THE STORY OF CLARKSVILLE BASE
The Atomic Age began in August 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. World War II soon came to an end, but another conflict was already on the horizon. Clarksville Base would eventually play an important role in the new and dangerous Atomic Era.
During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. They put aside their differences to defeat a common threat. The cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union ended when their distrust of each other led to the division of Europe into two armed camps. Over time, western European nations aligned themselves with the United States and many eastern European nations willingly or unwillingly became part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
A relation ship turns to conflict. In the late 1940s, the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated. For more than forty years, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in political, economic, and military conflict. This period of time was called the Cold War. The conflict was described as “cold” because the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union never directly fought each other. The United States believed that the Soviet Union wanted to expand its control over more territory and adopted a policy called “containment.” The goal of this policy was to prevent the growth of the Soviet Union and communism. Despite great tension, the two countries never directly attacked each other, because they feared that the conflict would result in nuclear war.
Nuclear Weapons. The United States considered nuclear weapons critical for its survival. Military planners were convinced that the threat of nuclear weapons would stop the Soviet Union from attacking the United States and its allies. Creating a large stockpile of nuclear weapons became a top priority. The military needed facilities to securely store, maintain, and prepare these weapons for use.
Clarksville Base was the second nuclear weapons storage facility to begin active operations in the United States. It was one of six National Storage Sites (NSS), facilities where the majority of the nation’s stockpile was stored. The remaining seven sites were Operational Storage Sites (OSS), used for staging weapons for quick deployment. National Storage Sites were jointly established and controlled by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP). This dual control of nuclear technology in the United States was established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Under the act, the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was responsible for the research, development, manufacture, and delivery of nuclear technology. The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP) was the AEC’s military counterpart. It was responsible for storing, guarding, testing, and deploying nuclear weapons, as well as nuclear weapons training for the military.
Location. he military began construction on Clarksville Base in 1947. Like all other National Storage Sites, Clarksville Base was built within an existing military installation. The Army gave approximately 2,600 acres of its maneuvering grounds at Fort Campbell for construction of the base. Fort Campbell was considered an excellent location for a National Stockpile Site. It provided ready access to existing air and rail transportation, and its location in western Tennessee and Kentucky was removed from major population centers. At one point in time, a third of the United States’ nuclear stockpile was stored at Clarksville Base. The Soviet Union considered the base a critical part of the United States’ defense infrastructure and placed it on the list of the first ten sites to destroy in the event of a nuclear war. Clarksville Base functioned as a storage facility and subsequently a modification facility until progress in weapons technology made it obsolete. Operations at Clarksville Base ended in 1965, and control of the facility was transferred to the Army in 1969.
Clarksville Base tells the story of a nation willing to go to great lengths to defend its liberty and preserve its way of life. Fort Campbell acknowledges the significance of Clarksville Base as a tangible record of the early Cold War. The Army is committed to preserving Clarksville Base and is working diligently to protect many of the most significant buildings and tell the stories of those who served here for future generations.
The cold war museum online
Extensive background information from a European perspective
Original documents from the Cold War period relating to the political viewpoints
Timeline of major events and decisions
Good source for comprehensive information
What Did People do at Clarksville Base?
Clarksville Base was built to store the United States’ growing stockpile of nuclear weapons in a highly secure environment. Everyone on the base had a job that supported that central mission. The activities of the civilians and military members working at the base fell into four categories: administration, maintenance, inspection, and security.
Administration. Clarksville Base was administered by the Air Force from 1948 to 1952 and the Navy from 1952 to 1969. Administration of the base involved both the central mission of providing secure storage for nuclear weapons and the secondary mission of supporting the civilian and military workers at the base. Clarksville Base was self-sufficient and entirely separate from Fort Campbell. It had its own power generation and water treatment facilities, utilities, and roads. The administration area of Clarksville Base also included a fire station, chapel, post office, barbershop, bowling alley, swimming pool, commissary, and mess hall to serve the needs of those stationed there.
Maintenance. Early atomic weapons required ongoing maintenance to make sure that they would function when they were needed. The Air Force facilitated the maintenance of the weapons from the time that Clarksville Base became operational in 1948 until they handed over management of the base to the Navy in 1952. Air Force and Navy weapons handlers transported weapons to various locations on the base (between the base railhead, airfield, storage facilities, and plants) and performed routine maintenance on the weapons.
Inspection. The Atomic Energy Commission contracted the Sandia Corporation to perform quality control inspections on the nuclear weapons at Clarksville Base. Sandia employees conducted warhead surveillance, which meant that they monitored the radioactivity of the materials in the weapons. Early atomic weapons had polonium-beryllium neutron initiators that started the chain reaction needed for an atomic explosion. These initiators were only active for 138 days, so they had to be replaced frequently. Sandia employees also performed other tests on the nuclear materials and were responsible for assembling and dissembling nuclear devices. Later, these activities were conducted by the civilian contractor Mason
Security. The Air Force handled security for Clarksville Base from 1948-1952 before handing responsibility over to the Marines when the Navy took over management of the base. The Marines controlled access to the base at the main entrance. They also patrolled the perimeter road around the base, monitored the perimeter fence intrusion alarms, and manned the pillboxes (concrete guardhouses) outside the storage facilities.
