Every so often, a column generates enough reader responses to warrant another column. So it was with my Nov. 6 account of a tour of the former nuclear weapons storage area located just east of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.
Once called North River Depot, the storage area also was known as the Caribou Air Force Station. On Oct. 10, a busload of visitors toured the site, where earth-covered igloos and vaults encased in concrete once held components of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Phone calls, emails and online comments about the article unearthed a variety of topics, from Nike missiles to sightings of unidentified aircraft and recollections of men who loaded weapons onto bombers.
Two readers wondered how I could have overlooked the Nike air defense missile sites in the area. Well, our tour did not include any, but a trip to coldwarrelics.com and other websites related to Nike missile sites confirmed Loring was one of the Strategic Air Command bases in the U.S. protected by guided missile systems designed to deter or minimize the impact of enemy air or missile attacks. Nike missile batteries were deployed around the base, including in Limestone and Caswell Plantation.
“I was stationed at one in Limestone in 1965 and was there until it closed in 1966,” one reader who claimed the site had nuclear warhead capability wrote.
The Nike Historical Society states that several Nike sites were indeed armed with nuclear warhead for use against large formations of approaching enemy aircraft or ballistic missiles.
Descriptions of Loring in the 1960s reminded other readers of Dow Air Force Base in Bangor.
“I don’t believe for a New York minute we didn’t have nuclear weapons at Dow for some period of time in the ’60s,” a reader from Hermon, who remembered the noise of the bombers flying over his home on 14th Street when he was growing up, said.
“The B-52s would rev up their engines, and the plates in cupboards would rattle. A few vibrated out and crashed on the floor. My father ended up putting a strip of wood across the front to keep them in place.”
Photos of the storage igloos in Limestone reminded him of a mysterious mound “with a huge metal door in it” at the base of a hill leading to a rock quarry behind the Brown Woods on Ohio Street in Bangor. “I rode my bike down this mound many times for thrills,” he said.
“I would bank on it that mound held something quite powerful. High quarry walls would shield a blast, and there were, at the time, few dwellings in the area.”
An online reader who also grew up in Bangor wrote, “I thought everyone knew Bangor and Loring were storage areas for nukes. The bunkers were common knowledge, but maybe if you stuck your head in the sand you felt better.”
“There were, of course, no secrets,” another reader added. “All of the designs and designations for such sites had long been acquired by the Soviets’ information gathering system. The uniformity of each site, too, was a dead giveaway for what was contained therein. At the end of the day, it all boiled down to base security, which was pretty moot as all of the weapons depots were high up in the targeting realm of how each Soviet missile was aimed at us.”
When Janenine Cantrell of Brunswick read the article, she had to call to tell me about her husband, who was the chief of a crew that loaded weapons into the bombers. A native of Mapleton, she met George Cantrell in 1955, and they were married in 1956.
“I had no clue what he did when I married my husband,” she said. “He was not allowed to say anything.”
The couple returned to Limestone in 2001 for a reunion of those who had been stationed at the Caribou Air Force Station. “They came from all over the United States,” she said. George Cantrell was sick at the time and died several years later at age 70, of the same kind of cancer that took other members of his crew — mesothelioma.
She recalled that her husband went back and forth through an underground tunnel, but rumors of a subterranean village with everything from a firing range to a clinic are “all imaginary,” according to David Strainge of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center responsible for cleanup of the site. He described the passageway between the basements of the dormitory complex and the dining hall as a subgrade connection much like that between the Riverside Inn and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, allowing access to buildings without going out in the cold. “Beyond the dirt piled on top of the weapons bunkers, the rest of the complex was above ground,” he said.
“I don’t know why this rumor is so persistent, but it’s not true,” he added, speculating “it was the deep secrecy surrounding the whole place which fed folks’ imaginations.”
Two online readers exchanged recollections of stories about unidentified aircraft that put Loring Air Force Base on high alert in 1975, stories well-researched by then BDN Presque Isle bureau chief Dean Rhodes and retold by longtime BDN columnist Kent Ward in “The Loring UFO episode revisited,” Oct. 2, 2009.
Airmen patrolling the weapons storage area on Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, 1975, reported low-flying aircraft circling the facility, then heading toward Grand Falls, New Brunswick, and disappearing from the Loring control tower radar screen.
Attempts to make contact were unsuccessful, and a Maine Army National Guard helicopter deployed out of Bangor to assist was unable to spot any intruder.
“Questions and speculation abound to this day,” Ward wrote. “Was it an unannounced test of base security by SAC headquarters? A probe by an unfriendly force? Or (cue the ominous background music) was it a bona fide Unidentified Flying Object of the extraterrestrial upper-case kind, rather than a more earthly unidentified flying object, lower-case version?”
One of the readers conversing recently on the BDN website recalled talking with a member of the security police force who was in the weapons storage area during those incidents: “He said he had spent three tours in Vietnam and had never been as scared as he was those nights.”
Coincidentally, the evening I submitted my Nov. 6 column, WAGM-TV in Presque Isle televised news of a favorable report from federal and state environmental agencies on decontamination of toxic areas on the former Loring Air Force Base.
And the PBS News Hour that night broadcast a segment on the latest weapons and delivery aircraft in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, illustrating the need for upgrades by showing components of bombs from the ’60s and stating that the U.S. has 7,200 nuclear warheads to Russia’s 7,500. The report did not say where they are stored.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.