Posts filed under 'The Cold War'
Declassified US Cold War Spy Satellite
Scouting An Abandoned Cold War Missile Base
Driving Inside the Soviets’ Secret Submarine Lair
China Turns Soviet Aircraft Carrier Into Hotel
April 12th, 2012
On a recent trip to central Oregon I made a detour to Christmas Valley to visit the former Over-the-Horizon Backscatter (OTH-B) radar site — one of the last Cold War installations in Oregon. This first required permission from the US Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Military Department, who were kind enough to allow me to explore the site. Most Oregonians have probably never heard about the AN/FPS-118 (the official Air Force designation) radar installation in Christmas Valley. The system actually had three components: the transmitter site here in Oregon, a receiver site in Tule Lake California, and an operations center at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. All three sites were connected by satellite. A similar OTH-B radar existed in Maine to serve the East Coast. At the Oregon site, there are really three separate radar installations arranged in a sort of half-moon pattern facing west. Each has wood fencing surrounding the massive 460 acre perimeter and cyclone fencing around a power station, water tank, and the lone pole-barn style building. The operation center in Mountain Home processed all the data from the three West Coast radars. If something looked suspicious on the radar returns, interceptor aircraft would be dispatched to in investigate.
Funding for the West Coast site was authorized by Congress between 1986 and 1988. Construction was completed in December of 1990 at a cost of over $300 million. In 1991, plans were on track to turn the West Coast site over to the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command for official operation. However, with the ending of the Cold War, the Air Force decided to end activities at both the East and West Coast OTH-B radar sites and both were placed into caretaker status. In the mid ‘90s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began using data from the Navy’s smaller and portable OTH-B radar system (AN/TPS-71). The Air Force operated the West Coast site system briefly around this time for scientific and counter narcotics purposes, but this activity stopped in 1997 due to high operating costs. Again, the system was mothballed.
So how is OTH-B radar different from conventional radar? Well, conventional radar has always been limited in range due to the curvature of the earth. OTH-B radar gets around this problem by bouncing radio signals off the ionosphere. A small part of the signal is then reflects back to the receiver, which is called “backscatter”. The range of the OTH-B radar is anywhere from 500 to 1,800 nautical miles, much further than the conventional 250 mile maximum range of a rotating radar. The one major disadvantage of both the West and East Coast sites was the fixed 60 degree coverage. In contrast, a conventional rotating radar provides a 360 degree coverage. The Soviets also had their own OTH-B radar about a decade earlier than ours and was nicknamed the “Russian Woodpecker” by shortwave radio operators. It was shut-down around 1989, possibly because it interfered with civilian radio transmissions. Currently, the only large-scale fixed OTH-B radar site is in Australia.
The Oregon site sat unused from 1997 to 2007. Thieves took their toll as the price for metals soared during the economic boom years. In 2007 an Oregon State Trooper pulled over Peter and Andry Sharipoff of Mount Angel who were carrying 1,500 of copper wire stolen from the site. Both, not surprisingly, were also charged with meth possession. The Air Force dismantled the massive radar arrays shortly thereafter. In 2008, Lake County began exploring ways to use the site for alternative energy production. Since power transmission lines still exist at the site, the thinking was it would be easy to install solar arrays and push power out from the three sites. As of 2011, there has been no alternative energy development at the site. The Oregon Air National Guard now uses the installation for training purposes, but there doesn’t seem to be any long term game plan for the 2,500 acres of land.
I didn’t see any activity when I visited this summer — although there were a few exterior lights on. The power station was buzzing, so juice is still flowing to the site. Overall, the buildings and fencing look to be in good shape. Of course the radar arrays are long gone, but you can still see the cement footings. I should be clear though; this is still a military site and should not be entered without permission from the Oregon Military Office and the Bureau of Land Management. I suspect there are still security systems in place around the remaining buildings, so trespassing would be a bad idea. If you would like to see the site, my suggestion is to view it from the well maintained gravel roads that ring the three installations. But there really isn’t that much to see, so I’m not sure it’s worth making a trek out to Christmas Valley unless you’re a hard-core fan of Cold War infrastructure.
