have distinguished themselves in service to humanity.
Crooks now lives in San Antonio, Tex. He spoke in March at a 30th-anniversary tribute to the men of the Cobra Ball II RC-135S. His audience at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska included some 250 veterans and active duty flyers. The following is adapted from his remarks.
More than 25 years ago, Studs Terkel compiled a Pulitzer Prize–winning oral history of World War II. He chose the title The Good War because, in the words of one former soldier, “to see fascism defeated, nothing better could have happened to a human being.”
Terkel had hit the nail on the head. The horrible sum of war was crucial to the story, but it wasn’t the story. The overarching point of the conflict was the defeat of the worst kind of evil. Sacrifices were made because if such evil succeeded, it would invalidate the principles for which we stand.
Our victory was decisive and definable.
From the attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago to the signing of the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, we could identify the extent of our involvement in that conflict.
A generation or so later, America was nearing the climax of another global confrontation, with the freedom of entire nations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere at stake. Yet that struggle never captured the public consciousness as its predecessor did. After World War II, Hollywood gave us a valiant John Wayne storming the beach at Iwo Jima. During the Cold War, we got black comedy in the form of Slim Pickens bronco-busting a nuclear bomb.
But the warriors of the Cold War endured hardships in their own right in support of freedom.
Bear witness, as I did, to the young crew chief on a flight line at 40 degrees below zero, gloveless, working on a metal turbine. Think of those performing their endless checklists amid the tedium and uncertainty deep within the missile silo. Picture the cat-and-mouse of atomic submarines passing inches away from each other in the blind depths of the sea.
Throughout the early 1980s, those of us who flew strategic reconnaissance missions were waging our fight from one of the most remote outposts of freedom, Shemya Island at the far end of the Aleutian chain.
We knew the fight wasn’t going particularly well. The single television station soberly broadcast news of Soviet advances in Afghanistan, of the conflict in Angola, of the needless butchery of Korean Air Lines 007, the civilian flight shot down by Soviet intercepters in 1983.
But we believed in what we were doing. Two generations of us waged an intense, mainly silent war against what we saw as the ultimate obstacle to world peace.
We all knew the dangers. Twenty-four men boarded the Cobra Ball II RC-135S reconnaissance aircraft on Mar. 15, 1981. Eighteen survived the subsequent crash.
But because it made a difference to the nation and the world, the Cold Warriors saw their mission through to the end.
And the generation that dons the uniforms of its country today carries on that tradition. Many are locked in another battle with other forms of tyranny and the associated challenges: unprecedented deployments, unpredictable circumstances. They are supported by their training, their instincts, and their conviction of their mission and calling.
The sacrifices are the same as those of previous generations, and the prize—freedom for all humanity—remains of unequaled value.
This essay was originally published in Ohio State Alumni Magazine.