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By Jonathan H
I see urban exploration as the hobby of appreciating things which, decades after their creation, still manage to make us open our jaws agape at the ingenuity of the human soul. Often, however, such ingenuity is misplaced in hubris. Vandenberg was a logical step at illustrating such schizophrenia of the technocratic imagination – for it was at Vandenberg that our love of all things Nuclear and Ballistic began to take its true Frankenstonian shape.
In January of 2008, soon after my first trip to Neverland, the planning phase for a new, riskier operation was already being laid. In the months that followed January of ’08, Scott and I would make numerous forays into Neverland, but – as it often is with our trips – we invariably tried to find things to do while waiting for the sun to drop below the horizon.
After all, a trip to Neverland during the day would have been significantly more risky, given the amount of gardeners and caretakers that circulated on the property. On the other hand, gallivanting around an active military base, we figured, would probably best be done during the day. It just so happened, Vandenberg Air Force Base (a mere 30 minutes away from Neverland) was a popular haunt for the rare Snowy Plover (a cause célèbre for all well-informed ornithologists). And the Snowy Plover would make the perfect alibi for the Urbex Desperadoes we had become. On our second trip to Neverland, we added a brief foray out to Vandenberg to our itinerary (really just to “scope” the situation).
Although the base itself is closed to the public, certain portions on the far South and Northeastern side are accessible. On the South side, a sleepy rail station of Surf serves as a bucolic, publicly accessible beach – albeit closely monitored by Vandenberg Security Forces. In the case of the Northeast side of the base, the Marshalia Ranch golf course is sometimes – though not always – available for public use. My frequent drives out to the edges of Marshalia Ranch confirmed that it, too, is a popular hangout for the 30th Security Forces Squadron.
I knew that the consequences of exploring Vandenberg at night could be dire; the “SF,” as the security forces of Vandenberg are known, aren’t your typical slovenly security guards. These protectors of Freedom carry M4 assault rifles and – as you can see in the photo above – can easily crush people like me between their fingers. However, I had strong reason to consider risking it – stupid, maybe, but certainly an alluring prospect. Why, you ask?
Vandenberg, for those of you who don’t know, is a proverbial Disneyland for Cold War era missile defense sites. Atlas D, Atlas E, Atlas F, Titan I, Titan II, Minuteman, Peacekeeper, Thor — you name it and Vandenberg had it. It’s a massive base, 250 square miles in all. But in the vast 3,537,441 square miles that make up the United States land area, it is quite literally a crumb of the total cake. Soon, it had become an executive decision: Vandenberg was my next step in a longer journey and goal (but an increasingly spectral and dangerous journey).
If Vandenberg as a whole is the Disneyland of Missile Defense, then the Northern side of the base would be the equivalent of Frontierland – the place where all of it was born during the Missile Gold Rush of 1959. Most compelling to explorers of missile defense sites such as myself, Vandenberg North was also where the early missile programs died by the late 1960s. In the 1970s Vandenberg North has been abandoned in place of Vandenberg South. Today, the bones of the past at Vandenberg North are ripe for exploration. The old sites had four decades to decay and, in the interim, they had become something of a beautiful sight of their own merit.
But getting inside the perimeter of Vandenberg North isn’t as easy as it seems. Though we had our alibi (we had developed a new-found interest in bird watching), we still didn’t have a way in. All the roads inside of the base (and thus to the front door of our underground missile sites) were completely sealed off by sentry stations and road blocks. Security forces regularly patrolled the roads. The sky was filled with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with infrared cameras. Admittedly, part of what appealed to me was the risk. Some of my recent successful forays had given me a brazen confidence. As part of the MacGyver Generation, I also reveled in the potential of being part of an elite few who had managed to infiltrate an active base undetected. Stupid, yes, but certainly alluring.
The decision started relatively inauspiciously. It began as a terse exchange via email on January 15 of 2008, soon after the three of us had infiltrated and photographed the Sutter Buttes Titan I complex at Beale AFB:
STEPHEN: Are there any underground missile bases other than Titan and Atlas that are abandoned? Are there any Atlas silos that are available to explore [in California]? I heard the Lincoln Titan site is filled with water, anybody have confirmation?