September 10th, 2011
A couple of months ago I took a trip up to North Bend, WA to explore a former AUTOVON site from the Cold War era. AUTOVON, an abbreviation of Automatic Voice Network, was a military phone system built to operate under apocalyptic conditions, like an all out atomic war. AUTOVON was world wide and during its height of operation there were sites in the UK, Asia, Central America, and the Middle East. By the early 1990s, advances in digital technology and the end of the Cold War lead to the abandonment of AUTOVON and its replacement, the Defense Commercial Telecommunications Network (DCTN). The site I visited was a switching center — possibly the only one in the Pacific Northwest — and opened in November of 1970. Some AUTOVON switching centers were underground and hardened for nuclear attack. In the case of the North Bend AUTOVON site, everything is above ground, but it looks like it was designed to ride out a nuclear exchange between the old superpowers. Why do I say that? Because when I went inside the building, there is a decontamination shower just past the steel blast doors. Also, there is still a massive fresh water tank in the mechanical room. I didn’t see any sleeping quarters, but those could have been removed when the site was sold decades ago. A kitchen and bathroom facilities are still intact though. All the switching equipment was removed years ago, so there wasn’t really much to see in the operations room.
During normal Cold War operations, 17 technicians would have worked around the clock to keep the switching equipment running. This particular site would have handled all military communications for Washington, Alaska, and Idaho (and probably Oregon as well). The site was built by the Cascade Autovon Company at a cost of four million dollars and was managed by Larmar Gaines, the white-shirted civilian featured in the photos below. Century Link was kind enough to allow me to tour the facility and they also provide scans of the photos below. I have no idea what the future of the building will be — I think Century Link is trying to sell it.
July 22nd, 2011
This last weekend I observed Portland Amateur Radio Club (PARC) conduct their annual field day at Kelly Butt in SE Portland – nearly on top of the old Cold War era Civil Defense Control Center. The members of PARC use field day as an opportunity to test their ham radio skills, which would be tapped if a catastrophic natural or man-made disaster occurred rendering first responder communication useless. During field day, the dozen or so ham operators at Kelly Butte compete with other amateur radio clubs in logging contacts. They start at low power, like 5 watts, and work their way up. Once a contact is logged, it’s sent to a national organization for verification.
I was mostly curious in exploring the remains of the Civil Defense Control Center, which I have blogged about in the past, but never seen in person. There is no way to actually gain access to the interior anymore, which didn’t surprise me, since I’ve heard stories from the past of homeless folks taking up residence when access was still possible. What was a little amazing was just how completely the City of Portland covered the entrance to the bunker. Untold tons of dirt and rock now cover the concrete facade, which featured a massive sliding steel door seen in the film “The Day Called X”. There is an escape hatch at the rear of the facility, and this was pretty easy to find, but the city has plugged the door with a big chunk of concrete. What amazed me was the all the vegetation that has grown up around the old structure. The top of the building is still roughly outlined by a small field, but the parking lot and entrance looks like it’s hundreds of years old.
June 28th, 2011
I was watching the BBC documentary Clear the Skies the other night and it got me thinking about the current state of US air defense. This straight ahead documentary offers a linear narrative of the morning of 9/11, focusing on air defense and Continuation of Government (COG) efforts. To a certain extent, I was surprised at how well things actually worked. The USAF and the FAA jointly coordinated efforts to track the hijacked aircraft. Fighter jets were scrambled for intercept in a (somewhat) timely fashion. Communication lines functioned and information was delivered to the appropriate people. Since I’ve been researching the old Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), the Cold War air defense system, I’ve been interested in knowing what US air defense looks like today. Obviously, we don’t have the massive network of regional SAGE air defense facilities we use to have, but the cooperation between the USAF and the FAA seems adequate for tracking aircraft and identify those with hostile intent. But based on what was presented in the documentary, we seem to be lacking alert interceptors, or in layman’s terms, armed jet fighters ready to fly at a moment’s noticed. On 9/11, armed aircraft were scrambled pretty quickly from Langley in Virgina, but they were some 200 miles away from DC and unable to intercept the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. However, if the other Capitol bound jetliner wouldn’t have went down in Pennsylvania, it would have likely been brought down by one the interceptors from Langley. I don’t remember where the NYC bound fighter jets originated from, but it might have been Cape Cod. Again, they were not able to make it to New York by the time the second plane hit the twin towers, but they would have been able to take down any additional hostile aircraft.
