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CHINIAK

"A hilarious but accurate account of life and the related humorously funny events that occurred at the Kodiak Tracking Station on Kodiak, Alaska during the 1950's and 1960's."

Compiled and Written By:

TONY SMAKER

CHAPTER TWO
THE CREATION OF THE KODIAK TRACKING STATION

October 12, 1957, a day to remember well; SPUTNIK the world's first successfully orbited satellite in space, and by the Soviet Union no less!!! This event caught the United States scientists, and not to mention our intelligence communities completely flat-footed. This was the official beginning of the world's "Space Race". During this period of time there was fierce U.S. Military interservice fighting, each group fighting for developmental and research funds. Each were developing their own ballistic weapons system technology, and conversely thought that they should be the leader in this new field.

The first military service to attempt to orbit a satellite was the Navy with a small payload called VANGUARD. It never got off of the pad, blowing up after only a few feet. Naturally, there was extensive television coverage, and the Navy's failure (and our Nation's) was quite embarrassing.

The next try was by the Army with a Redstone Ballistic Missile with a small 9 pound payload called (I believe) PATHFINDER. after 3 misfirings on the pad, the Redstone finally flew and injected into orbit the tiny ball-shaped satellite. Although in an extremely low orbit (90 by 105 miles high), it did fly for a day and a half. The Russians aptly dubbed it "GRAPEFUITNIK" because of it's likeness to it's vegetable brother.

Now the Air Force at the time was quietly developing their own research satellite . Working with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Missiles and Space Division, of Sunnyvale, California, they jointly developed a simple 3 stage booster payload system. This was called the Atlas-Agena; the Atlas being the 2 stage booster, and the Agena was the space vehicle with an ejectable payload in it's nose for recovery from orbit. The program at that time was called DISCOVERER.

The ground support for this program was awarded to the Philco Corporation, Western Development Labs of Palo Alto, California. The Philco TechRep Division out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania provided the skilled technicians and field engineers. With Lockheed as the parent program managers, Philco developed all of the ground stations to track the satellites. These tracking, stations were built up in 60 foot "Sealand-type" vans, all interconnected, and obviously easily transportable anywhere in the world.

Then the Air Force initiated construction of a global tracking station network. The first stations were at Vandenburg AFB near Santa Maria, California, Kaiena Point in the Hawaiian Islands, New Boston, New Hampshire, Annette Island, Alaska, and of course Cape Chiniak on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

In the fall of 1958, Air Force Tracking Station equipment started to arrive at the Kodiak Naval Base by C-124 cargomaster aircraft. It is interesting to note here that, in what was considered to be a time-saving move, they would fly the C124s into Miller Field thereby sparing the equipment from the rough ride over the Chiniak highway. Well now, that's normal good thinking, therefore it won't work, right? Right .......

The following incident occurred, and was verified to this author by Aloice Kopen and Dick Prentike (anyone remember those two guys?) A single C-124 did manage to land at Miller Field but only after tearing up a good portion of the Perforated Steel Plate (PSP) on the strip with it's brakes. The aircraft finally came to a halt with it's nose wheel in Chiniak Creek! The aircraft sat there for 3 weeks until it could be repaired and finally flown out. It seemed that, while in the last moments after touchdown, the aircraft's left main landing gear wheel hit something and struck the outboard engine propeller tearing it to pieces. It was later learned that it hit an old G.I. bunk bed laying on the airstrip (Nice place for one of those, wasn't it)! And so much for secrecy in the operation; the whole damn town was out there watching and taking pictures. In fact, as I was told, quite a "blast" was had by all It is believed that it was the first and very last time an aircraft of that size and weight was ever attempted a landing on Miller Field .

After that scary incident, the Vans were then pulled by tractor over the road to Chiniak taking 2 full days. The first night's break camp was set up at the old Kalsin Bay Beach area. The road had to, in many places, be re-engineered, for it was extremely narrow. Some of the turns and comers on the road had to be widened in order for the Van/Tractor combinations to negotiate. Longtime Kodiakan Herb Long was hired to "Cattle-drive" these Vans to Chiniak. They could not have found a more qualified person to handle this operation, for he was one of the original builders of the road during Buckner's War in 1941 when the area was known as "Fortress Kodiak".