SCOTT: I think the Atlas sites are mostly in the Midwest. There are always the Titan IIs, but those are definitely far, far away. There must be some Nikes around, though…
ME: The first Titan test silos are in the Vandy base, but those are on an active base, as you know. I still believe they’re accessible, but the risk would be significant.
STEPHEN: Yeah, I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. Invading an active base is beyond stupid. There might be the chance of ‘official’ access to Vandenberg. Jon, you’re a student at a reputable university who could make a request for access that might actually be listened to. Or we could just go to the museum, but I hate museums. Was the minuteman missile stored in a silo?
ME: Well the thing about Vandy is that it’s separated into two sectors — the active part, and the semi-abandoned part. The semi-abandoned part is apparently a popular haunt of bird-watchers, and parts (but not the missile base parts) are open to the public…
STEPHEN: Hey guys, I’m also a devoted bird watcher intent on seeing the silo parakeet in its natural habitat! Let’s go ‘bird-watching’ on Vandy and track the rarely seen species into its underground lair! Jon, I know you’ve been looking at Vandy. We’ll have to talk about this on our drive down to Jacko’s place (Neverland). What’s our schedule by the way? I need to start planning.
By February 29th, we found ourselves in an overflow parking lot near the Marshalia Ranch golf course. Air Force brass teed off within a few hundred feet of us. Stephen, in his Jeep, turned off the road and towards a pre-designated parking space. We began walking towards our target – the defunct Operational Systems Test Facility, which was the first underground missile base in the United States.
Our “scoping” trip soon turned into a pact to give it a go if we felt safe to do so. We walked within the perimeter of the base and found ourselves within 100 yards of the OSTF. The three of us knew the smell of an abandoned Titan base well. The smell of Titan decay lingers in the surrounding air and – for me – it had slowly become something of an evocative and irresistible scent (what can I say, I’m weird).
As we ducked under the bushes in broad daylight we conferred over the final plans for the last leg towards the silo. That’s when we saw a white sedan barreling down the road. Sure enough, it was an SF patrol, and he seemed to have known we were there. We saw the SF pull on to a dirt road that led to our trail. Immediately, we turned around and started running back toward Stephen’s Jeep.
Apparently, Vandenberg was teeming with patrols during the day, and a day trip would be impossible. Any passing car could easily evince us from the road that was directly in the path towards the OSTF. We breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at the Jeep. It was then that we decided any future trip would need to be done at night. We also knew, should we be caught at night, the consequences would be exponentially more severe. At night, we couldn’t pose as avid ornithologists. If caught at night, we would become potential terrorist suspects.
Stephen didn’t show for the second trip to Vandenberg, but we found an able stand-in for him in Aaron. We arrived at Marshalia Ranch around dusk and parked in the overflow lot. The three of us hopped out of the truck and began the hump over to the OSTF – just as we had on our first trip. All of us agreed to keep our flashlights off until we were inside the missile facility. The moon had served as an excellent source of low-level illumination – and, together, we discussed what the protocol would be, should another SF be hot on our trail.
Then it came – this time as a white SUV speeding down the paved road that separated us from the OSTF. Aaron, Scott, and I watched the headlights approach our crossing point. We barely had enough time to drop to the ground and lay low. The car passed, and we continued across the paved road, looking like nimble roadrunners on a desert stretch of asphalt at night. Once across the road, we were separated from the OSTF only by a few hundred feet and a rusty chain-link fence. We squeezed through what seemed like a miniscule hole in the fence and began poking around the remnants of the silo, which had gone through its own travails to become what it was when we saw it.
On Saturday evening, 3 December 1960, a full rehearsal short of actual launch was being conducted by Robert Rhodus, the Martin Company OSTF test conductor. It was the ninth attempt – all of the other attempts had failed due to minor equipment malfunctions. The missile was loaded with liquid oxygen, it was raised to the surface from the silo, and the countdown began. The test was a success, and everyone involved was relieved of their duties. The missile began to be lowered back into the silo, where the propellant probe crew was tasked with reconnecting the hose to offload the oxidizer, but something went horribly wrong.
