Along the Natchez Trace

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Caribou Air Station... The Cold War Days

I thought you might be interested in the fact that Aroostook NWR, where we are currently volunteering, used to be the Caribou Air Force Station.  Not to be confused with Loring Air Force Base, which is adjacent.  Neither of these facilities are now active...  they closed in 1996...  after a heyday of growth and economic well-being from the 1950's until their closing.  The economic loss is still felt...  although the old Loring Air Base now houses a huge government financial accounting facility, (now located in the old hospital), as well as several industries such as the renovation of Humvees, a Sitel (telemarketing) facility, a cabinet-making industry, as well as the Loring Job Corps, which trains young inter-city folks to be truck drivers, woodworkers and several other trades.  There are other industries that I don't even know about.

What I do know about is Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge...  which wasn't really a part of Loring Air Force Base, but was the former Caribou Air Force Station.  These nearly 2,000 acres are adjacent to the Loring Air Base, but, as weird as this sounds...  many of the people at Loring didn't even know that this facility existed.

Why?  Because this facility was home to the atomic bombs...  our nations topmost secret for many years.  We are located in the very northeast corner of the USA...  less than a half mile from a military airport...  and have a separate road and gate that allows us entry right onto the runway.  When the USA was concerned about Russia and the "cold war" was on everyone's mind (did you ever have to hide beneath your desk during a simulated air-raid?...  did your family have a "bomb shelter"?)...  THIS was where the nuclear bombs were housed...  ready to be flown over in a B52 and dropped on Russia.

That part is now history...  the Cold War is over...  things like the Berlin Wall are read about...  but what happened to those facilities that existed for our national safety?

Well, since the land "belonged" to the government, I guess the government decided to give it back to the people.

In 1996 the old base closed.  There was thousands..  probably millions...  of dollars spent in studies to determine things like contaminants (fuel, nuclear waste etc)...  and the studies went on and on and on...
This is just a partial section of the reports generated during that time...  nearly 500 volumes of books of reports.  I recently spend quite a few days preparing an index of these and was astounded at the reports listed as "preliminary drafts" or "drafts" or "Revised Drafts" or "Final Draft" or "Revised Draft #1", until...  finally...  "Final".  When I'd get bored with data entry I'd stop and read some of the reports...  actually some were quite interesting.  They probably should have made me wonder what in the world we are doing volunteering at a place that stores radioactive waste and stuff like that....

Nevermind all that...  there are other reports that are just fascinating...
This book is priceless!  
It was compiled from data generated from the beginning of the base through the 1950's.  It was once classified as "Top Secret", but is now an historic museum item.

This page in that book is a map of the Weapon Storage Area... or, more succinctly..  where the bombs were stored.  The heavy white line at the perimeter of the area is actually where the triple, and sometimes quadruple, chainlink/electric fence was located.  While it was relocated 3 times during the escalation (and de-escalation) of the cold war, this area was extremely well guarded and secured.  (Bill and I now live almost in the upper center of the heavy white line)

A different view of the same picture above (turned 60 degrees).  This one is a map showing all the bunkers, the radioactive waste deposits, all the military buildings etc.    Those black rectangles are bunkers (or igloos) where the bombs or other weapons were stored.  That double line running around the whole complex was the electric fence.

Since 1998, a lot of demolition has gone on...  the fence is now completely gone, all the bunkers in one area have been demolished and buried.  All the housing, the recreation facilites...  the headquarter offices... all gone.  The water and soil contaminants are (mostly... or at least as much as possible) removed.  There are ground water monitors ALL over the place...  but.... for historic purposes, some of the building still remain.

This is a view towards, at one time, the main entrance...  looking towards the weapon storage area.  You can see the  Main Gate with the 12' high chain link fence on the right.
If a person actually got this far, they would have to stop before entering into the gated area.  (The fence was intact on either side at that time)...  They's give their ID...  and be allowed to enter.  Then the gate would be closed (the gate on the far side would also be closed)... further ID....  then the gate on the far side would open and they would be permitted to enter the grounds.  That little building on the left held state-of-the-art (for that time) electronics ...  as well as slots to sight one's gun at whatever threatened.

A view of the "Mine Shop".
Actually it's the building where different components of the bombs were assembled.  As you can see to the left, there are "banks" of earth...  apparently these were erected to deflect impact should an accident occur while assembling a bomb.