Work continued at a feverish rate throughout the remainder of 1958 and into 1959 getting all of the equipment installed, checked out, modified, and then remodified again. One must be reminded that, for in those days, everything was untried and new. No one really knew if this or that would work much less hold together. It was conservatively estimated that the complete Tracking Station was tore down and rebuilt at least 3 times before it ever saw an active satellite contact. Much of the technical expertise applied to the equipment problems were solved by "Seat-of-the-pants" engineering, however, this is not to say that there wasn't any "Afro-Engineering" either....

There were approximately 50 people working at the Tracking Station during this initial installation and check-out phase of 1958-1959. These men represented three major contractors, those being Lockheed, Philco, and Budson Maintenance Company.

The Department of the Air Force was represented by Captain Darrell G. Hartley of the Satellite Control Facility. He was the overall military representative for the government.

Budson Maintenance Company was responsible for providing the site logistical and building maintenance support effort. Longtime Kodiakan Herb Long was the general manager. The mess hall was run by "Papa" Jan Beukers and Alfred Romanski. Other notable locals were Jerry Chichenoff, Aloice Kopen, Dick Prentike, Billy Beaty, George Borsidy, "Papa" Finley, Shorty Lampert, Louis Ludivico, Herman "The Bee-Keeper" Vest, "Dutch" Meyers, Tom Healy, and of course who could forget Tony "Zap-Zorch" Reed, the electrician.

For Lockheed, "Black" Bart Morgan was the overall program manager, Jim Paris was the Site manager, Jim Foley and "Wild" Bill Baily were the technical supply specialists, with Dick Soule as the operations specialist.

For Philco, both Western Development Labs (WDL) and the TechRep Division, a few of the people that were involved during this era were Dick Cross (aka Mr. "X") the general manager, Dick Brazeal assistant manager, Hank "The Finger" Ciano, Ron Williams, Cliff Spenser, Bobby Grilli, Louis "Beep-Beep" Esponosa, Dick Monnell, Big-Bobby Smith, Dale Thompson with Toby the Beagle, Joe Weitzel, Rubin "The Mex" Dominguis, Vernon "Dixie" McGehee, "Little" Tony Smaker, Elwood "Woody" Swartz, Frank Lopez, Met Griffin, Glen Moncrief, Marv Scriber, Bill Emerson, Harvey "Pappy" Dennison, Marion Reed, Bill Farley, Jerry Brookman, Dale Galloway, Cletus Russell, "Pop" Banks, and Sol Hebert. An interesting note here about Sol; he is the father of Bobby Hebert, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Bobby was about a year old in 1958 when he lived in Aleutian Homes with his folks. [see correction]

Training, more training, rehearsals, more rehearsals. it became a total drag especially since there hadn't been a real flight to track yet. Lots of guys turned to "other" interests such as fishing, hunting (2 & 4 legged), and hiking (more like stumbling around) during the off-duty times. Some turned to shooting up the countryside with various "artillery" pieces of questionable calibres. Some "occupied" the Casa de Toro (House of Bull), the on-site "Watering Hole". We will go into detail about this place later on. Many of the "Patrons" of the Casa de Toro tried to "Drink Canada Dry" without much success, especially without the opposite gender for company. They had to have an outlet. So, this led them to town. So, town it was, and here they came! Oh Brother .....

CHAPTER THREE
THE TOWN AND IT'S RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINIAK

Kodiak in 1958 had a population of approximately 3,000 people with it's principle industry of fishing and government employment on the Navy Base. The City limits then only extended about a mile north and south of the boat harbor. It was a quiet peaceful little town that "Got with it" summers after salmon fishing, around traditional Christmas, and of course Russian New Years. Kodiak had it's 10 saloons and 10 churches. Yes, the City Fathers then told the "Do-Gooders" that, if they wanted another church, the town could have another bar. There was some great wisdom in that thinking, wasn't there? (Are you smiling Wilton White?)