According to the account of retired USAF CMSGT Les Lawson, relayed to me via email, the elevator was lowered using the “down fast circuit,” instead of the “down slow” mode (which was required for a fully fueled missile). Upon realizing he had done this, the operator quickly switched the mode to down slow and the system responded by braking suddenly.
“The sudden forces on the platform caused the entire support structure to lurch,” Said Lawson, “The hydraulic reservoir located on the upper side of the silo tilted enough to spill hydraulic fluid onto the braking system.” From there, the entire braking system was compromised and the missile began an uncontrollable descent to the bottom of the silo, where LOX and RP1 mixed, causing a massive explosion.
Rhodus watched the entire event transpire from a television screen, about 1/4-mile away, and he “realized with some trepidation that, unlike the buried operational control centers, the room he was in had only 12 inches of dirt on top, not much protection from the tons of concrete that were raining down all around. He also realized it was far too late to run.” Nearby airmen were watching the events on television too – and the SLTF crew, not more than 1,200 feet directly west of the OSTF, saw the “entire elevator assembly, known as the crib, and missile launcher, a total of 160 tons of structural steel, come out of the silo, tumbling up out of the searchlight beams ‘in slow motion.’” In the years that followed, enormous chunks of concrete could be seen on the hills near the Titan I facility, and a complete reference system gyro was found on the Marshalia Ranch Golf Course, more than a mile away from the blast site.
Scott, Aaron, and I stood hundreds of feet above the old superstructure of the silo, and looked deep down into the abyss of the disaster area. Over the years, the exploded cylinder had filled with water – and that water had taken on an almost radioactive-looking green appearance, likely from algae that blossomed prodigiously within the stagnant pool. Dead animals were floating in the water. Across the silo, the equipment and fueling terminals stood. Their reinforced capstones made the gigantic, exposed cylinders look like the rooks of medieval castles.
It was the most incredible man-made structure I had ever seen in my life. I never had a true sense of the massive scale of a Titan silo until I saw it as I did that night – fully exposed from the outside, maimed by a massive explosion, and slowly returning to the nature it had once usurped.
The three of us squeezed through the window of an above-ground, derelict building. We found old technical specs and blueprints related to the OSTF program. In a back corner of the building, a cavernous passageway led to rooms that went underground. Scott and I fumbled across holes in the floor that once held data cables. We found an old HVAC system and continued through a T-junction to corrugated steel tube that resembled the Titan tunnels at the Sutter Butte site in Northern California (which we had explored just months earlier). The air in that tunnel was filled with the electricity of discovery and our hearts were racing in anticipation.
We pushed aside a blast door and looked down towards an antenna silo – fully intact and carrying a pristine and authentic Titan 1 radome antenna, complete with a canvas inflatable sphere. This was what the writer of “Titan 1 Epitaph,” whom I’ve interviewed in the past , calls “a very complex system indeed… a radio-inertial missile guidance and tracking package representing, at the time, some of the very latest in technology and miniaturization in solid state electronics.” It was the full system designed by Bell Laboratories and a priceless relic that played a pivotal role in American history. The Western Electric Missile Guidance system (known as an AN/GRW-5 by technocrats) was so important that Titan bases contained two of them for redundancy – one of which could not be raised above-ground unless the other was lowered below-ground.
Scott and I looked at each other. We had become so accustomed to whispering, that – at first – we hesitated to let out a sound. Then, in a burst of excitement, we hollered in ecstatic glory. A chest bump later, and a few words of congratulation was all it took. We had just seen what few civilians had been privileged to see, and it was sitting there for us to photograph and share with the world. We immediately broke out our camera packs and began a methodical documentation of the two underground antenna silos.
The night eventually came to an end, and by dawn we were walking on the public road to our vehicle. We drove 15 miles to an abandoned diatomite mine and I laid my sleeping bag down to rest in the powdery mine tailings. The trip was a success, but Scott and I both knew that it wouldn’t be our last trip to Vandenberg…
It didn’t take long for us to return to Vandenberg – and this time it was decided that we would spend the entire weekend on the base – dwelling during the day underground, and returning topside at night to explore complexes and traverse to other sites. Our first destination was the Atlas F, which is similar to a Titan II base in layout and configuration. Upon exploring the Atlas F, we would head south to a grouping of various Atlas D and E pads, both of which had very little in the way of underground space but plenty of interesting accoutrements and panels to shoot.