The military built Clarksville Base to keep the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile secure. Everything about the design of the base created a high security environment. Security was the top priority and considered the job of everyone on the base. The layers of security may seem extreme now, but they were necessary. The Soviet Union sent agents from the KGB to try to get information about and possibly access to the base. The military used two types of security at Clarksville Base: physical security and personnel security.
Location. The first layer of physical security for Clarksville Base was its location within Fort Campbell. The Army installation provided a buffer between Clarksville Base and the outside world. It was also a source of additional defensive manpower if the base was ever attacked.
Perimeter Fence and Patrol Road. Clarksville Base was separated from Fort Campbell by four eight-foot tall chain-link security fences. Each was topped by two strands of barbed wire. A narrow road located within the exterior fence encircled the entire base. Heavily armed Marines patrolled the road at regular intervals. A disturbance along any section of the fence triggered lights on tall poles to alert the Marines of a possible intruder. Three additional fences circled the base within the perimeter patrol road. The middle fence of the three was a high voltage electric fence. The perimeter fence systems also had audio alarms to warn guards that an intruder was trying to get inside.
Bridges over Little West Fork Creek. The perimeter patrol road for Clarksville Base crosses Little West Fork Creek in two places. Engineers built two bridges over the creek with special security measures designed to prevent an intruder from accessing the base. The bridges have metal roll down shutters that extend down to the water line to prevent access by boat.
Security within Clarksville Base. The storage facilities for the weapons had several layers of security. First, the bunkers were constructed using reinforced concrete that was up to 17 feet thick. They were built either entirely underground or covered with a deep layer of earth. Armed Marines in pillboxes (small concrete guardhouses) watched over the entrances to each storage bunker, which were secured with heavy blast doors. Inside the bunker, the tunnel to the storage rooms was secured with a metal cage-type door and a bank vault door. Additional bank vault doors secured the entrance to each weapons storage room.
Secrecy. Clarksville Base was shrouded in secrecy. The workers at the base had just enough information to do their jobs, and they were not allowed to discuss their work with each other. Workers were told not to mention Clarksville Base or nuclear weapons at all when they left the base. Members of the Navy were told not to wear their uniforms when off the base, because Navy uniforms in a completely landlocked area of the country would have attracted too much attention. Those who did not follow the strict secrecy policy could be disciplined, transferred off the base, or prosecuted.
Security Clearance. Civilians and members of the military working at Clarksville Base had either a “Q” or an “A” security clearance. “A” security clearance provided access to the administrative area of the base, which included the headquarters building, barracks, and other buildings that supported everyday life. “Q“ security clearance provided access to the area of Clarksville Base where nuclear weapons were stored. A “Q” clearance required an extensive FBI background check. When workers at Clarksville Base wanted to access a “Q” area, they had to go to the Identification Badge Exchange building and trade their “A” badge for a “Q” badge. Anyone in a “Q” area without the proper “Q” badge could be detained or shot by the Marines patrolling the base.
Secure Weapons Access. In order to make the nuclear weapons at Clarksville Base even more secure, the workers at the base used the Nuclear Release and Authorization System (NRAS). Under this system, both a military combination and a civilian combination were needed to unlock the bank vault doors that secured the storage bunkers. That way, the military could not use nuclear weapons without civilian approval.
General information on a variety of security matters and military history
Discussion on concept of two man control and other security measures
In-depth discussion of security for nuclear weapons
Built for a Job
Clarksville Base was a place with a specific mission: keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons secure and ready for use. Some of the buildings on the base, like the storage bunkers, supported the mission directly. Others, like the barracks and the commissary building, supported the people who worked on the base. The Kansas City engineering firm Black and Veatch designed the layout of the base as well as the storage bunkers and other primary structures in the high-security “Q” area.
A Structures. A Structures were built to store the components of nuclear weapons. The early atomic weapons that were stored at Clarksville Base included nuclear materials and non-nuclear conventional explosives. The nuclear materials were stored separately from the conventional high explosives to prevent an accidental detonation. There were three types of A Structures at Clarksville Base. Some were built deep in bedrock at the end of a tunnel. Others were built above ground and protected with a thick layer of earth or a deep, solid layer of reinforced concrete. The third type consisted of underground storage igloos that were converted to A Structures when the base needed more room for nuclear weapon storage.
