Shaun Illingworth: This begins an interview with Richard Blumstein in [Rockville], Maryland on June 16, 2016 with Shaun Illingworth. Thank you very much for having me here today. I appreciate it.
Richard Blumstein: No problem.
SI: Thank you for your hospitality as well. To begin, can you tell me where and when you were born?
RB: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, January 25, 1941.
SI: For the record, what were you parents' names?
RB: My mother was (Lillian Heller?). My father was Sidney Blumstein. [Editor's Note: The phone rings.]
SI: Do you want to get that or just let it ring?
RB: Just let it ring. It'll go to an answering machine. Most of the calls, especially this time of the year, are selling political things. They're pollsters or boosters.
SI: Starting with your father's side of the family, what do you know about his family background, where the family came from, and that sort of thing?
RB: My father was one of six kids. He was born in what is now Belarus, not far from Poland, and his father, my grandfather Morris, immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. He was a tailor, and he established himself as a maker of custom-made suits. As a matter of fact, he made my first suit. My father became a short-order cook and eventually opened up a diner of his own, and that was his basic business until he died.
SI: Your father's father came here and established his trade as a tailor. Did he then send for the rest of the family, or did they all come together?
RB: Yes. Well, his wife, my grandmother Tessie, came with my father to the United States.
SI: Where did they settle initially? Was it in New York?
RB: Manhattan in New York. They had a classic New York brownstone at 113th Street and Broadway. That's where he worked out of.
SI: Did all of his brothers and sisters come over?
SI: Growing up, did you know those grandparents?
RB: Yes. I was often in the care of my grandparents. When I was about five or six, my family relocated to New Jersey, and we lived in Union County in Hillside, New Jersey.
SI: When your father had his own diner, was that in New York or in New Jersey?
RB: In Hillside, New Jersey. The Hillside Diner was his.
SI: From your grandparents on your father's side, did you get any stories about what their lives had been like in the Russian Empire? [Editor's Note: Ruled by the tsar, the Russian Empire existed from 1721 until 1917.]
RB: Very few. My grandfather, interestingly enough, had been in the tsar's army. He was very proud of the fact that he made corporal, because as a Jew things were pretty restricted. They didn't suffer any major catastrophes or anything like that, but they were anxious to get the hell out. It wasn't Fiddler on the Roof, [a play set in Russia in 1905].
SI: They also did not experience any pogroms, it sounds like.
SI: What about your mother's side of the family?
RB: Okay, my mother's father came from Romania and was basically a draft dodger. He left Romania to avoid going into the army and settled in Philadelphia, where my mother was born.
SI: What did your mother's father do?
RB: He was also a tailor and subsequently opened up a clothing boutique. [He] did not fare well when the depression hit.
SI: Do you know how your parents met?
RB: Like I said, my father owned and worked in a diner. My mother was a clerical worker in the vicinity of Rockefeller Plaza, and she went into my father's diner, caught his eye, and subsequently they married. I have some material I can show you that's very interesting, because he made a bet with a friend that he was going to marry my mother and he won the bet with this friend. Like I said, I can show you something, an article from The New York Times, all about how they met and got married.
SI: Your mother was living away from home. That must have been unusual.
RB: No, basically, we operated out of Brooklyn, New York.
SI: What about her parents? Did you know them well?
RB: I knew her father well, Samuel Heller, and I knew her siblings, my aunts and uncles. I knew them well, and we saw each other often.
SI: Did you learn anything about what their lives had been like? Your mother was born in the United States. Did you learn about what your grandfather's life had been like before coming to this country?
RB: He was just a tailor in Romania.
SI: Your earliest memories, do you have memories of growing up in Brooklyn, or are they mostly in Hillside?
RB: I have memories of Brooklyn. We had a simple house in the area of Brooklyn called Borough Park.
SI: You said you were about five or six when you moved.
SI: Had you started school yet?
RB: Not in Brooklyn. Basically, I did elementary school in Hillside, New Jersey.
SI: What was your neighborhood in Hillside like at that time?
RB: Very routine, suburban, single-family homes.
SI: Would you say that the people in your neighborhood, was it a mix of ethnicities and groups, or was it pretty much one or two ethnicities that dominated the area?
RB: It was a fairly homogenous neighborhood situation, Caucasian. There was a fair number of Jews but also Christians.
SI: Your father obviously worked in town and had his own business. Were most of your neighbors and your friends' parents, were they tied to a particular industry, or was it a commuter town?
RB: It's a commuter town, and for most of the people that were there, I wasn't sure what their occupations were.
SI: Tell me a little bit about growing up there. What would you do for fun, for example, growing up in Hillside before you were a teenager?
RB: There were local sporting events, because we were very nearby the Hillside High School. There was also some wooded areas where my friends and I used to go and play standard kid games, cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. Otherwise, it was pretty routine.
SI: With your father having the diner, did you do any work there? Did you have to go help out as a young child?
RB: No, I had nothing to do with his work.
SI: Did your mother continue to work outside of the home?
RB: Well, it's a little bit of a complicated story, because, you see, not long after the '40s, my father became seriously ill. He had Hodgkin's disease, a kind of cancer, and he passed away at the age of thirty-six in 1950.
SI: You were only about nine years old then.
RB: Correct, I was nine. My brother was five. My mother made a decision to continue our schooling by sending us to a boarding school in Long Island, New York.
SI: With your father's passing, how was she able to survive and send you to school?
RB: She continued to work at a variety of jobs, most interestingly as a car saleswoman, which was a bit unusual for the time. That was the situation. Eight years after my father passed away, she remarried to a man that she had met at the car dealership, and he helped support us also.
SI: What was the name of the boarding school you were sent to?
RB: Lake Grove.
SI: Where in Long Island?
SI: What was life like there?
