VALLEY CENTER, Kan. (KSNW) — Growing up in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Union town, Ronald L. Colbert signed up for the Air Force at the age of 17 years old — just three days after graduating from high school.
Little did he know he would be a part of several secret programs and classified assignments for the next 20 years.
As part of the 81st Air Police Squadron, Colbert’s first assignment would send him to England to secure two classified airfields.
“The Brits knew it was there — they had the assumption that we had the atomic bomb at the base. That was not true at all,” Colbert said. “When we had the ‘Ban the Bombers’ there, the Brits liked to climb over the fence and try to get on base, sneak on base and do some damage to the hangars or to the aircraft — that was intense,” Colbert said.
In 1964, Colbert returned to the United States and prepared to head to Vietnam. However, at the last minute, his assignment changed not once but twice — landing him at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
“Even though I did not go to Vietnam — we trained guys going there, and you knew where they were going. But you still never get over it — and there’s a strain on you that you’ll never lose,” Colbert said.
Colbert was then assigned to Rome, Italy as a postal clerk. At least twice a month, he was sent on what were known as “classified assignments.”
“We’d pick up a bag — you don’t know what’s in it, you don’t wanna know what’s in it — you go to the embassy, turn the bag over to the people at the embassy, and leave,” Colbert said.
After four years in Rome, Colbert would work with the secret U-2 and SR-71 programs.
“It was the fastest aircraft in the world,” Colbert said. “[It] broke the record with the SR-71 flying from London, England to San Francisco in 3 hours … 57 minutes and 30 seconds.”
Colbert’s last assignment was with Strategic Air Command (also known as ‘SAC’ for short) Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. There, he would give tours of what was known as the “Underground.”
“You had anybody there from a city councilman to a queen or king from another country,” Colbert said. “You had to set the place up before you brought the group in there, and people would come out of there and, ‘You mean you can see the aircraft up there?’. If it’s coming across that ocean, we know it’s coming.”
Colbert was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1981. He retired a Staff Sgt. E-5 after 20 years of service.
“I’ve never, ever resented the military at all. It was a big teaching lesson for me. It helped me. I had experiences I don’t think I’d ever had coming out of a coal-mining town — to me, I’m fortunate,” Colbert said.
Recently, Colbert was influential in getting the Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to Valley Center.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at firstname.lastname@example.org.