Now, take this small town with limited resources and introduce into it 20 new families of people from Chiniak. Needless to say, there really wasn't much available to rent except for Aleutian Homes (and at that, it was limited). To make matters worse, the Aleutian Homes project wanted an outrageous figure of $140 a month for rent!! At first, the town didnt really realize how much of an impact the Chiniak people would have on it. Many thought that Chiniak would be all over by 1959 causing little difference in the economy. You see, the work at Chiniak was very classified during these times, and little was really known exactly what was going on, thereby assuming that it was only a temporary thing in passing.

Well, it only took about 6 months before the town realized that there was another input into their economical well-being; Chiniak. Ask any of the 10 bar owners about the sudden increase in receipts. Ask the local merchants about cash sales when there used to be no sales (or pay-after-fishing). Ask a few property owners about renting out places they have trying to get occupied for years. Yes, it was economically healthy, but when you mix a California lifestyle with a Kodiakan, you would have had a better chance of success mixing gasoline with cold sea water

There were 2 very distinct groups of Chiniak people; one being the married family- types living in town, and the other, the bachelor men living full time at chiniak. Both traveled up and down the road to town but for two different objectives. One group "Went Home", and the other bunch went out "on the town". Unfortunately, the two groups were always sniping at each other. These differences continued on for all of the entire 17 year history of the tracking station. The "Went Homers", or "Brown Baggers" as they were later known, as always claimed that they were being given a bad name because of some of the antics that the bachelor boys were doing downtown. Many, many Chiniak personnel (the author included), were, preconvicted by association because of this. Just remember, some of the "Brown-Baggers" had a lot of strayed and strained family relationships because of the man of the house only came home a few days a week. It's back to that California lifestyle trying to blend into Kodiak. Some made it, some didn't. (George Vogt, the local attorney just loved it..)

Regardless of these problems, the Chiniak people did finally blend in. Many became real active in the American Legion, Elk's Lodge, School Board, City Politics, became members of salmon fishing boats in the summers, etc. In fact, one member of Chiniak (Dick Monnell) actually bought a salmon boat. The vessel's name escapes me at the moment though. Conversely, many of the town people were invited out to Chiniak for dinners or barbecues, parties at the Casa de Toro, and unclassified tours of the facilities. Most probably beyond a doubt, Herb Long worked the longest and hardest to cement this lasting relationship with the community.

Throughout this period of time, things around the Tracking Station had assumed a sort of a Country Club atmosphere, but that would change real quickly. A "Shoot" was coming ......

CHAPTER FOUR
THE AIR FORCE PROVIDITH

Boy, what a Sweet Contract the contractors had with the Department of the Air Force! In 1958, the Government and the Nation was real scared with the Soviet Russians beating us to the punch in Space! All of a sudden, there was money, money, money everywhere to be had and spent. The Satellite Control Facility of the Air Force was no exception to the rule either. There must have been some real slick and smooth talkers when they wrote up these contracts with the civilian industry. And let me tell ya, Chiniak got it's share too!!!

First off, Chiniak being in the Territory of Alaska then was considered overseas and an remote hardship area. So, naturally, there were special provisions written into the contracts to compensate for these "Hardships". After some fast talking Californian (or maybe a Philadelphian lawyer?) got through explaining "Hardships", you were originally allowed to "drive" your personal automobile to Kodiak Island and they allowed you 14 cents a mile (big money for 1958). Written in this contract was the stipulation that you had to stay on main express routes only in order to conserve expenses!! It then became readily apparent even the Philco contract writers didn't know that you couldn't drive to Kodiak on the expressways!! So, another contract clause change, ship your POV (Privately Owned Vehicle) by the Alaska Steamship Company out of Seattle, Washington. And the Air Force would even make the reservations for you on a priority basis. So, what shows up on the streets of Kodiak, A yellow 1954 Packard Princess (Cliff Spenser's bomb), Dick Monnell's 1957 Chrysler New Yorker Sedan, and a whole lot of various other types of "Californian" vehicles. Just what you needed for the snow and ice conditions of the Chiniak highway. The cost to the Air Force for this per vehicle, around $2,500 (1958 dollars at that!)

