Fire Walkers: Chapter 1 – A Nuclear Challenge

Written by Harold McNeill on February 23rd, 2011. Posted in Fire Department


P1180045

Photo (1961): USAF Crash Rescue Crew From Cold Lake taken while in training at CFB Camp Borden
(Photo: Courtesy of Guy Venne)

Top Row: U/K, Ken Cuthbert, Les Eshelman, Al Edstrom, Ed Vallee, George Grimstead, Morris Hill,
Wally Armstrong, Fred Bamber, Roy MacDonald, U/K, Art Axani
Front Row: U/K, Instructor, Instructor, Harold McNeill, Instructor, Guy Venne, Instructor, U/K,
Denis Armstrong, Derek Bamber, U/K
(All names subject to clarification — Click photo to open, then click again for full-size download or printing. Names in bold, all Cold Lake High School buddies)

October 14, 2017 (4200)

Fire Walkers: A Nuclear Challenge

2011 will mark the 50th Anniversary of a unique experience in my life and that of several friends and neighbours from the Cold Lake area of Alberta. Forty-five men, ranging in age from twenty to thirty-eight, were selected to work as Civilian Crash Rescue Firefighters for the US Air Force at the Strategic Air Command base being built at the RCAF Station Cold Lake. For a full list of names of those selection Link here to Chapter 6,

Two other SAC bases built in Canada were also selecting civilians to perform the same duty – 45 for Namao (just outside Edmonton) and another 60 for Churchill in Manitoba. All were to be trained over the summer and fall of 1961 at the Crash Rescue Fire Fighter School in Camp Borden, Ontario, a school that had an established reputation as being the best in the business.

While a few of the men destined for Cold Lake had small town, volunteer firefighter experience, most, including myself, were taken in as raw recruits. Over a period of five months spread over two training groups, the men moved from the training stage to manning a full-service Fire Department.  This included a process to select a Fire Chief and Crew Chiefs from within the ranks of those trained at Borden.

The expedited process resulted from the reluctance of the RCAF, in the politically charged climate of the deep Cold War, to have RCAF personnel fully integrated into what was essentially an independent USAF operation on Canadian soil.

For their part, the USAF was not able to field a sufficient number of firefighters to perform this duty due to a rapidly expanding Cold War StrikeNuclear Explosion Force that stretched around the world. This included manning over 450 SAC bases within the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii.

The threat of a nuclear attack and potential annihilation of mankind was one of the most feared events throughout the 1950s and 60s. The proliferation of nuclear weapons following the Second World Wars and the resultant partition of Europe lead to almost continuous conflict from 1914 through 1975 (the end of the Viet Nam War).

An all out Nuclear War between the Western Democracies and Russia would most certainly have ended life on earth as we know it. By way of comparison, the current day “war on terror” is a rather trivial event.

It was a time in our history when the Cold War mentality paralyzed much of the world and a time when Canada hosted a nuclear arsenal that was globally fifth in size behind only the United States, Russia, England, and France. The nuclear weapons in Canada, the subject of secret agreements, were stored across the country as well as carried aboard giant B52 bombers that circled high in the skies above the Canadian Arctic twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  The giant USAF Base at Goose Bay hosted between 12,000 and 15,000 USAF personnel in what was one of the largest USAF bases outside the United States.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons and a massive build-up of SAC bombers, as well as support aircraft and personnel, was a hot-button issue in Canada for almost 20 years. This story tracks the experience of that small group of men from Cold Lake who became a small part of the much larger story of Canada’s involvement in fighting the ‘Cold War’, a war that began in the 1950s and continued through to the end of the Viet Nam War. Join the Fire Walkers from Cold Lake as these young men embark upon on an exciting new challenge.

Fire Walkers: Flying into a Firestorm

A large plume of thick black smoke rising some distance beyond the horizon sent a shiver up my spine. It was obviously oil based and was coming from the direction of the RCAF Station at Cold Lake. My first thought – perhaps a CF-104 jet fighter had crashed, or it could have been one of the giant US Air Force K-97 refueling tankers stationed there.  The volume of smoke surging several thousand feet into the sky suggested a fire of much larger proportions than the crash of either a fighter jet or even a fully loaded tanker. A bomb?

