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Photo of Red Canyon Range Camp about 1956,|
(about 83 K bytes) courtesy J.P. Moore
for related book, (available soon) click here.
By Jim Eckles
White Sands Missile Range. "MISSILE RANGER" - August 15, 1986
Red Canyon Range Camp, in the northeast corner of White Sands Missile Range, was once a booming center for Army public relations and troop training. Today, it is cracked concrete slabs, deteriorating roads and a couple of crumbling fire control bunkers. Graffiti marks many of the remaining foundations and deer and antelope are the most frequent visitors. It is a ghost town.
However, from 1953 through 1959 more than 10,000 visitors from 45 countries and 40 States passed through the camp to see some of the 3,000 Nike Ajax missiles fired by air defense troop units. About 300 troops were assigned to Red Canyon to run the facility. On some days the mess hall served as many as 1,500 meals.
The camp was opened in October 1953 by Fort Bliss as a place to conduct Nike Ajax training and annual service firings. At the time, Fort Bliss did not have the necessary area for such a mission. White Sands allowed the use of the northeast corner of the range as a temporary facility. Eventually, Fort Bliss established McGregor Range closer to the fort and moved the air defense firings there in August 1959.
What is left of the camp is about four miles south of US Highway 380 with the turnoff being 16 miles west of Carrizozo, N.M. That's 165 miles from Fort Bliss headquarters. At the turnoff, a gate made of red rock still stands where the camp had its outer entrance. At one time both sides of the gate were topped with Nike missiles.
Nike Ajax batteries received most of their training at Fort Bliss. When the units completed the basic required training, they moved to Red Canyon Range Camp. There they received further training which culminated in the firing of at least one successful missile. Once this was completed, the units would be considered fully prepared for around- the-clock operations at a Nike site.
Red Canyon Range Camp was built from scratch in the eastern foothills of the Oscura Mountains. Dozens of Quonset huts and other temporary buildings were erected in a flat area below Chupadera Mesa. Besides the usual barracks, mess hall and motor pool there was a small post exchange, dispensary, fire department and a recreation and service club. The men also had softball diamonds and volleyball and basketball courts for their use.
Several miles southwest of the camp a missile assembly area was built on a low ridge. Nike Ajax missiles were repaired, assembled and fueled at this site and then moved to the launch area further to the southwest. The missiles were fired at drones as visitors watched from the ridges to the east. An area west of the launch points is still littered with Nike boosters which are stuck in the ground like arrows after being shot straight up in the air.
The men who manned Red Canyon (no women were stationed there) seemed to like the duty. Their tour was supposed to be a short five months because of the isolation of the camp but most stayed on for several tours. The last camp commander, Lt. Col. John McCarthy, liked it enough to stay four and a half years.
In fact, McCarthy was the spirit and guiding hand behind Red Canyon for most of its existence. He implemented dozens of projects to improve the camp and make it more fit for his soldiers and the many visitors arriving. One of his more interesting projects was the building of a chapel.
For several years the camp held church services in the small camp theater. McCarthy wanted something better but could get no funding for a chapel. So he and MSgt. William Sidell, the camp's senior NCO, drew up plans for a building and turned the project over to the troops. Over 100 men, representing 32 states, volunteered to work on the building. Work started in December 1957.
The men spent their spare time, weekends and holidays, scrounging materials for the chapel. They salvaged steel rails from Southern Pacific for the frame. Bracing was cut from the steel doors of the old Lincoln County jail. The interior walls and roof came from the tops and sides of Nike booster crates. They quarried red rock from a nearby canyon for the walls and used plastered telephone poles as the pillars on the front entry. Using cellophane and shellac they were able to simulate stained glass windows. For bells they hung three Nike boosters in the steeple. The boosters had been fired and the heat gave them a pleasant resonance.
It might not sound like much of a building, but it was. The men referred to it as "90 percent junk, except in appearance". They worked hard and were able to give the chapel the appearance of one built with large amounts of money by a contractor.
McCarthy was proud of the chapel and of his men who worked on it. Years later he told the following story, "I recall on one very cold January Sunday when we started to work on it about 6 a.m. We were running cement for the floor and one soldier said to me during a brief pause, 'You know colonel, I don't go for this church stuff. The old lady likes it, but not me. I never go'. I replied, "What do you think you're doing now?" He said (sorta hesitantly) 'Well, this is different.' I countered by saying, "For a guy who doesn't like it, I am glad you don't mind going the hard way." He was a most conscientious worker, rolling one wheelbarrow full of cement after another and never complained. I guess there are all kinds of church goers."
Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryan, then Army Chief of Chaplains, was impressed with the effort and made a special trip in 1958 to dedicate the chapel. He told the men, "A building such as this means a great deal more than a large and more expensive chapel built by congressional appropriation. This has the heart and soul of you men in it."
