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10 April 2004. One of the Eyeball series.
Maps from Mapquest.com
Source of photos: http://www.terraserver-usa.com
As far as is known, nuclear weapons are no longer stored at Gray Air Force Base. The recollections of service members who maintained the weapons are informative.
More on Nuclear Weapons Storage Areas:
The Bush Crawford White House is about 20 miles north of this base:
Gray AFB was established to support Killeen Base. Killeen Base, still used by the Army for munitions storage, was one of the early (1948-1969) U.S. National Stockpile Sites for storing nuclear weapons. This site, also known as "Baker" held both Army and USAF special weapons.
By: Hank Broer, Robert Gray Airforce Base, 1955-1956
I was there from July 1955 to June 6, 1956. There were also some buddies from my outfit in Japan who were similarly assigned. I was a member of the Airways and Air Communication Service (AACS). Your reference to "Killeen Base" is foreign to me. It was Gray Air Force Base, and it was a SAC (Strategic Air Command) base.
I recall it was a Sunday when I checked in, and the place was weirdly quiet. There was very little activity to be seen. I noticed that at this AFB there were no hangars!! I learned that a buddy from Japan was already here, and on duty up in the control tower. And what a control tower - the tallest and most modern I'd ever seen (and I had been in many). I went up to the tower, and learned that Gray AFB had a 10,000 foot runway (very long in those days), no hangars and no aircraft assigned to it!! Really strange to me. I was a radar repairman, dealing with ground control approach radar - the radar that is used to guide aircraft in for landings in IFR or poor visibility weather. I could see the radar equipment in its usual position parked on the other side of the runway. My buddy said there was no airplane activity to monitor or control.
All towers have binoculars available for the person(s) on duty, so I picked up a pair and started looking around. Not far from where this cluster of barracks were, was the "Army portion" of the area. This was slightly hilly country and I could see various entrances to bumkers. Surrounding this area were 3 separate electrified barbed wire fences, with room in between for patrolling jeeps and MP's. In about 10 minutes, 2 MP's presented themselves in the tower and wanted to know why I was looking at the Army base with the binoculars, and didn't I know that I was doing something wrong. They were serious people. Luckily, they accepted my explanation that I was a new arrival and had not been briefed as to what my role was, what could do and not do.
The next day in my orientation I was told nothing about this strange and different assignment, except that I would be assuring that the communication and the GCA radar equipment were fully operational. And not to ask too many questions. As I said there were no planes at this base, no hangars, none of the usual activities that one associates with an AFB base.
Now for the 'exciting' part: About every 2 months, trucks and soldiers from Fort Hood would enter our base, line up along the 10,000 foot runway, and sweep across the base insuring that there wasn't anybody there. (There never was anyway, at any time). Then, a convoy of trucks from the adjacent Army base would come onto the base, the trucks shrouded, and carrying unknown material. This material was then loaded onto the several C-124 cargo planes from SAC. We didn't know where they came from or where they were going - it was none of our business. This was unusual in that the control tower would ordinarily be getting 'travel direction' from a central air traffic control center. But these planes were on their own mission and knew what they were about. Putting all this together didn't take much to figure out what was going on.
By James,Bellaire (sys) USX June 1959 to May 1960
Local people, and people at Fort Hood, referred to Gray AFB as "the underground airfield". It was easy to see why if you ever watched a plane head in toward the base. The base is in a low spot, behind some hills. The plane goes behind the hills and "disappears". That, plus the heavy duty security cloak around place, tended to give it air of mystery. We were instructed to discuss absolutely nothing about the base with anyone. We were also to report anyone who was "persistent" about inquiries.
All the work that we did was controlled by classified documents (work instructions). These were kept in a file cabinet, four drawers I think, with a combination lock on it. Any time a document was removed/ returned from/to the safe, a document location card was signed by two people, the technician, and a man with rank. Electrical Bay (E-Bay) of Special Weapons Detachment A (later Special Weapons Company A, even though we were only the size of a platoon) was led by 1st Lt. Guptal, WO-3 Naleski, SFC Hodges, and Sgt (E-5) Nocera. Any one of those four could counter sign the card. The border of the card was red, indicating a Secret document. (Top Secret was blue, Confidential was yellow.)
There were two classes of work performed on the Weapons. Periodic Inspection, on units that came in from the field, and Storage Inspection on units that were stored at KB. I don't exactly remember the intervals because it varied depending the Mark of the Weapon. In general though, field returns were performed at shorter intervals, say 18 months, and storage units maybe 24 to 36 months.
