Martin writing at his desk.
Michael A. Martin writes at his desk during his service.

Airman Martin recalls his experiences serving as chief of security

Airman Martin was a (Oops, it’s top Secret!)

Michael A. Martin entered the Air Force and learned the art of security. He learned his craft well so he moved into a position with an unbelievable responsibility. “I always felt comfortable,” he recalled, “Sure, the responsibility was great, but I learned my job well and I was always very careful. There were times I had to give orders to people who outranked me. They didn’t always take it well, but before they could do anything about it, they learned I did the right thing,” the veteran recalled.

He was assigned to top secret security on one airplane, Air Force One, by Lt. Gen. Curtis E. Le May, who was in charge of the entire U.S. Air Force. The man he was protecting was President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Martin, and his colonel, were probably the only two people who could tell the president what to do. He was assigned that job after competing with 50,000 other members of the Air Police. He was originally assigned for only three days. However, before three days had passed, the president said he wanted him to remain on the job. He served in that position from Sept. 24, 1964 until December 1964.

Martin pointed out that the Secret Service’s main objective is not security but preventing and stopping counterfeiting of American money. “Many people don’t know that,” he added. The former security chief on Air Force One said he felt comfortable guarding the president and believed he was up to the task. Johnson did not want the Secret Service to handle his protection after the assassination of his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy.

Martin said security is almost always a group effort. “If one person in the chain let’s down, or loses concentration, something terrible could happen. The President could be killed. We must all work closely together and always be on guard.”

He recalled that President Johnson was a nice man. “He knew what he wanted done and exhibited the attitude that he was in charge. He was nice, yet, he took his job seriously. I had a lot of respect for him. He understood there were enemies willing and able to wage war, or do other dishonorable deeds and he was always on the lookout. At the start of his work with Johnson, Martin promised himself never to let down his guard and at all times be alert so the President could do his job. Martin believed someone who would let down his guard, just for a few seconds, was the weakest link in the chain of security.

Martin, himself, was regularly checked and investigated to make sure he was the right person for all the jobs he held while in the Air Force. He held two secret clearances, two top secret clearances, along with one CRYPTO access and SAC Ultra-Sensitive Security Clearance. He had the right and need to enter any area or building where the president may be directed. The walls of his home are not large enough to display all of the awards and certificates he received during his career. Among them were the SAC Educational Achievement Award in 1964 and the USAFE Certificate of Conspicuous Educational Achievement in 1965, the two highest Air Force awards. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor on three separate occasions within six months. However, each of those incidents remains classified as top secret and can’t be mentioned. Consequently Martin can’t receive recognition for top secret deeds until they are declassified. He hopes someday they will be declassified and he will be awarded those medals. The last incident ended the Cuban Crisis.

A photo from the collection of Michael A. Martin during his service.
A photo from the collection of Michael A. Martin during his service.

While serving as sabotage alert team leader, at a top secret base, the home of classified communications facilities, Martin was dispatched to a location where a man was carrying what looked like explosives, and was holding a hand grenade. He ordered the man to stop, but the man kept walking. He told Martin, “I am going to blow up the command center, kill you and your men.” Martin told the suspect, “like hell you are.” and rushed to the man. As Martin got close, the man pulled the pin on the hand grenade and released the handle. Before it could explode, Martin was close enough to grab the grenade, and toss it to an empty area, knocking the man to the ground in the process. The grenade exploded, causing no harm, because there was nothing close enough to be damaged. The would-be terrorist was taken away and his “baggage” was placed where it could do no harm.

The attack, it was quickly learned, was supposed to destroy communications between Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and the White House, during what is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time Russia had stored unarmed missiles in Cuba, capable of reaching the United States. It was expected that while the communication facilities were inoperative, the missiles were to be armed and launched to hit specific locations in the United States. The still working communications facilities were used by President John. F. Kennedy, who told Khrushchev if the missiles were not removed, the two countries, would be engaged in “nuclear war.” Removal of the missiles began the next morning, ending what is known as “the Cuban missile crisis.” Martin was again recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but again, this was “secret.”

Martin on location at an airfield.

On another occasion, in July, 1964, Martin was serving in Shreveport, La., as Sabotage Alert Team Leader. He received communications from the Air Traffic Controller that an unannounced aircraft was about to land, without contact, or instructions from the control tower. The airplane appeared to be a C-133A nuclear weapons carrier with no windows. Martin was informed the aircraft had circled the base several times prior to the attempted landing, all the while ignoring all communications to leave the area. Martin realized this looked very much like a sabotage attempt and he notified the base commander and initiated all anti-sabotage procedures.