Photoshop Composite In the early afternoon, the sun was high in the sky and the weather calm as I climbed through 2000 feet heading toward the plume. It was my third day off from duties at the SAC base and had borrowed a small seaplane to make a trip to LacLaBiche, about 125 miles northwest of Cold Lake, to visit some friends I had lived with while hauling fish from various small lakes in that area.

As I continued, I fervently hoped no one had been killed or injured and that my comrades in the Fire Department were all OK.  In twenty minutes I would radio the Cold Lake Tower to provide notice of my position and estimated time through the northern edge of the control zone.

Although I was not landing at the base, contact with the Control Tower was mandatory and, as well, most civilian pilots used the Base Flight Services to file cross-country flight plans.  It was also mandatory to obtain permission to enter any portion of the Restricted Zone known as the Primrose Air Weapons Testing Range; today, however, I would skirt the southwest corner of the range.

While RCAF tower personnel were extremely helpful to civilian flights, which included the restricted use of the runways, it had to be remembered it was still a military base that followed strict security protocols. As far as we were concerned, with Russia, our northern neighbour, and the United States on the south locked in a deadly game of nuclear brinkmanship such as that which occurred during the Cuban Missle Crisis, World War Three, was just button push around the corner.

Background: The Cold War of the 50s and 60s

As the Cold War continued to build through the 1950s, fear of communism reached epidemic proportions in the United States as men like Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked the fires of fear in his desperate search for communists, communist sympathizers and even persons who might have at one time known a communist. The US government, military, and media continued the spin by speculating on the possibility of Russia launching a sneak nuclear attack.

US State and Federal Governments, as well as average citizens, were building bomb shelters by the thousands and school children were required to participate in regular training designed to ‘shield’ them from the effects of an atomic blast.

In Canada the general public, while well aware of the dangers posed by the nuclear build-up, took a much phlegmatic view. The Federal Government, on the other hand, first under the leadership Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, then Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson began building shelters across the Dew Sitecountry – shelters to shield Senior Government and Military Leaders in the event of a Russian attack. These bunkers became derisively nicknamed “Diefenbunkers” by the public and press.

In a little know side story of political intrigue, a Junior Cabinet Minister in the Pearson government, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, resigned his cabinet post in protest to the secret approval to move more nuclear weapons into Canada.

After Trudeau assumed power as Prime Minister in 1968, all nuclear weapons were removed from Canada.  This quickly led to our own Canada-US small “c” cold war. The negative position Canada took toward the Viet Nam war also added to the challenges between the countries in much the same manner as did our reluctance to join the US/British invasion of Iraq.

During the Diefenbaker and Pearson years, the US Government sought and received permission to build 63 Distant Early Warning Radar (DEW) Stations across the Canadian High Arctic as well as another 40 across mid-Canada, the Pinetree Line.

These radar stations, stretching from the western reaches of Alaska to eastern shores of Greenland, were designed to provide a continuous screen that would detect any Russian aircraft encroaching upon northern Canadian airspace.  In addition to the radar stations, the large contingent of USAF personnel at Goose Bay manned a nuclear strike force capable of reaching Eastern Europe. As well, Canada maintained a fleet of Argus surveillance aircraft that crisscrossed the Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea tracking Russian nuclear-equipped submarines.

During this same period, the RCAF received delivery of new fighter jets, the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104 Starfighter, capable of carrying nuclear-armed bombs and missiles into battle. At the RCAF Stations in Cold Lake, Namao (outside Edmonton) and Churchill (Manitoba), the USAF was building new SAC bases to host the dozens of KC-97 Stratotankers needed to refuel their bomber force. Nuclear Weapons Book

The sole purpose behind these massive defense systems was preparation for a sneak attack by Russians. USAF nuclear-armed bombers stationed high in the skies above Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland could, on a moments notice, launch a counterattack designed to decimate Russian cities and military facilities. The ability to launch such a deadly strike became widely known as “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD). The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, under the leadership of President Kennedy, took the world to the brink of that nuclear armageddon.

