MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 4 - The BOMARC Missile

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Captain Doug Newman, 22 Wing Heritage Officer at CFB North Bay. The two discuss the BOMARC Missile, which was recognized by the MHC with a Heritage Site Plaque in 2014.Captain Newman shares that there were 28 BOMARC Missiles in North Bay from 1961-1972 set to defend against incoming bombers during the Cold War. Newman also explains NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command and how Canada and the USA worked together to defend the continent at both the BOMARC Missile Site and Underground Complex.

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day, welcome to Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. Now this time we open the diary of our shared past and take a look at the Heritage Site Plaque regarding the BOMARC Missile installed in 2014 within 20 feet of were the missile was put on a pedestal from 1979-2009. Research for that Heritage Site Plaque was done by Nipissing University Professor, Robin Gendron. Twenty-eight actual BOMARCs were Placed in North Bay, from 1961-1972 – they were armed from ‘64 to ’72. With us we have got Captain Doug Newman – Wing Heritage Officer, North Bay CFB, to talk about the BOMARC Missile program. A lot of it has either been forgotten or not known about to begin with. I just found out that the BOMARCs, they got that rather weird title from Boeing the airplane manufacturing company - Michigan Aeronautical Research Centre?

Captain Doug Newman:
That's correct.

Peter Handley:
Okay, what exactly was a BOMARC?

Captain Doug Newman:
The BOMARC was an air defence missile. In other words, it wasn't meant to be used for something like intercontinental strike or against Russia or anything like that. It’s sole purpose was for the defence against attacking bombers. Back in we’re talking about the 1950s when the world itself was immersed in the Cold War and you had the Soviet Union and one side with Warsaw Pact settlement countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, etc. that were all under the Soviet umbrella and the Western nations such as Canada, United States and France. Basically, the world was cut in half between these two factions with their guns pointed at each other - ready to go in a moment. The Cold War as in, you’re on the brink and you haven’t started shooting yet –

Peter Handley:
You dive under the desk when the shooting starts.

Captain Doug Newman:
Yes. So, in fact, we were in the Cold War from 1945, the very end of the Second World War, until 1991. Actually, Christmas day of 1991 is when the Cold War ended, so nearly half a century. The problem with the Cold War was… I’ll give you a bit of history on this: the First World War lasted for four years, from 1914-1918 and killed and wounded 40 million people in four years war. In fact, the anniversary of the end of the First World War is this November. They said it was the war to end all wars. Then, 25 or so years and you have the Second World War. This time it’s six years long and had 1/6 of a billion casualties. It was the biggest war in history and monumental in size. The only place on the earth that did not see any shooting was the South Pole. There was shooting off the coast of Canada, South America, Africa, and in all the major oceans, you name it. It was monumental in size. In 1945 when the Second World War ended, of course, everybody again said, that’s it, no more war – we’ve had enough. The United Nations was formed. Everybody got together to lead the path towards a better tomorrow for mankind. Unfortunately because the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe decided to take advantage of the vacuum that took place when the war ended and everyone was going home and said ‘well we’re going to reach out to the rest of the world and see what we can grab’. That’s when you had Western countries like Canada, United States and England saying ‘wait a second, this is not going to happen’. So they said ‘if you don't like it, let's do it again – third world war. Of course, the Second World War ended with two bombings in Japan - the atomic bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the anniversaries of which just happened this past week. So now we look at the possibility of not only a third world war, but a nuclear war - one were entire cities are destroyed by bombs. The principal means of delivering those bombs after the end of the 1950s was the bomber - an airplane flying toward the city just like Americans sent bombers to Japan. So, in the same idea, the Soviets said that, if war broke out, they would unleash hundreds of bombers. One estimate said upwards of a thousand bombers through North America and Canada and the United States to go after their bases and cities and so on if war broke out. . There was a side issue with this as well. In the first and second world war, we had the advantage of living in Canada and the United States and being separated by the oceans away from the majority of the fighting. The problem that Canada had in the Cold War is that we live directly across the North Pole from the Soviet Union, which meant that, in fact, the two biggest dogs in the fight if war broke out would be the United States and the Soviet Union, and we are in the middle, which means that if the Soviets launched an attack, a nuclear attack, then Canada was going to be the battleground whether we liked it or not. It was going to be the nuclear battleground and so that's why Canada and the United States got together and eventually forming NORAD - North American Air Defence Command later on the North American Aerospace Defence Command basically working together side-by-side to defend the continent to help each other out because if an attack comes, the only way to survive is together. In terms of the BOMARC, the idea was that it was nuclear tipped. It had a warhead upwards of 10 kilotons - slightly smaller than the bomb that flattened the city of Hiroshima. Of course, as you mentioned in your intro, there were twenty-eight BOMARCS in North Bay and there just northeast of Montréal. So, we would have had 56 of these muscles here and the general idea was that if the Russian bombers come across the North - the most important piece of North America back then were business communities and places like Ottawa, Washington, and so on, so the most important piece of North America back then was considered the eastern half. So, our BOMARCs, the ones in North Bay and Québec were designed to launch up and clean the skies of Russian bombers in the North part of Canada. Basically fill the skies with nuclear detonations, each one as big as the explosion that levelled Hiroshima and destroy as many bombers as possible. Basically taking hand grenades to destroy a swarm of flies and whatever bombers got through hopefully would be so damaged that they could not complete the mission.