RB: Well, I was a boarding residential student. It wasn't easy, but I got an education. Subsequently, we transferred to a boarding school in Harrison, New York, the Kohut School. The headmaster of the school there, a Mr. James Kovel, decided to open up his own school in Rye, New York called the Marvell Academy, and I ended up doing high school there with him.
SI: Was your brother with you at all these different boarding schools?
RB: Yes, he was.
SI: What did you think about the quality of your education there?
RB: Very, very good, especially because this Mr. Kovel. We had a very rigorous curriculum. I had to take Latin, in addition to the standard English. I also had French, Spanish and German, and his English classes were very, very intense. Most kids will read one or two plays by [William] Shakespeare. He insisted on many more. We had a pretty liberal education, in addition to all the standard stuff, algebra, plain geometry, etcetera.
SI: What were you most interested in?
RB: I was very good at English and history.
SI: Okay, that is a good answer. What other activities did you get involved in at the school?
RB: I was on the soccer team. We had a teacher, a gym teacher, (Vincent DeSimone?), who had gone to Ithaca College and had also learned soccer just as part of his community. He established the soccer team. I was a very good addition for the team, because I was a lefty and got to play pretty well. Otherwise, we had a tendency to socialize with the people in the nearby communities, specifically Port Chester, New York. I got a job at a newspaper in Port Chester called the Port Chester Daily Item in their circulation department, which also enabled me to get my brother a newspaper delivery route, which kept us both, you know, with a few bucks in your pocket.
SI: The schools that you attended, were they just private schools, or did they have any kind of religious or any other affiliation?
RB: They were strictly private schools, although one of the schools I attended was the Roosevelt School in Stamford, Connecticut, and it had a leaning toward Jewish education.
SI: Was it difficult for you and your brother to go from school to school?
RB: It wasn't bad. It was a fairly seamless process.
SI: Did religion play much of a role in your early life?
SI: How often were you able to come home and visit your family?
RB: We had the usual breaks for holidays like Thanksgiving and the winter break.
SI: Was your family, particularly your mother, always encouraging you to think about college?
RB: Yes, she did, and so did the headmaster of the school.
SI: It sounds like you had a close relationship with Mr. Kovel.
RB: Kovel, yes. He was as close to a paternal stand-in as I could find.
SI: You graduated from the Marvell School.
RB: Marvell Academy for Boys.
SI: In 1958.
RB: Yes, I did. I had applied to and was accepted by Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I also had applied to Columbia and was accepted, but the cost was beyond what I could afford.
SI: Had the headmaster given you any advice on what to do in terms of college?
RB: He knew of Rutgers and approved of my applying there but did not give me any advice beyond that.
SI: You were going through high school during the height of the Cold War. People were very concerned about the threat of the Soviet Union and the use of the atomic bomb. Do you remember that having any impact on your life?
RB: Those kinds of political affairs were not a matter of concern or interference in anything I was doing.
SI: You said you played soccer. Do you remember any memorable stories or games? Who was your big rival?
RB: Other private schools. I can remember very vividly the first time I actually scored a goal. I'm here to tell you that's like sex. [laughter] Very, very invigorating. We also had campus, what they used to call, color wars, athletic competitions internal to the school. At the time, I was pretty fast.
SI: Would the schools have different houses and you would compete against different houses?
RB: The students were divided up into different teams.
SI: You had been in the private-school environment for almost a decade. What do you recall about coming to Rutgers, which of course was all male then and a little bit different from a private boarding school? Does anything stand out about those first few days and weeks at Rutgers?
RB: Rutgers was a situation of getting used to a different environment. I had a couple roommates the first year I was there. One of the roommates was expecting to room with Ricky Nelson, and instead of Ricky, he got me, a bit of a disappointment for him. [laughter]
SI: He thought Ozzie Nelson was going to send Ricky to Rutgers. Is that it?
RB: You know, because Ozzie was an alumnus. [Editor's Note: Ozzie Nelson graduated from Rutgers College in 1927 and the Rutgers School of Law-Newark in 1930. Nelson went on to a career as a musician, actor and producer. He and his wife Harriet starred in the long-running television show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The show launched the show business careers of their sons David and Ricky, who became a famous singer.]
SI: Where did you live at first?
RB: I was in a dorm. I believe it's called Wessels [Hall].
SI: Yes, in the old quad area.
RB: The old quad area. I had two roommates, Kenny Stein and Alan Sacks, both of whom went on to become officers in the fraternity Phi Epsilon Pi. I had neither the grades nor the money to be of interest to them, so I was an independent.
SI: What was dorm life like back then?
RB: Dorm life was pretty simple. We had a resident advisor. It was a place to sleep, and I ate in the dining hall and that was it.
SI: Academically, what did you start to get interested in, what classes?
RB: I was basically in the College of Arts and Sciences, and my major was basically American civilization, which was basically history and English. Also, my language requirement, I had taken German in high school, had to pass the placement test when I got to Rutgers, and I was surprised to actually pass the placement test. I did not have to start a new language, and I ended up taking intermediate German.
SI: Do any of the professors stand out in your memory?
RB: Not really. I had very good English teachers. The curriculum was broad and interesting, and I did pretty well.
SI: Did you go out for the soccer team?
RB: I went out my freshman year for the soccer team, made that, and played that first season on the soccer team. I don't know if anybody that was associated with that is still there. I have this vague memory of a man named (Dougherty?) who was the coach, and we had a pretty strong team. One of our players subsequently became an all-American.
SI: Was this the freshman team?
RB: Freshman team.
SI: Do you remember who you played? Do any of those games stand out in your memory?
RB: Princeton and other schools like Princeton in the relatively immediate area.
SI: What position did you play?
RB: I was generally left wing, because, as I say, I was a lefty and I played very well. I mean, I was a good ball handler. I was able to do very good crosses into the middle from the left wing.
SI: You played freshman year. Did you continue on?
