(This posting is part of The Sigint Report’s STOPS ON THE JOURNEY, side trips to unusual places and events.)
13 February 1987
I majored in philosophy, which is the reason (no jobs) why I found myself standing in the bedroom of a weather beaten trailer on a tiny island, staring at the remains of two unarmed nuclear warheads. I volunteered for this assignment to Illeginni Island since it gave me a chance to add to my tax free savings account, something not possible back in the states.
[Illeginni Island, looking north]
Illeginni is one of 93 islands and islets on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. This coral reef is some 2000 miles southwest of Hawaii, enclosing the largest lagoon in the world. It’s also home to the United States Army at Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA), where strategic weapons systems are tested. Mostly it means having ICBMs launched from Vandenburg AFB, California at targets in the lagoon or Illeginni. These intercontinental ballistic missiles carry unarmed nuclear warheads( aka RVs, reentry vehicles), some loaded with depleted uranium in order to track them. Star Wars testing was in its early stages (late 1980s) at Meck Island, midway up the eastern reef.
When I arrived at Kwaj in August of 86, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. The government, though, continued to pour resources into intelligence gathering operations at America’s premier test site in the Central Pacific. Up to two surface ships (nicknamed Brand X) and six submarines gathered signal intel and occasionally sent Russian Spetsnaz units ashore. Our contract police force of 100 officers and 20 Marshallese constables were stretched thin as we tried to keep the islands free of unauthorized personnel and electronic devices.
I was at police HQ on the southern tip of the atoll when the call came in from the commander’s office (Colonel Chapman) ordering two officers on Illeginni ASAP. Minutes later Angel, a Philippino from LA, and I were in the UH-1 Huey climbing to 450 feet and crossing over to the western reef, heading north.
There had been a mission earlier that morning but no one would fill us in on what happened. Warheads had been targeted for Illeginni but that shouldn’t have presented any problems. The reason two Americans were sent is because the Marshallese didn’t have secret clearances.
As we approached the southern tip of Illeginni I noticed a couple of landing craft unloading some heavy equipment. The microwave tower was still there, next to the manmade hill that once housed antiballistic missiles in silos during the 1970s ABM tests.
As the helicopter turned into the easterly breeze and flared for a landing, I could see activity throughout the northern half of the island. After landing, I learned that the MX Peacekeeper, launched from Vandenburg, California, had released three warheads. Recovery crews were digging through the craters, searching for the remains of the six foot bullets.
One warhead landed in the lagoon a few yards east of the island. The crater from a second, about eight feet deep and twenty feet across, was only ten yards south of the helipad.
The most action was taking place at the workers’ camp in the center of the island. Out of use since the ABM tests ended, these buildings now bear the scars from numerous hits by incoming warheads.
This was the location of the third warhead. Although targeted for the center of a water storage structure, the errant bullet landed about seventy yards too long. That’s not bad shooting. Close does count in horseshoes and hydrogen bombs.
[Destroyed generator building, Illeginni Island]
The warhead hit the rear of the island’s generator building, stripping off all exterior metal and buckling the rear girder. Both generators were inoperable and parts from the structure were ejected for several hundred yards. The wall of the dining hall next door had been blown in by the “kinetic impact effects of the RV”. Restoring power to the island was a top priority. Construction equipment headed from the harbor to the impact site where workers tried to sort out electrical cables that ran from the generators to beneath the island’s only street.
There are no lights on the stretch of street from the helipad south through the camp and jungle area-only a single porch light on the security trailer. At night it’s so dark that you could develop film. Coconut rats scurry across the road and sometimes a coconut will crash down from a tree, shattering the stillness and my nerves as well. The Marshallese say you can sometimes see the ghost of a dead Japanese general walking through the trees. So the constables sleep with the lights on, blinds drawn, and a sheet pulled over their heads for protection against the spirits.
Angel decided to take the first six-hour shift while I acquired a cot and made for the shade of some trees. The shade offered little relief,though, since the tradewinds had died altogether for the first time since my arrival on Kwaj.
Everyone but a six-man utility crew had returned to Kwajalein Island (on Kwajalein Atoll) by 1730. The recovery team left a couple of large cans in the bedroom of our trailer for safekeeping. They contained slightly used MX warheads, now just small pieces of twisted grey metal.