Moving your family, sure Buddy, you got 6,000 pounds moved by a commercial mover, plane tickets for your entire family on the Pacific Northern Airlines (PNA) direct flight out of Seattle (took 9 grinding hours ), and would even ship your dog if you had the proper foreign country health shots and permits. (Remember, Alaska was a Territory then and you had to clear each time going and coming out of Seattle with immigration). Oh, and overseas shots, boy, you just don't know what you might contact in that far away foriegn country like some rare Arctic disease like hug your Bunny-itus, or acute liver-itus, etc. Relocation assistance, no problem. They put us up in the Kodiak Hotel (boy, was that a real trap .... ) for a maximum of 2 weeks until you could either find a place and/or your household goods would catch up with you. The Air Force through the contractors would provide you with a temporary vehicle to get around with until yours arrived by Alaska Steamship Company.

Now clothing. Each man would be going "way north" where there were igloos, ice bergs, and snow the year 'round, and of course colder than Hell (50 degrees above). You would need very special clothing to combat this climate in the execution of your duties of employment!! So, again, the Air Force allowed you $350 a year for "Arctic Survival Clothing". Well, now, really, this is how it really went.

You had 3 mercantile stores in town; Knutson's Outfitters, Donnelly and Atchison (D & As), and of course the town "robbers" Kraft's. The last 2 businesses were sort of cut out of the pie so to speak because they wouldn't hire any of the Chiniak Wives at the time. Knutson's hired Linda Lopez, Frank's wife, so naturally all of the business went there. Now, obviously, we didn't need "Arctic Survival" clothing for Kodiak, but the wives and children did, so good ole Emil Knutson instructed his clerks to write receipts for the Chiniak personnel to reflect heavy socks, coats, boots, caps, and the like so they would clear the expense reports. The wives and kids got good substantial clothing without costing a arm and a leg.

You're single and coming to Chiniak? In addition to your usual ticket, etc., you got a free 2,000 pounds of personal effects shipped free. Your contract if single was one (1) year, and if married with a family, two (2) years. You got a free plane ticket round trip to America for you and your family once a year if you agreed to sign on another year. If there was a family emergency in America relating to you, the Company always "found" a way to send you down and back at no cost to you!! When you were ready to go home at the end of the contract period, the Budson Company would build you boxes to ship your affects to your next assignment. Out of AC 3/4 inch interior plywood no less!! And of course if you chose, your car would also be shipped back. I cannot remember a single person taking the Air Force up on this contract option, for the cars by a years time were all junk!!

CHAPTER FIVE
THE FIRST "SHOOT"

The word "Shoot" was the missile jargon for a launch or flight. In the Fall of 1959 was to be the one of the first flights of the Air Force satellite DISCOVERER series to be launched from Vandenburg AFB in California. Months and months of preparation and training went into this effort, and the launch crews were as ready as they could be.

At Chiniak, the same preparations went on. About 10 days prior to the scheduled launch, all tracking station personnel were required to stay on site. Obviously, the Brown Baggers had to tell their wives something, so they just offhandily said a "Shoot" was coming. Some of the wives actually were naive enough to think that their husbands were going to participate in some sort of a shooting match! Others shall we say, saw this as a golden opportunity to do "other things" while the chance presented itself The local saloons sensed something was about to happen because of the sudden absence of their steady new- found patrons. Rumors flew every which way varying from a missile launch to an Air Force bombing practice run at Chiniak!

And how do you explain-away the sudden appearance of Russian fishing trawlers right off of the 12 mile limit of Chiniak Bay? And salmon isn't caught in mid- November either! Y E A ......

Now, this following event really did occur in town as told to me by "Poor ole Harry" Gotshalk. Fed by the rumor factory out of the local watering holes, the "word" was that there was going to be a missile launch from Chiniak. That started a run on buying up spotter scopes from D & As, Kraft's, and Knutsen's Outfitters. Hitherto now, the merchants considered those items a very slow moving product, except a few years previously (as the story yarn goes), there was a run on these scopes when "Sis Harris" had some new girls out Mission Road. Some of the locals used to watch them hang out the washing every day. (What do you think Carl Huer got his for?). Several people started watches along the Pillar Mountain road system and of course on top of the hill too. Cab drivers would relay the latest rumors to patrons on the mountain ordering beer, food and having "whatever" delivered.