RB: No, I wasn't good enough to continue on. There were other players on the team, like I said, that became all-Americans. I mean, I can give you details about that.
SI: Well, I am mostly interested in your experiences. Did you get involved in any other activities, sports or otherwise?
RB: I know this is going to sound boring, but I did not.
SI: That is fine. You lived in Wessels your first year. What other places did you live while you were at Rutgers?
RB: The dorms overlooking the river, Demarest.
SI: Demarest Hall is right in front of the old quad, and then on the river, it would have been called, at your time, Livingston, but now it is Campbell, Hardenbergh, and Frelinghuysen.
RB: Livingston sounds familiar.
SI: Those would have been relatively new when you first got there.
RB: Yes, they were.
SI: You had mentioned before that you worked as a waiter in the Catskills at least for a while.
RB: Yes, that kept me in school. I was able to afford college based on the tips that I got by working at a hotel in the Catskills. I also had a job working the cafeteria at Johnson & Johnson, and I was a short order cook for a number of years at The Ledge.
SI: We hear a lot about The Ledge and how it was a center for student activities. It is still there and it is still a student activities center, but the College Avenue Student Center has kind of taken over that role of being a social center. From what I understand, they had a snack bar, and they would have shows and things like that.
RB: At the time I was associated with The Ledge, it was pretty much operating like a diner, and I had pretty broad responsibilities in terms of cooking or working the front counter.
SI: When you were waiting tables in the Catskills, which hotel or resort were you at?
RB: I was at a hotel to start called Shawanga Lodge, and I started as a busboy but then transitioned and became a waiter. I moved to another hotel, the Ridge Mountain Hotel, in Parksville, where I was a waiter. This is among the hardest jobs I've ever had in my life, very, very pressure related.
SI: Can you elaborate what made it so?
RB: Well, I was taught to take orders and just remember them, very high pressure in terms of getting the food out of the kitchen to the right people. The number of people that I had at a station was usually four tables of eight, very, very pressure filled.
SI: You said you also learned to dance there.
RB: Well, we worked our waiting jobs most of the day. Then, in the evenings, we went to the social hall, and we listened to whatever entertainment the hotel had. I socialized and learned how to dance. This was the original 1950s rock and roll and Latin dances.
SI: When you came to Rutgers, ROTC was still mandatory.
RB: I had two years of ROTC, during which I ended up taking the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test and did very well. I think I got a nine out of ten. [Editor's Note: ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps and used to be required for two years at Rutgers. ROTC is a college-based officer training program, in which students get tuition assistance from the military and are commissioned as second lieutenants into one of the military branches upon graduation.]
SI: You were in Air Force ROTC.
RB: Air Force ROTC.
SI: What did the training in Air Force ROTC consist of?
RB: A lot of marching and learning customs and courtesies. It wasn't much more involved. I had nothing like weapon training or anything like that. It was just uniform maintenance, marching.
SI: Did you go to any summer camps?
RB: No, just the two years of mandatory training.
SI: When did you take the officer test? Was it at the end of two years or at the end of your college career?
RB: The end of the two years.
SI: What did that mean, getting such a high score?
RB: Do you want to pause this?
SI: We are back on.
RB: I was unable to get a job in my senior year and decided that I was going to have to do something about the military obligation.
SI: You had said in the break that you had been trying to find a certain job.
RB: I wanted to get a job in advertising and was unable to get a position. I went to the military recruiting station to the Army recruiter, and I said, "I've gotten my degree from Rutgers. I would like to go to Officer Candidate School. What do I have to do?" The Army recruiter said, "You'd have to enlist, go to boot camp, and then you can apply for OCS." I was not interested in becoming a standard grunt in the Army. Around this time, Vietnam was rearing its head. Anyway, I left the Army recruiter, walked across the hall to the Air Force recruiter, and gave him the same story. He said, "Sign on the dotted line." This was June of a year, and I was able to go to Officer Training School in the Air Force in December of '62. [Editor's Note: After defeating French colonial rule at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam became embroiled in a war between Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Vietminh in the north and United States-backed anti-Communist forces in the south. About 800 U.S. military personnel were stationed in Vietnam in the late 1950s. Under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, American troops in Vietnam reached 16,700 by the end of 1963. In response to an alleged naval confrontation between American and North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 10, 1964, which authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to wage war in Vietnam. Under Johnson, the numbers of American troops in Vietnam increased from 80,000 in July 1965 to 385,000 in 1966 and to the peak of 543,400 in 1969. (Thomas G. Patterson, American Foreign Relations: A History Since 1895, pgs. 340-349)]
SI: What did you do in the interim?
RB: I worked as an engraver in a trophy store in Plainfield, New Jersey, which kept me in cash.
SI: The Cuban Missile Crisis happened in October of that year. Did that influence the way you thought about the military?
RB: No. In a way, I was more determined than ever to get into the Air Force and do a job.
SI: What did you hope to do in the Air Force at that time?
RB: I wanted to be in operational intelligence, but I ended up being assigned as an administrative officer. Now, I can bore you with what happened. At Officer Training School, the operations officer came to me with my first assignment, and he said, "You're going to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada." I said, "Damn, the desert." I was from Brooklyn, and I didn't want to have anything to do with Nevada. He said, "You fool, that's Las Vegas." [laughter] I said, "Oh, well, that's nice." I ended up going to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada as the administrative officer for the USAF Fighter Weapons School, which is the equivalent of Top Gun in the Navy. The hottest pilots around went to the Fighter Weapons School. While I was there, I got my physiological training card, so that I could take rides in the jets that we had in the organization. I managed to earn my Mach Buster pin and my Mach 2 pin. [Editor's Note: The ratio of the speed of an aircraft to the speed of sound measures the Mach number, named for physicist Ernst Mach. This determines compressibility effects, which is how air affects an aircraft at high speeds. Mach 1 is the speed of sound. Mach 2 is twice as fast as the speed of sound.]
