Mom called the other day, Angel took the call, no emergency, ". . . just tell him to call."
So, like the good son I am, I returned the call a couple of days later.
"I just wanted you to know about an article in the Hopkinsville paper." She told me after the obligatory "How's the family?" warmup.
"Have you ever heard about the "Birdcage" at Fort Campbell?" She asked.
I had never heard of it, so I replied: "I've never heard of it."
"Well, rather than me explain it to you, you should see it for yourself, can you get to The New Era on your computer?"
"Sometimes, I'll try."
The "Hopkinsville New Era" is an afternoon daily in print form, online it is a pay-for site. Without a subscription, it will show you a headline followed by a never-enough-information paragraph. I rarely go to it as there are several other non-subscription alternatives to meet the rather infrequent need I have for Hopkinsville area news.
"Look for an article in Saturday's paper by Mary Ferguson, something about the Birdcage."
"Okay, will do. . . what is it?"
"Well, I don't know if I can explain it as well as the reporter did, but apparently back during the Cold War they used to store nuclear weapons at a corner of the base."
" " I replied, I was sort of taken aback by this, speechless.
"I knew you were working on a story with Jeff about some old, secret military stuff, I though this might be similar to that."
The call droned on for another three or four minutes, about as long as calls to Mom usually take. We're not especially phone-chatty.
I suppose I should provide some background on this.
First, yes it is true that I have been collaborating on a story with my beloved younger brother. I won't spoil it for you, but there's a subplot involved where the antagonist's family fortune was derived from ill-gotten gain. Earlier generations smuggled truckloads of 'surplus' property from a certain top-secret facility in Oak Ridge Tennessee during WWII. It's not what you think, but it is based on some actual research of extremely valuable, non-radioactive or explosive raw materials utilized by the massive project.
So yeah, I've been researching the U.S.'s development of its early nuke arsenal.
Jeff must have told her about this, which is fine. It is just a sub-plot in the story after all.
As for Fort Campbell, well you've probably heard of it. Home, most notably, to the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army. It is located mostly in North central Tennessee, with a fair amount of its area also lying in Kentucky, between Christian County (Hopkinsville) and Trigg County, (Cadiz) where I grew up, and very near where Mom and Jeff currently reside.
|(U.S. Air Force photo by|
Senior Airman Steven R. Doty)
When I grew up, mostly in the 60's, the 101st was pretty busy with that whole Vietnam thing. Lot's of practicing. Very frequent wandering herds of Huey helicopters would buzz over or nearby several times per day, most days of the week. Once in a while the bigger, heavier-haul choppers, the two-rotor Chinooks, often with large things dangling from their undercarriage, would make low passes, sometimes in small groups of four or so. Even at a tender, innocent young age I could tell the difference by sound alone, what kind of and roughly how many choppers were drawing near.
But that's pretty much all I knew about the sprawling base at the time. I only saw the actual base a handful of times growing up. We never really had much reason to go there, but living only twenty or so miles, as the crow/chopper flies, we were certainly constantly reminded of its presence.
That relatively small distance is important to this story. More on that later.
So as soon as I got off the phone, I grabbed my magic tablet and dialed up the interwebs. I searched for 'Ferguson', 'New Era' and 'Birdcage'. I've been doing Google searches for about as long as the www has been alive, so I've developed some pretty good and efficient search term expertise.
Here's what came up:
That's all I got, I'd have to pay to read the entire article. I could have asked my brother to clip out and send a hard copy, but I wanted to know more, sooner than that.
So I e-inquired again, about Ft. Campbell, Birdcage, and more reluctantly, 'nuclear' without the 'New Era' specific stuff.
Clarksville's paper, the Leaf Chronicle, had some pretty recent hits. Another article from 2012 also was referenced, more on that one later.
To summarize, at a remote corner of the large Army base during the 50's and 60's, the burgeoning and paranoid heyday of the cold war, a tightly controlled, heavily hardened, super-secure area was operating. Surrounding the facilities were three or four rows of heavy chain link fence, barbed wire capped and one row highly electrified. This fencing is where the name 'birdcage' came from. Between each row of fence was a kill zone, a wide, bare area where someone trying to get through that maze would be exposed and completely vulnerable. Overseeing the site were concrete 'pillboxes' manned by U.S. Marines with large machine guns.
Security for the site was, to put it mildly, very strict and deadly serious.
The site had several individual bunkers and buildings, all connected by an expansive and hardened system of blast doors and deep tunnels. One facility, dubbed 'Gravel Gertie', a gravel covered, concrete-hardened dome, stood out. It was built to withstand and contain a blast from an accidental non-atomic detonation.
At one edge, a railroad unloading facility loomed over the site, highlighted by a giant crane, for loading and unloading the precious, seriously serious cargo.
This was one of the first of the very few places that the U.S.'s arsenal of high-tech WMD's went to be regularly serviced and upgraded.
Not just stored, but disassembled, repaired and reassembled. It reminded me of the old Bugs Bunny wartime cartoon where the 'wascally wabbit' takes a job in a bomb factory, testing each warhead for 'duds' with a hammer tap to the pointy end.