Of course there are many on the inter-webs criticizing the Pentagon’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They suggest too many minutes passed between when the planes were identified as hijacked and when the order went out to scrambled interceptors. They also complain the USAF unnecessarily restricting interceptors to subsonic flight. For those who aren’t familiar with supersonic flight, when the sound barrier is broken, it creates a “sonic boom” that can shatter windows and generally make people angry — particularly the elderly, who hate having Mattlock interrupted by anything, including acts of war. Because of this, military aircraft are only allowed to “kick out the jams” over the ocean. So this is a fair criticism of the USAF I think, but the fault may really be with the FAA. There should be some kind of supersonic waiver granted for interceptors when faced with hostile aircraft over the continental US. We can deal with a few broken windows and the agitated old folks (P.S., old people need to be isolated and studied so it can be determined what nutrients they have that might be extracted for our personal use…hey, it’s not just a Lyndon LaRouche campaign slogan anymore!)
Anyway, my take away from the BBC documentary was we need to increase the number of interceptor aircraft on alert in or near large urban areas. And we don’t need fancy F-22s or F-35s for the job. More F-15s and F-16s would do just fine, thank-you-very-much. I foresee two problems with this recommendation though. 1. Cost. The Pentagon would want to spend vast sums of money on additional F-22s/F-35s for air defense instead of cheaper F-15s/F-16s. That’s just the way they roll. Everybody knows USAF brass don’t secure lucrative post military “consulting” jobs by pushing inexpensive weapons systems. 2. NIMBY. Basing interceptors close to urban areas means you’re going to piss a lot of people off. Already, there are many in PDX complaining about the ANG’s F-15s. Frankly, I don’t mind them that much even though I live fairly close to the airport. They only fly after 9:00 AM, so the noise it’s a big deal compared to the ass-hats who run their leaf blowers nonstop. But people like to bitch about every little thing, so increasing deployment of fighters would surely create a lot of angry letters to politicians.
To me, it would make sense for the US to reevaluate air defense in, say, five to ten years. There is a lot of technology hitting maturity, like phased array radar, that’s coming down in cost and could be deployed to increase radar coverage. The phased array sites we currently have in Alaska, California, and Cape Cod look out. Why not look in as well?Increasing and modernizing radar sites would benefit both the FAA and USAF. Also, it’s a safe bet the F-16 will still be in production for another decade based on the strength of foreign orders, so I think it would be a good idea to purchase additional aircraft for air defense purposes or overhaul older F-16s slatted for retirement. Like a wise man once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
June 17th, 2010
It’s taken weeks to arrange, but the stars finally aligned and I was able to get inside the former SAGE building at the long decommissioned Adair AFS outside of Corvallis. I’ve been wanting to poke around the place since it will be one of the Cold War sites profiled in my documentary. Edward Elkins of McMinnville, who served at the site in the ’60s, acted as the official tour guide while the building owner Justus Seely handled the logistics. For those of you unfamiliar with SAGE, it stands for Semi Automatic Ground Environment. Basically, SAGE was an integrated North American air defense system that operated from the late 1950s up to the early 1980s. At the heart of SAGE was the AN/FSQ-7 computer. Each SAGE center (like Adair) had two AN/FSQ-7s — one that was “active” and one on standby allowing for near 100% reliability. There were probably around 22 SAGE sites across the US and Canada at the height of the Cold War, but once ICBMs became the preferred method for delivering nukes, many of the SAGE sites were closed. Adair is unique because it operated up to the ’70s and managed the air defense responsibilities for a bit chunk of the West Coast toward the end of it’s service.
So what’s the building like today? Well first, I should confess to a major screw-up: I forgot my Frezzi Mini 100 watt movie light. For some reason, I packed the NRG battery belt and back-up bulbs, but not the actual movie light. This was a huge deal, since much of the building is sans electricity. Interesting story there: when Justus bought the building years ago from the local carpenter’s union, they took advantage of closing delays to strip as much wiring from the building as they could. They didn’t mess with the first floor, since that would be more noticeable to the new buyer, but the second and third floors were thoroughly ransacked, resulting in spotting power. So having the movie light would have actually facilitated decent filming. Instead, most of the video I shot was just dark shadows and flashlight beams playing across walls, which is kind of cool from an artistic angle, but it really sucks from a documentary standpoint.
