Written by ROY RUDDERFORTH
Mark Hepokoski of Menahga spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force as an Electronic Warfare Officer in a B-52. Click here for full report. (File photo.)
In the fall of 1962, the Cold War started to heat up after the Soviet Union moved to install nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. President John F. Kennedy addressed the situation publicly on October 22, 1962. His speech included the statement: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
Mark Hepokoski, of Menahga, was among those tasked with delivering that response should it prove necessary. While the rest of the nation prepared for the worst on the ground, 1st Lieutenant Hepokoski was sitting high over the Mediterranean in a B-52 with a nuclear payload – target Russia. It was his first real mission as an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) in the Strategic Air Command – a rare assignment for an officer who had yet to complete a check ride.
Hepokoski said he joined the United States Air Force in the summer of 1960. In 1962, 2nd Lieutenant Hepokoski reported for duty at Roswell Field in New Mexico, to complete his EWO training. About a week before President Kennedy addressed the nation, Hepokoski found himself in the office of his commanding officer, who presented him with an unusual request. The President, he said, wanted four crews from each SAC base, in the air at all times with full nuclear armament; the problem was, there weren’t enough fully trained crews to maintain a 24 hour alert.
Since Hepokoski had tested near the top of his class, he was being offered the opportunity to complete his training with a live mission that had the possibility of critical consequences. After he accepted, the commander told him, “There is an upside to this.” When Hepokoski asked what that might be, he was told that SAC prohibited a 2nd Lieutenant from flying live combat, so he was now a 1st Lieutenant.
Hepokoski can still remember that first flight. It was sunrise, not in the Caribbean over Cuba, but in the Mediterranean, since the bulk of any U.S. response would be directed at the Soviet Union. He remembers being called forward for a look out the window. What he saw resembled air traffic congestion at a major airport. Hundreds of aircraft at different altitudes locked in a holding pattern.
“If the balloon goes up, we’re bombing the Soviet Union,” said Hepokoski.
Fortunately it didn’t come to that, but it was an auspicious beginning to a 20-year career that spanned most of the Cold War as well as the war in Southeast Asia.
Hepokoski spent four years in a Special Operations C-130 during a time period well prior to the massive U.S. troop build-up. Of that four year period, he has little to say because the details of those missions remain classified to this day. Under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency, he and his fellow crewmen were charged with delivering the “package,” usually without knowing the exact purpose of what they were doing.
So how does a young man from Menahga get recruited by the CIA?
Mark has come to regard it as good fortune, although he didn’t realize it at the time. Back then he was stationed in Bangor, Maine – snow-bound and a little bored. When an assignment with training in Tucson, Arizona popped up, Hepokoski immediately threw his name in the hat. However, within days another assignment went on the board, this one based in southern California. That sounded even better, so with a Beach Boys refrain echoing in his head, he applied for that one as well, without knowing what was involved.
He interviewed for the California assignment first. The interview process lasted several days and involved extensive testing: physical, mental and emotional-behavioral. Only Mark and one other officer in his test group were offered a second interview.
The job offer came in two parts. First, Mark said he had to “sign my life away.” Then he was told he was headed for sunny southern California.
The work was always dangerous since the big C-130 often flew close to the treetops to avoid radar contact. Even so, Mark said there was only one time he thought his number was up. That was when an intelligence deficiency triggered a series of events that resulted in a lock-on with an enemy surface-to-air missile. As the EWO, Hepokoski was responsible for the defense of the aircraft. Evasion was the only course of action open and Hepokoski used all his training to avoid certain death for him and the crew. Flares and other decoy material were released, then Mark directed the pilot to make a “combat break,” which is basically a nose-dive down to about tree top level, followed by an immediate pull up. It worked, and soon enough they were back at the base.
In spite of the inherent danger, Hepokoski considers himself blessed. He could have taken the Arizona assignment, which would also have taken him to Vietnam, but as a member of a Wild Weasel unit.
The original Wild Weasel was a converted F-100 fighter, a two-seat aircraft with a pilot and an EWO. The Weasels were tasked with eliminating enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. To do so, the Weasel would purposely draw an enemy SAM, trace the lock-on ping back to its source, fire its own rockets, then try to dodge the incoming SAM. It was tantamount to a suicide mission. The original Weasel program suffered a 100 percent casualty rate before the Air Force decided to rethink the aircraft design and tactics.
Hepokoski’s most pleasant career highlight was a three-year tour in Denmark as part of a NATO command. When he arrived, he was the only electronic warfare officer in Denmark. He spent the next three years helping to develop Denmark’s first electronic warfare program with the backing of a high ranking Danish general.
Mark still remembers his first day in Denmark. He had just been shown his new office when he was informed that “the General” was expecting him. As it turned out, the General was the third highest ranking officer in Denmark, a commander in Air Baltap (short for Baltic Approaches) and the commander of the base where he was stationed.
Upon arriving in the general’s office he was greeted with: “Boy, are we happy to see you.” The general then explained that he had been trying to get electronic warfare capability for 10 years and he wanted Mark to take the lead in the development with the full backing of the general.
Several weeks later, Hepokoski attended a big electronic warfare conference in Germany. At the end of the day, the participants were informed that some E-B57 aircraft were available for training exercises. Hepokoski knew this was what the general had in mind, but as the new officer on the scene, he waited to see how many others wanted the aircraft. When no one else made a move, he put in the request and was granted a weekend date for the exercise.
Later, some of the other officers remarked that he must have a very good relationship with his commanding officer to be able to schedule a training exercise without checking first. He then learned that Danish base personnel were unionized, which meant there would be some overtime pay involved.
When he returned to Denmark, he told the general he had some good news and some bad news. He then told the general about the capabilities of the equipment they would be training with.
“We can light up the country,” said Hepokoski.
The general was excited, so much so that he wondered how there could be any bad news associated with such a momentous event. Mark then told him that the exercise was scheduled for a weekend, which he understood would involve some overtime. The general didn’t see that as a problem.
Part of the exercise involved radar-jamming equipment. Mark said it was so strong that some radar installations in neighboring Sweden were also affected, prompting an inquiry on the hot-line.
Later in his Danish tour, Hepokoski acted as a special adviser to the general in a full Baltap planning session. Mark and another major were the only two junior officers in attendance.
Major Hepokoski retired in 1981, not because he was tired of the job. Far from it, but he had reached a point in life where he had to give some thought to the future. Unlike some military occupations, an electronic warfare specialty didn’t translate into private enterprise. So he returned to Menahga, where he and his wife, Bev, owned and operated Howie’s clothing store.
Mark said he has no regrets regarding his military career. He forged some strong friendships along the way, and is still in touch with some of his old crew. It was a good life, and even now he occasionally wonders what it would be like to be back in the air. That’s when he recalls a sign he had on his desk that read:
“It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”