Nike 55' Mystery



Mystery of the 55 ft Nike Trailer


Charles S. Fitch, P.E.

7 March 2002


The development and deployment of the Nike Ajax and Hercules systems was a story of high standards and most of the equipment in the system followed a very set pattern. This is the story, and my tiny part of that story, where a very strange ‘one-off’ Hercules-Ajax system came into being. Here’s that saga from my vantage point.


My military tour lasted from May 1967 to May 1970.


Originally I was drafted but the Army quickly convinced me or rather manipulated* me into believing that I should re-enlist and become a 24Q40 Nike-Hercules Integrated Fire Control (IFC) maintenance person. Their ultimate goal for me was to be a project engineer building on my civilian expertise.


After basic training with the 82nd airborne at Ft. Bragg, 24Q40 training at the Air Defense School on Ft. Bliss followed. My class was 2-68 and I was the honor graduate with a high 90 average. This little uniqueness (coupled with high induction test scores) would follow me around for the rest of my military ‘career’.


Most of the class leaders were immediately reassigned to teach at the school and during the short period of time spent there, I was writing texts, teaching lab and classes.


In the fall of 1968, the operator student batteries of the guided missile brigade on Ft. Bliss failed BIG TIME their periodic command inspections for equipment readiness. General Underwood was the commander of the 5th Army and Ft. Bliss at the time and this obviously came to his attention. Much to his credit, he was a ‘what’s wrong’ and not ‘who’s wrong’ type of leader and he quickly ascertained what was wrong.


Basic problem !!! The missile brigade was very short of maintenance personnel and those on staff could not stay ahead of the wear and tear exerted by the training students.


Underwood gave carte blanche to the Adjutant General (AG) to get the personnel roster up to full TOE spec.


The AG decided to immediately plug in SELECT, temporary people and assign permanent people after a 90-day review period. The Air Defense School was always fat on personnel because this was the last stop normally for a lot of folks whose next duty assignment was retirement. The AG decided that most of the first wave of needed temporary duty (TDY) people would come from the school, which had the added advantage of generating no additional travel time, pay or expenses.


Myself and another handful of school faculty were literally called out of class and dispatched to the Guided Missile Brigade for 90 days. We did our jobs all night, every night and a second, follow up inspection moved the score from low 70’s (almost unheard of) back to a more laudable high 90’s in my battery, A-3-1.


The first 90 days were pretty frenetic and as a ‘reward’ and because the AG had not located enough permanent people, we were extended another 90 days.


In one of those great SNAFUs, our return orders were not approved in time and we would have been sitting in limbo for about a month so to cover, the AG’s office just extended us under emergency conditions another 90 days.


By this time, our little battery operation of four Nike-Hercules systems set up for student training was in outstanding condition maintained by a highly qualified and motivated full complement of staff.


It had to end and it finally did in May of 1969. Everyone received orders to return but me. Mysteriously and without explanation, my orders sent three other Nike and myself types to White Sands. In my case I was TDY on and from TDY.


Our ‘leader’ was the ranking person on the orders who was SFC Blackburn. He called me and informed me that he and the car we had been assigned would pick me up one morning at the house I was living in with two other E-5’s. Living in that house is another long story.


 Our little contingent was SFC Blackburn, SSG Black, Sp-5 Richard Weishop (we had gone through school together) and myself. The four of us were being assigned to the Atmospheric Science Laboratory (ASL), Army Science Command, Signal Corp, White Sands.


The project was Cloudpuff 9 and we were going to study the weather**. The ‘we’ in this case, beside the four of us, also included a cross service project utilizing, Army Nike-Ajax radar and computer systems, air traffic control from the Navy, aircraft from the Air Force including a U-2, a mountain of military meteorologists, some college ROTC interns and a small group of Nike-Ajax tech types associated with the lab.


The two aforementioned top sergeants were experienced radar operators. Rich had originally been brought in to maintain the Nike gear and their hope was that I would be the overall project engineer for radar and radio.


The big picture of this project is that we would observe weather phenomena with the Organ Mountains as a background. Aircraft would enter the weather from the north (Albuquerque direction) and we would track them using a super Nike Hercules-Ajax system based in the Ornadra desert just east and north of Las Cruces, NM. The site for our radar was known locally as Isaac’s Lake as when the flash floods came in the summer, the swill depression in this area would fill with water creating a temporary lake. This site was just off a causeway type dirt road that left Rt. 70 near the little hamlet named Organ.


Two other locations were involved as well. A met recording station on the other side of the mountains and a pair of Mitchell aerial surveying cameras on the ground at a mesa further south and west of us but above Las Cruces to record the weather pictorially.


May and June were given over to readying up and deploying our equipment. The four of us would drive back and forth each day from El Paso.


