Essay: The Pentomic Army, the Desert, and My Father

[Note: I wrote the following based on the memories of my father, who was in the Pentomic ‘secret’ Army in 1957-58. He served in the signal corps at Fort Huachuca Army Base from 1956-1958. Much of the information here was only recently declassified, so I’ve included links to supporting documents and background reading.]

I hate the desert. Actually, I don’t have any personal animosity toward a topographical feature that is, let’s face it, ethically neutral, but I hate driving through the desert. No, I associate the desert with a childhood filled with seemingly interminable hours trapped in a hot car creeping endlessly through a miserably hot and hostile environment. Hour after hour would pass without a restroom (most important), restaurant (pretty important, too), or gas station (at times critically important enough to cause panic in my young heart). As a child, the desert represented only suffering.

Nonetheless, it seemed every vacation began with the long trek through the desert, beginning in West Texas and passing through New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada before finally reaching some relief in Southern California. It seemed like no matter where we planned to visit that year, my father would say that the only way to get there from Houston was through the desert. That’s true of many places—Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, Roswell, Taos, Phoenix, San Diego—but did we have to go through the desert to get to the Smoky Mountains?

The truth is my father saw the beauty in that desert, and, to be fair, he’s not the only one. For people who aren’t hot, hungry children with full bladders, the desert can be aesthetically magnificent. My father saw more than beauty in the desert, though; he saw his past. As a child, what did I know of nostalgia?

And if I’m honest, most of his memories of his time in the Army sound more like things you’d want to suppress, so I never quite got the fascination, though in quieter moments I can see beauty in the sand, cacti, and mountains. Fort Huachuca is beautifully placed, after all. You can’t go wrong with mountains anywhere, and my father spent much of his time riding up and down the mountains as a member of the signal corps. 

He says in 1957 it took a large truck to haul around all the telecommunication power that you now carry in your pocket. He said they’d drive up the mountain throwing golf balls out the back to see if the equipment could track them as they rolled down. It sounds like a good time, all right, and I always wondered if someone had to retrieve all the golf balls scattered around on the mountains, but he never mentioned having to go gather them up.

My father is a strong-willed man, and I guess he always was, but he was also pretty much law-abiding. You know, in the way most young men are “pretty much” law-abiding. Still, he has often told of his willingness to defy what appeared to be a direct order. This was a time of routine nuclear testing at the Nevada Proving Ground, and most military personnel were expected to support the research efforts, which were generally presented simply as training, not research. 

Now, behind the scenes, a number of agencies were dealing with the problems of nuclear research, which most people assumed to be safe. By 1957, experts behind the scenes had decided that mandatory participation in such research was unethical and probably illegal, but nobody was really telling the men with their boots on the ground. 

I’m not sure if it was a careful analysis of the situation, an intuitive foreshadowing intuition, or just defiant puckishness, but my father just told them outright he wouldn’t be going to the proving ground to watch bombs explode. Although he didn’t go, the equipment he used every day did go, and he thinks that equipment exposed him to radioactive fallout all the same, but he survived while many others did not. A University of Arizona study estimates those tests led to as many as 460,000 premature deaths of Americans, mostly from cancer. 

The US armed forces weren’t doing all those nuclear tests just because they were curious to know how atomic bombs worked; they had active plans to bomb China, Vietnam, Russia, and, most surprisingly, East Berlin. The plan was to drop bombs many times stronger than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and effectively wipe out targets as large as Beijing and Moscow. It’s worth noting that wiping out East Berlin would have killed most of the people in West Berlin as well. That’s where US military thinking was in 1957.

My father was a member of what he calls the “secret Army,” which was the Pentomic Army, a military division organised specifically to bomb the targets mentioned. The soldiers were specifically trained to carry out nuclear bombing missions, and my father says they had already received orders to report for their missions when the plans were aborted. My father left the Army in 1958, but they almost recalled him during the Cuban Missile Crisis because of his training in nuclear missions. 

I am aware of the slight possibility that my father’s fond memories of his Army days have more to do with what he got up to while on leave than training to drop nukes around the world, but I’ll leave those memories for another time. 

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