View Full Version : Old guards finally peek in 'Birdcage'

04-30-06, 09:06 AM
Article published Apr 30, 2006
Old guards finally peek in 'Birdcage'
50 years later, Marines enter Cold War relic
The Leaf-Chronicle

For many years, they were the guardians of one of Fort Campbell's biggest secrets.

They didn't know the secret, only that it had to be protected at all costs.

The "secret" was the storage of atomic weapons and components at Clarksville Base — nicknamed the "Birdcage" because of the wires and fences that surrounded it — and "they" were the U.S. Marines tasked with guarding it.

From 1952 to 1965, hundreds of young men stood in "pillboxes" — concrete-style bunkers with nothing but a slit opening to peer through or to fire a weapon — to keep strangers out of the classified area in the woods of Fort Campbell.

This week, many of them were back at Fort Campbell to reunite with friends and former comrades. Some haven't seen each other in more than 50 years.

It was the fourth reunion, and the biggest so far. More than 90 people — former Marines and their spouses — came back to Fort Campbell for the reunion.

For many, this reunion offered a first for them — a chance to peer inside the place they spent so many years guarding.
A secret history

The Birdcage covers 3.2 square miles of Fort Campbell and was for the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. Opened in 1948, it was one of 13 nuclear weapons stockpile sites, and the biggest of the 13. The site was originally operated by the Air Force.

In 1952, control of Clarksville Base was given to the Navy, who in turn brought in the Marines to guard it.

It was a job the Marines took seriously until Clarksville Base was shut down in 1965. The land was given to the Army as "surplus" property in 1969.

Today, Clarksville Base is a National Register-eligible historic district because of its role during the early years of the Cold War.
Hidden in plain sight

The Birdcage, located off East End Road on Fort Campbell, is a series of underground bunkers with thick iron doors built into the hillside.

The surrounding area itself, while a beautiful wooded area, doesn't convey anything unusual except for the concrete-style boxes spaced at intervals along the road. Some of the concrete structures stand as tall as 5 feet, while others only appear to be 18 inches or so.

"Those are the pillboxes," said former Marine Jim Thompson, who lives in Clarksville.

Marines on guard duty in the pillboxes were not allowed to have entertainment of any kind, including a newspaper, book or even a radio, he said.

The Marines, he said, had specific orders — protect the Birdcage. At one time it was surrounded with at least three fences — one electric and another barbed-wire.

"If someone was coming, you yelled 'Halt' and fired a warning shot. If they didn't stop, you'd shoot," Thompson said.

"We were sent here with one mission — to safeguard whatever was down here. We didn't play around. You got a warning shot, a 'halt,' another warning shot and then we'd lay one down."

Across from the pillboxes are the iron doors that guarded the series of underground bunkers.

The bunker the Marines toured Friday as part of their reunion went 60 feet into the hillside. With a cavernous entrance and thick concrete walls (now covered with graffiti), the bunker had fluorescent lights overhead — no longer operable — and ended with a huge iron gate.

Through the gate was another area with a vault-like door, and then there were several storage rooms — also with vault-like doors.

During the heyday, the rooms might have been filled with atomic warheads or components to make weapons.

Today, the passageways are dark, except for random slivers of light from the outside.

Without a flashlight, the storage areas themselves have no visibility.

Floors are covered with broken glass.

The tour was eerie for Friday's visitors. While the passageways were already cool, one part seemed colder than the rest.

"I have goose bumps," said Jim Owens of Pennsylvania, who was stationed at the Birdcage from 1953 to 1955.

Isaac Fulton, who now lives in Bristol, said he learned more about the Birdcage during the reunion tour than he ever knew while working there.

"Now I'm scared," he said.
Sworn secret

Those who worked at the Birdcage were sworn to secrecy for at least 50 years, so it is only recently they have opened up about their service.

Owens said when he was first contacted about the reunions a few years ago by organizer Jim Shipley, he wasn't sure if he could trust anyone.

"He asked if I worked at the Birdcage, and I said 'Who wants to know?' I just clutched up," Owens said. "I wouldn't talk to him over the phone about it. Fifty-two years later, and I'm still scared someone will come get me."

Many of the former Birdcage guards said they never talked about their time at Fort Campbell because of the secrecy oath they took. They also said talking could make you "disappear."

For instance, reunion organizer Jim Shipley said, he recalled members of the CIA masquerading as guards just to see if the Marines would talk about their jobs or the Birdcage.

The Marines also recalled one man — they couldn't remember his name — who was bragging that he would know the secrets of the Birdcage within two weeks. He was gone the following day, and they never saw or heard from him again.

"If you asked questions, you were gone," Shipley said. "You didn't know who you could talk to."

Owens said he was often asked about the Birdcage and what was there when he went into town during his time off.

"I told people we had the only virgin in the state of Tennessee," he said.
Dispelling the myths

Secret oaths, barbed-wire fences and guard dogs made the Birdcage a ripe target for rumors and local lore.

With the passage of time, Birdcage employees are just starting to talk about their service at the top-secret facility and dispel the myths.

For instance, when he was asked about the nuclear submarine that was supposedly at Clarksville Base, Shipley just laughed.

"No, there was not a nuclear submarine out there," he said. "That's definitely not true."

He and Owens said they were aware of guard dogs, but didn't think their vocal cords had been cut to make them stealthier.

They did confirm the electrocution of at least one person on the electric fence.

A soldier who was in the stockade attempted an escape. Thinking he was getting off post, he was instead climbing a fence into the Birdcage.

Walt Hood, who was at the Birdcage from 1958 to 1960, said he remembers a train wreck at the Birdcage. A car got loose and went down the tracks, he said.

A Marine got onto the train car and tried to use its brakes, but the car kept going. The Marine jumped off just before the crash.

"To my knowledge, it was never reported," said Hood of Jacksonville, Fla.

But the reach of the Birdcage extended beyond the Marines themselves. Kitty Hoffman of Clarksville recalled sitting on her suitcase waiting for the bus in the country (now Sango) to go see her brother out of town.

She said she later got a call from husband Bob who said, "Heard you were sitting on your suitcase waiting on the bus."

"They kept an eye on everybody," Bob Hoffman said. "They checked out you and everyone you ever came in contact with."
Breaking the silence

Some secrets the Marines were sworn to guard have been declassified, making them rich fodder for people like Debbie Bratton, who is working on a book about the Birdcage and the people who worked there.

She spent time with the Marines during their reunion, interviewing and videotaping them.

"They really are the unsung heroes — the secret patriots," she said. "Their primary duty was to patrol the area — many of them didn't even know what was going on inside."

Rick Ashley, who was at the Birdcage from 1952 to 1955, said he "knew there was something here" but he wasn't sure exactly what.

He didn't know until two or three years ago. His wife, Shirley, said Rick has talked about the friends he made but not about the details.

Some of the Marines have been back to Fort Campbell since their tour of duty, but few had been inside the bunkers until last week's reunion.

Bill Yates, who was stationed at Clarksville Base from 1959 to 1962 and now lives in Clarksville, said he had been back to the Birdcage once.

"I never talked about the places I left," he said. "I came back one time to see what it was like. It brings back some fond memories."

But even with most of the Birdcage's secrets declassified — some information is even available on the Internet — some like Owens are not completely comfortable telling all their Birdcage secrets.

"I'm surprised to see other people talk about it," he said. "When I'm asked about it, I don't talk about it. I don't even like to admit I know about it."