The birdcage, officially designated 'Clarksville Base' was in fact a U.S. Navy operation. A land-locked, boat-less naval base completely contained within, but operationally independent of the Army base. They had their own power, water and waste facilities.
The scale of the operation was, in hindsight, jaw-dropping. As much as one third of our country's arsenal of these scary weapons would be there at one time or another. Those of you who recall the Cold War at that time will also know that we built lots and lots of these weapons, insane, world-vaporizing quantities of them.
The Leaf Chronicle reporter, Philip Grey had done a thorough job, (see the article here) deriving much of his information from John O'Brien, Installation Historian at Ft. Campbell's 'Don F. Pratt Museum.' (There's another article here.)
Straight from the horse's mouth.
Those of us that lived around there at that time didn't have a clue. In most cases, neither did the Army's own soldiers and officers stationed at the fort.
I have personally experienced the tight-lipped, super serious, bordering-on-paranoid, cold war secrets policies and procedures. Having been a mere enlisted man in the Air Force in the 70's, with some of that time dealing with some things of a rather sensitive nature, it was drilled into us. We got regular doses of 'Commies on every corner', 'wrath of God' and 'loose lips sink ships' training, lectures and I was even occasionally approached by mysterious strangers asking peculiar questions, testing me. I went through multiple background investigations, psychological 'personal reliability' testing and I know that my friends and family back home were interviewed about me as well.
The Defense Department and other three-letter government departments took cold war security very, very seriously. And I wasn't ever even around any big-bang technology (that I know of). That was a whole different level of caution.
So I'm not at all surprised that very few people knew about this base.
But as the article points out, much time has passed. The politics, geography and technology of the cold war is mostly covered in thick dust now. Even if we ended up in yet another few decades of global tension, the new game would not play like the old one. The players have changed, the game board has changed, the tools have changed.
So now the stories of that cold, dark, hush-hush era are finally coming to light. We look back on it, the enormous expense, the back-breaking labor and the terrible human cost seem to be that of a distant time and place.
But looking back at my innocent youth, well aware of the threat of all-out war with the godless communists, but also cognizant of the fact that we were probably safe from that sort of conflagration. We were well away from population centers, missile silos, seaports and financial centers. In other words, a quiet, tranquil region of no real strategic importance, no real concern to our sworn enemies. Sure there was the army post, but they were Airborne Infantry, militarily superfluous in a massive rocket-war plan.
But we were in fact, quite the opposite.
We also now know that the Soviet Union knew about Clarksville Base. Enough about it to have the base pretty high on their top-ten list of strategic targets. There were very likely at least ten, if not several times that amount, Soviet ICBM's pointing at that one target, at the ready, locked and loaded.
That twenty or so air miles of distance between my humble home and that base would be completely insignificant in the firestorm that might have rained down in the opening round of World War III. Cadiz may not have been the bulls eye of that global dart board, but it was certainly well inside the juicy, innermost ring. ICBM guidance technology being what it was at that time, it is almost certain that we'd take multiple hits. No amount of warning, duck and cover, or even the many designated civilian shelters would have been anything more than sad, pathetic and last, desperate acts of a doomed population.
We can sigh with relief now, maybe. The operations there shut down in the late '60's.
We can also finally chuckle at our silly selves of those bygone days.
In a 2012 article, also written for the Leaf Chronicle by Mr. Grey, we hear from the Historian, Mr. O'Brien again.
According to that story, back in the early 60's the geniuses at the University of Chicago asked the techs at Oak Ridge to run some experiments to study the effects of radiation on flesh. Yeah, truly gruesome stuff, but remember kids, this was a long time ago. We did things like that then.
So they irradiated a bunch of man's best friends and bottled up the carcasses in barrels and had them trucked to Chicago for study.
The truck driver stopped in Clarksville, the town, not the base, for a quick lunch and a not-so-quick dalliance with a local lady. It was hot that July day, really hot. As the corpses accelerated their decay inside the barrels in the summer heat, the tightly contained gasses expanded, as they are prone to do.
As O'Brien explained it to the reporter: “The pressure and the heat inside the drums just kept building up,” O’Brien continued, “and a couple of them exploded.”
Oh yeah, nice.
Call in the 'Broken Arrow' team from the nearby landlocked, uber-secret Navy Base.
Cleanup (and coverup) in aisle three!
You just can't make this stuff up.
Please read the linked articles, there's a lot more to these stories and even that is not all there is.
I sent an electronic mail message to the Reporter, Mr. Grey, about a finer point of one of the articles. He replied the next day and added:
". . . holy cow, if I wanted to write a book, I could now with all the former Clarksville Base workers who have come out of the woodwork after the latest articles. Might just have to do that someday soon."
I hope he does write that book. The community, the entire world, needs to be made aware and be constantly mindful of ugly, frightening things like this. We as a society cannot afford to just forget this terrifying era. The horrific circumstances, the insane technology, the panic-driven global fear that could easily lead us yet again, straight into a gruesome, harsh, hellish path where inevitably, barrels full of radioactive dogs start exploding on our city's streets.