Our visit to the Atlas F was a hurried attempt with a set time limit. Our entire route was comprised entirely of overland walking, across miles and miles of scrub, ice plant, and sandy dunes. Both of us were well aware of the impending sunrise; if we were to find ourselves out of range of a sufficient place of cover by daylight, then we could potentially be seen by patrolling SF. This was compounded by the fact that very little shrubbery existed for such a purpose – so the abandoned missile complexes themselves were our only hope of hiding. The nearest Atlas E was over a mile-and-a-half away and it was 4 A.M. by the time we exited the Atlas F blast door.
About a 1/2-mile away from the Atlas F, on our way to a place of cover, Scott looked over at me and his eyes widened. “Where is your tripod?,” he queried. I looked down and noticed it was gone. I left it at the Atlas F. It was 4:30, and I would lose about 30 minutes going back to get it. Scott laid down in the sand in exasperation, and I began my jog back to retrieve the tripod. I returned about 30 minutes later. Morning birds began making their sounds and the early signs of dawn appeared far across the Casmalia Mountains in the horizon. Our time was running short, and in hushed whispers of urgency we both soon became out of breath.
The next hour was a true race against time. On the route to our next stop, there were numerous active buildings that dotted the Vandenberg landscape. The fact was: Vandenberg North was not truly “abandoned.” Parts of the North are occupied by active Minuteman complexes, and Reagan had instituted a rail-based, garrison missile defense system in the 80s known as the Peacekeeper program. These nuclear warheads were partly based in Vandenberg, and later became active at Mountain Home AFB in Wyoming.
Peacekeepers were underground missiles, much like Titans… but on steroids. Each of these solid-fuel missiles could carry 10 REVs (re-entry vehicles), and each REV was capable of carrying a MK 21 nuclear payload. Vandenberg North was pockmarked with underground bunkers that protected the Peacekeeper missiles on rail cars. When the boxcars were not being used, they were stored in the super-hardened bunkers. Buildings with electricity on Vandenberg North were likely related to this program – even though the Peacekeeper program was fully deactivated by 2003. Whether or not these buildings contained anything of strategic importance, Scott, nor I would never truly know. Looking at the siren-like warning lights on the building, we knew that we didn’t wish to find out, so we avoided these buildings as much as possible (unavoidably getting as close as 100 feet away in a few instances).
Our pace was quickening and the corona of the sun was appearing over the tips of the mountains in the distance. We were running out of time. A truck drove up to one of the active buildings behind us; if he had looked in our direction, it was certain he would have seen us. Partly to hide from the truck, Scott and I found an old, overgrown road, which I soon recognized from my mental map of the base. We were close to our destination, and a few minutes later we found ourselves crawling under a rusty fence (one of many rusty fences in this epic journey). We would lay low for a few hours while exploring the Atlas E, take a quick nap, and then continue to the most harrowing leg of the hike.
Sleeping at the Atlas E site was a welcome reprieve. When one is running on adrenaline, one’s bodily functions are in overdrive. The heart rate stays at a steady high. Sweating is more frequent, and body movements are twitchy and unpredictable. Scott and I had been continuously operating on adrenaline all night. When we reached the hard asphalt floor of the well-hidden Atlas E complex, it could have just as well been a billowing bed, filled with perfectly fluffed down pillows. I lay down and was asleep within seconds; I happened to choose a location that was almost directly under what would have once been an 82.5-foot Atlas E Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. I can honestly say, now, that the best nap I’ve ever had was directly below the domain of a nuclear missile – and it’s strange to say this, but I felt safe. I awoke to the sound of a Blackhawk helicopter that was fanning the base in patrol. Scott was taking a picture of me splayed on the floor with his cell phone. We got to our feet and began the portion of the trip that would be most challenging.