Photo:  Two excellent books on US Nuclear Weapons in Canada were researched and written by John Clearwater.  The books trace the political and military history as well as providing a complete list of US Military Installations in Canada.  It includes the only reference I could find to the SAC Base at Cold Lake.

While these world challenging events were part of the thinking of the day, my immediate concerns as a young man just out of his teens were much more pragmatic – getting and holding a good job, building up my flying time, going to a party on the next weekend off and wondering whether that lovely young French Canadian girl I was dating was still mad at me about the drive-in ‘incident’ with another girl. Such were the priorities of a twenty-year-old Canadian farm boy in the 1960s.

The first batch of twenty-four recruits from Cold Lake, the group to which I was assigned, was to leave for training in Camp Borden in late July with the second group to follow in October.  USAF personnel from Nelles AFB and other US locations were assigned set up the SAC Fire Hall at Cold Lake and provide interim fire protection until our group finished training in October. The concept of hiring, training and forming fully operational fire department from scratch over a five-month period was an unprecedented and, as it turned out, a very successful operation.

It was an exciting time for everyone and although many of us had worked for the RCAF in various capacities – generally as day labourers during the school holidays – it was an entirely new level of challenge and opportunity to be fully integrated into the Air Force, especially the US Air Force Strategic Air Command, in a frontline capacity.  Being able to do so while maintaining our civilian status was also considered a prerequisite as the younger single members of our troop had had our share of run-ins with the local RCAF chaps – mostly in matters dealing with their dating ‘our’ girls.  The audacity of those air force guys knew no bounds.

A Personal Challenge

Before we were due to leave for Borden I encountered a personal challenge with my Driver’s Licence, a challenge that very nearly cost me the job.  A firm requirement for being hired was holding a valid and subsisting Alberta Driver’s Licence. Although I had never been charged with any driving offence, my driving history from fifteen (when I first qualified for a licence) to twenty, on being hired, was less than stellar.  On several occasions, I received verbal warnings from the town cop, Dick Skinty. The same happened in other towns and I had occasionally escaped being charged by the ‘skin of my teeth’.

As fate would have it, my dalliances behind the wheel of my 1954 Ford V8, finally caught up with me at a most inopportune time. In early June, not long after I had been selected to attend the Fire School, Constable Skinty observed me dropping a strip of rubber and driving in a ‘reckless’ manner along the main street in Cold Lake.  He caught up to me a little later and issued a traffic summons requiring that I attend Provincial Court to have a judge review the matter.

At the hearing, the judge assessed a two-month suspension – I was devastated. It seemed certain it would cost me the job so after leaving court I approached Constable Skinty, with whom I was generally on good terms, and asked if something might be done to reduce the suspension to one month. To his credit and to my everlasting relief, he spoke to the Judge after court and I had my licence back within the month along with a stern warning that I simply had to stop driving like an idiot. Without any hesitation, I promised.  Did I keep that promise?  Well, yes, for the most part.

In late July 1961, our small cadre of firefighter want-a-bees was off to Borden.

Harold McNeill
February 2011

Polar View of North America Russia

View from over the North Pole shows the proximity of Canada and Russia.  USAF bombers, on a constant sortie over the Canadian Arctic, were within striking distance of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Dew and Pinetree Line

Location of the 63 Distant Early Warning Sites in the Northern Arctic and a further 39 sites, called the Pinetree (Mid-Canada) Line, were built in the late 1950s and early 60s. They stretched across Canada from the Alaska border and Vancouver Island in the West to St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador in the east.  One site, still present, at Alsask, SK, is near the farm in which my Grandparents and mother (Laura) lived until 1924.
The radar installations were only a small part of the US presence in Canada during the 50s and 60s.

KC-97 on Refuel Run

c1961 A KC-97 Tanker refuels one of the USAF SAC bombers high over the Canadian Arctic. This scene would have been repeated many times a day over nearly a decade. The bombers, loaded with nuclear weapons, were prepared to strike deep within Russia at the first sign of an attack against the United States.

