Updated: 12 June 2001
Posted: 7 March 2000
BIRTH OF THE TIE CUTTING CEREMONY
With the delivery of the first SR-71 to Beale AFB on 7 January 1965 and flight crew training finally getting started, the high quality of assigned maintenance personnel began to bear fruit. As subsequent aircraft were delivered and workloads increased, the whole operation began to gel into a highly motivated and professional unit. Perfection was the order of the day. To really experience the close knit camaraderie between all ranks, branches, sections, and squadrons, both Enlisted and Officer personnel, one had to be there to witness this tremendous display of professionalism. Being assigned to the SR-71 program seemed to develop a sense of pride throughout the Wing that was unequaled anywhere in the entire USAF. You were either proud to be associated with the SR-71 or envious because you were not a member of the 9th SRW.
And so it was, that the ìFriday Nite Foraysî on the NCO Club became even more popular. Successfully launching, recovering and maintaining the SR-71 created an even greater sense of pride in a job well done and the club was the place to celebrate and relax after a good days work. The dress code at the club on those Friday Nites was rather loose with most of us arriving directly from the flight line after all the aircraft were in-commission and bedded down. Some of us were in Class A uniforms but most were still in their ìfatiguesî(work uniform).... It was on one of these fateful evenings that Technical Sergeant Don Person came into the club neatly attired in dressy trousers, white shirt, sport coat and ìtieî. At this point of time in the evening, most of us were pretty well ìinto our cupsî and the sight of Don in his fancy ìgo to meetiní dudsî created quite a stir. After much teasing, fun poking and more guzzling, somebody made the off-hand remark that it wasnít ìproperî for Don to be wearing a tie in our presence and that the only alternative was to cut the tie off. I took out my knife out, exposed the small 2î blade and playfully pretended that I was going to relieve Don of his tie. Initially, I was only joking but after much coaxing and questioning of my ìmanhoodî. I reached up, grasped the tie just below the knot, gave one quick snap and all that was left was the tie knot. Up to this point, Don went along with the threats and joking, but when he saw the ends of the tie in my hands, there was a look of disbelief, dismay and a tinge of anger on his face (all of which lasted about 2 seconds). Little did we realize that Don was dressed up to take his wife Fran out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary and that in fact, the tie was supposedly an anniversary present from Fran. Naturally all of us, and especially me, felt remorseful. As a token of our repentance for this dastardly act, we decided to fasten the remnants of Donís tie in a place of honor at the top of the Fakawee Flagpole as our first ìBattle Streamerî Although the now famous Tie cutting ceremonies lasted until January 1990 with the formal retirement of the SR-71 Blackbird as an active aircraft in the USAF inventory, this is the first written account of the origin of the tradition on the fateful Friday Nite in 1966. Until now, only a handful of people were aware of this unusual bit of Air Force history.
In the spring of 1968, four SR-71s were flown to Kadena AB(originally written as AFB, but actually AB), Okinawa to assume the reconnaissance mission over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. This Temporary Duty (TDY) assignment turned out to be the second phase of the Tie Cutting Tradition. The operational policy was to rotate aircraft, Commanders, Supervisors, and maintenance personnel between Kadena and Beale AFB on scheduled basis. It was during these early stages of the operation that I was scheduled for a tour at Kadena with duties as Senior Flight Line Maintenance NCO. The Detachment Commander was Colonel William R. Hayes (M/Gen Ret.) who was also the 9th SRW Wing Commander at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Carl Estes (Colonel Ret.) was my immediate supervisor as the Deputy Commander for Maintenance (DCM).
SAC operational policy would be limited to a 30 day period. It was therefore during my tour of duty that Col. Hayes completed his 30 day stint and was scheduled to return to Beale AFB. It was also a show of respect and a sign of loyalty and esteem that the Flight Crews and other Officers elected to have a going away party at the Kadena Officerís Club for the for the departing Col. Hayes. In the meantime, one of my Crew Chiefs, Master Sergeant William (Ding Dong) Bell, was also to rotate back to the States. I then decided as a gesture for a job well done to take Sgt. Bell and the three other Crew Chiefs out to dinner. The others were TSgt. Person, TSgt. Eugene Darby, and SSgt. Paul Bledsoe. TSgt. Person was the same NCO mentioned in the Friday Nite Tie Cutting at the Beale AFB NCO Club.