Weapons from the field came into Gray AFB. They were removed from a coffin like container, with top and bottom halves, and an O-ring seal all the way around, which was bolted together. The container was also shock-mounted, on "wire rope" springs, and a ground strap was connected at all times.
They were placed on dolly, with car size tires, and towed up to the entrance of the Plant. They only had a rubberized, zippered, security cover over them. We never knew where they came from but, it was obvious that some of them were stored under very poor conditions, as the paint was sandblasted off in several places. We speculated that they sat in an exposed cage, with only the security cover over them. It had no bottom, so sand could blow in. Maybe this condition occurred during loading and unloading of the bombers. If so, I feel sorry for the ground crews that had to work in a sandstorm.
All mechanical handling equipment (MHE) inside the Plant was battery-operated. There were tugs, fork lifts, and a unit with a flatbed up front about 10 feet long. The operator stood at the rear, and the control pedestal was waist high. A tug would hook onto the Weapon's dolly and tow it inside. Near the supply room, the cover was removed and, if the Weapon was really dirty, it was washed first.
The nuclear core was removed, and stored. The Weapon was then moved to either M-Bay 1(Mechanical), or M-Bay 2. I'm hazy on what determined this. It could have been work load, handling fixtures for specific weapons in each bay, or the training of the M-Bay personnel to work on specific weapons. There, it was disassembled.
The High Explosive (HE) sphere, the fire set, the arming circuits, the batteries, and the detonation devices were removed. There were 24 detonators, one in each of the 24 segments of the HE sphere. The dets were removed one at a time, two hands holding the det, and placed in soft black foam container with cut outs to perfectly accept them. The dets were about the size of an individual serving can of veggies, or pork and beans, that you can buy in grocery store today.
The floor in the DET room, in M-Bay was about six inches thick, again of black soft foam. The guys worked in their stocking feet (boots off). During the disassembly, everything was examined for any sign of damage. The fireset, a ring the size of the inside diameter of the Weapon contained all the wiring to the dets. It, and the time, and barometric detonation devices, were moved to E-Bay, where I worked. The batteries were moved to the "J" room for service. All power was 28 volts DC. In E-Bay, we tested all electrical components.
The Weapons usually had three options for detonation. First off in the circuit, there was the SAFE/ARM switch. This was about six inches in diameter, and about three inches thick. The face had eight alternating segments marked SAFE and ARM. The cover had four segment openings, 90° apart, so you would normally read SAFE in all four. All the bombardier had to do to arm the Weapon was, open and access panel, rotate the cover to the ARM position, and close the panel. Then, ARM would show in all four windows. SAFE was white letters on green background, ARM was white letters on red background.
After the Weapon was armed, it could be detonated by time, so many preset seconds in the electrical timing device after it was dropped, by altitude, which was controlled by two barometric switches, primary, and back-up, and a last ditch, if all else fails, mechanical detonation if the Weapon hit the ground.
An electrical signal to the dets caused the implosion of the HE sphere, which compressed the nuclear core to critical mass and initiated the chain reaction. On thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs), a container of plutonium (I think) was next to the sphere, and this boosted the yield of the weapon from the kiloton to the megaton-rating of TNT equivalent.
I don't recall if time, and baro, settings were made before loading the Weapon into the bomber, or in flight, prior to arming it. Air burst was always the mode of choice, as it will cause a LOT more damage.
After everything was tested, the components moved back to M-Bay, the weapon was reassembled, painted, stenciled, put on the dolly, with the security cover, and moved back to Gray AFB.
A lot of memories are fuzzy because most things did not concern you, or you ability to do your job. Kind of like you could repair a carburator (when they existed), without really understanding how an internal combustion engine operated.
Storage Inspections were similar in nature except, when the Weapon was complete, it went back into storage, in the Q area. More next time.
James,Bellaire (sys) USX June 1959 to May 1960
1. You mentioned that you had an opportunity to visit "the tunnels". I don't know how much you recall, or what all you photographed, but the passageways were designed to minimize damage and injury to personnel in the event of a non-nuclear explosion. The entrances to the to the two M-Bays started at a 45° angle. After a short distance, 15 or 20 feet, they turned again 45°. At this intersection, each passageway extended beyond a feet, to a dead end. This was a baffle to help contain a blast, and minimize its affect, either outgoing, or incoming. It's funny, I can picture the M-Bay entrances clearly. The one on the left, the first angle was to the left, and the bay on the right, the first angle was to the right. However, I cannot picture the entrance to E-Bay, which was in the middle, between the two M-Bays, and I worked in E-Bay. These crisscross, dead end baffles occurred in several places in the Plant.
