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‘I just want to remind people’: Local veteran shares memories of famous aircraft

RC 135 Rivet Amber (John5199/WikiCommons)

At nearly 96 years old, William Caldwell of Greenville is a veteran who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and in the Army during the Korean War.

However, in addition to his service in those two wars, he also worked for Temco/LTV (now L3Harris) in the 1950s and ’60s during the Cold War-era, when he worked on several top-secret military aircraft contracts.

One of his most memorable projects while at LTV was working on the Lisa Ann (also known as Rivet Amber), a Boeing C-135B aircraft that Caldwell and his team equipped with a large 7 MW Hughes Aircraft phased-array radar system.

“I’m a World War II veteran, but I was also involved in the Cold War,” Caldwell told the Herald-Banner. “The Lisa Ann is one of the main planes I worked on and a lot of people in Greenville worked on it too.”

Another reason why the Lisa Ann has been on Caldwell’s mind a lot lately is because last year marked the 50th anniversary of the plane’s disappearance while flying from Shemya Island (which is about 300 miles from Russia) to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, after which no trace of the aircraft or its crew was ever found.

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“There were 19 men on that plane when it disappeared, so I think about it a lot,” Caldwell said.

While the Lisa Ann was in Greenville, Caldwell and his team took the aircraft to a nearby field — that they called the “Pea Patch” — to test and make adjustments to its powerful radar system.

“The radar could easily fry a rabbit if it got too close,” he recalled. “It could track an object about the size of a volleyball from 300 miles.”

Because of his familiarity with the Lisa Ann and its systems, Caldwell traveled to further tests conducted in Hawaii, and later on Shemya Island.

“While I was helping the Air Force airmen learn how to use everything, I still wasn’t allowed to ride on any missions because if the plane would have gotten shot down in Russia, with me being a civilian, I would have been shot as a spy,” Caldwell said.

While working on the Lisa Ann is one of Caldwell’s proudest memories and hearing of the disappearance of its crew is one of his saddest, he remembers 2019 as being a particularly “commemorative” year for him because it marked the 100th anniversary of his father returning home from World War I, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Utah Beach (which Caldwell’s Naval unit was involved in), and the 50th anniversary of the Lisa Ann’s disappearance.

“Since those men were never found, I just want to remind people of what happened all those years ago,” Caldwell said.

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(c) 2020 The Herald Banner

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