These 2 buildings weren't part of the original layout.  They were built in the 1980's...  one to house generators for electric and the other as a place for a security, or alert, crew.

The  "School House"
The bombs weren't totally assembled until they were "needed".  The ignitors were housed in this building.  Called the "school house" because the Air Force hoped that from the air it would look like a school building....  this building is composed almost totally of concrete.  The upper story is concrete...  the lower story has 9' walls of concrete with a small series of rooms in the center that held the ignitors.  The "windows" at that time probably had some kind of glass or plexi-glass inserts...  but that was just a covering over a facade. 

And look at these "guard houses" in front of the school house!  They are each about 8' tall; have a small slot for a gun sight....  they used to have a ladder up the side so a person could climb up and then drop into the thing from the top.  Can you imagine being stuck in one of those for an 8 hour shift?

A Tritium Bunker
Another component to make the bomb was tritium.  This was a "booster" to make the bomb more potent.  There were originally 4 tritium bunkers, but only 2 remain today.  We've heard some strange stories from guys who were stationed here about "accidents" at these sites that were never made public.  The above is one of the bunkers that held tritium.

Some of the bunkers have a double entry (a big outside door... which, by the way, took 2 people to open...  each had a separate key)...  and then another entrance into the bomb area.
The larger bunkers are probably close to 100' long and 30' wide.  

Now they are empty.

The State Historical Preservation Association has entered the picture...  they want some of this area preserved for historical purposes.  While I can understand their desire, those bunkers were built (1950's) with a life expectancy of 25 years max...

Can you imagine letting the public loose to wander around an area like this?  SHPA doesn't provide any funding to make these building safe...  the refuge doesn't have the resources for that...  So...  a lot of Aroostook NWR is not open to the public.  Too many safety issues.

Here's another building that SHPA would like preserved.  It had a concrete roof over the outer doorway... (this building also housed ignitors)...  but that collapsed last year.

Now... here's a bunker that might be put into use.  The refuge got a  grant to  study the possibility of using old bunkers for "bat caves".  This bunker was boarded up with insulation last fall.  It had thermometers to monitor the inside temperature and humidity during the winter months.  If it is suitable, they hope to use some of the bunkers as a hiberniculum for bats.  We'll see how that works out.

This is just another view of the bunkers...  looking down the road of the past....

And a view of the gates as we leave.
I drive these roads at least once every day.  When I give a tour of the place I'm asked if I don't feel a bit creepy...  working and living in a place that housed the nuclear bombs.  But, you know, I'm just thankful that we never had to use them.

This is a view from that gate...  looking down to the old fire station/mainenance building....  that's our motorhome parked in front.  That 12' chain-link fence was at one time just about where that line of spruce strees are....  and at one time it was clear back on the road in the left corner.
Those grassy fields are now home to the Upland sandpiper...  a bird that is on the endangered species list.  Kind of makes me wonder where that bird lived while this was still a military facility.

Well, I just gave you the 5c tour of the refuge.  Sometimes I take a few minutes and look down this road...  and think...  What If?
Wish I could take you on a real tour...
Maybe Someday...

That's All For Today!

See where we are.


  1. Wow, what a unique place you have to hang out in!
    It's a shame that so many resources and millions (billions?) of dollars were wasted like that. There are surely many other abandoned facilities all over the world. In fact, several miles north of St Paul in a suburb a huge abandoned area that was an arsenal years ago. It's contaminated land that needs a Superfund cleanup costing millions more dollars. So there it sits just like your sad deserted base. Sigh...

  2. Thank you for that wonderful tour. I too am thankful that we never had to use these resources...but...I wonder...had we NOT had these defenses in place might things have turned out differently? I guess we will never know.

  3. Fascinating! I have a my degree in history and the cold era has always been quite interesting to me and, even though I lived half of my life in the era, it still holds mystery for me. Thank you.

  4. Your post reminds me of Argentia Naval Base in Newfoundland. Similar story with lots of infrastructure left behind to poke around in. The base was strategically located during WWII as a stopover base for ships and aircraft on the way to Europe. My dad was stationed there, I was born there, and now the moose live there! Every time we go "home" we drive up around dusk looking for moose. I told my dad I want to read the book next, when I'm done I'll have to write up a post about it. Thanks for the memories...and the inspiration!

  5. Goodness, that was interesting. It is a mystery. I am glad we did not have to use them either.

  6. This fascinating and a little bit scary. But, I've always wanted my very own bat cave. I've had a bat mobile for years with nowhere to park it. Just have to find a new Boy Wonder. The original one retired.