2. As I mentioned before, all the electrical systems on the weapons were 28 volts DC. To test the systems, selenium rectifiers were used to convert AC to 28 VDC. These were dangerous because if they shorted out, or caught fire, they would produce a deadly poison gas. I can remember we had practice evacuation drills, but I don't recall if we had gas masks, or oxygen masks available. I think it was just run for your lives, and the guys at the location of the disaster would probably have been goners. ...
7. Whenever a thermonuclear weapon (TN, H-bomb) was outside on the hardstand, the rule was that two armed men had to be guarding it all times. (Mere atomic bombs may not have required any guard, just a guy standing there waiting for the tug.) Anyway, when assigned, you went to the supply room, drew a .45, one magazine with 5 rounds, and the two of you went out and waited for the Weapon to arrive, and then twiddled your thumbs while you waited for the tug to get out there and tow it inside. ...
9. One of the "soldier things" that couldn't be discussed that we did, was "defense drill". I mentioned that the Plant was carved out of a mountain and was supposed to be able to withstand nuclear attack. Like most things however, it had a major weak spot, and in our case it was the ventilation shafts that exited to atmosphere. If the defenses of the base were somehow penetrated, the last ditch stand was for the PFCs, Spec 4s, and few Sgt. E-5s to go outside and set up a defense perimeter around each of the ventilators. I know there were at least two. So, when the alarm was sounded, we would hot foot it to supply, draw our puny M-1 carbines (no ammo), exit the Plant, climb up on the hillside to our designated ventilator, spread out around it, and wait for the "all clear" to come in. We were probably timed, as the NCOIC would check in as soon as we got in place. Most everything we did was contest between Det A & B, or between our three work bay crews.
Images source: The Swords of Armageddon -- U.S. Nuclear Weapons Development since 1945 VOLUME VI, Chuck Hansen, ed., Release 01, October 1995.
Source: The Swords of Armageddon -- U.S. Nuclear Weapons Development since 1945 VOLUME VI, Chuck Hansen, ed., Release 01, October 1995.
For all their apparent durability and massiveness, U.S. nuclear warheads are designed and built for a "lifetime" of only about 20 years. Many things happen to a warhead during this period:
Like other, very much simpler equipment such as automobiles and home appliances, nuclear weapons deteriorate with time. For nuclear weapons, it is not necessarily a matter of "wearing out": they are required to operate only once. There is essentially no wear except that associated with their transport and handling.
However, like some home appliances that have been stored unused in a family's basement, when they are closely inspected they may be found to have deteriorated into an unusable condition.
This susceptibility to deterioration tends to be much higher for nuclear weapons than for other equipment. Various features of their must be guided mainly by the desired weapon performance and by safety considerations rather than by demands for resistance to deterioration. Many of the weapon materials have a low resistance to deterioration.
Certain chemically reactive materials are inherently required in nuclear weapons, such as uranium or plutonium, high explosives, and plastics. The fissile materials, both plutonium and uranium, are subject to corrosion. Plastic-bonded high explosives and other plastics tend to decompose over extended periods of time.
Deterioration can take various forms: portions of materials can dissociate into simpler substances. Vapors given off by one material can migrate to another region of the weapon and react chemically there. One potential source of effluent is the thermonuclear fuel lithium deuteride, which can react with water vapor and release hydrogen gas.
Materials in the warhead electrical system such as insulators, batteries, capacitors, squibs, and lubricants, can produce effluents that can migrate to regions in the nuclear explosive portion of a weapon. Over an extended period of time, plastic components in the explosive portion of a weapon can be the source of effluents. These components include plastic-bonded explosives and plastic pads and cushions. The plastics may decompose, or give off gases with which they were impregnated during production processes.
As one form of deterioration, corrosion can create fissures and perforations that would have undesirable effects on weapon operation. Mechanical components can have unacceptable friction introduced by corrosion or by other chemical effects. Corrosion products can flake off the surface of some components and vibration and other movements of the weapon can distribute these flakes ("dust") to locations where they could spoil the weapon's operation.