The two Mitchells were mounted in old Ajax tracking radar gimbals. These really unique assemblies were about a ½ mile apart, surveyed, located and set/adjusted in such a way as to achieve a ‘stereo’ image of the horizon. The two positions were on a line parallel with the mountains and the cameras were aimed essentially east at them. Having two IMMENSE negatives to work with allowed the data evaluators to locate, size and quantify in many ways the weather events we were looking at. Incidentally, all data taken was time synchronized to WWV. The pictures were taken about one minute apart. The ROTC interns operated these.


Now you’ve read through a long preamble so where does this mystery van come in ??


The permanent cadre of the ASL was an incredible assemblage and it was a privilege and a pleasure to be assigned to them.


The actual science project leader was Dr. Radon Loveland who is most generally acknowledged as the progenitor of Doppler radar for weather use. With a strong background in physics, meteorology and electrical engineering, he was ideal in this capacity. Dr. Loveland was an exceptional teacher and mentor and I was his personal assistant and ‘pupil’ for over three months.


The management of the lab’s hardware was under Max Hamlin, a former E-8, with the day to day maintenance under Keith Farnsworth, a recently retired E-7.


The ASL enjoyed tremendous prestige on WSMR and many of the better facilities were given to us. One of these was the prime ‘art deco’ blockhouse that had been used for the test firing of the expatriated V-2 rockets and the Army’s early missile development.


This thick walled, eerie building was a historic relic as on the wall near the phone, even in 1969, was penciled many of the famous names associated with the V-2 et al work and their home numbers on the base.


With all this as background, one can see that the ASL could requisition pretty much what they wanted to make their goals.


In the past, the ASL had studied not only the weather and forecasting but also the dispersal and progression of sound in different weather conditions to help locate artillery batteries of the enemy, etc. Lots of field gear was needed for all this work and radar and associated recorders were a part of the effort.


It was never made completely clear to me whether for this project or an earlier one but a big trailer was deemed necessary. The over the road limit for trailers is very nearly 55 ft in length. Welding together two Nike-Ajax computer/acquisition trailers trimming off the excess would just about make the limit.


That’s what the ASL did and this special trailer was readied up at the blockhouse for use on this project. The inside had the standard power input and HVAC cabinets, the acquisition radar, computer, plotters of the first trailer and at least the computer, repeat station and plotter of the second. It was a fusion of all sorts of Ajax and Hercules gear, systems and wiring. Amazingly it all worked after we wired it and we kept it working really well.


During the actual running of the project, my position was in this van in front of the acquisition radar prime scope not searching for bogies but tracking and identifying the multiple aircraft that participated in this project.


In the trailer with me in the second battery commander’s position was Navy CPO Bernie Condon, who was our air traffic controller, organizing and vectoring sometimes up to 20 aircraft via radio.


Outside and to the south, to avoid being in the active aperture of our radars was a large truck with 13 or more (mainly AM VHF) air traffic radios with their own, very secretive, FAA/signal corp people. The remote heads for these were beside Bernie.


The other trailer in the system was a standard tracking unit with MTR, TTR and TRR radars. The outputs of these fed the various computers and plotters and in our trailer we would identify and then designate various select aircraft from the acquisition radar for them to follow. Blackburn, Black, Weishop and a fourth fellow (a general type technician) SP4 Andy Uhaus would operate those units in manual mode.


The dry desert heat would sometimes top 110 F and so we had six diesel generators and five 10 ton, pad mounted AC units to keep our system running. The two radar trailers were mounted rear to rear to make a common porch. To form a ‘T’, a standard maintenance trailer was mounted at right angles.


The data measurement portion of the project ran for about a month. After returning all the gear to the blockhouse yard all but myself returned to their original duty stations.  On my own, I was re-described on the TO&E as a junior scientist. If I were any more junior, I would have been the janitor.


We had a tremendous amount of data, which was quantified and reduced to proportionate numerical files on tape. Several different reviews to establish meteorological extremes, trends and anomalies had to be accomplished. Some of this work was best done by analog computer. That work was given to me but finally the inevitable happened. No one stays on TDY forever. Around Christmas 1969 I was sent back first to the Guided Missile Brigade and then from there back to the ADS.


The ADS thought I must be a ‘spook’ since I had been away on TDY so long. In the infinite wisdom of the Army I was made the NCO/Sergeant in charge of destroying classified redundant documents related to the Nike systems. But not for very long.


The AG suddenly realized that he had another TDY special mission for me and sent me off to do the data processing for the 1970 census or at least that part of it that was taken on Ft. Bliss.


Just before getting out of the army, I took a day to go up to White Sands to say good-by to these extraordinary people. While there I got one last look at the long trailer that I had spent so much time in and digging through to repair.


My time in the Nike system was so strange that I never questioned that someone would or could just fuse together a couple of million dollar systems in such a unique application.


