BMEWS - 510 Full Days


The idea to develop an essay detailing the early years of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) project began during the summer of 1992, when I read of the replacement of the Thule radar systems with new, Phased Array technology. It was a nostalgic moment for me because I took part in the building of the systems at Thule 30 years earlier. With the concurrent dismantling of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reduction of the threat to mankind that ballistic missiles represented, I realized that I played a small part in the mission of ensuring that intercontinental nuclear war would never happen. The significance of the BMEWS was that it removed any chance of a surprise attack by the Soviets on North American targets, assuring time to retaliate. With more than a little pride I recall bits of my past which I will always remember as a love affair with the most magnificent mechanical and electronic assembly I have ever seen.

NB: Written in 1992, entirely from memory and without notes (I wasn't smart enough to keep a diary, so there are most likely some inaccuracies. Please bear with them, and if you have notes, or remember differently, get in touch, please) this piece has been rattling around in a desk drawer since then. In the hopes that some old "radar rat", such as myself, will find some entertainment here, I've decided to publish this on the Web. I'd appreciate email if you come across this piece and enjoy it as much as I enjoyed remembering and documenting this early '60s experience.

I'd really like to contact other "Tracker Cats" or "Scanner Rats" from the period. You can email me at:

Gene McManus, September 1996


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War was raging; Francis Gary Powers had been shot down over Russia on a U-2 spy mission; the Soviet Union was spreading its influence over much of the East by force and even into the Western Hemisphere, in Cuba. Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs, were being deployed by both the United States and the Soviets. The U.S. defense plan during this period, and much of the 30 years following, was that of "Mutually Assured Destruction," or MAD, whereby the defense of the United States relied upon the theory that it would be suicidal for the Soviet Union to launch a missile attack upon the United States. In order to allow the United States to know of an impending attack, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, BMEWS, was born. A project of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), a cooperative U.S. and Canadian air defense command under the supervision of the U.S. Air Force, this was the most massive technological undertaking in history.

The United States Air Force had deployed and staffed several early warning systems to provide an alert to attack by aircraft. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) and the Pine Tree Lines were radar defense installations across northern and central Canada which would warn of hostile aircraft approaching the United States and Canada over the North Pole. Missile early warning was another issue, however. Inter-continental missiles fly a ballistic trajectory after being launched, much as a mortar or cannon round would fly. They leave the earth's atmosphere during flight, travelling a high, arching route until gravity brings them back to impact a predetermined target. Unlike a threat by bomber aircraft, which could be intercepted by the U.S. or Canadian air defense aircraft, there was no tactical response to the ICBM threat. The ballistic flight time from the Soviet Union to the United States is approximately 30 minutes, long enough to launch a counter-attack if the attack is detected. In order to sound a warning of ICBM attack, the missiles would have to be detected at or shortly after launch, as they were streaking upward, very early in the ballistic pattern.

BMEWS was designed during the late 1950s to sound just such a warning of an attack, with enough time for the U.S. to launch a counter-attack, pulling the MAD trigger. The first of the BMEWS deployments, which finally numbered three at Clear, Alaska, Thule, Greenland, and RAF Fylingdales, North Yorksihre, England, was put into service in the early fall of 1960 at Thule.

At the time of the first BMEWS deployment, I was just out of the U.S. Air Force, having served one enlistment as a Ground Radar electronics technician. I was working at the North American Aviation factory in Columbus, Ohio, as an electronic technician on the A3J (later RA5) Vigilante attack bomber's ground test equipment. I was not particularly enamored with factory work and union work rules and was generally restless for change. In January, 1961, a classified ad appeared in the Columbus Sunday paper Help-Wanted section, recruiting experienced electronic technicians to work on the BMEWS project in Clear, Alaska, or Thule, Greenland. The employer was RCA Service Company, a division of the Radio Corporation of America, who was the prime contractor for the project. I answered the ad, expecting a 30- minute job interview. After most of a day spent in electronics skill testing and various psychological testing, I was hired.

I reported to Riverton, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, in February, 1961, for BMEWS training. I was put into the Tracking Radar Automatic Monitoring or TRAM class, training to become a technician on the automatic test equipment system which would monitor the health of the not yet deployed BMEWS tracking radar.

The BMEWS project pay was outstanding. My base pay was to be $220 bi-weekly, about average for electronics technicians of the period. However, overtime and bonuses quickly mounted up. After forty hours per week, time-and-one-half wages were paid; after 48 hours, double-time. We were guaranteed fifty-four hours a week; nine hours per day, six days per week. The actual work week at the BMEWS site turned out to be seven days a week, nine hours per day, or sixty-three hours per week. At the end of each six months on site, a bonus was paid, the size being dependent upon the site at which one was stationed. In Clear, Alaska, subject to U.S. income taxes, the bonus was 45 percent. At Thule, where most wages were exempt from U.S. income taxes, the bonus was 30 percent.

The tax laws of the day exempted the first $20,000 of an individual's salary from income tax if the individual was "physically present in a foreign country for 510 full days out of 18 consecutive months." The Thule site came under this ruling, and the 510 day rule even allowed for a visit home. I opted for the Thule assignment. Thus began a love affair with an electronics system that has lasted for over 30 years.

I was in school at Riverton with a class of about 20 other men. The BMEWS assignments were "men only," there being no women's facilities at either the Thule or Clear BMEWS sites. Training was originally scheduled for about two months, but was accelerated to about six weeks since the tracking radar installation was imminent. In addition to technical training in transistor and logic circuits, binary math, and other purely technical skills, we underwent basic Arctic survival training, had security clearances issued, and underwent a final physical and dental checkup.

We left for Thule aboard an Air Force C-118 transport plane from McGuire Air Force Base in northern New Jersey. The C-118 was a converted cargo hauler with gratings covering the windows. The passenger seating was installed facing backward, because of an Air Force "safety" standard, and was incredibly uncomfortable. We spent some thirteen hours in the air, with one stop at Goose Bay, Labrador, for refuelling on our way to Thule.

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© Copyright 1996, Gene P. McManus, Baltimore, OH