Vandenberg North is cut off from Vandenberg South by an impenetrable blanket of vegetation that follows the windy course of San Antonio Creek. There is no possible route across the water other than two dangerous and highly visible crossings. On our way in, we chose the railroad crossing to reach the historic 576th Strategic Missile Squadron – an area rife with both Titan II and Atlas D missile complexes. This required walking a frequently traveled Amtrak railroad trestle hundreds of feet above the canyon. We would return to our vehicle through a different route (which I’ll describe later).
After crossing the trestle with little trouble (but a mere minutes before another Amtrak train had careened across the canyon), Scott and I set our sights on our first Titan II. We hopped another rusty fence (see a theme here?) and surveyed the topside conditions for a good entry route. Scott found an emergency exit and began climbing down.
“Oh Shit!!!!” Scott whispered loudly. Immediately after I heard him, a bat swirled around his head, coming from deep within the emergency exit. It flew around Scott’s face and exited the ladder-way. Scott dropped a small rock down the tube to ensure that any bats made their way out and then headed down the ladder. The space of the ladder, approximately 24 inches in diameter, was much too small for me to wear my backpack, so I strapped it in front of me and slowly descended about 100 feet to the bottom of the underground Titan II Control Dome. With a full respirator attached to my face, I felt like an astronaut, boldly stepping into the domain of an extraterrestrial spaceship. The view was incredible. Control panels and ceiling panels were haphazardly strewn across the floor. Rust mixed with benzene – colors that are so unnatural, they make the environment seem more artificial than anything I’d seen in my life.
Surely everything in the Titan II control domain was artificial, but one could see constant evidence of the intrusion of nature all around: Bats roosting in a place you couldn’t think anything living could survive in, water seeping , cave crickets searching for anything to dine on. It was beyond surreal. It was unreal. The latest graffiti in the tunnel, potentially from other military men who had spent their R&R time on the base in the best way possible, dated back to the 1970s. Graffiti, overall, was relatively sparse – a welcome surprise, because all of the past silos I had explored in Colorado and Northern California came littered with a liberal smattering of monikers from multiple generations of explorers.
Like we had done in the other complexes, Scott and I busted out our equipment and began the tough work of illuminating our scenes. We snapped a few photos in the access tunnel and walked towards the acoustically designed Titan II silo.
Seeing the interior of a Titan II silo is a rare gift. Under the terms of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) with the U.S.S.R., most Titan II silos were deliberately destroyed in the mid-1980s. Of the 54 Titan II bases built in the U.S., only a few silos remain unmolested. As far as I know, there is only one original Titan II silo that has its launch doors completely open to the elements – and we were at it. This provided an unprecedented opportunity to photograph the silo illuminated by natural moonlight – both from the inside and outside. We were hesitant to leave, but we knew that our time was running short, so we walked another 1/2-mile to our final site and the most historically compelling: The 576th SMS Atlas D trio.
The 576th Squadron of Atlas D’s comprises three fully intact bases, filled to the brim with original equipment, cables, and artifacts. There was so much to see that we decided on only one complex in the interest of time. We selected the only Atlas D site on the base with its original Gantry, which was easy to spot in the midnight sky. Much like the irresistible scent of a Titan missile, this symbol of our desire had become its own navigation beacon. With our eyes pointed towards the gantry, we walked in a beeline from 395-B (the Titan II that had just de-virginized us). During this walk, I had to stop to really look. The 576th Squadron is on a bluff overlooking the entire Northern Portion of the base. I used a brief break in our walk to look out towards the moonlit landscape, and to take note of our accomplishments.
From my vantage, I saw it all – the Atlas F was more than five miles as the crow flies. With the full moon at its zenith, things that were miles away from that bluff were eerily easy to see – the blinking green status lights of the active Peacekeeper buildings, the shadowy form of the Atlas E with its diagonally descending personnel tunnel, the distant lights of active Minuteman bases. All of it seemed like a ghostly dream – much like those dreams you wake from, only to remember the most prosaic of details. And yet, seeing it all – even while actively involved in the process of exploration – immediately made me miss the trip. I knew that we had about 8 hours until it was completely over, and I soon regretted the notion of leaving this strange post-atomic, no-man’s land.