Instead of having dinner at the Kadena NCO Club, I decided that we would dine at the much preferred FBIS Club. Although this was a civilian club and operated by civilians on the base, it was frequented by all ranks, including personnel from nearby Army, Navy, and Marine bases. We started out the evening by downing more then a prudent number of drinks before dinner. I of course, opted for my favorite libation (martinis). After a sumptuous dinner, we decided on the usual after dinner food settlers. It wasnt long before our conversations turned to wondering how Col. Hayes going-away-party was progressing. The more we drank, the more we talked and the more we talked, the more we began to feel we were unjustly excluded from the Cols party. We then decided that invite or not, we going to the party. Since we knew that the Kadena Base Commanders policy was a strict prohibition of enlisted personnel in the Officers Club, we would have to resort to drastic measures. On the way out of the Phoebis Club and in obvious impaired judgment, I spotted an Army Colonels cap hanging on a peg in the foyer. I quickly removed the Colonel insignia and went outside. when we got outside, I pinned the Eagles on my shirt collar and became a self proclaimed Full Bird Wing Commander. I told my Crew Chiefs that we could now go to the Officers Club. Fortunately, upon arrival at the club, we entered unchallenged. The first person we encountered was Major Don Walbrecth (Col. Ret.). When asked about the whereabouts of Col. Hayes, he told us that his party was in the main part of the club and that we would not be allowed entry because we were tie-less and in shirt sleeves. The only place authorized for our type of attire was the Stag Bar. I then told Major Walbrecht to advise Col. Hayes that Col. Gornik and his staff awaited the Colonel and his staff in the Stag Bar. A few minutes later, Col. Hayes, Major John Storrie (MGen Ret.), Major Coz Mallozzi (Col. Ret.), Major Jim Watkins (Col. Ret.), Major Dave Dempster (Col. Ret.), Major Walbrecht, Captain Phil Loignon (Col. Ret.) and several other Officers whose names time and memory have faded, came out as requested. The whole group then proceeded to the Stag Bar, we all took seats around a round table. There were at least twelve of us at this table. In addition to our group, the patrons of the Stag Bar included five or six young F-4 Fighter Pilots who were either going or coming from the war in Vietnam. when they found out that we were with the Blackbird outfit, they began, asking how they could get assigned to our unit. With tongue in cheek, one of our pilots who shall remain unnamed told them that I was the Wing Commander and for them to give their requests to me. I then turned to Sgt. Darby, who was posing as my Aide, and told him to take there names, etc.. I now realize that this was a dirty trick to play on some outstanding young men.
As the evening wore on and of course more imbibing of the grain, the subject of neck-ties finally came up because my crew and I were tie less and all the Officers were so attired. I was sitting next to Major Jim Watkins and told him about the time I cut off Don Personís Tie at the NCO Club back at Beale. Major Watkins thought this was funny as hell and suggested that I should cut off Col. Hayesí tie. I said ìAre you crazy???---I may be drunk, but not that drunkî. He then proceeded to question my ìmanhoodî, said I was chicken, called me a coward and when all else failed, he resorted to making a very uncouth remark referring to the ìtonsorial qualities of my derriereî . That did it!!! I took out my pocket knife, made sure it was sharp, leaned over and asked the Colonel if his tie had any sentimental value. He responded by saying, ìHell yes, I paid 15 bucks for this matched tie and breast pocket kerchief setî. since it was not a gift of any kind, I reached up and in one swift swipe the two ends of the tie were in my left hand, a short stub was all that covered the Colonelís top button and there was a look of disbelief on his face. Realizing what I had done and seeing that all the others were having fun at the Colonelís expense. I proceeded to go around the table and cut off every tie in site. It was fortunate that I included all the others because they were all now part of a hilarious, and as it turned out, important tradition of the SR-71 history.
