Apocalypse Soon > Conspiracies

Camp Hero


Airman 2nd Class Bernie Roke of the 773rd Radar Squadron had just finished shutting down the base's diesel power plant for repairs. He was sitting in a World War II-era blockhouse, looking out a small window at the ocean, just a mile from the eastern tip of Long Island. Originally a cinder block building, it had been reinforced with concrete in order to withstand a nuclear blast. As the base powered down, the only light was from the battery-powered emergency lights that glimmered inside.

It was dark. It was quiet.

The phone rang. It was, Roke recalls, "a very agitated colonel, ordering that the site be brought online." Roke told him about the maintenance shutdown that had been approved by higher command, and hung up. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was an equally insistent general, demanding that the base and its long-range radar systems go back online immediately. "At first, we didn't really understand the reason for the excitement," says Roke, now a 61-year-old aircraft engineer in Louisville, Ky. "That evening, we watched John Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis speech on TV and then we understood."

From then on, Roke recalls, "things got real spooky."

In some ways, they still are.

Forty-one years after Airman Roke and his unit mates found themselves on the front lines of impending Armageddon, Camp Hero is welcoming thousands of civilian visitors in this, its first full summer season as Long Island's newest state park. Opened in September, the 755-acre park and nature sanctuary - which abuts Montauk Point State Park - is endowed with diverse wildlife, Montauk's only forest, three miles of hiking trails and spectacular 100-foot-high bluffs overlooking the Atlantic.

But the park has another identity as well. For 40 years, this was an active military installation - a fort during World War II, then a Cold War-era radar base. Now, thanks to the efforts of the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, local politicians, historians and veterans' groups, the remnants are there for all to see: a giant radar tower (the last of its kind in the United States), two massive bunkers that once housed artillery, and about 30 buildings, including a faux village designed to fool enemy planes.

Here they stand, frozen in time, as if waiting for the attack that never took place. The net effect is eerie - but not nearly as weird as the role Camp Hero plays in the cultish world of UFO, alien abduction and government conspiracy theories. Among those who believe in such things, Camp Hero is the focus of intense speculation about bizarre experiments supposedly conducted here, many of them purportedly at a "secret" underground facility.

The real base - named after Gen. Andrew Hero, the Army's chief of coastal artillery in the 1920s and '30s - was opened in 1942, as part of the coastal defense network guarding American shores against attack by Nazi Germany, principally in the form of the U-boats that prowled these waters. Tunnels were dug (which may explain the "underground" base rumors), designed to connect the four 16-inch and two 6-inch guns that were set up in huge concrete bunkers on hills overlooking the Atlantic. They were supported by anti-aircraft and machine gun emplacements, plus spotting towers at both Camp Hero and the nearby Shadmoor area of Montauk - now also a state park. (The big guns were never fired, except in practice. The sound of them, so the story goes, shattered windows in the village of Montauk, 5 miles away.)

During the war, a garrison of 600 men and 37 officers was stationed at the base. They lived and worked in barracks, mess halls, offices, shops and storage facilities that were designed to resemble a civilian fishing village - supposedly, to fool enemy aircraft.

In 1948, the new perceived threat was from a Soviet air attack, and Camp Hero became one of the first three radar sites established on the Northeastern coast. By 1951, the base - renamed the Montauk Air Force Station - became a component of a nationwide early warning radar system. Over the next three decades, an alphabet soup of radar and tracking equipment was set up at the base - AN/CPS-5, AN/TPS-10A, FPS-20, AN/FPS-5 - one coming along every few years, like new versions of Microsoft Windows. "The function remained the same ... to detect hostile aircraft and track them," says Cold War historian Don Bender, who consulted with the state on the park's preservation.

The pinnacle of this Cold War-driven technology surge was reached - literally and figuratively - in 1960, when the first AN/FPS-35 fixed-surveillance radar system was erected at the base. The Sperry-built radar stood on a bluff overlooking the ocean, atop a seven-story control building. Its "sail," an oblong-shaped screen capable of tracking objects 200 miles away, was 50 feet high and 120 feet wide. The whole structure soared about 150 feet into the sky, making an incongruous addition to the landscape of Montauk. "It became an outpost of the Cold War," Bender said. "You have this sleepy little village, and then you had this thing appear here as a result of these international tensions."

