|From the "Missile Ranger" May 7, 1999, a publication of the White Sands Missile Range Public Information Office. They have advised me that since the "Missile Ranger" is a government publication - it is in the public domain - and may be freely published.|
By Donna Braun - Editor
In the 1950s, Red Canyon Range Camp wasn't much of anything at all. It began as a tent city and some quonset huts. Eventually, a few permanent building were constructed such as a PX and chapel. The camp was closed in August of 1959, and today it remains not much of anything all ... just a few concrete slabs that once served as building foundations.
But, that sparse stretch of desert nestled along the foot of a couple hills on White Sands Missile Range was filled with an abundance of memories and emotions Monday when former soldiers assigned to the camp returned for a reunion tour visit.
From 1953 to 1959 Red Canyon Range Camp was home to the Army's Nike Ajax missile program. Permanent party personnel served as trainers for missile units assigned to major cities throughout the country.
The isolation of the camp seemed to work magic on some of the soldiers assigned there though ... drawing them back after nearly 40 years.
Historical photos courtesy of Mary McCarthy Elliot
At its start in 1053, Red Canyon Range Camp's maon facilities were little more than a collection of quonset huts and tents.
Personnel assigned to the camp built a cross-shaped chapel using a variety of materials salvaged and scrounged up locally because no funding was authorized for the project.
Red Canyon Range Battalion Commander Lt. Col John McCarthy, offers a sip to the camp's mascot, a burro named Nike. McCarthy was the driving force of many of the camp's self-help improvements. In the photo to the right, his daughters, Margaret McCarthy Hart, shown left, and Mary McCarthy Elliot stand on the chapel foundation during a tour of the site Monday. According to Mary, Mccarthy, who had spent fourr-and-a-half years at the camp, loved the place so much he had requested to remain as camp commander until his retirement, a request denied by the Army.
Bob Jenson received orders to the camp as Staff Sergeant, having just completed two years of infantry duty in Korea. He describes the shock of coming upon the barren post.
"I had just returned from two-and-half years in Korea, and I thought that was pretty ancient. But boy, when I got to Red Canyon, I was ready to go back to Korea," he said.
Alan Graham, a switchboard operator at the camp, recalls the dangers of working at a missile facility. He said he was working in the conimumcations building atop one of the hills at the camp when a missile went out of control.
"Capt. Mendheim came running over from the control center and said 'Everybody out, run like hell, it's coming straight down,"' he said. "There was nowhere to run. We just kinda stood around and waited for it come down."
Graham said no one was injured in the incident, and to this day he does not know where the missile actually eventually landed.
According to Curtis Thienes, a radar operator at Red Canyon, the Camp's Commander, Lt. Col. John McCarthy, worked hard to find projects to improve the quality of life for the soldiers assigned there.
Those returning to the camp all recalled two major improvements undertaken by McCarthy - the addition of a PX and the construction of the camp's chapel.
Men assigned there designed and built the chapel themselves. There were no Army funds so the men scrounged the materials for it from wherever they could - steel salvaged from Southern Pacific Railroad, Nike booster crates and plastered telephone poles. Cellophane was placed on the windows to look like stained glass.
Another big morale-booster was the camp's mascot, Nike. Nike was a beer-drinking burro that would wander from building to building coming and going as he pleased. The men adopted him and would take him with them to parades and official functions at Fott Bliss.
The soldiers also came up with creative forms of entertainment.
"We'd gather up some solid missile fuel and to try to make rockets. Once we lit that thing, we would bide behind rocks," Homer McKinstry recalled. "But I think the highest we got 'em off the ground was about three feet before it blew up."
Of course the purpose of the camp was to conduct training for Nike Ajax battery members.
William Hall was a battališn missile officer from Philadelphia who traveled to the camp eight times on training missions.
"While now it is nice to look back and have fond memories of the place, back then it was serious business for us. Whether or not we got promoted, got good efficiency ratings or whether or not we kept our jobs depended on those firings."
Of course, in order to conduct the training a target was needed. Targets used for the tests were RCATS, Radio Controlled Aerial Targets, launched from Oscura Range Camp located south of Red Canyon on White Sands Proving Ground.
RCATS were small, aircraft-looking drones. A circular track was built at Oscura to launch the craft. An RCAT would be attached to a tether and spun around the track until the operator decided the proper speed had been reached. The drone was then released and later acquired by its control radar.
Ken Fraser, a generator operator at Oscura, said the RCATS weren't the most reliable targets.
"Sometimes they would fly right over us, sometimes they would crash right in front of us. They were out of control," he said.
He also recalled that there was a severe personnel shortage at Oscura, which required the controllers to work for days at a time.
"They would just lay down right there between launches and. sleep," he said.
Monday's reunion tour resulted from a project started by J.P. Moore about three years ago.
Moore, who was assigned to the camp for three years, said no one would believe him when he told stories about the place.
"People would ask me what I did in the Army and I would tell them about Red Canyon, but they wouldn't beliÚve me. They didn't believe we lived in tents with outhouses and wild donkeys running around. So I said 'I'm gonna write a book about it, with pictures. Now you got to believe that,'" he said.
Three years later, with his book "The Malpais Missiles" complete, Moore said another former Red Canyon soldier, Don Bogges, came up with the idea for the reunion. Bogges began contacting others and making arrangements. Unfortunately, Bogges unexpectedly had to undergo open heart surgery about two weeks ago and could not continue with his plans for the reunion.
Moore stepped in and completed the work.
Of course the soldiers weren't the only folks who called Red Canyon home during the 1950s.
Yvonne Thienes accompanied her husband to New Mexico, taking an apartment in Carizozo.
She said while the life was isolated compared to her Wisconsin home, she did enjoy her time here.
The couple's first child was born in Camozo.
Yvonne's most vivid memory of life as a Red Canyon wife was when she unscrewed the top to the agitator in her washing machine one day and found scorpion. She said she was petrified and went running to the landlord-for asrnstance.
"He offered to bring his shotgun," she chuckled.
And, there were children whose fathers were assigned to the camp. Margaret McCartby Hart, whose father was the camp commander, said she recalls spending time there as an eight-year-old.
"I enjoyed the burro, tours of the camp and the friends I made," Margaret said. She also recalled her father's love of Red Canyon.
"He was attracted by the challenge. The people who liked it really liked it - he was one of them," she said, "The other people ran."
Her sister, Mary McCarthy Elliot, was overcome by emotion upon returning to Red Canyon Monday.
She had a hard time choking back tears as she recalled time she spent there compared to stark reality of what the place looks like now.
"It took me by surprise. I wasn't really prepared. I know it's been 40 years and that nature reclaims itself but seeing the weeds coming up through the foundation was strange," she said, "I never remember Red Canyon having so much vegetation."
Mary, who resides in Nashua, N.H., said now that she has returned to New Mexico, she is considering coming back permanently.
"My dad loved it, like he said, 'The best four-and-a-half years of my career where spent in Red Canyon.' His love for it. made us love it," she said.
"It suited' us fine, we have lifelong attachments here. It was good coming home."
If you have comments or suggestions, Send e-mail to Ed Thelen
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