  7. Bunkers are a emotional think...thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks for a great story and reminder of what times were like in the 50's and 60's especially. I do remember those 'hiding under the desk drills'!

    I guess it's unfortunate that all those old concrete bunkers are falling into disrepair. I think it would be a good lesson for future generations to look back on and imagine what things were like back then.

    Now, we have terrorists to worry about right within our midst so all those bombs aren't really of much use now are they?

  9. When you took us on a tour last year, it was so interesting. The knowledge you have of the area is amazing!
    It looks like yall are having a busy summer.

  10. I can't tell you how interesting and helpful it is to me to be able to jog my memory and see your fine collection of photos from Loring. I especially recall the Alert Fireteam building in the WSA, which was built in 1983 or 1984 when the second fireteam moved into the Priority-A area -WSA. The Priority-A WSA was a smaller part of the larger East Loring AFB storage area, which was once called the Q-Area. Part of the old, larger, Q-Area was being used to store containers of PCBs, which were being replaced on the tops of utility poles all over the USA at the time. Another part of the old Q-Area was also underwater, filled with a backed-up stream/river that I would never dare to swim in. The two WSA fireteams are also of interest. When they were separated, with the second fireteam outside the area in the old firebuilding, the other fireteam was dispersed into the WSA in two two-man patrols. After that Alert building was built, both fireteams remained inside there, except when they deployed in their two Peacekeepers. Thanks again, and if I have any info incorrect, it is a sign of my getting older.

  11. Sorry. Unless you were at Loring or have some bizarre fascination with it and SPs, please move on. In that Alert building, the two fireteams watched a lot of HBO in the mid-1980s. There was also a lot of card-games played at a big card table. Mosty spades, but a bit of hearts and even some bridge. Most people knew how to play spades. Smaller subsets knew hearts, with an even smaller subset of them knowing all the arcane rules in bridge. There was little to no partisan politics discussed in there, if you are wondering. People, almost entirely male, talked about cars and motorcycles, wives and girlfriends, hometowns and future plans. The good-natured friendships that existed among the 8 guys in there were microcosmic of the camaraderie that existed among the four 50-man flights (with the exception of A-flight, the larger day-flight of about 75). During the mid-1980s females began working as SPs, and this was likely to have been experienced differently for females, (initially or even far later--I don't know), but the inclusion of women, which occurred around this time, was fairly uneventful. The same sort of lifelong relationships still came about because of the interesting geography of the SP job in the WSA. I have no recollections of any problems related to the inclusion of females in what hitherto had been a males-only military occupation. It was the 1980s, though, and surely sexism was still pretty blatant. More information and experiences from this perspective would give a much more nuanced essence to historical memories. That said, a lot of solid friendships were developed in the cramped quarters of the Alert building, and throughout the various WSA SP positions (like the EC/AM building), and most of those friendships were built on trust and respect. All the Priority-A areas had a two-man security concept at work, all the time, so SPs generally had to be pretty social beings. It's interesting to consider how the military, and the Air Force in particular in this case, was so instrumental in creating productive citizens who left the military with the tools to succeed in life. I apologize for such a lengthy digression.

  12. I just read your interesting article about Caribou Air Station and since I was stationed there from the opening in May of 1952 to December of 1955 I thought I would add a couple of facts: During my entire deployment as an Air Force AP we had 4 crews that worked 6 hour shifts as part of base security in the Q (weapons storage) area. Thankfully we never had to stay in the small towers for 8 hours at a time! The electric fence around the Q area was divided into 13 sections, each section also contained flood lights that would turn on if that section of fence was activated. Thankfully during those trying times the lights would only be activated by the local beavers! The electric fences also have concrete footers that run along the length that were rumored to be 6 feet deep, to avoid burrowing underneath them. In regards to the picture you have of the main gate, it looks like this is the gate to the Q area which was actually 1 of 2 gates to enter that section of the base. During my time on the base I can say thankfully, I only witnessed one incident, in which a bomb was dropped on the ground as it was being loaded into the bomb bay of a waiting B36 bomber! They bounce a little bit and thankfully they aren't armed with the actual nuclear warhead until the plane is in flight. Thank you for your wonderful article and bringing back memories of my youth!
    Rocky Lee

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  14. There is a book about the Caribou Air Force Station Called North River Depot.