I knew Kwajalein was going to be a strange place, but I didn’t understand that getting there would be strange too. Northwest Airlines, with its distinctive fleet of red-tailed passenger jets, had a contract with the government to fly military personnel and civilian contractors and their families from Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

When I boarded the flight in Hawaii for Kwajalein, I used the false credentials I had been issued back in Washington. They identified me as a senior civilian employee of the Department of the Army. The sensible concern the credentials addressed was that if the people I needed to talk to on Kwajalein knew I was really a low-ranking enlisted man, I might get short shrift and my mission could be inadvertently compromised.

I knew how long the non-stop fight to Kwajalein was going to take, so I was surprised when we suddenly began descending well short of our destination. There was no engine malfunction, so why land in the middle of the Pacific if you didn’t have to? I had no desire to emulate Amelia Earhart, so I was increasingly nervous with what might be an unexpected descent into oblivion. My anxiety was relieved when the pilot came on the squawk box to say we should buckle up for our landing to refuel at Johnston Atoll.

My momentary relief at what was happening went away as we landed. It was replaced with a feeling of, “What the hell is going on here?” The runway at Johnston seemed only about as long as the atoll itself, leaving no room for error on the pilot’s part. I stared out the airplane window in awe as we decelerated, finally rolled to a stop, and then taxied back to the other end of the runway to deplane. In each direction we had passed large metal sheds on both sides of the runway. There seemed to be train tracks going into each shed. The mystery of what was going on only increased for me when I saw two men in front of one of the sheds. They were working on the innards of a large horizontal missile that had obviously been rolled out of the open doors of the shed on rails for maintenance.

During the refueling we had been ushered past a no-nonsense MP with his weapon drawn into a small, single-story air-conditioned space. As we sat on plain benches waiting for the refueling to finish, it was hard not to notice the storage cubby holes on each wall and the multiple black hoses hanging down from the strange piping in the ceiling. Nothing was said by anyone about all this and in short order we reboarded out airplane and proceeded to Kwajalein uneventfully.

Only many years later did I understand what I had seen. At the peak of the Cold War, there was a basis for military planners being worried about the Soviet Union stationing nuclear weapons on satellites in orbit. Satellites fitted with nuclear weapons could launch them on a trajectory to American cities at any time of the Soviet Union’s choosing. To meet this threat, President Johnson had authorized some of our Thor missiles to be adapted for anti-satellite warfare. The Johnston anti-satellite Thor missiles I saw gave the U.S. a way to take such Soviet weapons out of the game if the need arose.

That only left the cubby holes, ceiling pipes, hoses mystery. Similarly, it was years later that I learned that Johnston Atoll’s unique position in the western Pacific Ocean made it a useful place for CIA SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft to refuel on their missions over Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Blackbirds could travel over 2,000 miles per hour and held an altitude record for flying over 85,000 feet. Their high-altitude flights required early versions of the space suits and helmets the astronauts later wore. Hence, the cubby hole storage cabinets. The ceiling pipes and related hoses were also a necessity in the Johnston ready room. They were there to feed the SR-71 pilots oxygen in the acclimating run up to their departures.

A Half Century of Ballistic Missile & Satellite Defense

March 18th, 2022|

Bill Bowe, a former President of The Cliff Dwellers and Executive Vice President of Encyclopaedia Britannica, begins with a lighthearted look at a subject he’s been following since the 1950’s. Though hard to believe today, Nike missiles with nuclear warheads were once ready to be launched from 22 sites around Chicago, including Belmont Harbor and Jackson Park on the lakefront.