Those tensions reached a near flash point in October 1962, when reconnaissance photos revealed the existence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba capable of firing nuclear weapons at U.S. targets. The fear and reverberations of the subsequent standoff between President Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev registered all the way to Montauk.

A few days into the crisis, a van appeared at the gate of the Air Force base carrying two men who said they were delivering test equipment to the block house. With the base on sabotage alert, Roke recalls, the men were spread-eagled on the ground and searched. Then their vehicle was inspected. The men were allowed up to the block house, where they were searched yet again. They left, and no one ever saw them after that. "If it was a test of our security, we passed," said Roke. "But we never really knew if it was."

One night shortly after that incident, a new major transferred to the base. He arrived unannounced and moved immediately into the small military housing area just outside the base (those 27 houses are now private residences). "The guards at the gate knew the house was not occupied, so when the lights went on, they charged into the fray, coming through the front door with weapons at the ready and safeties off," Roke said. "We nearly lost the major before he officially arrived."

At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Camp Hero and its state-of-the-art radar and tracking systems were a critical part of the U.S. defense network. A decade later, that was no longer the case. As radar technology changed and military resources were redirected, the base was no longer needed. A protracted decommissioning of the base began in 1978, and continued until the closing in 1981. When Maj. Miles Martin arrived as the base's last commander in July 1978, there were 120 military personnel and civilians working at Camp Hero (down from a Cold War-era high of 206 in 1966). The numbers continued to dwindle over the next two years, prompting Martin to hold the base-closing ceremony in November 1980 - two months before the scheduled closing. "Our numbers were getting small enough that to wait would mean we would not have enough people to have the ceremony," recalls Martin, 60, now retired from the Air Force and living in Huntsville, Ala.

By 1984, title to the land was transferred to the state. While the debate about what to do with the old base raged, some believed they knew exactly what was happening behind the barbed wire fences. Three years after the base closed, a man named Preston Nichols - who said he worked for a Long Island defense contractor - visited the old base.

In a book he wrote, "The Montauk Project," published in 1992, Nichols claims to have discovered that Camp Hero was the site of secret government experiments in time-travel and mind control. The book spawned several subsequent volumes, a few videos and dozens of Web sites, all devoted to the supposed "mystery" of Montauk. As the stories spread, they became more elaborate: Tales of black beret-wearing Special Forces and unmarked planes patrolling the base, of weather modification experiments, of people claiming to have been transported back in time, even of alien-like beings called "reptoids" working in the secret underground base. This tickled the imaginations of "X-Files" types around the country.

"I am convinced that there were top secret projects being carried out there," said John Crawford of Hicksville, webmaster of a site called Subversiveelement.com. Crawford says he has received e-mails from people saying they used to see strange lights coming from the base in the '80s and '90s, and from others who claim to hear strange noises coming from the base even now.

One of those sounds might be a very large sigh from park superintendent Tom Dess, who had hoped that "as soon as we opened the park, it would defuse all this once and for all." Alas, the conspiracy din continues loud enough that some of those associated with the base - including one of the radar veterans' groups - will not even answer questions from reporters unless they are assured that the article is not going to give credence to, or focus solely on, what one called "some hokey UFO/mind-control/government-conspiracy/ time- travel nonsense."

So how did Montauk and Camp Hero become synonymous with Area 51 and Roswell, N.M.? "I suppose it makes a good setting, with the remote location and the fact that the base was closed for so long," Bender says. He feels that the Montauk "conspiracy" is not a government plot, but rather, a case of government plod. "To make this park really accessible," he said, "you had to clean out asbestos, deal with unexploded ordnance, demolish old buildings and towers that are decrepit and could be dangerous to people. That tends to have a low priority in the federal government. They work very slowly."

Indeed, it took about 16 years for various federal agencies to complete their cleanups. During that time, there were proposals to convert the old base into a golf course or a housing development. In the end, however, Long Island got a new state park - which, unlike most of our state parks, comes complete with a fake village, a giant radar tower still glowering out at the Atlantic, and a very eerie legacy.


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