Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eleuthera AAFB

Eleuthera Auxillary Air Force Base

The picture above is a Google Earth photo of the Air Force's Eastern Test Range's Eleuthera Auxillary Air Force Base.

You can see the island's main road and the turn-off to the Eleuthera AAFB and the Eleuthera Naval Facility (NAVFAC).

Identified in the photo are the employee barracks, admin building, mess hall, employee club, and the weather station.

Both military facilities are on a hill about 100 feet above sea level. You can see the base's proximity to the beach.

Eleuthera AAFB was home to PanAm and RCA range employees. There was only one military person assigned to the base, the Air Force Base Commander.

The top PanAm employee was the Base Operations Manager. For RCA it was the Instrumentation Manager.

PanAm was the prime contractor for management, engineering, operation and maintenance. RCA was the prime contractor for operation and maintenance of the site's instrumentation, primarily the MISTRAM tracking system.

Travel up and down the range was on USAF cargo planes ranging from C-47's (which could take off and land on the short range runways) to C-130 Hercules aircraft. I made many trips from Patrick AFB to Eleuthera and can remember sitting on sidewall canvas seats with my knees jammed up against palletized cargo reaching to the ceiling. The windows, if there were any, were high up where you couldn't see outside. If you were half-asleep and the aircraft was landing, it would scare hell out of you when the aircraft bounced off the runway. I remember one incident, when I was traveling on a C-124, where the crew chief couldn't get the big front doors latched. He borrowed a coat hanger from one of the passengers and wired them shut. That really instilled confidence in that flight!

On Eleuthera all employees that lived on base stayed in the barracks building shown above. One end of the building was a dispensary for the base paramedic. There was no doctor within 50 miles.

Along the front of the building was a screened hallway. The individual rooms were off this hallway and provided comfortable quarters.

The rooms had bathrooms and were furnished with beds and dressers for two people.

My roommate was a PanAm employee, an old alky who bought two fifths of Canadian Club every day. He started each day coughing and reaching into his chest of drawers for his bottle.

He was a heavy equipment operator and would take the second bottle to work with him and hide it on his vehicle. After finishing work, he would come to the Beachcomber Club, drink for several hours, and before leaving buy two more bottles.

The employee club was called the Beachcomber Club. It was nothing more than one of the base's shop buildings turned over to the employees. When I arrived on the island the club had a decripit bar, a screened patio, a snack bar, and an outdoor movie area. The club was run by a hired manager. The whole time I was there this was a PanAm employee named Dalton Cameron. The club also had an elected president that oversaw employee interest. I wasn't on the island very long before I was elected club president.

The club did a surprisingly good business, over $40 thousand a month. It also had a lucrative package business as it was one of the last locations for troops flying up-range to buy booze before going stateside.

As said, the club was in pretty bad shape. The naugahyde arm roll on the bar was tattered and worn. The bar stools were in similar shape and had rusty frames. The building was overcome with huge rats that would come through holes they had eaten in the ceiling tiles, climb down to the back bar, and eat whatever they wanted. This in front of an active group of bar patrons.

Dalton and I discussed this and what we could do about it. We had plenty of money in the bank, so we decided to renovate the entire club. We bought the best of available materials from Miami and used available PanAm employees to do the remodeling work. It took several months, but we wound up with a beautiful club with paneled walls, carpet, drapes for the windows, a new and bigger bar, contemporary cocktail tables, and a pest control service. We used most of the money we had, but since we didn't have anything else to spend it on, it was all worthwhile.

The main mission of the base was using the MISTRAM facility to track high-priority tests that required precision tracking of missile guidance systems. Strategic weapon systems like minuteman, polaris and poseidon ballistic missiles. The main Mistram site was about a half mile south of the AAFB. Remote stations in an L shape configuration with the main site were located at Savannah Sound and Powell Point.

Because the U.S. was in a cold war with the Soviet Union, nobody talked about missile tests or launch times. Such information was classified or treated as highly sensitive data. I'll share a story about this with you.

There came a time when I was OD (officer-of-the-day). We all had this responsibility from time to time and had to be available on base if needed. I was at the Beachcomber Club when a crypto message came in and I received it, unopened, and passed it on to the Base Operations Manager. No big deal!

A number of years later I was in a bar in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida (where I was then living) and I recognized a guy across the bar I knew from Eleuthera. I remembered that he was a PanAm sheet metal worker. We talked for awhile and then he did the strangest thing. He began to tell me everything I had done since I came back to the states. He knew the kind of car I drove, my address, my phone number, how many kids I had, who I worked for, my college experience and grade point, etc.

I asked how he came to know so much about me. He showed me his ID and said he was with the Treasury Department. Someone seven years earlier while I was OD had compromised a test schedule to the soviets. I had been one of a few people that had handled the crypto message giving the test information. On Eleuthera, he said he was undercover as a PanAm employee, and immediately was assigned to shadow me to see if I was the bad guy.

He said he had been following me for the statute period of seven years, which he said had since expired. He went on to say that they had determined who the real spy was and he was in jail. I asked him what he was doing currently and he told me he was working under cover out on Interstate 95 (which was then being constructed) and he was guaranteeing that the government got its contracted "four inches" (concrete, I supposed). So, I take this to mean that government security is a righteous concern.

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