Combined A-B-C Structure. The Combined A-B-C structure at Clarksville Base is a large underground tunnel complex. It consisted of three types of structures, each with a different purpose. Nuclear weapons components were stored in the A Structure at the end of a 600-foot tunnel. The B Structure was used for emergency medical care and decontamination in the event of an accident. Routine maintenance on the weapons was performed in the C Structure.
Modification/Disassembly Plant. The Modification/Disassembly Plant (commonly called Gravel Gertie) was used to assemble or separate the nuclear components and the conventional high explosive components of a hydrogen bomb. It was a dangerous process, so engineers created a building design that would contain a one-kiloton explosion. The main portion of the building is a cylindrical room with a conical roof. It is heavily reinforced on the sides to direct an explosion straight upward. The name Gravel Gertie came from the tons of gravel on the roof of the building. In the event of an explosion, the gravel would help to contain the radioactive material and reduce the amount that escaped into the atmosphere.
Support Buildings at Clarksville Base. Although built entirely within Fort Campbell, Clarksville Base was separate and self-sufficient. The Army managed Fort Campbell, while the Air Force, and later the Navy, managed Clarksville Base. For security purposes, the base needed its own power generation, drinking water, and sewage treatment facilities. In addition, the administration area of the base included all of the buildings necessary to support the personnel stationed on the base, including: a fire station, chapel, post exchange, barber shop, bowling alley, swimming pool, commissary, mess hall and barracks.
Family bomb shelters/Cold War impact on family life
Clarksville Base was an unusual place to live and work. Security concerns affected every activity at the base. People operated with the knowledge that threats existed both outside and inside the security fence. Outside, they faced keeping the secrets of Clarksville Base from Soviet intelligence agents and from the general public. Inside the security fence, they faced the risk of working near nuclear weapons. There was never a moment when they could let their guard down.
Despite the risks involved, everyday life at the base could be very boring. Year after year would go by without an enemy security breach, and this made it difficult to stay vigilant day after day. The Marines guarding the nuclear storage bunkers served long shifts in cramped pillboxes and were not allowed to occupy themselves with books, a radio, or even a deck of cards. Serving at Clarksville Base was challenging but important work.
No Exceptions. The Marines guarding Clarksville Base made no exceptions when it came to security. Navy Lieutenant Mercer McKinney was getting married at Hope Chapel, the church on Clarksville Base. When his bride, her parents, and her wedding party arrived at the security gate, the Marines would not let them enter. It turns out that McKinney had not put their names on the approved visitors list. It took an hour and a half to straighten out the misunderstanding.
A Close Call. The diligence and professionalism of the people who served at Clarksville Base kept them safe. There were no nuclear accidents during its operational years. However, one incident came close. In February 1960, a train was making a delivery of MK-31 warheads. Someone forgot to put on the parking brake, and five train cars rammed into a bumper at the end of the track. One of the cars came off the rails. Thankfully, none of the warheads were damaged and Clarksville Base maintained its clean safety record.
Testing Security. Security at Clarksville Base was continuously tested and improved. It was only breached once. Admiral John D. Bulkeley took over command of the base in 1960. After taking stock of security at the base, he was concerned that there were flaws. He spoke with the colonel who was in charge of the Marines guarding the base, and the colonel told him that the base was completely secure. Bulkeley was not convinced. He dressed in black jungle fatigues and breached the security fences at the base. He left paint cans that represented explosives in strategic locations to let the Marines know that they had been beaten. Security at the base was overhauled based on his recommendations.
Clarksville Base has not been a nuclear weapons storage facility since 1965. From 1965 to 1969, the military stored classified materials in some of the bunkers. This practice ended when they were found to contain radon. The Navy turned Clarksville Base over to Fort Campbell in 1969.
Today, the Army uses many of the buildings at Clarksville Base for office space and storage. Fort Campbell is in the process of making room for new Army units as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. The Army has decided to redevelop some areas of Clarksville Base and has sponsored extensive studies of the cultural resources and built environment at the base. These studies will provide the Army with the information it needs to make decisions about redevelopment while also protecting the heritage of Clarksville Base.
A Part of Cold War History. Clarksville Base is important because it tells the story of an important time in our nation’s history. The Cold War dominated the political, economic, and military landscape for almost half a century. The people of the United States were deeply concerned that their political and economic liberties were being threatened. They built Clarksville Base to defend these liberties. It is a tangible record of the extraordinary measures Americans developed to defend their way of life.
Stewardship and Preservation. The U.S. Army values the nation’s history and has a long legacy of stewardship of its historic resources. Before the National Park Service became the government’s primary historic preservation agency, the Army was undertaking efforts to preserve historic battlefields. The Army’s leadership recognizes that preserving its cultural resources connects members of the military with their proud history and traditions while supporting its ongoing mission: to protect and defend the United States of America.
Website for the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Website for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
Cornell University’s preservation website