SI: I am going to ask more about that, but first with the basic officer course, where was that held?
RB: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, San Antonio. That was like being in a concentration camp. I can show you some pictures that show me at the Friday night GI parties with me scrubbing the floors with steel wool and re-waxing them, and my head is practically bald because that's the kind of haircut they wanted me to have. [There was] marching out the gazoo, but I got my commission and I left there as a lieutenant. [Editor's Note: GI means government issue. It is the nickname for a member of the U.S. armed forces.]
SI: I have heard from other officer trainees that they would be particularly hard on you because you were going to become officers. There could be a lot of extra discipline, extra duties, even hazing. Was there any of that in your experience?
RB: Other than the GI parties I was telling you about and the physical training, we had to do what at the time was called the 5BX, basic exercises from Canada, and everything we did in physical training was timed. You had to do your push-ups, sit-ups or whatever, the most you could do and fast, and you were constantly being yelled at. Your uniforms had to be just so. Your rooms had to be just so, I mean, clean as a whistle. It was a lot of pressure. At the time, you couldn't drink because Texas was basically dry then. I remember when I graduated, one of the first things I did was go to a bar to get a drink. [Editor's Note: 5BX is the abbreviation for five basic exercises.]
SI: Did they have an officer's club on the base? I would assume so.
SI: To step back, you had told me, before we started recording, how you met your wife while you were at Rutgers because she was a Douglass College woman. I want you to tell that story again, but also were you married at this time? Was she with you at these bases?
RB: Okay, I met my future wife at a mixer at the Douglass Coop. I went to hear a dorm mate of mine who was playing in the band for the mixer. I was not having a good evening, and I told my friend, "I'm going to ask one more girl to dance, and if I have the same problems I've been having all evening, I'm just going to leave." My current wife is the person that I met. At the time, I was a junior. She was a sophomore, and we hit it off and dated until I graduated. She was in the class of Douglass '63. I was Rutgers '62. I went to my first Air Force assignment, which happened to be in Las Vegas, and she came out and joined me there. I had already asked her to marry me. Interestingly enough, at the time, 1963, the standard Las Vegas marriage mill was charging fifteen dollars to perform a ceremony. I went to the local synagogue, met the rabbi there, and told him I wanted to get married at the synagogue. I asked him how much it would cost to do so. Interestingly enough, he said, "Fifteen dollars." This particular rabbi, whose name was Harry Sherer, is the same rabbi that married Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor. In August of 1963, I got married. We lived in a local apartment, and I commuted to the base. [Editor's Note: In 1959, singer and actor Eddie Fisher left his wife Debbie Fisher and two young children, Carrie and Todd, for actress Elizabeth Taylor. On May 12, 1959, the marriage of Fisher and Taylor took place at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas with Rabbi Bernard Cohen overseeing the ceremony. Later, Harry Sherer became the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom. (See Temple Beth Sholom website at https://www.bethsholomlv.org/mission-history)]
SI: What were your daily activities like in that assignment at the Fighter Weapons School?
RB: I was responsible for all documentation and distribution. I also had eight additional duties on order. I was the fire marshal. It's hard to remember exactly everything, but it was mostly scut work.
SI: You said you qualified to go up in the planes. How did that come about?
RB: I had to go to George Air Force Base in California to the physiological training course to get my altitude card. [It is] very interesting, especially in light of the people who are climbing to the top of Mount Everest, because a lot of the training had to do with being artificially taken up in a chamber to over ten thousand feet and then being deprived of oxygen and having to work problems. I knew there was a problem when I had to divide thirty-two by sixteen and came up with twenty. I said, "My brain's not working right." You learn what it's like to be in an oxygen-deprived situation and how to wear the flight suit that expands so that when you're subjected to g-forces [gravitational force] you don't black out.
SI: Was this a required course, or was it something you wanted to do?
RB: In order to go up in the aircraft, you had to have the physiological training card.
SI: Once you had done that training and gotten the card, in what context would you be going up in the planes?
RB: I was simply the guy in the backseat, the GIB.
SI: Would it just be to go up for the experience, or did you have something to do?
RB: Well, interestingly enough, one of my flights was in an F-4C [McDonnell-Douglas F-4C Phantom II]. I was in the backseat. To my left was a series of dials that could be adjusted depending on the nature of the mission. I was being subjected to two or three g's because of the speed and the nature of the flight, and I could hardly lift my head or my arm to make the changes. The pilot said, "You know, you're not here just for the ride. You have to do these things," because he was dropping ordinance as part of the mission. As I say, I was able to get my Mach Buster pins, one and two Mach. It's not a job I would ever want. I was unable to be a pilot myself because of my poor vision.
SI: How long were you stationed at Nellis?
RB: I was there for about four years. I then was determined to get back into the intelligence field, and I applied and was accepted and transferred from Las Vegas to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado, which is where the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center was. My Air Force job became operational intelligence.
SI: That was about 1967.
RB: Yes, I think I graduated in January of '68, and Vietnam was going full bore at that time. I remember somebody in the class saying, "Are we all going to end up going to Vietnam?" and the teacher saying to us, "There's only two kinds of people in this room, those who have been and those who are going." I graduated from the intelligence course and was sent to Vietnam to the 31st Tac[tical] Fighter Wing at Tuy Hoa Air Base.
SI: Can you give me an overview, a general sense, of what they teach you in the Air Force intelligence school?
RB: Mostly, you learn how to do briefings, imagery interpretation and briefing on aircraft and missions. That was my job in Vietnam. I was assigned to the 31st Tac Fighter Wing, F-100s [North American F-100 Super Sabre], and I had to brief the pilots before their missions. This was the worst year of the war, you know. I was sent over there in 1968 when there was the Tet Offensive. Four days after I got there, the Vietcong tried to attack the base, but we were protected by a division of Koreans who wiped out the attackers. I was planning on taking out my Southeast Asia book and showing you the pictures, if that would be of any interest to you.
