The Cold War Era Ballistic Early Warning System had local roots here

After almost fifty years of documenting the rich and varied chapters in Riverton’s history, it is a rare treat for the Society when we encounter a new one.

What alerted us to the role played by Riverton in the establishment of our nation’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System was a Facebook post made last week in which Sara Sinexon Gual asked, “Does anyone remember where RCA/BMEWS was located?”

It was the BMEWS (pronounced be-muse) radar arrays that provided the capability to detect an incoming ICBM attack and provide 15 minutes warning.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/333770716706391/permalink/2614921131924660?sfns=mo

Resident John Hartnett got the ball rolling when he commented, “East Riverton, banner st”.

However, it was former resident Rob Gusky‘s link to an essay by Gene McManus that really opened up the story. Mr. McManus, a former USAF radar technician recounts his training experience at Riverton (actually, East Riverton) in February 1961, for BMEWS training and his subsequent BMEWS deployment at Thule, Greenland.

RCA BMEWS El Paso Herald Post, El Paso, Texas, US, December 2, 1960, Page 51

Here, a classified ad, perhaps similar to the one to which Mr. McManus responded, outlines the need for positions of engineers, technicians, and technical writers at Riverton and on-site in the Far North.

BMEWS classified ad, Aug 02, 1959 Trenton Evening Times, Page 46

If you know Riverton geography, you know that there is no Bannard Street within its boundaries. While all of the news clippings we found listed the address of RCA Service Company as 1908 Bannard Street in Riverton, Bannard Street actually lies within East Riverton, an unincorporated community located within Cinnaminson Township.

The following screen capture from google maps shows the location of 1908 Bannard Street, East Bannard Street, Cinnaminson Township, Burlington County, New Jersey. Can anyone tell us more about the RCA operations that once took place there?

google maps screen capture
Built in 1959 and maintained by RCA under contract to the US Air Force, FPS-49 was the prototype for BMEWS

Other clues to the beginnings of the BMEWS story were once in plain sight.

Remember Moorestown’s “golf ball”? That now-gone landmark, located on Centerton Road in Moorestown, was a radar station built by RCA and a prototype for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System,

As any school child of the 1950s and 60s who experienced a “duck and cover” drill can attest, the possibility of a nuclear attack was something for which we prepared. It caused anxiety and fueled our nightmares.

The undated RCA produced color film linked below (probably from the late 1950s-early 1960s) mentions RCA Moorestown shortly after 3min:53sec.  The construction process at Thule commences at 8min:05sec.

Another USAF produced video, Eyes of the North, explains the difficulties of constructing such an installation in the harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle. Look for one of those “golf balls” and the radar array inside it at about 2min:19sec.

HSR Editor, John McCormick

Our purpose here is not to thoroughly examine BMEWS (other sources do a better job of it), but to simply provide a place for other readers from this area to tell of their first-person experience with this massive technological achievement that provided advance  warning to the United States of an enemy missile attack during the Cold War.

Please leave a comment below or contact us at rivertonhistory@gmail.com. -JMc

The New Era, June 8, 1944, p7

P.S. Speaking of long-forgotten stories, former Riverton resident Edith Harris once told me that she worked on developing bombardier sights at Optical and Scientific, Inc. in the Collins Building for the US Government during World War II. Can anyone corroborate that?

Added 12/07/2020: Thank you to George Pfeffer who sends this first-hand recollection of his time at a BMEWS installation in Greenland.

After having served 3 years in the Army – two and a half of those years in Germany I went to work for RCA at their BMEWS headquarters in Riverton. Having worked in Army administration I was hired as a clerk. After about two months things were slowing down and I had a choice of either being terminated or going to J-site at Thule Greenland. I was a young 21 year old single guy looking to get ahead so it was Thule.

They had no openings in administration at the time so I went there as a utility man which was basically janitorial maintenance. I was told when there was an opening I would move into admin. I worked with a great crew of young guys and really didn’t mind waxing floors and emptying trash cans. I was eventually promoted to Leadman and decided to stay in maintenance for my 18 months. Once we stayed 18 months everything we had made was tax exempt.

Being in Greenland was the experience of a lifetime, the dark season, the light season, the tremendous winter storms (phases). Going to work on the midnight shift wearing sun glasses. RCA provided nice dorms and the food was terrific all at no cost. I was a Delran Twp resident so the Riverton location was just down the road. I loved everything about my time with RCA and the BMEWS project and especially my time in Thule Greenland. I have spent the past 50 plus years in law enforcement and at 79 I am still working.

Thank you for the opportunity to reminisce and comment on my time with the BMEWS project.  Even now I will go on google maps and bring up the site and the dorm I lived in.  One of the other young men who were with me in Riverton and then in Thule was Ken Landis.  Ken drove a trash truck at the site but later became a prominent Tax Attorney in Collingswood.  We all moved on to other vocations but none of us will ever forget our time with BMEWS. 

– George Pfeffer

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballistic_Missile_Early_Warning_System

https://www.globalsecurity.org/space/systems/bmews.htm

https://www.afspc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/994247/bmews-is-gone/

https://www.radomes.org/museum/thule/

 

 

Published by

John McCormick

Former teacher at Riverton School, amateur historian, Historical Society of Riverton Board Member, website and newsletter editor

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