But back to the actual condition of the building. There is still a significant “footprint” of the Cold War here. The basement of the site was basically a Civil Defense bunker. There are still moldy boxes of CD supplies and other artifacts strew about the place. And since there is no power down there, it feels like a vampire movie set. The first floor of the building, where the two massive computers would have been located, is mostly taken up by Justus’ flooring company. There are a couple of other tenants using this space for storage as well. Up on the second floor, where the operations room is located, there are more rooms that are leased out for storage. There is also someone living there apparently who serves as a caretaker/watchman. We heard his dog bark somewhere in the building, but couldn’t figure out where. That made things even more surreal. Oh, the other weird thing is the building use to be used for Airsoft battles, which is similar to paintball, just without the splatter. As a result, there are thousands, maybe millions, of these little white pellets everywhere. I thought some kind of massive bean bag disaster had taken place. The third floor is where most of the computer consoles would have existed. Of course these are long gone (maybe re-purposed for the set of Lost?), but you can still see where they were mounted to the floor. The lighting in these rooms was all blue and Justus did manage to turn some power on and some of the blue lights still work, which is super cool.
Overall, the SAGE building at Adair still tells a compelling Cold War story. It helps to have someone like Ed there to explain everything though. There have been some pretty significant alterations to the building, like the addition of a couple of windows and the partition of the first floor, but it’s still a fascinating (and often mysterious) site. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return someday with a lighting rig to get better interior footage. If that doesn’t work, I would at least like to go back this summer and get some better exterior shots since the rain yesterday cut short some of the outside filming.
If you want to see some of my limited footage of the site, please visit my Vimeo account here.
May 21st, 2010
I spent another productive day at the Stanley Parr Archives and Record Center (SPARC) last week researching Portland’s civil defense efforts for my Cold War documentary. During my previous visit, I focused on the Kelly Butte bunker. For this last visit, I researched Portland’s network of super sirens and the mass evacuation of downtown dubbed Operation Green Light. So here is what I discovered about these historical footnotes.
The network of seven super sirens, often referred to as “Wailing Willies” by the general public, operated for about 11 years - from 1952 to 1963. The sirens existed at the following locations:
- Northeast corner of N. John and Princeton
- N. Emerson and Maryland
- NE 56th and Sandy
- SE corner of SE 54th and Boise
- SE Milkwaukie and McLoughlin
- SW 31st and Nevada
- Top of American Bank building (downtown)
These jumbo sized sirens were built by Chrysler and featured a V-8 “HEMI” gasoline engine (but were probably powered by propane). The sirens connected to the electrical grid for power to keep the batteries charged, but the sirens could operated independently in the event of a power failure. These sirens could be controlled remotely from the bunker at Kelly Butte or manually on site. The Wailing Willies were tested once a month and created a wail that topped out at 138 decibels. When Portland soured on civil defense in 1963, the system was abandoned.
Operation Green Light
On September 27th of 1955, the City of Portland conducted a simulated mass evacuation of our downtown core. This event was later reenacted for the CBS television production “A Day Called X”. Dubbed Operation Green Light, around 29,000 vehicles and over 100,000 people evacuated a 1,000 city block area of downtown. During the test, all traffic lights in the evacuation zone were converted to display a fixed pattern of green or red.
All photos courtesy of SPARC. Special thanks to Brian Johnson for all his help.
October 30th, 2009
I recently made a pilgrimage to the summit of Mt. Hebo in the Oregon coast range to see if there are any signs of the old Cold War Air Force radar station. It was a lot easier to get to the top of the mountain than I thought — you just follow Mt. Hebo road on up after turning off of 22 (near the 101 junction). The route is well maintained, yet extremely twisty; so much so, Emily got car sick during the drive. From 22, it’s about 30 minutes to the top. Unfortunately, my first trip was a disappointment due to poor weather. I was hoping to shoot some 16mm footage with Tony’s fancy Bolex using Kodak’s 50D, but typical coastal cloud cover had reduced visibility to around 50 - 100 yards. Eric and I did find signs of old infrastructure, like the foundation of one of the radar buildings and a buried electrical vault (see photos below), but that was about it. There are a couple of newer communications towers maintained by Verizon, the Oregon State Police, and one of the railroads, but nothing military related. The second trip up was far more productive from a filming standpoint. There was still some cloud cover, but I had enough sun breaks to manage a couple of panoramic shots using a really wide prime lens on the Bolex. I’m a little worried about the exposure since I had trouble reading my light meter, but I’m hoping the 50D has similar latitude to Kodak’s other motion picture negative film.
After coming down from the mountain, I also met with Bill Pollard, who served on Mt. Hebo during the Cold War. He now lives in Pacific City and had plenty to say about his time in the Air Force. There were a couple of interesting comments he made I though worth posting:
- When the Air Force station closed in 1980, it took two years for contractors to remove everything from the site
- The family housing existed about 2,000 feet below the summit. When the station closed, this site was dismantled as well. Some homes were sold to members of the community and can still be found — although heavily modified.