According to McCarthy, having the Chief Chaplain on hand upstaged a similar dedication at Fort Bliss the next day. All the press emphasized the Red Canyon effort and just added at the end of their stories that "Ryan also went to El Paso". Apparently, Army officials in Washington called Fort Bliss and wanted to know, according to McCarthy,'Why the hell that place in the desert got all the publicity?"
The chapel ended up being a cross-shaped building, 87 feet long and 36 feet wide in the main section. Officially, the only cash spent was $200 for shingles, which the men contributed. After he retired, McCarthy did admit to some creative administrative work to help the project. He said they transferred the building number from an unused temporary shed to the chapel. This allowed them to draw funds to maintain it once it was complete.
After the chapel was completed, McCarthy included it in the tours he gave visitors. Most of these visitors were part of "Operation Understanding" which was a special Army program to educate community leaders about the Nike Ajax. They were VIPs from cities all over the world where Nike units were on site or where units were contemplated being installed. The visiting groups were made up of mayors and city officials, civil defense leaders, church, civic, educational and industrial leaders and newspapermen. Occasionally, a governor or senator made the trip. They were all flown in military aircraft but paid their own expenses.
The program was dubbed OU and was credited with smoothing the way for many of the Nike installations. In 1957, the proposed location of a site at the Los Angeles International Airport drew adverse public demonstrations. After the mayor and other city officials went through OU and then told the citizens of Los Angeles about what they had seen, opposition evaporated.
When the groups went through the chapel, McCarthy always had someone there softly playing hymns on the organ. On one visit the Norwegian Minister of War broke away from his group and asked the organist to play a particular hymn. He then sang along as the rest of the group listened. Eye witnesses later said he had a beautiful voice.
The camp mascot, a burro the men caught and raised, also liked to sing in the chapel. They called it Nike and, according to McCarthy, it liked to try to attend the Catholic masses on Sunday. During a Protestant service, however, Nike managed to get into the chapel through a side door just as the congregation started into a hymn. Nike stuck his head into the chapel and started braying with the singers. The service concluded right there but the chaplain said later he felt he had, at least, made a convert of Nike.
When Fort Bliss left Red Canyon for McGregor Range, they took the temporary buildings down. The men who worked there remember leaving the chapel standing since it was not an official building. Besides, they had put a lot of their own sweat and time into building it. Then in 1961 it was discovered that the chapel was gone. Only its concrete foundation and the stairs remained.
What happened to the chapel remains something of a mystery. The Fort Bliss Real Estate Office showed that the building was sold for salvage for $219. Some people didn't believe this and during the 1960s there were hints that something else happened to it. What, is unclear. In the June 1972 issue of Soldiers Magazine there was a full page story on the disappearance and an appeal for information on the chapel. Nothing much came of it.
Looking through a file of stories and letter about Red Canyon and knowing how the military operates leads one to believe it was simply sold as scrap and bulldozed. To try to move or rebuild the structure somewhere else would have been very expensive. The Nike Ajax, which was the reason for having the camp, is no longer in service but was the world's first supersonic guided missile to become operational. Originally it was simply called "Nike" but the "Ajax" was added when the next generation, the Nike Hercules, was developed. Nike Ajax was conceived in 1945 with most of the subsequent development testing done here, on what was then called White Sands Proving Ground. Early tests included static firings of motors, live firings of booster and sustainer motors and tests of the guidance system and warhead.
In October 1951, for the first time, all Nike components were brought together in one missile and fired here. A month later a Nike successfully intercepted a droned B-17 bomber and sent it crashing to the desert floor north of Launch Complex 33.
The Nike was almost 20 feet long, 12 inches in diameter, and burned nitric acid and aniline. It was equipped with a solid propellant booster which is still used to boost current sounding rockets at White Sands. Nike was designed to get close to its target and then a radio signal from the ground would fire the warhead.
The first Nike unit was put on site at Fort Meade, Md., and on May 30, 1954, became fully operational. During the mid 1950s, Nike systems were installed along the Eastern seaboard. Later, the system was deployed to Allied nations as air defense for industrial and metropolitan areas.
In November 1964, after a decade of service, the last Nike Ajax was withdrawn from active duty. The system was replaced by the Nike Hercules and HAWK.
Lt. Col. McCarthy used to talk about the high morale of his men and how hard they worked. He said they were dedicated and enjoyed being at Red Canyon. It would be hard to argue with him. Two years ago I received a call from Ernest Littlejohn in Michigan who was once stationed at Red Canyon. He was a PFC and a missile mechanic. He had helped build the chapel and wanted to show it to his children. I could sense his disappointment when I told him the chapel was gone and there was no reason to go to Red Canyon Range Camp anymore.
Following text is by JP Moore
To read more articles by Mr. Eckles, visit the White Sands Missile Range Official Website:
Click on Public Affairs Office.
Later, check out the other sites. (Note: some are restricted access)
This a remarkably well done, extremely interesting military web site with something for everyone. You WILL be glad you went there.
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Updated Feburary 4, 1998