Peter Handley:
Could the BOMARC actually do that though? There is some question about whether it could and how efficient it was, as this protective unit.

Captain Doug Newman:
I’ll say in theory, yes. In terms of what was meant to do, it was well-designed to go after bombers and say if the Russian bombers came and they were going to war, the warheads were controlled by the Americans, the missiles were controlled by the Canadians in Canada and there were also BOMARCs in the United States which were completely American. The idea was that no country would have complete control of the missile system. What would happen is an attack is coming up at the BOMARC site where the Canadadore College Aviation School used to be, that used to be the BOMARC site and down underground, the underground complex we had in North Bay, there were two officers at each site - one American and one Canadian. They’d get on the phone together and say ‘yes, we have an attack’, all four at the same time would insert keys into the machines and all four together would turn to activate the missiles. Then, underground, the two officers underground would go to a separate consul and then together they would launch the missiles. So everything is coordinated. In other words, it was designed so that nothing accidental could happen. The point being is that the missile would launch go up to 100,000 feet in altitude at three times the speed of sound, and from underground, there would be somebody controlling it. This is very difficult to do this job, but somebody would control it to within 16 km or 10 miles of the bomber and then the missile itself would take over and detonate and you have a massive Hiroshima type blast. I mention this to give you an idea of how the things controlled in other words, it just wasn't just launch and fire and forget. There was actually someone guiding it from North Bay underground. In fact, if all 56 missiles were launched, you’d have people guiding all 56 missiles to their own individual areas.

Peter Handley:
By the underground complex you mean the Sage Site?

Captain Doug Newman:
Yes. The Sage Site was built between 1959 and 1963 when it opened up. This is its 55th anniversary. It was the only air defence centre in all of NORAD, and all of North America that was actually positioned underground. NORAD consisted of Alaska, Canada and the 48 contiguous states, but all the other air defence centres for Alaska and down the states were built above ground because the attack was going to come through Canada. We were the front line for the defence of North America. In other words, they had to come through us first before they got to any targets or bases in Canada and the United States, which meant we were the most important piece of the NORAD party when it came to defending against bombers for that reason, our complex is around 60 stories underground. It’s deeper than most buildings in Toronto are tall and it was designed specifically to withstand a four megaton nuclear strike which is nearly 270 times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima – our underground complex would survive and carry on.

Peter Handley:
There was a lot of political animus in this with the Diefenbaker government wasn’t there?

Captain Doug Newman:
Yes, there was a lot of discussion in the Canadian government as to whether Canada should be taking on nuclear weapons. It was a hot potato. It was a hot topic to say the least in the federal government whether Canada should have nuclear weapons and it became a matter of well this is the real world practical situation. You know, we were in the Cold War. In 1961, the Berlin wall went up and cut the city of Berlin. In 1962 Cuban Missile crisis happened where the world almost went to war. In fact, few people realize this but in May 1958, NORAD was formed and in July 1958, two months after NORAD was formed we almost want to nuclear war for real and it had to do with that the Iraqi Royal family was murdered and a coup moved into Iraq that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union rather than the Americans and British troops in the Middle East and it looked like were going to work for real. This is a 1958 before the BOMARCs arrived. Going full-circle came to Parliament now we’re talking about this stuff that is happening in the world - we need nuclear weapons and there are people who still said ‘no, we don't, we’ll go without nuclear weapons’. Finally, it was decided to get the nuclear weapons. We got the missiles first in 1959. We started building the BOMARC site up here and also at La Macaza, Quebec. We were given the missiles and we got them, in about 1961, but it still took until December 30, 1963, more than two years later before the president authorized the warheads for the missiles. So, we had missiles here for two years but no warheads and then the missiles started arriving New Year's Day and then we had the warheads. But it was, as I said, two years of wrangling and violent disagreement over the missiles in Ottawa.