I went on duty and my first decision was to climb the circular drive to the top of the launch hill and check for breezes. There were none. I settled down on the hatch cover of a missile silo and gazed at the islands perched atop the coral reef which meandered south towards Kwaj Island.
Fairy terns rose into the warm rays of the sun and dived toward the green jungle around me. I took off my gunbelt and placed it at my feet, then unzipped my jumpsuit to get a little more comfortable. This is more what I had in mind, a deserted (almost) tropical island and not a care in the world, although this was Friday the 13th.
I had started to relax when I heard the faint wop wop wop of another UH-1. I looked down the reef at Legan Island about eight miles away and picked out a black speck to the left of the microwave tower there. The last thing I expected was someone flying up this late in the day.
I slapped on my gear and went over to the north side of the hill. Angel sat on the pier below, intent on his fishing.
“Angel,” I yelled twice.
The old man looked up and cupped his hand to his ear. I pointed south and shouted.
“De plane. De plane.”
He smiled, shrugged and returned to his fishing while I started for the helipad. But the helicopter landed and took off again before I made it halfway.
Lieutenant Jack K. and officer Bill M. met me on the road. Bill, a 58 year old retired army airborne, had the same trim build as the day he signed up to serve in Korea. Both men suffered from the effects of years of hard living. Both had done tours in Vietnam.
Minutes late we were sitting at a table in the center room with both doors and all the windows open but the air refused to circulate. Jack leaned against the wall.
“We were sent here by the army on orders from Washington.”
He paused a moment to let this register.
Angel gave me a puzzled look. He was 64 , retired, with ten children and a ton of grandchildren back in Los Angeles. The most excitement he wanted was found at the end of a fishing line.
“Now, according to an intelligence report received earlier today, the Russians plan to send a security team ashore tonight. They’ll be armed with automatic weapons. We are to observe only. I have this night vision camera to catch them on film. We are to avoid any confrontation. Don’t initiate any firefights. Washington doesn’t want an international incident. Any questions?”
“This security team. They’re spetsnaz, right?”
“You got it.”
“Well, where are the M-16s?’
I reminded him that the only weapons we had were our sidearms (.38) and that at 42 I was the youngest of the group and we just might be slight underdogs if it starts to go downhill.
“I know, the colonel turned down my request. This is voluntary since you weren’t notified before coming up here.”
“No. I’m in. Just bringing up a few facts.”
Angel spoke quietly. “I’m too old to fight. I fought the Japanese. I will stay here tonight.”
Angel was well past his prime and no one expected the Russians to show up and we let it drop.
[Russian spy ship Brand X]
We had an American naval intelligence ship tracking Brand X. They intercepted the message from the Russian commander to HQ, translated it and sent a Flash priority message to NSA HQ in Ft. Meade Maryland. The White House (President Reagan) was notified, and, after meeting with his advisors, ordered this operation. Not exactly a brilliant idea.
While two electricians continued to work on the generator problem in a nearby manhole, the lieutenant and Bill set up the camera on top of a concrete structure which may have once held classified documents. A low block wall on three sides of the roof provided cover and concealment with a clear view of the northern half of Illeginni.
I set up an observation post on the hill at the south end of the island. I thought the moon would provide significant light when it appeared later on but a mid-level cloud cover moved in by 1900.I sat on the hatch cover and watched the islands grow dark and finally disappear into the night.
The red light from the microwave tower on Legan Island provided the only reference point for me as I scanned the ocean. A light mist began to fall and as I stared at the tower light I noticed a white light, about the same height, separate from the tower.
I checked my watch. 2024 hours.
“51, Go ahead.”
“Coming at you.”
I watched the light as it move up the reef, then go out. I started walking down the circular drive, trying to figure out a place for concealment in the trees near the crater behind the generator building. I made my way up the road, dehydrated and not optimistic about the outcome. Then I looked up and saw a light shining in the distance. The lights were back on.
“52–51. That takes care of that. You can stay up with us if you want some OT.”
I couldn’t sleep anyway. The adrenalin flowed and all night the same question kept repeating in my head: What if?