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.