In the Cold War era of the early 1960s, any hostile nuclear power would have been well advised not to mess with the North Country.
The area bristled with nuclear deterrence, armed to the teeth with a dozen Atlas-F missiles with a 6,000-mile range and four-megaton nuclear payloads. And it was home to a highly trained, award-winning cadre of pilots with the keys to a fleet of $38 million FB-111 attack aircraft.
This was key to the strategy of MAD, mutually assured destruction — the theory that any nuclear attack on the United States would be met with such a devastating counter strike that no one could possibly win.
Now, with the help of a $3,000 grant from the Association of Air Force Missileers, the Clinton County Historical Museum is preparing an exhibit scheduled to open June 5. Titled "MAD," it is designed to recall a key time in the nation's history that is in danger of being forgotten since the closure of Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1995.
"I have all sorts of favorites," said museum Director/Curator Carol Blakeslee-Collin of the material she's assembling. One of the most striking elements is "just the idea that this was our defense policy."
There was also the fact the missiles came on line at such a staggering cost and were obsolete so quickly.
The exhibit includes historic artifacts, photos, testimonials from Cold War warriors and other information beginning with the creation of the Strategic Air Command in 1955-56 and Plattsburgh's role as an early Strategic Air Command (SAC) base.
"The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous point in the Cold War," Blakeslee-Collin said.
This is all more than just history to pilot and former Lt. Col. Don Lee of Morrisionville, who logged many hours at the alert facility waiting for a command that fortunately never came.
"I spent about 15 years locked up in that place," he said, adding that the Cold War was fought and won there and at similar facilities across the United States. "In its day, it was quite a beehive of activity. Our main mission was to deter an attack on the United States."
All they needed was enough warning to get off the ground, he said, and they could counter any enemy combatant that posed a threat.
"I think the government wanted everybody to know how we're ready for anything," Lee said. "Insurmountable destruction would be inflicted on them as well."
Lee said pilots pulled duty in the alert facility from Thursday to Thursday, every third week. The rest of their time was filled with training, such as flying missions in full-motion simulators with ground fire, hazardous terrain and mechanical malfunctions thrown in.
"You had to maintain a very high level of combat readiness," he said, adding that the whole experience was relished by pilots and they all thought it was the best thing they ever did.
Still, it was dangerous work, and an FB-111 crew in Lee's group was lost off the coast of Maine. "That brought it home how serious the job was," he said.
When an alarm was sounded, pilots would run down the tubes that can still be seen at the facility near the new Clinton County Airport terminal. They were driven to their planes, which had to be started immediately. Thankfully, it was always a drill.
"You prayed to God you never had to fly that mission," he said, but if they had to they were fully prepared to do it.
He said the base was totally supported by the community. Flying conditions were great, and the alert facility was comfortable and well equipped with amenities. Family visits were allowed in a nearby building.
"My saddest memory was the closure of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, which never should have happened," Lee said.
The operation there was always cutting edge, had the highest level of readiness and handily won bombing competitions when pitted against other SAC bases.
"Plattsburgh was able to beat them all," he said.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, school music teacher, military-auxiliary-radio-system operator and Civil Air Patrol (CAP) commander Lynn Wilke could hear the jet engines screaming on the flightline all the way to his home in Peru. One parent, he said, picked her kids up at school and started driving like mad toward the Adirondacks in fear of a possible attack.
Wilke used his training to try and formulate a response. "I was a ham radio operator. I've been in civil defense ever since World War II," he said.
Wilke was asked by CAP to devise a doomsday scenario for what would happen if the area became ground zero. He came up with a plan to evacuate through the Lake Clear Airport, stay in communication using coded radio messages and meet at a remote lake in the Adirondacks near Fish Creek Pond State Park.
He also designed a fallout shelter in his basement stocked with food, water and a communications system, a common practice of the time. It survived until the 1998 Ice Storm, when power to his sump pumps was interrupted and all his carefully laid-in supplies were flooded.
"Everything was there, and (Nikita) Kruschev called it off," Wilke said of the end of the crisis. "I went back to playing the cello."
At the old Atlas-F missile silo in Champlain, owner Gerald Fitzpatrick is slowly restoring the piece of Cold War history he calls "his ultimate fixer-upper," for which he paid $175,000. A former welder and contractor with the American Red Cross who supplies artificial limbs in conflict-ridden areas worldwide, he bought the facility from the Victor Podd family.
"I was working in Ethiopia with the Red Cross, and I was looking for something offbeat to renovate," he said. "I bought this in 2005 off eBay."
In the months between contract assignments, he lives in a small room in the missile-base Quonset hut.
"I started working on it in 2006, and it was an absolute mess," he said, adding that he hopes some day it can be informative and visitor friendly. "I don't know exactly what I'm doing with this. I'm trying to stabilize the place."
The two underground levels of the command center and crew quarters were flooded and had to be pumped out, and the 180-foot-deep silo itself is full of water. The 75-ton silo doors are closed, and Fitzpatrick hopes to open at least one of them to let in some light.
"Because of the water issue, most of the equipment is rotted away," he said. "So to try to preserve it the way it was, it's too far gone." As well as getting things stripped out and cleaned up, he hopes to get electricity to the lower levels and find a way to manage the water problem.
"I've worked in shipyards with the welding stuff," he said. "Metal doesn't scare me."
Repairs have to be done on an industrial level, and the most amazing thing is the quality of the work and equipment.
"Expenses were not an issue," he said. "The amount of money that was spent was unbelievable."
Fitzpatrick's progress can be tracked at his website, www.killerjeanne.com.
David Jenkins of New Jersey was an Air Force first lieutenant and a deputy commander at the Champlain missile site in the early 1960s. He said the plan was for up to 60 five-man crews from the Air Base to be rotated in and out of the 12 sites in 24-hour shifts. "You had to do maintenance and had different checklists you'd go through to be sure things were going correctly," he said.
They took turns sleeping, and two had to be awake at a time. It took 15 or 20 minutes to go through the launch procedure. A key had to be turned by two separate people on two different levels to activate the missile. A message to launch would come from the underground SAC headquarters in Omaha, Neb., which was directly connected to the president. Or, if that was disabled or destroyed, it would come from an airborne command post that had a plane in the air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for about 20 years.
Jenkins said a document containing a code and sealed in heavy plastic had to be carried all the time. To authorize a launch, a message would be received via land line or short-wave radio to open it up.
"Then you had to compare certain things in that document to see if you were authorized for launch," Jenkins said. "There were two people who carried that. Fortunately, that never had to be done."
One thing that made the Atlas-F missile obsolete was its liquid-fuel system, which was replaced by solid-fuel rockets. The Atlas missiles, though, lived on to power the space program.
"They were very dangerous," Jenkins said. They stored liquid oxygen and RP-1 jet fuel, an explosive combination if they were combined, and some of them in other areas blew up in spectacular fashion.
Jenkins is happy to donate artifacts to the museum's exhibit.
"Things are slowly disappearing," he said. "I kept this stuff up in my attic for the past 40 years. If you don't preserve it, it's going to be lost."
The Clinton County Historical Museum is located at 28 Ohio Ave., Plattsburgh. Call 561-0340 or go to www.clintoncountyhistorical.org.