- When Mt. Hebo closed, some of the radar equipment was given to the FAA and used on a mountain top outside of Salem
- Some of the radar equipment was pretty jerry rig. For example, the hydraulic system on the height finder radar was crafted from modified landing gear scrounged from a T-33 fighter jet.
- The reason there were so many makes and models of radar systems across radar sites was not intended to drive technicians crazy. Rather, it was intended to make it harder for the Soviets to jam our radar sites.
- There were never any Soviet incursions or unidentified aircraft during the site’s operation according to Bill. Pretty much day-in-day-out routine for the most part.
- Encryption was not used for data transfers over Long Lines from Mt. Hebo to Adair, the SAGE site in Corvallis. I guess encryption was pretty much pointless those days, since only the US military had the primitive modems used for transmitting data over the phone lines.
- The Long Lines data transfer between Mt. Hebo and Adair was actually two-way. The SAGE system could also send back instructions to the radar.
September 29th, 2009
I recently spent some time at the Stanley Parr Archives and Record Center (SPARC), the City of Portland archives out in North Portland, researching my documentary short film about Oregon during the Cold War. I was only able to skim the surface of all the civil defense archival material, but the staff was gracious enough to scan a few photos of the construction of the Kelly Butte command center. B-Love also joined me at SPARC and did some Memorial Coliseum research and found some awesome photos of that sports arena’s construction. Still trying to come up with a title for the project, but I’m leaning toward “Watching the Sea and Sky: Oregon’s Lost Cold War Infrastructure”. It really puts a focus on the documentary, which I’ve decided is an examination of Oregon’s air defense and underwater surveillance efforts from roughly 1955 to 1992.
During my visit to the SPARC, I also learned about another facet of Portland civil defense efforts I was not aware of: air raid sirens called “Wailing Willies”. I guess there were seven of these towers in various neighborhoods throughout Portland, but I don’t know any of the detail like exact locations or how long they were in operation. I’ll follow-up on my next trip to SPARC and hopefully find out more.
August 31st, 2009
Sometimes you just need to be ambitious — even if said ambition is modest (or even pointless) by conventional standards. In the past, I’ve blogged about Oregon’s forgotten Cold War infrastructure, but now I’ve decided to do something with all this information. So where does the ambition part come into play? I’ve decided to make a documentary short film telling Oregon’s Cold War story by examining abandon or semi-abandon military, Civil Defense, and telecommunication sites across the state. Just to make it perfectly clear: this won’t be a comprehensive study of Cold War’s impact here in Oregon. Only about six sites will make the final cut based on the availability of interview subjects, period photos, and thematic relevance. The goal will be to try and loosely tie all these sites together to illustrate the social, political, and technological changes that took place in mid-century America and Oregon in particular.
I’ve already started collecting contact information for interview candidates and I’m trying to schedule location filming for August. One piece I’m trying to figure out is permissions for interviews and images. Andy was kind enough to provide personal release forms, but I’m still looking for release forms for photographs and motion picture film. As much as possible, I plan on using old archival footage to get around the thorny issue of copyright, but I will still need to get a hold of still photos. As far as filmmaking equipment goes, I’m not going to worry about that until I get closer to actually shooting on location. I figure I can beg, borrow, or steal most of what I’ll need. I suspect some of the exterior shots will be on Super 8. Interviews will have to be digital video, but I’m sure I can figure that out. More challenging will be deciding how to stylistically approach the project. I’ve already decided that I don’t want the conventional voice-over narration for the film. Rather, I would like to tell the story using just interviews. This presents a bit of a problem, since some technical things, like SAGE, will need someone with a level of expertise to provide a non-jargon laden explanation. Finding these kinds of interview candidates locally could be a challenge to say the least.
Here is a question for all you readers: what are your favorite documentary films and why? One of my all time favorites is A Thing of Wonder by the local collective Archipelago. It has an unconventional narrative style and a wonderful dreamlike quality. I’m also quite fond of Errol Morris’ various documentaries. He has an amazing talent for crafting compelling interviews. Another all time favorite documentary is American Movie — I love the way the filmmakers immerse themselves in the subject matter while managing to stay detached just enough to be relatively objective.
I suppose I should start using something like Twitter to document my progress on this project. Once that starts up, I’ll post the link here.
July 29th, 2009