Visiting Veterans Have their Own Remarkable Story
A group of veterans and their spouses – some 63 in all – converged on Deadwood and the northern Black Hills in late September for a reunion – and High Plains Western Heritage in Spearfish was one of their stops. Mostly Army and Navy veterans, they all had gone through a select training at Fort Belvoir, Virgina in the midst of the “Cold War.” While they came to our museum to learn more about High Plains history – they brought their own fascinating stories, some of which have ties to our region.
To understand what brings them together for their annual reunions, it’s necessary to reach back to the decade following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and the end of World War Two.
It was during those years that the new Department of Defense charged the Navy and legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover to develop nuclear propulsion systems for Navy ships and submarines. The Air Force would concentrate on warheads for ballistic missiles; and the Army would build and operate small land-based nuclear power plants to provide electricity and heat to military facilities at far-flung and remote locations with divergent climates.
Navy Captain Chuck Fegley, a retired Navy Construction Battalion (SeaBee) officer from New Jersey, was a spokesman for our visitors, and he shared a brief history of these “Belvoir Nuke” veterans.
“The Army Nuclear Power Program (ANPP) ran from about 1955 to 1977 under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and most of our guys were Army and Navy” said Fegley.
“It was basically a plan to develop nuclear power for remote shore locations. The Atomic Energy Commission was involved, and civilian contractors, too.”
The Glen L. Martin Company of Baltimore would become a significant player in the program.
“The first plant was at Fort Belvoir,” according to Fegley – the first of eight nuclear projects and was used primarily for training and testing. It became the first U.S. nuclear plant to connect to an electrical grid.
Some of the trainees remained at Fort Belvoir, but most saw duty at the seven other sites, including:
* A boiling water reactor built in the high plains area of eastern Idaho, specifically designed to power a Defense Early Warning (DEW Line) radar station.
* A 2-megawatt electric/heating reactor at “Camp Century” in Greenland.
* A mobile closed-cycle gas turbine designed for 300-kilowatts, but only achieving 140 kilowatts. It operated for just a few hundred hours of testing.
* A Navy-owned 1.75-megawatt electric/heating/desalinization facility at McMurdo Station in Antarctica; it operated from 1962 until decommissioned in 1972 – one of the first shore-based power plants to use solid-state equipment.
* A 2-megawatt electric and heating plant at Fort Greely, Alaska – the first field facility developed under the ANPP. Opened in 1962, it was selected to develop construction methods in a remote, arctic location. It closed in 1972.
* A low-power unit mounted on a barge in the Panama Canal Zone, which operated from 1968 to 1977. It was the last of the eight plants to permanently cease operation.
* A 1.25-megawatt electric/heating plant at Sundance Air Force Station in Wyoming. Designed by the Martin Company, it provided power to the 731st Radar Squadron, part of the North American Air Defense Command. It operated from 1962 until the plant on Warren Peak was shut down in 1968.
If the reminder of a nuclear facility on nearby Warren Peak was interesting –it was a real surprise when we learned that retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Jerry Schloredt, who lives in Sundance, was among this group of “Belvoir Nuke” veterans. Alas, although a native of Sundance, he was never assigned to the Warren Peak facility. Schloredt and Fegley – both Seabees – worked together at the plants in Greenland and Antarctica.
During their two-hour visit to the museum, many of the veterans and their spouses expressed great appreciation for the presentation by Sturgis historian Randy Bender. His superb portrayal of Colonel Caleb Carlton, post commander of Old Fort Meade, tells of the origin of the Star Spangled Banner at Fort Mead – eventually becoming our National Anthem many decades later.
“Veterans have done so much in defense of our country…our way of life,” says High Plains Western Heritage Center director Karla Scovell, “it was an honor and a privilege to host the Fort Belvoir veterans. Sharing history is wonderful – especially when it’s a two-way street. These veterans have remarkable stories of service!”
We want to thank Larry Miller for contributing this article.