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Air Force veteran plans book about his service

Kueber, center, receives his new stripes upon being promoted to chief master sergeant in 1970 in Wiesbaden, Germany. Flanking him are Col. George A. Patterson and Senior Master Sgt. Gilbert A. Sponholz.1 / 2
Pete Kueber served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1974 and is building a documentary history of his military service. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)2 / 2

At a time when computer data was stored on punch cards, a local man managed the U.S. Air Force's war plans database and witnessed the birth of the internet.

Brought up on a German-speaking family farm in Two Inlets, Herman "Pete" Kueber earned advanced degrees in psychology, learned to speak multiple languages, published a manual on computer programming and earned the nickname "Iron-Ass" for his untiring ability to "ride herd" on military data, day and night, during his service from 1951 to 1974.

"Anyone who is dedicated to his duties is a hardass, because in the cavalry, if you could ride all day long, you had a hard ass," said Kueber, who now lives in Park Rapids. "If you could saddle up and ride all day long and half the night, you were known to have an iron ass. That's what my guys called me."

He laughed, adding, "I never, ever told them I knew. But I demanded good work."

International service

After enlisting in the Air Force and completing his basic training, Kueber trained as a clerk-typist before being assigned to Germany.

"My grandparents were from Germany," he said. "I wanted to know what life was like in Germany, so I volunteered for duty over there. Also, I spoke German."

He recalled the Two Inlets of his youth as a close-knit, German-American community where, until World War II, German was spoken at home.

After his squadron in Germany was broken up, Kueber was reassigned to France, where he spent four years, learning to speak French fluently.

"There were a lot of political things going on in France when I was stationed there," he said. "About 40 percent of the people were Communists. We were told one of our main duties was to win their hearts and minds."

While he was there, he met and married a Spanish girl named Elena.

"So, I learned Spanish," he said. "I had to defend myself!"

The couple then moved to London, England, where he served two duty assignments between 1955 and -59. One of them was at Denham Studios, where the Air Force rented several buildings next to where movies were made.

"I met Jayne Mansfield, got a hug from her," said Kueber. "She and her boyfriend, Mickey Hargitay, came to eat lunch there one day, and she gave us all a hug and a handshake."

During his stint at Denham Studios, Kueber helped pilot a new aircraft maintenance reporting system.

Controversy and concern

On the first day of his next assignment — three years and four months at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska — Kueber made an enemy.

It started when his non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) started explaining to him the new maintenance reporting procedures, which Kueber himself had pioneered.

"I said, 'I know about those,'" Kueber recalled. "He said, 'That's a lie.' I said, 'No, that's not a lie. USAFE was the lead command, and I've been doing it for a year.'"

After that, Kueber said, "every time he could, he tried to get me into trouble because I had told him he was wrong."

The NCOIC reported Kueber to the Headquarters U.S. Air Force inspector general's team for failing to forward error cards to Logistics Command.

"They came down to investigate," he said, "and they asked about it, and I said, 'Maintenance and I correct the errors. Why would we want to send error cards?' They said, 'That's not in the book.' So I told the inspector general, 'I do everything that's in the manual.' He said, 'Correcting errors is not in the manual.' I said, 'There's nothing in the manual that says I can't correct errors.' He said, 'That's the answer to our dilemma!' So, the whole Air Force started doing it my way."

By this time, Kueber had progressed from keypunch operator to accountant. During his stint at Lincoln, he had 30 accountants working under him. Later, he moved into computer operations.

During five years at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, Kueber taught computer programming and wrote two training manuals, including one on how to write a better war plan using computer technology.

From there he went back to Germany, spending four years as a database manager at Headquarters U.S. Air Force Europe in Wiesbaden before finishing his career with two years at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.

Kueber's job in Wiesbaden was to program queries to pull information out of the Air Force's computer network and present it to officers in a form they could use. As he put it, "I created war planning databases and extracted actionable information from them.".

Computer technology was farther along at that time than most people realize.

"You would be surprised," said Kueber. "Did you know there was cloud computing in 1963?"

The Internet, as we know it, was inspired by the system the Air Force used to keep its commands in sync.

"We had two-way communications, real time, 24/7, just like the Internet today, between every bomber and every missile site and every headquarters site," said Kueber, describing how information was passed between supercomputers via telephone lines and modem encryption.

He recalled several incidents in which a nuclear war was nearly triggered due to human error, such as a 1967 incident in which a radar operator mistook a flock of geese for an aerial attack, and a 1979 case when a technician inadvertently put a war game training tape into a computer, alerting the entire U.S. military to a non-existent Soviet missile launch.

"An error like this one here would scare the holy crap out of me," Kueber said. "What would happen if something happened at a certain air base, and they said, 'Oh God, it's real,' and we launched all our nukes?"

One reason for his "Iron-Ass" nickname was Kueber's insistence on avoiding mistakes like that.

"We almost had a nuclear war because somebody made a stupid mistake," he said. "He mounted the wrong tape. I used to worry about that. What I had my team do is, I had a two-man policy. I had two men do the job together; one watched and one did it. That way, we could ensure that no mistake was made. Two heads are better than one. To my knowledge, we never, ever made a mistake at the Strategic Air Command like this one down at NORAD."

Regarding the 1979 incident, Kueber added, "If they'd had a two-man policy here, more than likely, that other guy would have said, 'Whoa! That's a training tape.' More than likely, that wouldn't have happened."

Career winding down

"I have a lot of letters of appreciation from generals and admirals because I worked my ass off. Dumbass farm boy, didn't know any better!" Kueber laughed. "I used my knowledge of data processing and developed 107 special computer routines to pull out information that they needed."

Meantime, he started to feel pressured to do the impossible.

"People started thinking I could do more than I could do," said Kueber. "If a general comes up to you and says, 'Could you help Col. So-and-so?' he doesn't mean 'Could you help him,' he means 'You will help him.' I would try to make excuses, and they would always say, 'Won't you at least try?' Then I would reach down inside me and come up with something. And they would say, 'See! You could do it!'"

He added, "I didn't get burned out. I just got tired of doing other people's work."

Along the way, he earned a master's degree in counseling psychology through a Ball State University extension campus in Wiesbaden. He even completed a doctoral dissertation in psycho-cybernetics — what a human brain does better than a computer and vice versa — before the campus' doctoral program was canceled due to low demand.

"I became well-known, and I got all kinds of jobs dumped on me," said Kueber. "I promised myself, if I ever got out from underneath the mess I was in, I would never touch a computer again. And I haven't for 44 years. I just bought one the other day, so I'm relenting."

After 23 years on active duty, Kueber joined the retired reserves, serving until 1981.

"A lot of people who went through my classes went out to Silicon Valley," he said. "When I got ready to retire, they said, 'We have a job for you.' Maybe I was stupid; maybe I should have gone out there and done it. But I'd just got tired of it."

Instead, Kueber went back to Two Inlets with Elena. They brought up a daughter, bought a ranch and raised beef cattle and sheep, and invested in rental houses in Park Rapids.

Lately, Kueber has been selling his properties and working on a series of memoirs. He has already completed documentary histories of both sides of his family, and is currently working on one about his Air Force career.

"I'm looking for help in typing and desktop publishing support," he said. "I have all this military stuff. My nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews don't really know very much about what life was like for me. So, I've written it down. I'm trying to make it a documentary history — not just something that I say, but with documents to back it up."

Kueber added, "There's a lot of things in there that I think are interesting. Maybe a non-military person wouldn't. I don't know."