The next morning when I awoke, my bed was littered with pieces of neck ties and at the foot of the bed was a bright green jacket embroidered with the Colonels name, insignia and a large inscription on the back stating "#1 HABU"(Note: HABU was the name given to the SR-71 Crew Members, the legend of the Habu, which is a poisonous snake indigenous to Okinawa, was somewhat embellished to coincide with the secretive, aggressive, and striking capability of the SR-71 and its mission.) There was also a green baseball cap embroidered with a Colonels Eagle and the typical scrambled eggs on the cap bills. The green colors of course, symbolizes the Colonels Irish heritage. It was obvious that I relieved my Wing Commander of the gifts he received at his going away party. As I looked at this array of contraband strewn all over my bed, and with a slight headache, I began to realize that I might just be in some serious hot water. Furthermore, I was not unmindful of the fact that due to his stern leadership and white hair, he was affectionately referred to as the White Tornado. It wasnt long after I awoke when there was a knock on the door, when I opened the door, standing there with a look of obvious concern, was Lt. Col. Estes (my boss). He instructed me that Colonel Hayes wished to see me and that he was there to personally drive me to the Colonels quarters. As we drove along, my mind raced a mile a minute , wondering what to say. Upon arrival at the Colonels quarters, I knocked on the door and was immediately summoned in. Fortunately, in my left hand I was carrying the green jacket and baseball cap as I could see that the Colonel was packing in preparation for his flight home that afternoon. As soon as I entered the room, I snapped to attention, saluted, and started to apologize for my behavior the previous evening. The Colonel stopped me midway in my apology and asked, Did you have a good time last night, Bill? I replied Yes, Sir. He then advised me to never apologize for having a good time. He also mentioned the fact that he recognized all the maintenance personnel were working 7 days a week and sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day and that all work and no play was not good for morale. He then turned to Lt. Col. Estes and said, Carl, would you please go down the hall and get Bill and I a couple of cold beers and Snappy Toms (Spicy Tomato Juice), I think we could both use one this morning.
As time went on and the story of the incident of the Kadena Officerís Club began to spread, one of the SR-71 pilots suggested that whenever a crew completed their first combat mission, they would be accorded the honor of having their tie cut off.
This soon developed into the practice of crew members wearing a tie under their space suits when they were scheduled for their first mission. If the mission was successfully completed, they would be greeted when they taxied to a halt and with great fanfare they would ceremoniously have their ties cut off, What started out as a wild escapade was now an honored tradition. It wasn't long before the restricted tradition was extended to include visiting dignitaries and select few who were accorded the privilege of going on a SR-71 Mach 3 Orientation Flight .
It soon became obvious that the accumulation ties necessitated a system of proper identification and suitable display for these mementos. Since the tradition was initiated by the 9th OMS, we decided that the ties would have the names of the individuals embroidered thereon and that they would be mounted on a pole decorated with the blue and white colors of the 9th Organizational Maintenance Squadron. And so it was that the 9th OMS was designated as the keeper of the Fakawee Flag and the now famous Tie Pole.
SPECIAL TIE CUTTING CEREMONIES OF NOTE
On 2 April 1969, Senator Barry Goldwater (M/Gen USAFR) was scheduled for a Mach 3 Orientation Flight in one of the SR-71 trainers. On the evening prior to the flight, Major John Storrie (M/Gen Ret.) who was to be the pilot on the flight, informed the Senator about the tie cutting ceremony and was asked if he would consider being part of the tradition. The Senator replied that he would be honored and would consider it a privilege. He then supposedly told Major Storrie that the tie he would wear under his space suit during the flight was the same tie he wore the night he was selected as the Republican Partyís nominee for President in 1964. The tie was dark blue and had a number of light blue elephants embroidered on it. Needless to say, when Major Storrie told me about the proposed ceremony, I became quite concerned. Since I always used a sharp, small blade (2î) pocket knife, the thought of placing a sharp blade next to a U.S. Senatorís throat was indeed scary. The next day, the flight went off beautifully and I began to feel more confident. There to meet the Senator after the flight were Lt. Gen Jack Catton, Commander 15th Air Force. B/Gen Bacallis, Commander 14th Air Division and Mr. C. (Kelly) Johnson, the famous designer of the SR-71, the U-2, and the F-104 Starfighter, F-80, and the P-38 Lighting and a number of other well known Lockheed aircraft. There were also a host of local Commanders, dignitaries and on-lookers. After all the hand shaking and congratulations were over, Major John Storrie signaled me to come meet the Senator and to ìdo my thingî. The Senator calmly held his head back. I reached up and with one quick flick of the wrist, the job was done amid a lot of cheers and applause.
