Hot Springs Village resident T.C. Pepper grew up in Mississippi and decided to join ROTC at Mississippi State University, finishing his schooling there in 1961 with a degree in business administration.
Why ROTC? “It was sort of the standard curriculum for Mississippi State,” Pepper said.
To get into advanced ROTC, Pepper said one had to be selected, which he was.
“I was interested in a way to meet my military obligation at that time in a way that did not create a hardship for me. I wanted to go in as an officer and spend my time in the military in a productive way,” he said.
Pepper began as a Second Lieutenant and reported to Fort Bliss – El Paso, Texas, for a basic officer orientation course in August 1961. The orientation familiarized him with the Nike missiles, the layout of a missile battery, the control area and all the other related aspects of the duty.
Pepper said the real operational learning happened once he was “hands on.” The school was academics, but the practical learning came later during the assignment itself.
Pepper told me he was surprised to get a missile assignment because at ROTC he had been to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic infantry school, thus he expected an MOS of infantry, field artillery or perhaps the Quartermaster Corps.
After completing his schooling he was assigned to Battery ‘C,’ Second Missile Battalion, 57th Air Defense Artillery, which was located in downtown Chicago, Illinois, in Jackson Park.
Upon arrival he began as a launch platoon leader. There were three underground silos, an assembly building and a general purpose building, surrounded with tight security, including fencing and night patrols with guard dogs.
In the silos were the guided missiles. Pepper said there were, back then, 13 such batteries in the Chicago area.
Looking at the dates of his service at the missile base, I noticed it was during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time most people still believe was the closest the United States ever came to a nuclear exchange with Russia.
In October 22, 1962, Pepper was battery control officer when President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech. He told the world that an attack on allies would be considered an attack on the United States and would result in a full retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union.
In America and around the world, people held their breath, wondering if they would live to see the end of the month.
Finally, the Russians relented and removed the missiles. It was later learned the U.S. had made a trade. If Russia would remove the missiles from Cuba, at a later date the U.S. would remove their outdated missiles from Turkey.
Pepper said the unit stayed on alert for 28 straight days, adding that the possibility of actually having to launch a missile strike was taken in stride. Doing so was what they trained for, so if it came to that, they’d launch. Pepper said during their training, inspectors would arrive and declare “blazing skies.”
“That meant you had to start your drill, to go through the exercise of raising the missiles (from the silos), locking on to some friendly aircraft in the Chicago airspace and then simulating an engagement. The system we had was designed to destroy formations of planes, not individual planes.
The theory at that time was, if the Russians were to attack, they would attack in formations of planes,” said Pepper.
The Nike missiles at the base had a range of 85 miles, an ineffective range to strike Cuba. Pepper was one of those men at the battery that would actually pull the trigger on a missile launch if so ordered.
After the crisis ended, Pepper said everyone was worn out.
Also during his time on active duty he was sent to chemical-biological-radiological (CBR) school at Fort McClelland, Alabama. During the month-long training he experienced time in gas chambers, learned about blast radiuses and how to determine where prevailing winds would carry the deadly materials.
Pepper then showed me a mustard gas chemical burn on his left forearm that he received during the training.
He told me he also witnessed a VX gas demonstration. VX is a very deadly nerve agent, a synthetic chemical compound used in chemical warfare.
For demonstration purposes a drop of VX was placed in a goat’s eye. A minute later the goat began to struggle, then was given a shot of atropine, a type of nervous system blocker. Pepper said his battery had atropine in hand in case of an enemy VX gas attack.
“You had nine seconds to give yourself an injection,” he said.
In July 1963, Pepper completed his active duty and was discharged at Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago. A month later he began duty with the Mississippi National Guard. Without a single day of training he was made medical service officer of First Squadron, 98th Cavalry in Greenville. “I wasted one weekend a month at the armory sitting around waiting for maybe a new recruit or someone like that to come in for a physical exam that the doctor did. My function was virtually worthless. I was just in a slot, a body in a position,” said Pepper.
He estimated the unit to be of company size. “My main job was when we had an inspection; to teach a class, a fake deal on hygiene or something like that. It was a complete waste of time,” he chuckled.
Pepper also did time in the Army Reserve from June 1966 to July 1967 in St. Louis, Missouri.
After completing all his military service, Pepper was employed in corporate and government jobs for several years.
At age 31 he went into business for himself when he purchased a piece of commercial property in Jackson, Mississippi, then built a retail liquor and convenience store on the property, which he operated for 23 years, retiring in 1993.
He and wife Marion moved to the Village in 2001 from Jackson. They have two children: Sandra and Thomas.
Looking back on his years in uniform Pepper said he felt it was a complete waste of time in the prime of his life, a great imposition for him and others with the moving forward of their lives.
“I’m proud I served my country, but what we were doing was ill-conceived and a waste of time; reaction to the hysteria carried over from the 1950s, to establishment of all these missile batteries, and all that was counterproductive, didn’t make any sense. I did what my country asked me to do and I would do it again if called on.
“I’m glad I didn’t go to Vietnam. I knew we were doing the wrong thing and I didn’t want to be involved in it.”