Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere.
On October 6, 1973, the Egyptian army pulled off a devastating surprise attack on the nation of Israel—payback for the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of June 1967. This week marks the 35th anniversary of that surprise attack—a surprise to almost everyone. Among those who suspected something seriously amiss was an Air Force officer named Earl Tilford, today one of our fellows at the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, and who recently retired from full-time faculty service to return to his native Alabama.
Early in October 1973, Captain Tilford sounded the alarm—but what was the reaction? Dr. Tilford recently shared the story—heretofore unreported—with Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of the Center for Vision & Values. We hope you enjoy this forgotten nugget of history
V&V: Dr. Tilford, where were you and what were you doing on October 1, 1973? What was your assignment?
Dr. Earl Tilford: On October 1, 1973, I was a Warnings Indications Officer, or “watch officer,” at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command (HQ SAC), Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The Watch Office (INEW) operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as part of SAC’s underground headquarters at the base outside Omaha. Watch officers worked in eight-hour, three-day rotating shifts. Our mission was to use all sources of intelligence to provide early warning of any actual or potential global threats to U.S. interests, especially those threats that might involve Strategic Air Command assets or require a SAC response. We used satellite-derived electronic and photo intelligence, agent reports, and many other sources of information.
V&V: What did you notice in the Middle East that caught your attention? How did you report what you saw?
Tilford: Watch officers are generalists expected to know a lot about everything, but also not necessarily specialists. At HQ SAC, we had a CIA representative, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) representative, and someone from the National Security Agency (NSA), as well as officers from other service intelligence branches. We also had officers who were specialists in various areas of regional expertise, such as the Middle East, Soviet Union, and China.
For several years, the Egyptian forces had engaged in exercises around the time of Ramadan, a major Muslim religious event. This year, 1973, was no different, so at first there was no undue concern with SAC’s Middle East analyst, who was a captain, as I was. Perhaps since I was not the “expert,” I was more curious and open to subtle differences. I started following the exercise on Monday, October 1, and by Tuesday my concern was heightened when Syrian forces joined in the exercise as well. By mid-week I had noticed bridging equipment being moved west of al Qunitra, an Egyptian desert town near the Suez Canal. We had no record of that happening before.
My job was to report my concerns to my boss, a major, and to the Middle East expert, as well as to the CIA, DIA, and NSA reps.
V&V: What were their reactions?
Tilford: At first, none of them were concerned, stating that the Egyptians had done this for several years. Still, I stayed on it. On Wednesday, my last day on “day shift,” I found a voice intercept stating: “This time we will clop them on the ear.” The next day, since I didn’t start work until 4:00 PM, I put on some blue jeans, a beat-up corduroy jacket, and went to Creighton University, a Jesuit university, in Omaha. I found a professor, a priest, who taught Middle Eastern studies and spoke Arabic. I told him I was a graduate student in economics at the University of Nebraska working on a master’s thesis on bartering and that I was looking at Middle Eastern bartering, along with other forms of bartering. I asked him what it meant if someone stated that, as a part of gaining an advantage, they would “clop them on the ears.” He said that was a very serious kind of verbal threat.
In all of this, I stayed in contact via secure teletype with DIA, CIA, and NSA. DIA’s line was that this year’s Ramadan exercise was like previous exercises and nothing to be concerned with. That was the same line taken by Air Force Intelligence in Washington and by SAC Intelligence in Omaha because it was always “safe” to go with whatever DIA said. CIA told me to basically “mind my own business,” stating that whatever might be happening in the Middle East was not the concern of SAC. I responded, “Everything, everywhere is the concern of the Strategic Air Command.” I pressed on. Whoever was on the other end of the teletype at NSA agreed with me, stating at one point, “This is beginning to look a lot like December 6, 1941.”
On Friday, October 5, things began to break quickly. That morning—I was working 16 hours a day by this point—I wrote up an official warning and gave it to my boss, a major, stating war would break out at dawn on Saturday, October 6. I included all my evidence and reasoning. At 10:00 AM we briefed the Deputy Director of Intelligence, a Colonel David Evans, who then scheduled a briefing at 1:00 PM with the Director of SAC Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Harry Cordes. After I briefed General Cordes, he called the Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of SAC, General John Meyers, and got us on his schedule for a 5:00 PM briefing.
I briefed General Meyers at 5:00 PM. He was much more concerned with the fact that I needed a shave than he was with anything else. (I had been working since 3:00 AM in the morning, and did, in fact, have a pretty heavy “five o’clock shadow.”) Still, General Meyers ordered the entire SAC Intelligence team to be at work on Saturday morning, preparing an update for him at 0700.
