BROKEN ARROW. His extensive flying experience was not the only thing that made Virgil Domino a suitable CIA officer.
He was also good at keeping secrets.
And given the stealthy nature of the missions, silent pilots were needed.
“Sometimes we knew what kind of cargo we had, and sometimes we didn’t. In any case, if I told you, I would have to shoot you,” Domino recently joked.
But as for other secrets, the former pilot and resident of Broken Arrow is more than happy to reveal.
For example, one Domino is often asked, especially now: about his secret to a long and happy life.
On Wednesday, that was back in the news as Domino, a former Air Force major and CIA pilot, turned 100 and celebrated his birthday.
Organized by American Legion Post 110, the event was held at the Broken Arrow Veterans Center and was attended by well-wishers from the community and other members of the Legion.
According to him, Domino always thought that he had a chance to live a long life. His parents were strong strong peasants who lived to be 80 years old.
But getting to 100 is still a little surprising for him.
One thing that has helped, no doubt, is the good company Domino keeps. He was a regular on Post 110 for over 20 years.
He’s a favorite of his fellow veterans there, in part because his career is hard to beat.
Among them are the mentioned secret flights he flew during the Vietnam War under the CIA Air America program, and participation in the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was ready to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia 60 years ago in October of this year.
Farm in the Air Force
Hailing from Iowa—which he still pronounces as “Io-WAY” in the old-fashioned country Iowa way—Domino went to school in the small town of Rembrandt, where he was one of 12 students in high school.
He spent most of his extracurricular time on his family’s farm, where hard work was a way of life.
It was there – between “milking the cows and feeding the pigs” – that Domino first became interested in flying, playing with a toy airplane.
However, what role this will play in his future, he then did not guess.
With America’s entry into World War II a few years later, Domino entered the military, earning his wings in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot.
But that was not what was needed at the time. He ended up working as a flight instructor for B-24 bomber pilots.
After the war, Domino’s bomber skills and knowledge eventually led to a more compelling job, flying with the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command.
The Cold War-era unit was responsible for most of the country’s nuclear weapons, including their deployment should the situation arise.
In that era, the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union always overshadowed world events.
And what that horrifying scenario might have looked like, Domino could imagine better than most. He witnessed the effects of the first atomic bombs while in Japan after World War II.
Since then, the destructive power of nuclear weapons has only increased.
In October 1962, Domino and his fellow SAC pilots were to play their part when an incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world as close to nuclear war as possible.
This came after it became known that the Soviets were building nuclear missile facilities in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
At the behest of President John F. Kennedy, US Navy ships formed a blockade of the island to keep Soviet ships out.
As the fate of the world depended on what the Russians did next, Domino flew to England, where he and the other B-47 pilots remained alert, ready to take off at any moment.
Armed with a nuclear bomb—the largest at the time, several thousand pounds—Domino knew his orders well.
“My target was Moscow,” he said. “They loaded the bomb on the plane and then we sat and waited to see what would happen.”
Eventually, after several tense days, Russia relented and removed its missiles, ending the standoff.
Even now, Domino exhales slowly when he thinks about it.
According to him, few people knew how close the world had come to World War III.
He thanks Kennedy for handling it well.
“He really stood up to (Russian premier) Khrushchev.”
Domino remained with the SAC for two more years, retiring in 1964 after 22 years of service.
He cannot remember what his exact plans were then. The only thing he knows for sure is what he didn’t want to do.
“I knew I didn’t want to go back to the farm,” he laughed.
By then, Domino and his wife, Millie, who was originally from Sand Springs, had moved to the Tulsa area.
It was there, he says, that he came across an ad from Florida for a company called Air America, which was recruiting pilots to work in Southeast Asia.
Domino thought it was a good deal.
“All I knew before entering was that I would be flying,” he said.
How he learned the truth – that Air America was an airline owned and operated by the CIA – he does not remember.
For the next six years, while the Vietnam War was underway, Domino flew CIA transport planes, transporting people and supplies in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
This was most likely part of what was later called the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos.
Sometimes Domino knew what kind of cargo he had, sometimes he didn’t.
One incident that still makes him laugh was when he was ordered to go after a cow.
“We tied the cow and left. I never knew what it was,” he said.
Domino returned permanently to the Tulsa area in 1972 and has since settled into a quieter life.
In total, he has flown more than 18,000 hours in dozens of different aircraft during his career.
He and Millie were married for 72 years until her death at the age of 101.
He didn’t expect Domino to still be at 100.
To what does he attribute his long life?
Well, for one thing, apart from a few cigars, he never smoked, he said.
According to him, once in his childhood he picked up a still lit cigarette from the ground. But “Ma sniffed that thing, and, boy, she took me with a stick – hit me and said, ‘Don’t do that again.’
However, the secret to a good life is a bit more complicated.
One wise approach, according to Domino, is not to look for fights, an opinion that should carry the added weight of someone who was once ready to drop a nuclear bomb.
“There is no reason to get into big arguments about anything, politics or anything,” Domino said. “If you want to talk to a person (with whom you disagree), be kind to him. If not, just leave.”
But sometimes, like during a war, a fight is unavoidable. And in this situation, Domino did not back down.
“I was always ready to do my duty,” he said. “I’m glad I did it.”