SI: Sure, that is okay.
RB: Why don't you pause for a moment?
RB: I would take the (alpha frag?), which listed the missions for the next day, and say where people were going to fly to and what was the threat that they were likely to face.
SI: What types of missions were the F-100s being sent out on?
RB: Mostly they were dropping bombs on suspected Vietcong positions. I'm looking here for my favorite picture at the base. See, I lived in a barracks that was maybe a hundred yards off the South China Sea.
SI: This was at Tuy Hoa.
RB: Tuy Hoa. We had a sign right at the beach that said, "Welcome to Tuy Hoa, the Atlantic City of the South China Sea." Anyway, so I was there for about five months, and then I got transferred to Thailand, the northeast corner of Thailand, to a base called Nakhon Phanom, which housed the 56th Special Operations Wing. They were flying A-1s [Douglas A-1 Skyraider] and attacking the supplies coming from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. [Editor's Note: The Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base was used by the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese used a network of trails and roads called the Ho Chi Minh Trail to shuttle manpower and supplies to South Vietnam via Laos and Cambodia. From 1968 to 1972, U.S. forces conducted the bombing campaign Operation Commando Hunt to target Communist movement on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In this operation, approximately three million tons of bombs fell on Laos.]
SI: Were they attacking targets in Laos and Cambodia?
RB: Yeah, Laos. My job, I knew the Vietnamese road map in Laos as well as I did the one in New Jersey. Every night, I would go into work, review the latest reports of traffic coming south. We had sensors that could detect trucks, and they were very accurate in terms of saying, "So many moving at such and such a speed in such and such a direction." I compared the reports that I was getting to the photo imagery that I was getting from the reconnaissance aircraft to identify local likely truck parks. I would take this information and select targets in Laos, over to the wing and brief the targets that they would strike the next day. My judgement of whether I was doing an effective job or not was the next day I would go in and see the bomb damage reports. If I saw a lot of secondary explosions, I knew they were hitting the right place to try to slow down the truck traffic. It didn't take long to realize that was a pretty futile operation, that the majority of the supply vehicles were getting through to the Vietcong.
SI: Was it just because the trail was so diffuse?
RB: We tried to bomb in such a way that the road would be impassable, but they had bulldozers. We'd send over a B-52 strike, which turned that segment of Laos into something that looked like the face of the moon. The next day, they would have used their bulldozers and turned the road into a passable artery.
SI: Well, let me step back a little bit while you are looking for the photo. By this time, you had been in the service for about six years when you get to Vietnam. I think you got in in 1962.
SI: This is 1968.
SI: When had you decided to make a career of the Air Force and why?
RB: Well, it's a little bit complicated. My wife graduated from Douglass with a degree in speech therapy. She initially got a job working in the Las Vegas school system as a speech therapist. At the time, I was a second lieutenant, and as a speech therapist she was making twice what I was. We had our first child in 1965. That year, there was an outbreak, a major outbreak of rubella, German measles, to which she was exposed while she was in her first trimester with our son. He was born deaf and had a number of other birth defects. I knew I was going to need a lot of medical support for him, which was the basic reason why I decided to stay in the Air Force. Promotions were fairly automatic from second to first lieutenant to captain, and subsequently I became a major. The reason I stayed in was in order to support his medical requirements. They were extensive.
SI: Did you have any other children?
RB: We had one other child, a daughter, who presently lives in Manhattan with our granddaughter. There were no problems with her. As a matter of fact, at the time she was born in 1969, I was stationed at Stewart Air Force Base, New York, Newburgh, New York, and she was born at West Point. She has a birth certificate from the Commandant of Cadets. [Editor's Note: Mr. Blumstein looks through photograph albums.] B-52s; F-4s. They're involved in refueling. Everything that I sent back to my wife I wrote on pictures. You could make a book out of this.
SI: Rarely do we get so many photos with captions.
RB: They tell a story, all of them do. These are just some pictures I took in Bangkok at what is called the Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. You see this, that's his feet and they're made in mother-of-pearl. There's the story of Buddha. That's solid gold, the statue of Buddha. This is me leaving Thailand. These were good luck leis that were given to me on my way out of the country in February of '69.
SI: What do you recall about traveling to Vietnam in your initial entrance?
RB: It was pretty endless. I ended up landing at the base in Vietnam called Cam Ranh Bay. I remember how startling it was to see just how tiny the Vietnamese were. Then, I got into another aircraft, and they dropped me at Tuy Hoa.
SI: Did they give you any kind of in-country orientation?
RB: Yes, the Thai customs and courtesies were very precise in terms of knowing not to touch someone or how to say hello and goodbye.
SI: Can you give me an example?
RB: You had to put your hands together [in a wai], "Sa wat dee khrap?" That's how you say, "Hello." How to go fast, "Leo leo." They had pedicabs. At the time, we used to be able to go any place in the town of Nakhon Phanom for the equivalent of a nickel.
SI: From your pictures, it looks like you were able to interact a lot with locals.
RB: In Thailand?
RB: Yes, it was not easy, but we could.
SI: What about in Vietnam? Was there more of a separation between the military and the local civilians?
RB: Complete. I was always a little concerned if I ever went into the town of Tuy Hoa as to whether someone was going to throw a grenade where I was or at the vehicle I was in.
SI: You said just a few days after you go to Tuy Hoa, the Tet Offensive began.
RB: Well, it actually began before I got there. After I got there, there was an attempt to overrun the base, which was repelled by the Koreans that were guarding us.
SI: Was that the White Horse Division?