Of course these rumors were groundless, but it couldn't be verified because all of the Chiniak people were stuck at work. And not even their best rumor no source, the Chiniak mail driver was available either. Telephone calls to and from the site were stopped at the comcenter switchboard. Four Air Force Military Policemen were brought in from Elmendorf and utilized as guards at the White Alice facility in case of "whatever". In other words, the security lid was clamped down. Site preparation work for the launch continued on and at times, reach ridiculous proportions. Senior technical management became quite paranoid ordering constant checking, rechecking, and checking again of equipment and configurations. Everyone from top to bottom was scared spitless for this was to be the initial effort for the Air Force into the space business. This was deadly serious business and the civilian contractor management teams just were not taking any chances at all. So they even closed down the Casa de Toro. That was a serious mistake by management, for the troops already had their stash in place.

24 hours before the scheduled launch, the station was "Manned- Up" with minimum crews literally sleeping at their positions with equipment. At T-4 hours, the entire station was manned and in position listening to the Vandenburg AFB launch count- down. Finally, at T-30 minutes, the launch was scrubbed and rescheduled for the next day. Talk about a let-down And the same thing the next day too. Finally, on the 3rd day, after a technical hold for 5 minutes to clear 3 deer out of the launch area, the bird lifted off and promptly blew up about a 100 feet off of the pad! All of this stress and strain Needlessly to say, the Casa de Toro opened up and away things went!

CHAPTER SIX
CHRISTMAS 1959

The winter of 1959 was an exceptionally nasty, and windy one making for outdoor activities a real challenge. Rain, rain, rain, and more rain. And ice, oh brother, ice was had, and I do mean everywhere. You couldn't drive on the roads much less stand up on them. To the locals, this wasn't anything new, but to the Chiniak people of which the majority were transplanted-Californians, this was pure hell on earth for them. People's nerves were rapidly deteriorating from being cooped up and nothing to do.

The mail runs to town were down to only 3 a week, and at that, only if 2 or more vehicles could make up a convoy for safety sake. The Navy even closed down the back gate (about where the Samson Tug & Barge docks are today) to traffic because of the icy conditions on "Base". I think that they called it condition "Charlie" or some dumb thing like that. Many a time the mail driver, and including all of the local ranchers, would have a fight with the Marine guards over allowing them to pass through to town after battling the road for 6 or so hours! Oh, by the way, this was the "new" back gate. It was relocated in April 1959 from the top of a hill about 10 miles back down the Chiniak road. You know this place now as "Marine Hill". Ah ha, get the connection now?

Finally, in the first week of December, the snows came (another strange new phenomenon to the Chiniakers) and everyone's attention turned to outdoor activities. Some of the people had the forethought to bring their skis up from California, and were having a ball cross-countrying. Others constructed small sleds out of packing crates or whatever they could get their hands on. One even made a sled out of the hood of a 54 maroon Ford that used to be a Mecca cab. Dick Prentike graded the access road from the site to the bottom of the hill (about 2 miles give or take a few yards) for a ski and sledding runway. This was the Friday Night event with races, timed events, bets, and just plain horsing- around. They even posted a road guard at the bottom of the hill to prevent any vehicular "surprises".

Then, someone figured out that there may be some real sleds in Kodiak. Well, of course there was, and yes, you guessed it, into town they went and bought up every single sled available. Well, needless to say, they were now equipped very professionally. The one thing hat these guys forgot to think of was that now the kids in Kodiak would have no sleds for Christmas!! Talk about grown men feeling really down and rotten, oh brother Words or actions just could not describe their sincere and sorry feelings!

Then, one of the nicest events (that I can recall) occurred. Lockheed, Philco, and Budson, the major contractors, initiated an emergency project called "Operation Sled". "Black" Bart Morgan of Lockeed went to Ray Martin, Sr., the Pacific Northern Airlines representative in Kodiak, and made arrangements to purchase out of Seattle 75 single child sleds and fly them in. These sleds were immediately "Donated" to the children in Kodiak (if the parents wished them to have them). Dixie McGehee volunteered to be Santa Claus (although there were several others that would have made a more "natural" looking Santa). So, on the 21st of December, in the old Kraft's mercantile store, Santa held forth "court". There were several pictures taken that day, but I am unable to locate a single copy. If anyone has a copy, please send it to me for CHINIAK TOO. Thanks..


Chapter Seven

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