Peter Handley:
Well, New Year's Eve 1964 – there was a whole story about that because I was in radio at the time and radio stations in the 60s very rarely went past midnight. But, one night a year, CFCH went all night and that was New Year's Eve. I did that New Year’s Eve thing for years and on that night, New Year's Eve 1964 –

Captain Doug Newman:
31st of December 1963. That's when the first warheads started arriving and over the next few days in 1964, that's when the rest of the warheads. They were brought in in batches.

Peter Handley:
But they did it so secretively. In fact, Nugget newspaper reporters and photographers couldn’t get near the site – they had to sneak in. Was this the warheads or the missiles?

Captain Doug Newman:
This was the warheads. The missiles had arrived two years earlier. So we had missiles in North Bay with no warheads.

Peter Handley:
That was because of Diefenbaker right? He wouldn’t allow the heads.

Captain Doug Newman:
Actually, it was about the government fighting over should we have nuclear weapons or not. There was a good two years of arguing in Parliament, but finally what happened is we said yes we’ll take the nuclear warheads but Lyndon Johnson, the American President on the 30th of December signed off on it and said ‘you can have the warheads’. So, they had to get them up to North Bay as fast as possible. That's why they arrived on New Year's Eve. But you’re right – they arrived here by airplane. Hero Transport landed at the airport or the airbase back then and it was a matter of some trucks were going to go pick them up quietly and just drive them up to the BOMARC site. But of course somehow it leaked out. I know we were having a New Year's party on the base and I think it leaked out from there. The next thing you know there's reporters running like mad rats up to the base and photographing this American airplane and the trucks. As they’re photographing them, I’m watching them follow them all the way down Airport Road and up the highway to the BOMARC site with cameras and whatever. So, the sneaky arrival of the BOMARCs and the quiet travel through North Bay just didn’t happen. It was like lights, cameras, action. So, by the way, I must emphasize that the warheads always belonged to the United States on the BOMARC Site here and even the one in Québec. There was a sectioned off area – ‘Americans only, No Canadians allowed’. That's where the warheads were maintained after and prepared and what would happen is if you were going to load a warhead onto a missile, you had to open up a gate in the American side, the warhead would slide out and Americans and Canadian technicians, side by side would go to a missile, and together they would load the warhead on the missile. No one nation was allowed at a missile all by itself - Canadians or Americans when a warhead was there.

Peter Handley:
So the warheads were kept separate from the missiles?

Captain Doug Newman:
That’s it. When they finally got the warheads on the site, they put one on each missile. There were Canadians and Americans working on this side by side on each missile. But, the actual maintenance and care of the warheads themselves was purely American. This one area had an American flag there and there were no Canadians allowed in there for any reason whatsoever. Of course, Americans had armed guards and back in those days they would have shot anybody who tried to get over.

Peter Handley:
The Sage was operated similarly wasn't it? There were Americans and Canadians working side-by-side there too…

Captain Doug Newman:
Well that was because of NORAD - North American Air Defence Command. That was a real partnership between Canada and the United States. In other words, the world tends to look at Canada like the little dog and the Americans are the big dog – they’ll look after everything. Except for when Canada and the United States signed the NORAD agreement 60 years ago, we decided to be their partners as in, the command of NORAD will always be an American general and second-in-command will always be a Canadian. For the Canadian region, there would always be a Canadian in charge and always an American side-by-side. Technicians and officers who worked underground, Americans and Canadians, went through the exact same training, the exact same standards and just to give you an idea of how intense it was because you practice, practice, practice all the time somebody could walk into the operations room where all the radar scopes were and so on, and point to you and say ‘you’re being tested today and If you fail, you lose your job’. It did matter whether you were American or Canadian and the idea was that people had to be ready and they had to know what to do if something happened, if nuclear war broke out or any sort of emergency were to occur there could be no fooling around. But, the point being is that the Americans and Canadians were under the exact same gun all the time and course we have and have backed them also to Canadians scattered through the NORAD sites all throughout the United States.

Peter Handley:
So basically the partnership between the states and Canada was different out on Highway 11, as opposed to what it was at the Sage Site. That’s interesting!

Captain Doug Newman:
On the Sage Site it was a was a matter that we have nuclear weapons and we can have very tight control of them and reasons for how to handle these things. The warheads were always American. They were not Canadian warheads.

Peter Handley:
How long were you in North Bay?