While all the dignitaries were talking to the Senator about the flight, one of the Lockheed Tech Reps dared me to cut off ìKellyî Johnsonís tie. This was not a planned part of the program and I was very reluctant to press my luck. After much urging from all sides, I finally agreed. When I advised Mr. Johnson about my intentions, he said he would be honored. In no time, his tie which happened to be a Oleg Cassini creation was added to the collection. Shortly after that, the other ties of Generals Cetton and Bacallis met the same fate.
On another occasion, the SAC Commander-in-Chief, General Bruce K. Holloway visited Beale AFB for the purpose of welcoming the first SR-71 to return from overseas combat duties. This was another time when I had no intention of performing any tie cutting ceremonies. However, during all the excitement of welcoming the aircraft and crew, plus the imposing presence of a 4-star General in our midst/. I soon became aware of the insistent prodding for me to cut off the Generalís tie. I was especially reluctant because the General was in full uniform and I did not want to cut off a uniform tie. The General was fully aware of the Fakawee and Semi-hole Flag stealing episode referred to earlier and knew about the tie-cutting tradition. Therefore, after much urging, I approached the General and advised him that I really didnít want to mar his uniform but that I didnít have a choice because of the insistence of all those gathered there. He said he understood, held his head back and that was how the first 4-star Generals tie came to adorn the now famous tie pole.
There were other tie cutting ceremonies of note, but perhaps one of the most bizarre and one which may have equaled the incident at the Kadena Officers Club involved the ceremony at the Beale Officerís Club. It was in June 1969 and the Fakawees were enjoying their usual Friday Nite Two-fers at the Great Tepee on the Hill. Simultaneously, at the Officers Club, a Change of Command Ceremony and Banquet was being held to honor the departure of then B. Gen Hayes and the installation of Colonel Charles Minter as the new 9th Commander. As the evening wore on, the Fakawees began to feel more and more sad that they were not part of the Officers Club Festivities, particularly since we all felt a special kinship to the out-going and in-coming Commanders. Finally, it dawned on me that Colonel Minterís tie was never added to our Tie-pole. The more we talked about this about this ìShameful oversightî, the more we convinced ourselves that this was the ideal night to rectify the situation. In short order, M/Sgt Ed Polejewski was dispatched to the Flight Line to get the Fakawee Flag, CMSgt Bill Reynolds went after the Tie Pole and I went home to get the pillow and Hari-Kari Knife that was used as a symbol of the ceremony rather than to actually be used for the tie cutting. My pocket knife was still the cutting tool of choice. In the meantime, CMSgt Austin J. Smith went out to his car to get a portable player tape and tape with ìBattle Hymn of the Republicî. After all the ceremonial items were gathered and everybody had a few more belts of ìencouragementî, we proceeded en masse to the Officerís Club. As we entered the clubís banquet room, we interrupted Colonel Minterís ìAssumption of Commandî speech by marching right down the middle of the room with the tape player blaring out the Battle Hymn of the Republic and with the flags and Tie-pole leading the way right up to the head table. Needless to say, our loud and brazen entrance brought the house down. The ladies present seemed to especially enjoy this outlandish interruption of the otherwise solemn occasion. It should be noted most of the wives in attendance already had their husbandís ties adorning the flag pole. When the laughter and applause finally died down, we advised Colonel Minter as to the purpose of our invasion which he no doubt suspected. Having been a witness to the previous tie-cutting ceremonies, he knew the procedure. He simply backed up to the wall behind the head table, spread his arms wide, tilted his head back and with great courage and trust, allowed me to zap his tie off in the usual split second. His tie is now no longer missing from the Tie-Pole.
As time went on and the tie cutting tradition became more and more famous. We decided to bestow the privilege of having their ties n the Pole to other deserving individuals. For example, we added Colonel Victor Armistedís tie because he was the first Deputy Commander for Maintenance whose association with the SR-71 started with the initial cadre assigned to the Edwards AFB YF-12A/SR-71 Test Force. My tie was added because I started the tradition. Others included were Squadron Commanders, Maintenance Officers, and Crew Chiefs.
© Wm. M. (Bill) Gornik
Chapter 6 & 7
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