From the Skies Over Europe in World War II to the Bay of Pigs - The Story of Stan Beerli
The Second Bomb Group brought up the rear of the first wave of B-17 Flying Fortresses to face German anti-aircraft guns over Linz, Austria, on 25 April 1945. Smoke mostly obscured its rail target, the Main Station Sidings, so the Group Commander, Colonel Paul Cullen, flying in the lead aircraft, decided to make a combined visual and radar-assisted bomb run. The task of placing the bomb load through the smoke and onto the tracks fell to the lead bombardier and Captain Stan Beerli, the radar operator. Beerli had long ago completed his required number of missions, having been part of the Fifteenth Air Force back in the days when it was based in Tunisia, but he was now a member of Cullen’s crew, and so as long as the CO continued to fly, so would he.
Beerli grew up in Oregon City, Oregon, at the foot of Mount Hood, the son of Swiss parents. He loved to ski and yearned to do it professionally. In early December 1941, at the age of 21, Beerli had a job lined up. He was going to go to Sun Valley, in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, to teach celebrities how to ski and do some racing on the side. Then Pearl Harbor came, and Beerli decided to seek thrills not on the ski slope, but in the sky.
Beerli joined the Army Air Forces (AAF) and was trained as a bombardier and navigator, flying missions initially out of North Africa and then out of Italy. He showed such exceptional aptitude in his first few missions that, when one man from each bomb group was selected to receive special training in the use of air-to-ground radar, Beerli got the nod. He soon learned to use the radar so well that he was made an instructor, and in late 1944 he was the subject of a Stars and Stripes article showcasing its capabilities.
The H2X, code-named Mickey Mouse and later abbreviated to Mickey, was an improved American version of a radar system the British had developed in 1940 to locate targets through thick undercast. The Mickey, sometimes also called Pathfinder, emitted a high-frequency electrical pulse downward through a revolving antenna housed in a dome where the ball turret normally rested, and this beam of energy scanned the earth’s surface, reflecting signals back to the antenna to produce a crude map-like image on a cathode ray tube display inside the bomber. Water appeared as dark areas, light areas were the ground, and bright areas were cities.
Though the target was too small to distinguish from other parts of Linz, Beerli had studied the city’s layout, and the radar returns gave the airman a sense of where the Main Station Sidings were situated on his display. Beerli coordinated with Major Davis, the bombardier, and Davis set up the bomb run. Unfortunately, enemy anti-aircraft gunners had something to say about it.
Flak greeted the formation two minutes before bomb release, hammering away at the lead aircraft and the six others in the 429th Bomb Squadron. Beerli’s B-17 took a severe blast to the left wing, holing the outboard fuel tank and severing the fuel line to the Number 1 engine. Davis did his best to synchronize on the target before the Norden bombsight released the payload.
Beerli and Davis came up short. The squadron’s bombs struck in a tight grouping nearly a mile from the target. The Second Bomb Group’s post-attack analysis gave an unvarnished assessment: “Good pattern; terrible bombing.”
Beerli had a distinguished career in the US Air Force after the war. “I was always jealous about not having been a pilot,” he related, “so I convinced them to send me to pilot school.” Beerli piloted photo-reconnaissance versions of the B-17 and B-29 in the immediate post-war years, and, when the first jets were produced, he got behind the stick and thought himself a hotshot.
Beerli was serving in a B-47 bomber wing in Columbus, Ohio, when the Air Force seconded him to the Central Intelligence Agency to work on the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft program. After learning to fly the aircraft at Groom Lake, Nevada, Colonel Beerli was sent to command a U-2 detachment in Japan and, later, Turkey. In 1959, he transferred to CIA headquarters as Director of Operations for the U-2 program. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he remembered, “to be part of something which was of such vital national importance.”
On 25 April 1960, fifteen years to the day after the Linz mission, Beerli’s superior, Richard Bissell, received notification that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had authorized a U-2 mission over the Soviet Union to take place on or before 1 May. Two days later, Beerli was on a plane to Oslo, and there he waited in a hotel for word that the mission was a go. When the call came, Beerli boarded a plane for a remote Norwegian air force base near Bodo, on the Arctic coast, where he would wait again.