Captain Doug Newman:
Well I went here and there across the country in NORAD going 26 years now and I was in North Bay before that with NORAD working underground as well. I worked with during the Cold War and after the Cold War with NORAD. I retired this April, I’m a civilian now. After I worked underground I joined the Reserve, the Part Time Airforce, I gave tours underground and I became the Wing Heritage Officer.

Peter Handley:
Okay, what have you noticed about the acceptance of by local citizens of this whole thing?

Captain Doug Newman:
You know, it's funny. The BOMARC site contributed about $1 million to the economy every year that it was here so for that reason and also the nature of North Bay as its a very friendly and easy-going town and even back in the Second World War when there was a school up at the airport which was training people from around the world how to fly across the ocean, but they had people from 23 different countries from all come to North Bay and they said people in North Bay treated them like family. It was the same when the Royal Canadian Air Force base opened here and so on. The point being, it wasn’t a contentious issue here. It was accepted also, of course, because it added money to the economy. Now here's the thing, there is this peace coalition formed across Canada, and a group of mainly university professors and students came up North Bay and started hammering on the Air Force saying ‘you have these nuclear warheads in North Bay, this is so bad for the world…’ and the people said ‘well, go away, we don’t want anything to do with you’ and this coalition realized they had used the wrong approach. If somebody comes at you like your mother or father and chastises you on the spot and doing it to the whole city, it doesn't work. They tried to come back later on and in a much more friendlier way. But this time the die had been cast and it was just like ‘get lost’. The flipside of this is that when Pierre Elliot Trudeau said ‘no nuclear weapons in Canada’, the government was getting rid of the warheads so it came to pass that ‘well should give them a missile mounted on a pedestal somewhere in North Bay to show this part of our heritage’. So, first of all typical government work is that Canada sent all of its BOMARC missiles down to the United States, with the exception of some to museums so we didn’t have one to put on the pedestal. So, the Americans had to send up one of their missiles here and we painted it in Canadian colours, but we got this missile 1972-73 and said ‘well, let's put it on a pedestal’ but it took seven years, until 1979 because people in the community were saying ‘I don't want that stinking thing anywhere’. Some people said ‘put it up at the old BOMARC site’ or ‘bury it in the ground and lets just forget about it’, so it was a bit of a contentious issue. Finally, in 1979, that's when they two pillars up by the overpass and put this American vessel in Canadian colours on it. So there was a little bit of issue in just mounting the missile long in spite of how the community had looked upon the BOMARC and the BOMARC site in the 1960s.

Peter Handley:
When we were talking about putting up a Heritage Site Plaque commemorating the BOMARC, we got pushed back on it. I didn't understand it then, but now from what you are talking about, I understand more about it.

Captain Doug Newman:
By the way, there’s another side to this. Most people in Canada don’t know this, let alone those of us in North Bay but the BOMARC and the American Voodoo fighter jets which were bought by Canada after the Avro Arrow was cancelled. Here's the thing is that when the Avro Arrow was online, it was to be built and distributed across Canada. But, of all the fighter bases from British Columbia to the Maritimes, the Avro Arrow was designated for two bases – Bagotville, Quebec and North Bay, Ontario. These were supposed to be the first bases to get the Avro Arrows which means that had the Avro Arrow gone through, we would've had Avro Arrows here in North Bay.

Peter Handley:
But, instead we got the BOMARCs. So, you’re saying there’s a tie in? Was there a quid pro quo arrangement where the USA said ‘we’ll slide you the BOMARCs if you get rid of the Avro Arrows’?

Captain Doug Newman:
The Avro Arrow is a controversial song and dance into its own.

Peter Handley:
But it was ahead of its time wasn’t it?

Captain Doug Newman:
It was. The Avro Company itself was at least one of the leading aerospace companies in the world at the time. It was remarkable. I’ll give you a quick example, the Americans wondered if they could build a flying saucer and instead of going to an American company, and Americans are very chauvinistic about this of course, but they came up to Avro in Canada and had them build flying saucers called the Avro Car which looked like one Frisbee on top of another and was only about the size of a minivan and flew four, maybe six feet off the ground. But, the point being is that when the Americans are looking at who to go to for business and front-line technology rather than go to their companies, they went to Avro. Avro also built one of the first practical airliners. What I mean is Dehavelin built an airplane called the Comet – the first jet airliner in the world, but it had one problem it had that these kind of rectangular windows and it created some kind of a structural problem and the windows would explode. So, some of the Comets were lost because of this. Avro built something called the Avro Jetliner. It was a beautiful airplane. Beautifully put together, but was a hard sell for government. Only one Avro Jetliner was ever built, but had we gone through with it, forget about the Avro Arrow, if we had gone through with the Avro Jetliner, Canada would have sold hundreds of these jetliners around the world because it was that good of an airplane. So, that's the same company that did the flying saucer and the same company that that the Avro Arrow and when I say it was one of the leading if not the leading aerospace company in the world - there you go.