RB: No, that was not the name of the division. At the time, the United States military was measuring its success on the basis of body counts. The Koreans didn't use body counts. They decided to bring back the weapons of everybody that they killed. [Editor's Note: Named for the lunar new year, the Tet Offensive began on January 30, 1968, when North Vietnamese forces and their Vietcong allies in the south launched a surprise offensive on over one hundred cities, towns and targets in South Vietnam. The Republic of Korea deployed the 28th Regiment of the Ninth Division, known as the White Horse Division, in section of the Phu Yen Province near Tuy Hoa during the Vietnam War.]
SI: You are showing me a picture now of many weapons lined up for an inspection. Were those the weapons that the Koreans brought back?
RB: That's correct, when they repelled the Vietcong.
SI: During that attack, what could you see and experience from where you were?
RB: Virtually nothing. I was at work one night, you constantly heard 105 mm howitzers shooting out into the jungle. They called it harassment and interdiction fire. You would hear [imitating the sound of howitzers], "Wump, wump, wump." I was sitting at the typewriter typing up my notes for the next day mission briefings, and all of a sudden I heard this sound, "Boom, boom, boom, boom." I said to myself, "That's not outgoing. That's coming in." The Vietcong were firing mortar rounds, eighty-two mm mortar rounds into the base. I called security police, and they said, "Yes, we're under attack." But it was over as fast as I could report it. All of the weapons landed in an open field, and we were not hurt.
SI: You said that you would brief the pilots on what their targets would be.
RB: Yes, it was usually just a location. They would go out, and then when they came back, I had to debrief them to find out what was the result. Almost uniformly, it would be "smoke and foliage." Bombs went in, boom, but they didn't know any specific result. Pause again.
SI: Let me put this back on.
RB: During the time I was briefing the pilots, there were a lot of missions to prevent the overrun of Khe Sanh, which they succeeded in doing, Khe Sanh. [Editor's Note: Just prior to the Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese forces attacked the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh on January 21, 1968, besieging the base for seventy-seven days. U.S. forces responded by conducting Operation Niagara, the aerial bombardment of enemy targets surrounding the base between January and March 1968.]
SI: Your unit, how often would they lose pilots?
RB: I don't think in, during the time that I was there, we ever lost one, because most of the defense was small-arms fire fired at the aircraft going over.
SI: What did you think of your fellow officers there and the operations and how well it was running?
RB: The pilots were an incredible lot. I had very little respect for them. It was like their armpits didn't smell like everybody else's. They were violent and undisciplined, always hitting on any female that they could find.
SI: Was that true for both Tuy Hoa and Thailand?
RB: I didn't have any association with the pilots in Thailand.
SI: I would imagine working on the interdiction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the bombing in Laos had to be top secret at that time.
RB: It was classified.
SI: Did you have to go through any additional security clearances or anything like that?
RB: Yes. When I was in the military, I had more clearances than God. [laughter] I mean, if you look at my resume, it would always say, "Top Secret, SCI," Special [Sensitive] Compartmented Information, TK, which was TALENT-KEYHOLE and referred to the imagery satellites that sent us pictures, and GAMMA, which was ultra-secret information from various sources. In this context, I can't explain anymore.
SI: Okay. What were your impressions about the different people you met and saw in Southeast Asia, like the locals?
RB: I had virtually no interaction with locals either in Thailand or Vietnam.
SI: Did you get a sense though if Americans were welcome? Was there any resentment, or was it just sort of neutral?
RB: Americans were welcome. [Editor's Note: Mr. Blumstein shows a photograph and discusses it.] It was very difficult. This is a young woman taking a walk through Tuy Hoa. I'm trying to take her picture. They didn't like that because it was like we were capturing their spirit by photographing them, and they would invariably take that coolie hat and whip it down in front of their face. In Thailand, I liked to go into town. They had a shuttle bus that would drop you in the middle of Nakhon Phanom, right on the Mekong River and near Laos. [Editor's Note: Mr. Blumstein shows some currency.] Local money at the time. Bangkok, this is the way people got around. You might think you were in Venice. These are khlongs, canals that go through Bangkok, and you get around by going in these little boats that they pull wherever they're going. By this time, I was a major, which was a relatively senior situation.
SI: What was your most vivid memory of your time in Vietnam and Southeast Asia?
RB: The attack on the base by mortars by the Vietcong was one of the highlights. These are pictures that I took when Bob Hope visited us around Christmas. [Editor's Note: For almost fifty years, from World War II until the Persian Gulf War, entertainer Bob Hope performed shows for the United Service Organizations or USO, an organization that provides morale and recreation services for the U.S. military.]
SI: Are those in Thailand?
RB: Yes. It was a good show, a lot of fun.
SI: How were you able to stay in touch with your family at home?
RB: Mostly written letters.
SI: Were you allowed to send these pictures home at the time?
RB: I was mailing these pictures mostly to my wife. These are people that I worked with.
SI: What sorts of things would you do when you were not on duty?
RB: In Vietnam, we had a daily volleyball game on the beach. In Thailand, I would go into the town. You know, I'd like to just tell you stories instead of trying to make a coherent book.
SI: Yes, please.
RB: One day, I needed to get new shower clogs. I went into a store in Nakhon Phanom, and I thought the price that they charged [of] like fifty-five cents was outrageous. I was used to paying like thirty cents for some rubber shower thongs. I bitched and moaned, and you have to bargain for everything, so badly I ended up getting the shower thongs for fifty cents. They ended up lasting me for ten years.
RB: That's why they were so expensive. I didn't find the "Welcome to Tuy Hoa" sign. It's some place, but I'm missing it. See how tiny they are? See you try to take a picture of these young women. You see her hand going up here?
RB: She's about to whip down that coolie hat right over her face.
RB: Very difficult. In Thailand, I was there, the roads had not yet been paved. They were doing some paving.
SI: Was the base you were operating from a pre-existing Royal Thai base?