At Bodo, Beerli joined up with a small team consisting of a pilot, a crew chief, and a ground crew, and they concealed themselves and their support aircraft, a ubiquitous C-130 Hercules, in a hangar. Under a procedure Beerli developed, the incoming U-2, fresh from its high-altitude photo reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union, would land, and, after a quick refueling and inspection of the aircraft by mechanics, the team’s spare pilot would promptly take off and return the U-2 either to its point of origin or to a detachment base. Called Operation Quickmove, the scheme was intended to conceal the location of a U-2 takeoff or landing, thus minimizing the chances that the Soviets would grow wise to the overflights of their country.
“We were expecting him at noon,” Beerli recalled of the pilot for Mission 4154, which took place on 1 May 1960, and his communications team in the hangar at Bodo listened eagerly for the single click over the radio from the pilot to signal that he was starting his descent into the air base. The click never came, and, about an hour after the U-2’s expected arrival, it was clear that the pilot would have run out of fuel if he had flown the mission. For security reasons, Beerli and his team couldn’t use the telephone to call for an update on the mission’s status, so they waited.
After five hours, Beerli and his men packed up and flew back to Oslo. There, Beerli called the CIA Station to pass along a pre-arranged code phrase. “We had a great party last night” would have signaled the successful recovery of the U-2 and its pilot. “The party’s over” would mean the opposite. Beerli placed the call, gave the latter signal, and boarded a plane for Washington.
The former B-17 radar navigator was not overly concerned when passing on the news, or on the flight home. He knew spring weather conditions over the Soviet Union could be unconducive to U-2 overflights, and he thought it likely that the mission had been scrubbed. It was only on arrival at project headquarters in downtown Washington that he learned the truth. The U-2 and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been shot down, prompting a marked deterioration in US-Soviet relations.
Less than a year later, Beerli was a supporting actor in another dark episode of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs. As the CIA’s Director of Air Operations, he was given the task of providing air support for the US-backed invasion of Cuba while masking the Agency’s hand. Initial airstrikes destroyed a sizeable portion of the Communist Cuban air force on the ground, and Beerli, acting on communications intercepts suggesting the Castro’s last aircraft had regrouped at a single air base, planned a follow-up airstrike to deal a death blow to the enemy, clearing the skies for the Cuban exile force’s ground invasion.
The evening of 16 April, President John F. Kennedy ordered the follow-up strikes to be canceled until the Cuban exile army could capture an airstrip inside Cuba. “Cuban planes strafed them and brought the whole thing down,” Beerli recalled. “It was a sad, sad story, the Bay of Pigs.” He remained bitter about it until his dying day.
Beerli returned to the US Air Force after his stint at the CIA. Following an assignment in the United Kingdom, Beerli served at the Strategic Air Command’s Strategic Reconnaissance Center at Offutt Air Force Base. There, from 1964 to 1967, he was a key figure in the introduction of the “Lightning Bug” unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle. Beerli retired in 1972 as Chief of Staff in the Reconnaissance Division at Headquarters, US Air Force, and lived out the rest of his days in Oregon with his wife, Margit. Stan Beerli passed away in 2015 at age 96.
Sources: - Stan Beerli interview with Mike Croissant, 9 May 2013. - Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War (New York: Broadway Books, 2010). - Don Williams, “‘Mickey’ Makes Bad-Weather Raids a Cinch for 15th AAF Bombardiers,” Stars and Stripes (date not given), reprinted in Torretta Flyer (No. 19, Summer-Fall 1990), 35-36. - Second Bomb Group, Bomb Strike Analysis, 25 April 1945, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 18, Box 50. - Stan Beerli. Foreword. The U-2 Spyplane: Toward the Unknown—A New History of the Early Years, by Chris Pocock (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History Press, 2000). - Richard M. Bissell, Jr, Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).