I went home but came in at 1:00 AM on Saturday morning. By then, the Soviet embassy in Cairo was evacuating all non-essential personnel and Soviet military advisors were leaving Egypt. U.S. intelligence was on to it by then and things were moving fast.
The attack began at 2:00 PM Middle East time on Saturday. The Egyptians were across the canal before Israel could react. Overnight they brought over Sager wire-guided anti-tank missiles, SA-6 surface-to-air missiles with excellent low-altitude capabilities, and ZSU 23-4 tracked anti-aircraft guns, which employed four 23mm, radar-guided cannons … devastating to low-flying aircraft. On October 7, the vaunted Israeli Air Force lost 25 percent of its force in the initial counter-attack, while Sager missiles stopped the initial tank attacks.
V&V: How was this different from the June 1967 developments between Israel and Egypt?
Tilford: The Egyptians learned from their mistakes in 1967. They had the initiative and they had an excellent plan: use water hoses to batter down the sand berm behind which the Israelis were positioned along Suez, and flow through and around Israeli garrisons. They did all this just as Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day, was getting underway. In 1967, Israel had the initiative; in 1973, Egypt and Syria had it.
V&V: Explain to us how these October 1973 developments got so serious. How did this involve the United States and the USSR?
Tilford: The United States responded with a massive airlift of military equipment, including ammunition and tanks to Israel. Additionally, F-4 Phantoms based in Europe were flown by U.S. air crews to Israel to replace the F-4s being shot down by SA-6s and ZSU 23x4s. These Phantoms were still painted in “European green” camouflage with Star of David decals placed over U.S. insignia. After a couple of weeks, the Israelis broke through Egyptian lines and crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt, surrounding and cutting off the Egyptian Third Army at the Bitter Lake. At that point, the Soviets put their airborne forces on alert, but not their Long Range Air Force or Nuclear Rocket Forces. They also took them off alert after a few days.
V&V: Is it true that we went to Def-Con 3, meaning a very grave level of nuclear alert?
Tilford: Yes, U.S. forces worldwide went to Def-Con 3. I took the call from the National Military Command Center just after midnight. It was the Monday night (as I recall) after the weekend when President Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor assigned to investigate the Watergate affair. Actually, things had calmed down a great deal at that time. The Soviet airborne forces were off alert. SAC, which was always at Def-Con 3, went to Def-Con 2 with that call. I assembled the “Battle Staff” and we began preparations for a nuclear confrontation.
When the Commander-in-Chief of SAC came in, he asked, “What’s going on?” and we briefed him that no Soviet forces were on a heightened state of alert … not their Long Range Air Force, Rocket Forces, or submarine forces, and their airborne units had gone off alert the day before. The Middle East was quiet.
We were nowhere near close to going to war with the Soviet Union. Soviet forces stayed off alert. Years later, I asked a very high-ranking official in the Nixon administration if this was related to the firing of Archibald Cox. He smiled, laughed, and said, “Well, if you want to think that, I’m not going to contradict you.” SAC did not seal Offutt and other bases as it had in 1962, nor did we “pressurize” the underground, meaning seal the blast doors. We were nowhere close to a nuclear war with the Soviets or even a nuclear strike in the Middle East, though we did have the bomber and missile forces poised for any contingency.
V&V: What was the ultimate effect of this war? For Israel? For Egypt? For the Middle East? For the world?
Tilford: The advantage in this war went to Egypt. Israel withdrew its forces to half-way across the Sinai. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was able to negotiate with Israel from a position of strength, and able to make peace a few years later during the Carter administration. He also rejected Israel’s attempt to return Gaza to Egypt (taken in 1967), thus making sure Israel retained what has been a political, diplomatic, and military thorn in its side. For the Middle East, it was the first time Arab forces had fought on equal footing with Israeli forces since 1948. Also, the Arab oil embargo on the United States showed the Arab world that it had leverage in dealing with the United States.
V&V: Did anyone ever thank you or apologize to you or acknowledge that you had warned them?
Tilford: My boss, Major John Thomas, was effusive in his thanks and put me in for a medal, the Air Force Legion of Merit—its third highest award. He was fired, however, for not “getting the word” up the line … he was a scapegoat. My medal was downgraded to a Meritorious Service Medal and then that was vetoed because the Air Force did not want to admit that they had ample warning nearly a week before the war broke out, and did nothing. So, officially, I got no recognition.
V&V: Well, Dr. Tilford, we commend you. And we hope to get this some recognition right now. I know your students here would like to pin you with a medal for being an outstanding, engaging teacher. Thanks for your service to our country and to Grove City College, and for talking with “V&V Q&A.” Good luck down there in Alabama.