I wrote this June 9th, 2006, to remember a fellow veteran of Alaskan radar sites. It is more than to mark one man’s passing. By repeating this, I hope to spotlight the service of generations of American Air Force, Navy, and Army specialists, along with civilian FAA and Weather Service personnel during the Cold War years.
From 1947 until 1991, American USAF Air Defense and Army Air Defense Artillery specialists went to Alaska, Iceland, and Greenland for 12- or 18-month long tours of duty. They filled a vital role as part of North America’s early detection and warning system during those years; yet because their work was classified usually Secret and above, few outside their closed fellowship of scope dopes and USAF-trained killers knew anything about those repeated PCS tours to some of Earth’s most inhospitable places.
Because these specialists were highly trained, the Air Force did its best to retain them. Both ground and airborne control and warning personnel were enthusiastically courted to reup. The Air Defense Command being a fairly closed community, all personnel in every specialty could expect at least one 12-month isolated remote tour during any 4-year hitch.
Tin City… Kotzebue… Galena… Cape Romanzof… Tatalina… Thule… King Salmon… Adak… Cold Bay… Shemya…
During the Korea and Vietnam conflicts – all enveloped within the larger framework of the Cold War – the duty in places like these was harsh. All the buildings were of World War 2 vintage, and many were literally tied down with heavy twisted-steel cables to keep them from being blown into the Arctic Sea by the wild, sub-zero winds. Some of the long-range surveillance and control sites featured mountain-top experiences unlike any other on the planet; the radars themselves were up on rugged, wind-scoured mountain summits. The support and living quarters were down below, and the two were loosely connected by trams.
If you were never there, you wouldn’t understand ‘loosely’. If you were, no explanation is necessary.
I add these few facts to point up the tremendous price paid by these men and their families back in The World. The divorce rate for our career field stayed right around 60%.
“Our?” Yes. I was one of those Cold Warriors.
Imagine yourself in an old wooden barracks built sometime around 1942. Standard colors everywhere are bile green, curdled cream, government grey, and olive drab. In your room, you have exposed pipes making the top bunk a dicey idea. If an NCO, you have your own room, so the top bunk becomes storage. The steam heat from an old, ticking and popping radiator struggles to keep you warm, and you keep an old coffee can full of water on it to cut down on the possibility of fire, and make breathing easier. Outside your window is a homemade box with rabbit screen as the outside wall. Who needs a freezer in Alaska? Inside that window, a painted-canvas blackout blind is installed to allow restful darkness during the sun’s seasonal games of ring-around-the-rosy. All buildings are connected by heated passageways; you don’t have to set foot outside if you so choose. You soon realize you definitely choose if at all possible, for there is no place that will haunt you with its stark, rugged beauty like Alaska.
If fortunate enough to have a radio or AC/DC TV, all you receive is Armed Forces Radio & Television Service. You learn to like Japanese westerns: Godzilla Meets ___________. There are no commercials other than service-related info.
The sites are just large enough to continue the mission. Resupply and mail is by transport or contract aircraft, except for when weather minimums restrict flying. Then it’s either by barge if they can get through the ice, or you make do. Powdered ice cream, eggs, and milk really aren’t that bad. Yes, they were a little dated, but we ate. When able to get through, all phone calls are monitored and recorded by Soviet submarines or ‘research’ ships in southern international waters. Telephone or snail mail. That’s it.
We did our best to maintain military bearing and courtesy. However, airborne hostiles could show at any time, and when the alerts went off, our standard uniform was whatever we happened to be wearing, or could get on the quickest. I ran more than one intercept in jeans, a flannel shirt, and some folded-down Apache moccasins.
It’s my hope that these few recollections help open your understanding for when you see a veteran wearing apparel that identifies him or her as a Cold War veteran. It was rough, gutsy, rugged duty that called for the same kind of warriors. The possibility of war being unleashed by the former USSR – yes, they even had ‘Socialist’ in their name – meant there was no such thing as down time.
Most of us are gray-haired and retired now. We’re used to the younger, electronically-leashed veterans of today being derisive, for they’ve no idea what we managed to do with so little. At the time, what we had was the best available, and we had to suck it up, and learn how to fight and win using equipment our grandsons in uniform now see only in museums.
That all being said, here, then, is that reminiscence from 2006…
A folded flag. “On behalf of the President of the United States . . .” murmured to a surviving spouse, if one exists.
Memories of honorable service in ice-whipped, wind-scourged places most in polite society have never heard of.
The years have softened faces and blurred names, so I don’t recall Hank. Yet I know his kind. I stand in silent respect with the rest of the veterans of the Alaskan Cold War experience.
The passing of any of us diminishes all of us; those having never served at the Alaskan sites have only our recollection, our experiences to inform them.
As we fall, so do those memories. Some were sparkling, tough-humored testimony to the inventiveness and hardy spirit that’s always carried American warriors through challenging times.
Others we’d all just as soon leave buried beneath the forever-drifting ice and snow, chalking it up to hard experience, doing what needed to be done to get by, and surviving it all.
Most of the time our radar and control site experiences were more like M*A*S*H than anything else – focusing on doing our job well and getting back to The World in one piece.
The other times? They are part of those adrenalin-flooded wartime sagas that earn ribbons and medals everywhere else. Up there, few made time to even fill out the paperwork.
Many of the places men like Hank served aren’t there anymore; and those that do survive are highly automated and nothing like they were when we Cold Warriors were there.
All one has to do is stand amid the ruins of a ghost town and listen to the prairie wind sighing, whispering, and moaning through the grass to know: our time will never be again.
We took our place among the advancing stream of men and women who broke new ground, who made the way better for those who followed.
Such has always been the legacy of the American warrior.
Rest, comrade and brother. You are already missed.
Daniel Boone, Sgt, USAF – Wichita, Kansas 9 June 2006
The Cold War took American military men and women all around the world, for it was a global war that could and often did break out suddenly and fiercely at any time, in almost any place. Whenever you see an older American somehow identified as a Cold War veteran, you may assume they know two things they pray you never again see: that war wasn’t always cold; and during those times it flared up, it was nasty, ugly, and violent.
Respect them. You’ve no idea where they’ve been.
© D. Dean Boone, November 2020