The characteristics of high explosives can change with time. Materials can creep and become distorted. Vital electrical components can change in character; electrical circuits can open or become shorted. Some changes can be such that they will obviously cause a weapon to dud; other changes can be more subtle, and their effects on weapon performance can be difficult to predict.14
14 SOME LITTLE-PUBLICIZED DIFFICULTIES WITH A NUCLEAR FREEZE, RDA-TR-122116-001, Jack W. Rosengren, R & D Associates, Marina del Rey, California, October 1983, pp. 5, 6. Records of warhead components are maintained in "bomb books" that list the serial numbers of every component contained in a particular weapon so that problems that may arise later can be pinpointed in the production process, allowing suspect components in other weapons to be identified and inspected. In addition, in case of an accident, specific parts of weapons can be identified and catalogued. (Furman, pp. 770, 771.)
In addition, both plutonium and uranium are chemically reactive and subject to corrosion. Early uranium cores often "spalled", releasing pepper-grain sized particles spontaneously; these grains could then migrate into other parts of the weapon.15
15 SIEGELSBACH: A NUCLEAR NE'ER DO-WELL'S ATOMIC ADVENTURE, John B. White, Aglor Publishing Company, Inc., Jacksonville, Texas, p. 55.
Thermonuclear fuels, including lithium deuteride and lithium tritide, react violently with water vapor and release hydrogen gas, which can become explosive when combined with oxygen. Materials in the warhead electrical system (WES) such as insulators, batteries, capacitors, explosive squibs, and lubricants of mechanical gears can produce effluents that travel to portions of the "physics package." There is never an absolute seal between the WES and the physics package: at the very least, there is a leakage path associated with detonator cables.
Certain portions of a warhead are more likely to have deterioration problems than are others. Some major trouble sources in the past have been high explosives, fissile materials, plastic pads, various adhesives, detonator bridgewires, and mechanical safing systems.16
16 Rosengren, RDA-TR-122100-001-Rev. 1, pp. 16, 17.
One reason for many of these problems is that a nuclear weapon designer is limited as to the materials he or she can employ effectively in a design. An effective weapon based on materials selected solely for their inertness, imperviousness, chemical stability, and resistance to corrosion cannot be devised. To be reasonably optimum, current designs must include certain materials with varying degrees of stability: fissile material and plastic-bonded explosives in the fission stage and probably tritium, used as a boost gas.
If the weapon is thermonuclear, the design will likely include Li6D and uranium-235 and uranium-238. In addition to these materials, there will also be some choice of metals, plastics, and other constituents.
Some of the components that must be included -- plutonium, uranium, Li6D, and tritium -- are very reactive chemically. Plastic-bonded explosive (PBX), in some of its formulations and over a long period, tends to decompose.
To reduce the likelihood of degradation, weapon scientists usually limit the interactions between these materials and other reactive components. The plutonium, Li6D, and tritium are each separately encapsulated and hermetically sealed, remaining in contact with only one or two other materials. The uranium and PBX can interact with many more materials but are sealed in the warhead as a whole.
The primary pit and the secondary fuel capsule are sealed, but there are almost always interconnections between the various other portions of the warhead, notably via the electrical system. Usually the firing set (warhead electrical system) is somewhat isolated from the physics package (the basic nuclear explosive). However, any barrier between the firing set and the HE system must be penetrated to pass detonators cables.
The holes for the cables provide pathways along which gases and vapors can diffuse. Thus, vapors that emanate from materials in one region of the warhead are able to migrate to other regions and interact with other materials there. Another unavoidable factor that promotes deterioration is the low-level nuclear radiation associated with fissile material, U-238, and tritium. As noted above, these substances are components of most nuclear weapons, and fissile materials -- Pu or U-235 -- are components of every U.S. nuclear weapon. Some conceptual designs have fissile material that is removable in the form of insertable nuclear components, INCs, but these will not soon replace many, if any, of the more standard weapons.
The neutrons and gamma rays emitted by spontaneous fission in plutonium and uranium will pervade a weapon, and in time, can promote chemical deterioration.17
17 Rosengren, RDA-TR-122100-001-Rev. 1, pp. 89, 90.
Approximately 30 different stockpiled U.S. nuclear warhead designs out of 40 MARK-numbered systems developed since 1958 have had either unexpected surprises during developmental nuclear testing, unexpected difficulties following modification, problems with new production, or postdeployment stockpile problems. According to one source, between 1960 and 1970, approximately 91 modifications were made to stockpiled weapons, of which 60 were to rectify deficiencies discovered after stockpiling.18
18 WORLD ARMAMENTS AND DISARMAMENT, SIPRI YEARBOOK 1978, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Crane, Russak & Company, Inc., New York, 1978, p. 325.
|Aerial photos by USGS 2 Feb 1995