For many of us now, the events of the Cold War were a unit taught in long-forgotten history classes. Not for Portlander Matt McCormick. The writer and director of the documentary Buzz One Four, premiering at this month's Portland International Film Festival, has a very personal connection to the five-decade military and political stalemate: his grandfather was the pilot of a nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortress that crashed 90 miles outside of Washington, DC, in 1964.
That flight—Buzz One Four—and his grandfather’s story form the basis for the film, a piece of family lore that only revealed itself in bare detail long after its protagonist was dead.
“It was a story that I don’t remember first hearing,” McCormick says. “It was a fascinating story about my grandfather—that for a 7-year-old boy is the most exciting thing imaginable. But as I got older, I kinda forgot about it. It’s one of those things you just take for granted.”
It was a trip in 2013 to the area of the crash that reminded him of his grandfather’s role in the event. McCormick hit the Internet to find more.
“After Googling it, I found a whole bunch of stuff on it," he says. "And I came to realize that not only was this crash this epic story within my family, but it was actually a historically important moment in terms of military history and the history of that region."
His grandfather’s plane and its dangerous cargo were part of Operation Chrome Dome, a Unites States second-strike program designed to put a nuclear bomb in any Russian city within 30 minutes of a Russian first strike.
Using stock footage from the National Archives, archival news footage, and Air Force training films, as well as Thomas McCormick’s home videos, Buzz One Four digs into the scale of that operation and the factors leading up to crash. Starting in 1960, operation Chrome Dome used intercontinental bombers—each carrying two thermonuclear weapons many times more powerful than those used in Japan—on 28-hour missions to the edge of Russian airspace. These missions were flown continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week through most of the 1960s.
“They weren’t just flying around in circles above the United States, flying attack patterns directly towards the target,” says McCormick. “All the pilots knew the destination they were going to drop a bomb on. They would fly towards it and basically turn around right before they hit Russian airspace.”
Pilots and their crew were issued “go pills”—essentially methamphetamines—to keep them awake and alert on the long missions. While the B-52s were considered an engineering marvel, they also suffered from a structural flaw that under the right conditions could cause the tail to tear off in flight. These factors, combined with a powerful winter storm, led to the 1964 crash of Buzz One Four, under the command of pilot Thomas McCormick.
And it wasn’t an isolated incident. There were other B-52 crashes reported, incidents known as “broken arrows” that involved nuclear weapons or components. “There is a likelihood that there are a number of broken arrow incidents that we don’t know about,” says McCormick. “I think the Air Force has pretty much admitted to the ones that they simply couldn’t cover up. I’ve got to imagine there are a whole lot of other incidents that never came to our attention.”
Many of those crashes left undetonated nuclear bombs behind, which for various reasons couldn't be removed. “There is one in the bottom of Puget Sound,” says McCormick. “And one in the swamps of Savannah, Georgia. They’ll probably stay there forever. Which is spooky because if they haven’t already started leaking radioactive material, sooner or later they will.”
These questions, however, weren't raised at the time, says McCormick, whose grandfather and parents had faith in the military and its decisions.
“For people who were alive in those days, adults in the Cold War, especially more conservative ones who were supportive of the military, you just kind of trusted that they [the Air Force] were going to take care of things,” says McCormick. “My grandfather, my parents didn’t really ask a lot of questions. They just assumed that if the Air Force wanted to do it, then it was the right thing to do.”
For McCormick, one of the takeaways is how aggressive the US operation really was, and how much danger it placed the country in. “Imagine if [the Russians] had one of these planes loaded with nuclear bombs, flying right at us?” he asks. “Throw in the fact that these pilots were flying for 28 hours and taking speed to stay awake and flying planes with some known structural defects to them—it’s pretty spooky and you start to wonder if we were in greater danger of nuking ourselves or starting an accidental nuclear war then actually being attacked by Russia.”
McCormick’s film, which comes in at under one hour, is both a personal narrative—interspersed as it is with so much of his grandfather’s amateur video footage—and a cautionary tale.
“I want the audience to watch this film and realize that the things happening with the military, there are two sides involved,” he says. “The people who are on the ground and in the air executing these decisions, they might not even be fully aware of the large picture that’s at play. I certainly don’t think my grandfather was.”
So have we learned from our mistakes? “I found myself getting very angry at the Air Force and at our country because it seems like we’re constantly doing these kind of dumb things that we never learn from,” says McCormick. “We are constantly creating these problems for ourselves. But then on the flip side I also understood that this is my grandfather’s story and the story of them men who live on this plane and the people in this small town.”
Buzz One Four screens at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, February 15, at the Laurelhurst Theater and at noon Saturday, February 18 at the Whitsell Auditorium. More information about the film can be found on its website.