RB: Yes, Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. The bottom line is there was no way that we were ever going to stem the flow of supplies from North Vietnam to South, which is one reason why when the U.S. final pulled out of South Vietnam, it fell so quickly to the North Vietnamese. [Editor's Note: In 1973, U.S. military forces withdrew from Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese forces took over Saigon, solidifying control of the nation.]
SI: Did you and your fellow officers discuss the mission and what you thought of its effectiveness?
RB: Yes, it was pretty clear that it wasn't very effective. We were lucky if ten percent of what was coming down was even identified and struck. It was just futile. [Editor's Note: Mr. Blumstein shows a photograph of himself.] Me in front of my dorm. It was like summer camp. That's why I wrote this little note here, "War is hell." The food was good.
SI: Were you able to go for rest and relaxation while you were in Southeast Asia?
RB: Only the one trip I made to Bangkok. In order to communicate with my wife, I had to use what was called MARS, the Military Affiliate Radio Stations. I would make a call which would be picked up by a ham operator who would then make a call to the number where my wife was residing and I could speak to her. We had to use the standard military, you know, you speak, and then when you're done, you say, "Over." She made one examination to see about coming to visit me. It was thousands of dollars, and we decided against it. It was funny because when she told me, everybody on the line was laughing. Someday, maybe this will get turned into a book. [Editor's Note: Founded in 1925 by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Department of Defense renamed the program Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) and still relies on licensed amateur radio operators, called ham operators, to supplement communications.]
SI: You said that you left Thailand in February of 1969.
SI: Where was your next assignment?
RB: Well, it's funny, the Air Force had a thing, the Air Force Form 90, the so-called wish list. I wanted to be assigned to the Northeast and the Pentagon. Instead, I ended up going to an assignment as a watch officer at Eastern NORAD Region, Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, New York. We were watching activity by Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft coming to the United States or nearby or Cuba. [Editor's Note: In 1958, the United States and Canada signed an agreement for the shared defense of North America, creating NORAD, North American Air Defense Command. It is now called North American Aerospace Defense Command.]
SI: How long were you stationed at Newburgh?
RB: It was supposed to be four years, and it ended up being nine months. Then, I got transferred to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska to SAC [Strategic Air Command] Headquarters. At SAC Headquarters, I was responsible for the Russian Air Order of Battle documents that were produced by DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]. Basically, my job was how many and where are they and what are they capable of doing, looking at the threat to the United States.
SI: I have interviewed a few people who worked at the Order of Battle analysis, and it seems like it is an incredible job of taking all these different streams of information and putting it together. What stands out about that job? The other things people have said is that the commanders did not always pay attention to what they were doing or used the intelligence the way they thought it should be used. Do you have any thoughts about that?
RB: I agree completely. During the Carter Administration, I was able to follow the buildup of Russian forces outside of Afghanistan and sent the most urgent warnings that the Russians were about to invade. At the time, the National Security Advisor was Brzezinski. Our warnings were ignored, and then it happened. [Editor's Note: President Jimmy Carter held office from 1977 to 1981. Zbigniew Brzezinski served as the National Security Advisor during the Carter Administration. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.]
SI: How long were you in that position studying the Order of Battle?
RB: About four years. I also had two assignments to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and I was responsible for Soviet air defense capabilities.
SI: I would imagine there was a lot of pressure involved in these jobs, given the material you were working with, having to get it right and trying to convince people to use it.
RB: It became fairly routine.
SI: Are there any other moments that stand out that you were finding out something particularly important, or was there something similar to the buildup leading to Afghanistan?
RB: The only other time I encountered a situation like that was Russian buildup of forces outside of Czechoslovakia, the so-called Czech Spring. It was pretty clear something was going to happen, and it did. They went in and crushed the Czechs. [Editor's Note: On August 20, 1968, in the largest military deployment in Europe since World War II, Soviet forces, accompanied by forces from Warsaw Pact nations, invaded Czechoslovakia to squash the Prague Spring, the liberal reform movement led by Alexander Dubcek. Czechoslovakia remained in the Eastern Bloc until the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe in 1989.]
SI: That was in 1968.
SI: Were you in Vietnam that year?
RB: I was in Vietnam for five months and Thailand for seven. There's my year in Southeast Asia.
SI: In Thailand, what were you working on?
RB: Interdiction of the flow of supply.
SI: Yes, but that was the time when the Soviets went into Czechoslovakia. Were you working on material related to that as well?
RB: No, we did not. When I was in Southeast Asia, I was cut off from other activities.
SI: Was this a later issue involving Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia?
RB: It's something that came up when I had left Southeast Asia. The biggest problem I have in doing this kind of recitation is just making the story coherent. No matter how classified the activity was, I used to tell my wife, "You want to know what's going on and what I'm doing, just read The New York Times and you'll get the information sorted out."
SI: What other bases were you stationed at? You mentioned some of the different agencies and commands you worked for. Where did you physically get stationed?
RB: Okay, I started in Las Vegas, then to Denver, then to Vietnam and Thailand. When I came back, I was at Newburgh and then Omaha. [Editor's Note: Mr. Blumstein calls his wife's name.] Hey, Bea.
Bea Blumstein: Yes.
RB: My brain is going blank.
BB: Yes. What did you say?
RB: Where did we go following Omaha?
BB: After Omaha, we came here.
RB: I ended up working for DIA.
RB: Yeah, and then where?
BB: Austin, Texas, headquarters, 12th AF. [laughter] That was it. Then, you retired here.
RB: I ended up serving for a year in Korea.
BB: That was well before. That was when we were in Omaha. You went to Korea from '80 to '81.
RB: At which time I was keeping track of the North Korean Air Force and the threat they posed to the south. I had a couple albums of Korea, too.
SI: What would a typical day be like in Korea in your assignment?