“Ready to move?” Scott chimed in. He had just finished a granola bar, while I polished off my final orange. Even if I wanted to stay an extra day, I knew it meant going without food or water – a prospect that didn’t seem worth the extra time on base after the first bout of hunger set in.
We arrived at the Atlas D, and it was everything we had hoped it would be: Launch consoles; tanks of liquid nitrogen; lines connecting rocket fuel through snakelike arrangements underground; vast, lengthy tunnels that carried communication and power cables across the complex. It was a beautiful capstone to a trip steeped in visual splendor – and a sobering monument to the military industrial complex – something that even Mercury could even look down upon from the skies of the Roman gods and admire from afar.
Despite how much I bungled and bombasted my way through barriers and sentries in subsequent explorations, nothing could quite match the experience I had with Scott during those fidgety 36 hours. Neverland was only the first notch on a long-lasting relationship with pushing the limits; Vandenberg was a chunk. Soon, I would find myself in an abandoned skyscraper worth $118 million. My ethos would evolve even further when I found myself in a steel factory in Detroit, which was purportedly protected by a shotgun wielding wacko (who actually turned out to be a nice guy). But Vandenberg topped them all.
Scott and I nearly lost each other, deep in the base at 3 A.M. that night. Our phones weren’t working and we had separated somewhere along an overland shortcut to the bridge that crossed San Carlos Creek. For 20 minutes, I frantically tried dialing until my phone’s battery was near death. I rolled through chaparral and descried El Rancho Road (our escape route home) from the top of the bluff.
Down at a turnoff on the side of the road I saw Scott’s dark, pensive frame. We met at the bottom of the bluff and planned the final and most dangerous portion of our epic trip. SF vehicles were rolling back and forth across the bridge. The bridge itself, which was a skyway traversing the entire San Carlos Creek wetland, was much longer than we had imagined while looking at the satellite images.
Considering the frequency with which patrol cars traveled back and forth across the bridge, I indicated to Scott that we could probably make it about halfway across the 300-yard bridge before an SF vehicle would arrive – upon which we would have no place to hide. Scott concurred. The pinch was in, and we had no way out. We briefly considered going back to the railroad trestle, but that would have meant two more days of overland hiking – without food or water. We decided it prudent to at least walk to the bridge to see if there was a possible way across by going under it.
“Look,” I whispered, pointing to the utility pipes hidden behind the cement guardrails on each side of the bridge. “I think we can bail over the side and lay low until the car passes.” We tested the load carrying capacity of the pipes by going on them together. They held our weight. We had to start soon. It was almost dawn, so we both grabbed our gear and began running across the gray, cement skyway. We were lucky, at least until the final 100 yards. It was then that Scott saw the headlights of a distant SF. We swiftly hopped over the side barrier and lay on the utility pipes. The SF passed and we returned to the Skyway, on to our freedom.
We arrived at the Marshalia Ranch Golf Course a full 36 hours after we began our trip. We had traversed twice over chasms; we had seen the entire nuclear smorgasbord of Cold War America; we had evaded a half-dozen SF patrol cars; and every bone in our body ached from 16 miles of hiking on adrenaline. It was finally over.
I shook Scott’s hand in congratulations and started my long drive home. Halfway up Highway-101 (the road that had so often been my thoroughfare of adventure) I realized that the jacket pocket in which I had stashed my memory card had a hole in it. Every photo was lost. The trip, however, was not entirely lost. I wrote about it because I wanted to remind myself that those pictures aren’t the only thing that matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words – well, then – this particular collection of words is worth at least four.
Perhaps I look at it all so optimistically because of the events that transpired immediately after my return. Often, the biggest blessings come after a difficult journey. I arrived home that evening to discover that my father had a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage. I thought the very worst and threw on a new pair of clothes to fly up to Portland, Oregon. That week I spent in a hospital waiting room was the worst week of my life; by the time I left the hospital, however, it had become the best. My father had fully recovered from something that originally gave him a 10% chance of surviving. It seemed fitting that I emerged from a landscape of Cold, deathly war only to have it conclude in a true story of survival and miracles.