Probably a greater mystery then the creation of this trailer (hopefully now answered), is why has it been preserved so long. Evidentially the army still has it stored somewhere. Possibly someone else can explain where it has been and what it has been used for between 1970 and the present.




Photo captions….


Wide shot of the Ornadra desert radar site looking north. On the left is a wrecker taking away the air traffic radio truck. Organ Mountains are in the background. The two wires in the near distance are telephone lines running to the agricultural isolation station that was five miles further up the road. Other than the road and some far, far distant high tension lines, there was no sign of civilization anywhere on the horizon in 1969.


Group photo of the ASL site personnel. Left to right … the author as a 22 year old project engineer, Dr. Radon Loveland, SP-5 Richard Weishop, CPO Bernie Condon, Keith Farnsworth, SSg Black, SP-4 Andy Uhaus and SFC Blackburn. Photo taken on automatic which is why it is so poorly framed.




·         The late 60’s were a very strange time in the history of America almost impossible to describe in

 present terms of the ‘me generation’. Contemporary historians call the Viet Nam war America’s 

  second civil war  ‘.  Essential fabrics of our society were being tested and changed on the domestic front as the war was waged in the Far East in a sort of strange parallel resonance.


Probably the most obvious example of the duplicity of the way the government was treating its people and the war was ‘the draft test’. Unlike WW1, WW2 and Korea, the VNW was not popular or a common cause and for the most part the military was fleshed out by draftees.


Since the draft was a male only thing back then, many guys fled to college to stave off, if not avoid the draft.


Most draft boards to avoid the stigmatism of teenage soldier deaths were trying to draft only those in their 20’s.


Considering the exemptions given to those in college and those who were married, the pool of candidates grew small quickly. To increase that pool, they decided to issue a test to determine which of those on college deferments had the least potential of completion. The draft boards then planned to discount the college deferments of these low achievers and draft them.


If one steps back a couple of paces and takes a real look at all this, what was being determined was whether you were dumb enough to be allowed to be killed. This would establish a new category, low intelligence suitability.


At the last moment, intelligent people realized this and halted the madness.


Are you beginning to get the sense of the times now …



In 66 and 67 I was the assistant chief engineer of the PanAura Corp. We made the world’s most advanced, high-resolution cathode ray tubes. These are specialized display TV tubes for radars and computer displays in all sorts of AF planes and Navy subs among other uses.


My company kept me out of the draft because my work was viewed as critical to national defense and I was not going to argue with them. Because of the paperwork it takes to do this, my draft file grew to the size of the Manhattan phone books.


For a week in April of 1967 my company did not have a pentagon contract number to do this and so my draft board called me up. I would imagine they were desperate for bodies at this time and also probably wanted to get back the file cabinet drawer that my individual records now occupied.


Why do I feel that I was manipulated ??  I felt that as long as I was going to have to spend time in the military, I might as well do it as an officer. So like everybody else, I took the OCS test. Cut off was 113, acceptance was 120 at the time and I got 124. My military IQ was 99 on the 100 scale (my intelligence is a genetic gift from my Mom who was very, very brilliant).


What the army told me (they would not let me see my scores-I finally got a look at them 24 years later) is that I didn’t qualify for anything at all and would probably just be sent over to the 82nd as a grunt. If I enlisted for another year and went where they wanted me to go, I could avoid all this. Where they wanted me to go was to 24Q40 school. Why ??? I have determined in the intervening 30 years that the drop out rate from this school was too high (as high as 60%) during this period and the army was trying to load the school with success stories. That’s where they wanted me and they did what they wanted to get me there.


Now I cannot complain at all as I came home after over three years of most interesting work, with all kinds of new skills and in one piece without deep emotional scars. Many, many other young people did not.


But why was it necessary to lie and manipulated anyone ??? I truly believe that Eisenhower was right when he said, ‘..beware of the military industrial complex’. When war becomes highly profitable for any segment, then things get worrisome and eschew and motives become very dark.



An interesting corollary to my personal saga was that my draft board was the notorious location invaded by the infamous ‘Catonsville 9’. These were the activists who broke into and then burned the draft records of the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board. My draft records, along with many others, were destroyed.


The army, amazingly, did not let the board off from making its ‘quota’ of supplied draftees even thought the place had been thrown into chaos. One name they remembered (from the huge file) was mine. So they called up my mother’s house to see where I was (so they could draft me which they had already done about six months before-it’s all just numbers to them). My mother was livid that not only had they drafted me BUT then had lost me in their poor record keeping. They probably would have been delighted to draft me again.


I am very proud of the noise she made highlighting how incredibly inept the handling of the whole affair had been and how little concern they had for the people who were so highly affected.



** Cloudpuff 9 (Nine) was complimental to Operation Popeye in Viet Nam.


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