NB: Written in 1992, entirely from memory and without notes (I wasn't smart enough to keep a diary, so there are most likely some inaccuracies. Please bear with them, and if you have notes, or remember differently, get in touch, please) this piece has been rattling around in a desk drawer since then. In the hopes that some old "radar rat", such as myself, will find some entertainment here, I've decided to publish this on the Web. I'd appreciate email if you come across this piece and enjoy it as much as I enjoyed remembering and documenting this early '60s experience.
I'd really like to contact other "Tracker Cats" or "Scanner Rats" from the period. You can email me at: GMcManus@BWCINet.com.
Gene McManus, September 1996
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold
War was raging; Francis Gary Powers had been shot down over Russia
on a U-2 spy mission; the Soviet Union was spreading its influence
over much of the East by force and even into the Western Hemisphere,
in Cuba. Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs, were being
deployed by both the United States and the Soviets. The U.S. defense
plan during this period, and much of the 30 years following, was
that of "Mutually Assured Destruction," or MAD, whereby
the defense of the United States relied upon the theory that it
would be suicidal for the Soviet Union to launch a missile attack
upon the United States. In order to allow the United States to
know of an impending attack, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning
System, BMEWS, was born. A project of the North American Air
Defense Command (NORAD), a cooperative U.S. and Canadian air defense
command under the supervision of the U.S. Air Force, this was
the most massive technological undertaking in history.
The United States Air Force had deployed
and staffed several early warning systems to provide an alert
to attack by aircraft. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) and the
Pine Tree Lines were radar defense installations across northern
and central Canada which would warn of hostile aircraft approaching
the United States and Canada over the North Pole. Missile early
warning was another issue, however. Inter-continental missiles
fly a ballistic trajectory after being launched, much as a mortar
or cannon round would fly. They leave the earth's atmosphere during
flight, travelling a high, arching route until gravity brings
them back to impact a predetermined target. Unlike a threat by
bomber aircraft, which could be intercepted by the U.S. or Canadian
air defense aircraft, there was no tactical response to the ICBM
threat. The ballistic flight time from the Soviet Union to the
United States is approximately 30 minutes, long enough to launch
a counter-attack if the attack is detected. In order to sound
a warning of ICBM attack, the missiles would have to be detected
at or shortly after launch, as they were streaking upward, very
early in the ballistic pattern.
BMEWS was designed during the late 1950s
to sound just such a warning of an attack, with enough time for
the U.S. to launch a counter-attack, pulling the MAD trigger. The first
of the BMEWS deployments, which finally numbered three at Clear,
Alaska, Thule, Greenland, and RAF Fylingdales, North Yorksihre,
England, was put
into service in the early fall of 1960 at Thule.
At the time of the first BMEWS deployment,
I was just out of the U.S. Air Force, having served one enlistment
as a Ground Radar electronics technician. I was working at the
North American Aviation factory in Columbus, Ohio, as an electronic
technician on the A3J (later RA5) Vigilante attack bomber's ground
test equipment. I was not particularly enamored with factory work
and union work rules and was generally restless
for change. In January, 1961, a classified ad appeared in the
Columbus Sunday paper Help-Wanted section, recruiting experienced
electronic technicians to work on the BMEWS project in Clear,
Alaska, or Thule, Greenland. The employer was RCA Service Company,
a division of the Radio Corporation of America, who was the prime
contractor for the project. I answered the ad, expecting a 30-
minute job interview. After most of a day spent in electronics
skill testing and various psychological testing, I was hired.
I reported to Riverton, New Jersey, just
across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, in February, 1961,
for BMEWS training. I was put into the Tracking Radar Automatic
Monitoring or TRAM class, training to become a technician on the
automatic test equipment system which would monitor the health
of the not yet deployed BMEWS tracking radar.
The BMEWS project pay was outstanding. My
base pay was to be $220 bi-weekly, about average for electronics
technicians of the period. However, overtime and bonuses quickly
mounted up. After forty hours per week, time-and-one-half wages
were paid; after 48 hours, double-time. We were guaranteed fifty-four
hours a week; nine hours per day, six days per week. The actual work week at the BMEWS site turned out to be seven days a week,
nine hours per day, or sixty-three hours per week. At the end of each six months on site, a bonus
was paid, the size being dependent upon the site at which one
was stationed. In Clear, Alaska, subject to U.S. income taxes,
the bonus was 45 percent. At Thule, where most wages were exempt
from U.S. income taxes, the bonus was 30 percent.
The tax laws of the day exempted the first
$20,000 of an individual's salary from income tax if the individual
was "physically present in a foreign country for 510 full
days out of 18 consecutive months." The Thule site came under
this ruling, and the 510 day rule even allowed for a visit home.
I opted for the Thule assignment. Thus began a love affair with
an electronics system that has lasted for over 30 years.
I was in school at Riverton with a class
of about 20 other men. The BMEWS assignments were "men only,"
there being no women's facilities at either the Thule or Clear
BMEWS sites. Training was originally scheduled for about two months,
but was accelerated to about six weeks since the tracking radar
installation was imminent. In addition to technical training in
transistor and logic circuits, binary math, and other purely technical
skills, we underwent basic Arctic survival training, had security
clearances issued, and underwent a final physical and dental checkup.
We left for Thule aboard an Air Force C-118
transport plane from McGuire Air Force Base in northern New Jersey.
The C-118 was a converted cargo hauler with gratings covering
the windows. The passenger seating was installed facing backward,
because of an Air Force "safety" standard, and was incredibly
uncomfortable. We spent some thirteen hours in the air, with one
stop at Goose Bay, Labrador, for refuelling on our way to Thule.