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  • Harold McNeill

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Rick,
    Great to hear from you and trust all is going well. Our family members are all doing well but it must be pretty tough for a lot of people. I had once heard you were going to do some writing but never heard anything further. I would be most interested, but do you think the OB News have archives back to that time. Any link or information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Did you keep copies? Regards, Harold

  • Rick Gonder

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Harold
    About 22 years ago I spent several weeks going through the OBPD archives. I wrote several stories that were published in the OB News. Feel free to use if they are of value to what you are doing.
    Keep this up, I’m enjoying it and it brings back memories.

  • Harold McNeill

    April 12, 2020 |

    Hi Susan,

    Glad you had a chance to read. I decided to update these stories by proofreading as there were several grammatical errors in many. Hopefully, many of those glaring errors have been removed.

    Many of the stories carry a considerable amount of social comment regarding the way the criminal justice system is selectively applied. Next up involves a young woman from near Cold Lake, Alberta, who was abducted by an older male from Edmonton. Her story is the story of hundreds of young men and woman who have found themselves alone and without help when being prayed upon unscrupulous predators.

    Cheers, Harold

  • Susan

    April 8, 2020 |

    Great read, Harold!…and really not surprising, sad as that may sound.
    Keep the stories coming, it is fascinating to hear them.
    Love from us out here in the “sticks”, and stay safe from this unknown predator called Covid.

  • Harold McNeill

    February 17, 2020 |

    Update:  Times Colonist, February 16, 2020, articles by Louise Dickson, She got her gun back, then she killed herself,” and,  Mounties decision to return gun to PTSD victim haunts her brother. 

    Summary: I don’t know how many read the above articles, but they contained the tragic details about young woman, Krista Carle’, who took her own life after suffering for years with PTSD. While tragedies such as this play out across Canada every week, the reason this story resonates so profoundly is that the final, tragic, conclusion took place here in Victoria. Continued in the article.

  • McNeill Life Stories Index to Police Notebook - McNeill Life Stories

    February 16, 2020 |

    […] Part I, Police solidarity and the push for amalgamation. Part II, Comparing police cultures and implementing change Part III, The past as a guide to the future Part IV The integration of police services […]

  • Harold McNeill

    February 15, 2020 |

    Testing the comments section after changes made. Updated: February 10, 2020

    Further to the update below (February 1, 2020), I note that since the government announced a “No-Fault” insurance plan for BC, Robert Mulligan is taking a slightly different tack, suggesting that no-fault will only increase the problems by taking away the right of an injured party to sue.

    I’ve copied just one sentence from Mulligan’s longer discussion, “And I think people don’t like the idea that somebody who’s, for example, was drunk and ran into you and you become a quadriplegic is going to be treated exactly the same way you would in terms of getting benefits (go to minute 00:15:26 to see his full comment)

    Statements like this appear to be simple fear-mongering. As was the case in the past, people who commit criminal offences, as well as other forms of negligence while driving, may well lose their insurance coverage and in all likelihood would be sued by ICBC to recover costs of the claim. (Link here to Mulligan’s full conversation on CFAX radio)

  • McNeill Life Stories Index to Police Notebook - McNeill Life Stories

    January 5, 2020 |

    […] 28. The past as a guide to the future (Part III): Over the past 60 years, many activities the police once performed as a natural part of their daily duty, eventually became incompatible with achieving their basic goals. What happened? (August 2019) […]

  • McNeill Life Stories Why I stand with science? - McNeill Life Stories

    November 11, 2019 |

    […] During the Ice Age, the Earth’s average temperature was about 12 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it is today. That was enough to keep snow from melting during the summers in northern regions. As snow fell on the snow, glaciers formed. (NASA Earth Observatory) […]

  • McNeill Life Stories How to Game an Election - McNeill Life Stories

    September 18, 2019 |

    […] The Federal Conservatives and Seymour Riding Association complied but one day later those memes will be shared by every third party social media site and by thousands of supporters where the message will be taken as a statements of the fact.  Five years from now those memes will still be circulating. (Link here to background on the SNC Lavalin matter) […]