Peter Handley:
Now, the decommissioning of the Avro Arrow that was the decommissioning of the company too wasn’t it?

Captain Doug Newman:
Yes it was.

Peter Handley:
So we lost a lot more than the Avro Arrow during that.

Captain Doug Newman:
It destroyed the company. So, it created a lot of bitterness for people. You talk about the BOMARC on top of having the BOMARC itself because it's one thing to say, well, you're fighter jet is too expensive, so we cannot build it. But, my personal view and I’ve talked to people in the Air Force about it as well, but if it's too expensive, then take one of the airplanes and put it in a museum in Ottawa to show what we can do. As for the company, okay scrub the Avro Arrow but go on with perhaps something like a jetliner or something more practical than you can sell to airlines around the world. But this never happened, in fact, they decimated everything. They basically put their boot on the company and pounded it into the ground.

Peter Handley:
Our BOMARC here, when it was on display - I know there was some rustling about radioactivity.

Captain Doug Newman:
Well that was because it had a rocket engine, but also had two jet engines. So, when you fired the BOMARC, the rocket engine would it into the sky and then the two jet engines would take over and fly it to its target. But, the jet engines because they created a lot of heat used an alloy of metal because it could stand a lot of heat. This metal was also used in jet airplanes and jet fighters in the United States and so on. The problem was, it was mildly radioactive. There was an airplane called the Fire Thunder Chief which was used by the Americans in Vietnam that had this alloy whenever there was a lot of heat. But, when the Thunder Chiefs returned from battle in Vietnam, ground crews had to use special handling because established radioactive material, well you had to be very careful around. It wouldn't give you cancer just right off the bat. It wasn’t like getting an X-Ray or holding a piece of uranium or something like that. It was not that bad, but it emitted radiation. What that meant was that when the missile was on the pillar, it had to be inspected to make sure the metal wasn't corroding and that there were no scratches or dings. We had the technicians on the Air Force Base for many years who were knowledgeable about that – they could go and check everything on the missile to make sure there is no radiation. When the base shrunk down to its tiny size, that section closed and one of the fellows became a civilian and he worked as a taxi driver in the city, but he would also help the city go and examine the missile to make sure there was no faults with the radiation, but when he went away, there was no one to do it. In fact, because this missile was given to the City of North Bay by the United States Air Force, the United States Air Force said ‘hey, you’ve got to look after this thing or we’re going to come and get it’. In fact, you’ve got to give the Americans credit – they know how to move something out because one day the missile was and up the next day when people were going to work there was no missile, no concrete pad, there was nothing but a little patch of dirt in the ground were the one used to be. As quick as they were here, they were gone.

Peter Handley:
This whole story is one of the few times in North Bay has really hit centre stage as far as the news cycle is concerned.

Captain Doug Newman:
North Bay has been centre stage twice. Once when the underground complex was opened because there’s nothing like it in North America. In fact, it was unique in the world and we had people from the highest ranks of the Air Force from Spain and England and Japan coming over to see this thing, this underground complex. Nothing like it ever. In fact, in 1967, Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia was doing a trip across Canada from BC to Montreal for the 100th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada is going across Canada seeing different sites and he made a sharp right and went to North Bay just to see the underground site. This is 1967, so we’re talking about how many bases and how many cities are visited by an African Emperor. But the thing is, after that, because nature of our job defending North America, we kind of went quiet. For that reason we didn't telegraph so much. The BOMARCs were a big deal because of the nuclear weapons and so on, especially in the late 60s and early 70s Pierre Elliot Trudeau said ‘no more nucs so of course that became a big deal in the news again and of course North Bay in the news once again.

Peter Handley:
Interesting story, thank you for telling us.

Captain Doug Newman:
It was!

Peter Handley:
Thank you for telling us about it. It's been fascinating. I learned a lot. Thank you very much.

Captain Doug Newman:
Thank you! Considering how long you’ve been in North Bay, I was wondering if you were going to correct me on anything!

Peter Handley:
Captain Doug Newman retired Wing Heritage Officer at CFB North Bay has been our guest. Thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions are put together, by the Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but also hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn't let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time as we flip another page in the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at Peter.Carello@cityofNorthbay.ca. Pete Handley speaking.