RB: Reading the intelligence reports from all of the United States and Korean agencies and briefing the commander-in-chief of what was called the Combined Forces Command. While I was in Korea, I also maintained a class of conversational English for Korean adults, which was very interesting.
SI: Were you stationed there by yourself, or was your family able to come?
RB: Just me. It was a remote tour. I went to the local Museum of Modern Art in Korea in Seoul, and I really liked that picture. It's the (Buddhist Nun Dance?), a standard dance. I got a copy of it painted by someone, the whole thing, fifty bucks.
RB: I enjoyed Korea.
SI: You were stationed in the Seoul area.
RB: Yes, I was at the army base at Yonsan.
SI: Was that a period of time when there was heightened tensions? There was always tension with North Korea, but was it particularly tense at that time?
RB: Yes, there was a curfew, martial law, because there had been a coup in South Korea. [Editor's Note: In December 1979, General Chun Doo-hwan seized power in South Korea in a military coup that consolidated his autocratic control over the nation until 1988.]
SI: Did the coup affect operations at all?
RB: No. I had occasion to go to the Demilitarized Zone. That's as close as I ever want to get to the North Koreans. [Editor's Note: The Demilitarized Zone is the 150 mile-long border between North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel.]
SI: When you were stationed in this area towards the end of your career, what position were you in then?
RB: I was in DIA, and I was responsible for, as I say, Russian air defense capabilities and the Air Order of Battle but from a different viewpoint. I was also working pretty closely with CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] in the development of National Intelligence Estimates, the so-called NIEs. At the end of '82, I retired from the Air Force after twenty years.
SI: What led to that decision?
RB: Hit the pause. I need to take a break.
SI: Let me turn this back on.
RB: You may. I had been passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel. That's a long and ugly story, but I didn't make it. I decided, for financial considerations and the prospect of not going any further, to hang it up. I took a course that was being conducted at the Pentagon called "The Strategy for Career Transition" conducted by a guy named (Stan Hyman?), who has since passed away, how to get a job after you retire. [It was a] good course. I had also gotten my master's degree from the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
RB: His advice was to stick with the operational intelligence business and get a job with a local government contractor, which is exactly what I did. I went to work for Science Applications International, which subsequently became SAIC. I was doing a lot of work in support of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], the [U.S.] Pacific Command and most importantly the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
SI: You worked for that company for a long time.
RB: Twenty years.
SI: In those initial years, from 1982 until the fall of the Soviet Union, what types of jobs would you be working on, if you can talk about them? What kind of work would you be doing?
RB: Like I said, there was work in support of NATO, their mobile command and control units. I was trying to characterize the threat to them from Soviet special operations forces called Spetsnaz. I got to do a lot of very interesting travel to Italy, Turkey, northern Europe.
SI: As a civilian, what kind of access did you have?
RB: I still had all of the clearances, the high level, Special Compartmented Information clearances. I had to have the polygraph, the whole bit, very good, very employable.
SI: The disarmament work that you have done began after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. How did you personally and the company get involved in that type of operation?
RB: Well, SAIC won the contract from the Defense Department to execute the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. I became the chief of the team called SOAE, Strategic Offensive Arms Elimination, and I had to arrange for the acquisition of almost a billion dollars' worth of equipment that was sent over to Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan to help them dismantle their nuclear delivery systems and store their nuclear materiel and warheads. I was making three or four trips a year over to Russia until my wife said, "Enough with the goddamn dolls." [laughter]
SI: You have a collection of Russian nesting dolls.
RB: Nesting dolls, among other things. I did manage to get her to meet me over there once. We toured Moscow and St. Petersburg.
SI: Would you be visiting different facilities, or would you just be visiting with high-level counterparts in the Russian government?
RB: A lot of different facilities. All the places that I used to keep track of when I was doing the order of battle, I ended up visiting them live. I have pictures of me and Russian bombers that were subsequently dismantled.
SI: Did you find that the Russians were receptive to working with you?
RB: Yes, but there was a certain level of bitterness, because they felt that we were basically stripping them of their power. [They were] not always very friendly about it, but they generally cooperated. I have souvenirs out the gazoo of ballistic missile submarine hulls, ballistic missiles. I have an entire box of what I call CTR [Cooperative Threat Reduction] souvenirs.
SI: Do you mind if I read this into the record?
RB: I don't mind. I can give you a copy of that if you want.
SI: Okay. Well, I will just read it off.
RB: I can e-mail it to you. I think I e-mailed it to (Tiffany?).
SI: Well, (Tiffany?) works at a different office, but I will e-mail you.
RB: Is there any acronym there that you're not sure about?
SI: No, I think you mentioned all of these. It is incredible the numbers of weapons you were able to dispose of, just to read the first line. It says 6,432 strategic nuclear warheads were to be deactivated and 547 ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missile] were destroyed, as well as many other nuclear arms and delivery systems. How did you feel, like you said, going to the places you had been planning against basically your whole career and now taking it apart from the inside?
RB: In summary, I was kind of proud of the fact that I was able to facilitate the elimination of all this stuff. Like it says at the top of that score card, Ukraine. What does it say?
SI: Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
RB: Nuclear free.
RB: When I was in Eastern NORAD Region and SAC, we used to keep track of the ballistic missile submarines that were floating around off the East Coast. You know The Hunt for Red October? I was at that base. I mean, I went every place from east to west, west to east, north to south. [Editor's Note: Based on the Tom Clancy novel, the movie The Hunt for Red October (1990) is a Cold War thriller about a rogue Soviet nuclear submarine commander. The book and movie begin with the Red October departing from the submarine base at Polyarnyy.]
BB: We're just about ready.
SI: Okay. Did you have much interaction?
BB: If you'd like to come to the table.
SI: Sure, I will pause.
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Transcribed by Jesse Braddell 10/9/2016
Reviewed by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi 4/3/17
Reviewed by Richard Blumstein 4/21/2017