Armistice Day & Old Letters

A friend sent me a link to a New York Times op-ed, bemoaning how email has made letter-writing a lost art. That got me thinking about all the letters my father and I used to exchange — we were both avid letter-writers — and that thought got me thinking about Armistice Day, because Dad and I both served and he is much on my mind today.

In past Armistice Day blog posts I’ve quoted some of Dad’s WWII letters from the Pacific Theater, where he was a gunner aboard an oiler, a minesweeper, and an auxiliary repair ship. Looking back through these documents, which I have saved on a computer file, I came across a letter I sent my father in 1995, when I was posted to Nellis AFB, Nevada to help run the Nevada Test & Training Range.

Nevada Test & Training Range (click to see full-sized on Flickr)

I’ll save Dad’s letters for future Armistice Day posts and instead share my 1995 letter to him today. It describes a three-day trip I took to familiarize myself with parts of the Nevada Test & Training Range I was responsible for managing in my then-new job at Nellis AFB.

Accompanied by my GS-12 range manager, I left Las Vegas and headed northwest to Indian Springs and Beatty, with a couple of forays into restricted parts of the western ranges. We spent the second day touring target sites and radar installations inside the northwestern ranges, then doubled back to spend the night at Tonopah. On the third day we headed east long the northern border of the TTR, then south to Nellis AFB. Along the way we stopped for lunch in Rachel, which sits just north of Area 51 and is a magnet for UFO enthusiasts.

Everything inside the green borders on the western side of the TTR is off-limits to civilians, these being active bombing and gunnery ranges where live weapons are in almost constant use, and my forays onto the range were tightly timed so that we’d be in and out between scheduled air attacks. Some of the restricted areas around Mercury belong to the Department of Energy and are used for nuclear tests. These areas were off-limits to me as well (though I did get to tour them on a later trip). The green-bordered areas on the eastern side of the map are air-to-air ranges. Since no weapons are dropped in these areas, the ground below is open and settled — though very few people live in that part of the state.

The big square just to the left of the center of the TTR is Area 51, aka Site 57, aka Groom Lake. And no one gets in there.

June 20, 1995

Dear Dad,

I have to write three civilian appraisals today. The fellow I’m replacing blew off the task. He was also a slob. A secretary, two NCOs, and a civilian target manager share my office space on the first floor, and they’re all slobs. Cabinet tops are dusty, desks are messy, pictures are crooked. I have my work cut out for me. Another three or four civilians work for me upstairs, doing God knows what. I also have much to learn. EMC (Electronic Counter Measures), ECCM (Electronic Counter-Counter Measures), beeps and squeaks, IR (Infrared), LANTIRN (Low Altitude Infra-red Navigation), mainly air-to-ground stuff. Perhaps there’s a connection between dirt-beaters and dirty desks.

Last week I went uprange for three days with my civilian target manager. Las Vegas being due south of the range, we started by circling west and then north on Highway 95, the road to Reno. We stopped at Indian Springs to visit one of the many control blockhouses where our contractor, Loral Corporation, controls threat emitters and scores bomb drops on ground targets. We no longer score drops with range control observers; these days we use remote cameras. Later we drove out on a southwestern range between attacks to look at targets, and then spent the night in Beatty at a cheapo motel. The next morning we inspected targets on the northwestern ranges: phony airfields with derelict airplanes; industrial complexes made of SeaLand containers filled with sand; truck and POL depots; surface-to-air missile sites with tanks, unmanned threat emitters, control bunkers, and missiles made of old B-52 drop tanks propped upright … I’ll tell you, from the air these things look real. During attacks, these targets draw all manner of ordnance, so they get really beat up, too. One of our contractor’s major responsibilities is clearing bombs, bullets, and scrapnel off the ranges, and rebuilding or replacing targets when they’re destroyed. Our guys keep the desert remarkably clean, even to the point of draining the oil out of old jeeps, tanks, and planes before putting them on range … we couldn’t have PCBs sinking into the sand, could we?

As a footnote, prehistoric Indian sites are scattered around the ranges. With over 12,000 square miles of range space, there are bound to be a few places where humans used to gather. We saw petroglyphs on a cliff and found a scrap pile of obsidian where the Anasazi used to chip out arrowheads and cutting tools. On future trips I’ll try to find one of the ghost towns or mining camps indicated on the map. One can only guess how many critters get killed during air-to-ground attacks, but they tell me the casualties are mostly lizards and snakes … the fur bearers are smart enough to stay away from target areas, and indeed critters abound out on the range. We saw one snake (I don’t know what it was, except that it wasn’t a rattler), a herd of pronghorn antelope, rabbits, a badger, several lizards, and hundreds and hundreds of mustangs. If you ever want a horse or burro, I know where to get one. Although cattle roam free around the periphery of the range, they seem to know where the border is … I didn’t see a single cow until we left the range, and then I saw them everywhere. I also saw a lone coyote walking through the grass. Yes, grass … the desert is green this year after a wet winter and spring, and although the flowers are tiny, everywhere you look you see blankets of yellow, purple, and red. It’s quite beautiful, although I wouldn’t want to be around when the high-drags are falling!

We visited the super-secret Site 10, the Tonopah Auxiliary Airfield, the place they ran the Stealth operation out of when it was a black program. There are lots of things going on there I’m not allowed to know about, and various DOE sites I’m not allowed to see or to remember if I inadvertently glance at one. The AF operates on parts of the range; Sandia Laboratory has pockets here and there; but the Department of Energy is the big dog and they drive the show. You’d think one infrastructure (fire protection, comm, civil engineering, O&M funding, etc) could serve all three entities, but you’d be wrong. Everything is done in triplicate, at great expense to you and me. Security is the sole exception; a private firm provides security for all three organizations.

We spent our second night in the town of Tonopah, which is still very much a mining town. I visited an outdoor mining museum and walked around before eating dinner at a typical desert rat casino/hotel. In the morning we inspected more targets on another section of the range, and I met several of the contractors who construct cleanup operations. On the way home we circled north and east of the ranges before heading south for Vegas, making our trip a complete circle around the complex. We put over 700 miles on the squadron’s new Bronco and brought it home covered with dust.

A footnote: a lot of people truly believe the AF either shot down an alien spaceship or came across its wreckage near Roswell, New Mexico, sometime during the late 40s or early 50s. The story is that we found the bodies of aliens in the wreckage and are keeping them on ice somewhere on the Nellis range. True enthusiasts also believe that scientists are exploiting and duplicating the technology of the alien ship, and that AF test pilots have not only flown it but that we’ve succeeded in building our own flying saucers, which we operate out of another super-secret section of the range, Site 57, aka Dreamland, aka Groom Lake. Just north of Groom lake on the border of the range is the town of Rachel, where a group of enthusiasts have settled, the better to be able to scan the skies. Their hangout and headquarters is a restaurant and bar called the Little Ale-Lee-Inn (get it?). My escort insisted that we have lunch there. I would have loved it if I had been in civvies; the place is full of flying saucer paraphernalia, pamphlets, and posters, and the customers are True Believers … but I was in my bag (flight suit) and consequently extremely uncomfortable. Everyone stared at me as I ate. A few of the braver ones asked me what I flew; when I told them I flew F-15s they winked and nodded knowingly. After we left I told my guy he’d done me dirt … he put me in a situation I’d rather have avoided. Next time I go uprange I’m wearing jeans.


© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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