The questionable aircraft landed about 100 yards from the major alert pad and was parked in what was called the hardstand area. Martin notified everyone on the sabotage alert team and notified the aircraft to move to another location, away from the armed aircraft on alert status. Martin ordered his team to check the suspicious aircraft and keep their M-16 rifles loaded and ready to fire.

At that time, the side door of the questionable aircraft opened and out stepped, Lt. Gen. Curtis Le May, the Air Force’s highest officer. Martin, still following the routine he had practiced many times during his career, ordered his men to search each person on the plane while he, personally, frisked the commanding general of the Air Force. Everyone on the airplane, including Gen. Le May, was moved to one area away from the aircraft and their identification was closely checked. Everyone was readily identified as members of the Air Force and turned over to the base commander, who released them. General Le May stated he was happy with the way the situation was handled by those on the ground, under the supervision of Martin, who was later commended for his leadership in this “mock’ security threat and it was noted that everyone on the security detail acted according to recommended procedures. Le May commended the unit for their professionalism in responding to the situation, especially Martin, who was leader of the security team. Gen. Le May, after that incident, recommended Martin for the Air Force One top secret security assignment.

Continuing his career, Martin was again recognized in a formal letter of appreciation, “for writing supplements to security regulations as well as initiating and maintaining reports, processing and issuing military and dependent ID cards for incoming and outgoing personnel, security clearance records, registration of privately owned weapons and registration of private vehicles. In part, the citation read: “SSGT Martin has had very successful and practical experience handling large volumes of security for both civilians as well as military personnel working under very pressuring conditions and in an area of work where manpower was short and the workload increasing.” He reduced the military processing time from one and a half hours to 45 minutes. As a result he was awarded the Zero Defects Certificate as recognition for his efforts.

Martin color photo

Among his records is a letter of appreciation that reads, in part: “Sergeant Martin has won the confidence and respect of all supervisors, co-workers, military personnel, military dependents and retired armed forces personnel at the 859th Radar squadron. Since his assignment here he has proven to be a very aggressive and capable individual considering his short time as an NCO. He has continually displayed the character of one who is not to be outdone, and, SSGT Martin never seeks any favors because of his position and strives to merit the respect of his fellow airmen and all with whom he comes in contact.”

The Letter of Appreciation also says: “SSGT Martin has completed 79 educational courses, had extensive on-the-job training, received two educational awards and completed 12 units of college credit.”

The heroics and determination of Martin were displayed many times on different occasions. He served from September 1959 to January 1963. He found civilian work lacked the challenges he faced in the Air Force and opportunities were few and far between. He reenlisted in March 1964, after receiving a letter asking him to re-join the Air Force because the Strategic Air Command needed more highly skilled security staff members. He was welcomed enthusiastically and served until March 1968. During his second term in the Air Force, he served as sabotage alert team leader at Barksdale AFB in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Once a civilian, Martin wanted to find a job that would make good use of his background in security. After some searching he was selected to direct the security at the U.S. Court House in Las Vegas. He had a staff of six security officers and he wrote the rules and procedures to make sure everyone who works in the building, as well as those who enter to conduct business, were not going to be harmed. That building was the first federal facility in the United States to install metal detectors. He was also assigned to protect Federal Judge Harry Claiborne who had been threatened. He used many tactics on that assignment that were unheard of by the Las Vegas staff but kept the judge safe and secure. Claiborne’s car was readily seen in the neighborhood, but its owner was never seen driving it. Each day the judge appeared in court and did his job, but seemed to be invisible once he left the courtroom. “This was a challenge,” Martin recalled and to this day he vividly remembers the constant “Thank You” the judge uttered time and time again.

Martin and the members of his staff at the courthouse received complimentary letters from Claiborne as well as Nevada Congressman James Santini, U.S. Marshall Richard Dunn and former Las Vegas Mayor, Oscar Goodman, a noted defense attorney.


Martin’s ability to do an outstanding job at that location did not go unnoticed. In an April 1979, in a letter to Martin’s boss, Claiborne wrote: “I just wish to express my thanks for the very fine and professional job that your guards do here. They are doing a splendid job, and I thought I would take the time to tell you so.” Congressman James Santini, In March of 1979, also wrote a letter. It said, in part, “I just wanted to write and let you know how pleased I am with the performance of your security guards in the Federal Building in Las Vegas. It is a good feeling to know that your guards have established such a good rapport in the short time they’ve been here.

Other agencies were well versed in his abilities in the security profession. As a result he was offered the job of running the top secret security of the White Sands Proving Ground and later, was offered the opportunity of handling the top secret security at Cape Canaveral. He also was offered a civil service job, with built-in tenure, working in the White House, a lifetime job approved by the United States Congress. However, his service-connected disabilities prevented him from accepting any of these positions. He, instead, accepted other, less physically challenging positions, which, of course, had lower levels of prestige and, of course, lower levels of wages. Then he retired.