Clarksville Base: Nukes, Soviets and the KGB
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Clarksville, TN (CU News) - The locals and Marine Corp called it the birdcage. The US Navy referred to the location as Site #3.
Before 1965, even the guards at Clarksville Base weren’t aware of what they were guarding. Operated by the US Navy and guarded by the US Marine Corp, Clarksville Base was layered with intense security. The parameter included four spaced fences with at least one being electrical. In addition to the four fences surrounding the perimeter, there were armed marine patrols with orders of “shoot to kill” attempts to breach the base. Three deaths were recorded at the installation’s electrical fences with one believed to be a KGB agent. And unsurprisingly, civilian workers were frequently moved from place to place within the facility to prevent familiarity or knowledge within one particular area or building.
Sounds like the conspiracy world of Area 51, doesn’t it? These security practices provide more than a few conspiracy theories and misconceptions.
It was during a ten-year span that Kentucky’s central location became a national focus. Fort Knox began receiving its Treasury Department shipments of gold and the birdcage became a storage facility for approximately 35% of the country’s nuclear weapons.
The Clarksville Base was a 5k acre, highly secret nuclear weapons stockpile site constructed by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission during the height of the Cold War. Constructed in 1948, it consists of 3+ miles and held approximately 23 underground concrete structures built into hillsides. The nuclear operational facility was closed in 1965, and the facility was annexed by Fort Campbell four years later. Today the facility has become a munitions and equipment storage area for US Army operations. However, many of the buildings and underground tunnels from the birdcage remain intact.
During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet KGB was extremely active in Clarksville. Active is such a way the FBI established an office in Clarksville to monitor the activities of the KGB and our own soldiers. Local historians have noted the cat and mouse games extending down to moving empty boxes of freight to mislead KGB spies about weapon movements. The Soviet Union considered the base to be a critical part of the United States’ defense infrastructure. As a result, the base was placed on the list of the first ten sites to destroy in the event of a nuclear war.
Strange to consider KGB agents and spies living among the neighborhoods of Clarksville without anyone knowing.
Naval personnel at Clarksville Base also were pushed into keeping low profiles. Because they were so far from a naval installation, they weren't allowed to wear their uniforms off-post for fear of drawing attention. Their families didn’t learn much about their jobs and kept in the dark. Mostly for their own good when considering the environment.
"They (Clarksville Base employees) would be downtown and people would try to pump them for information about what was going on down there. If they were to slip up and say something they weren't supposed to – not that they knew much that was secret – they would find themselves on the way out the next morning and on their way back to the fleet."
- Fort Campbell Post Historian John O’Brien
If you're wondering, yes there were two accidents linked to Clarksville Base.
One was the killing of several dogs with gamma radiation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The bodies were passing through Clarksville in 55-gallon drums when the trucker, who O’Brien said had a girlfriend in the area, stopped near the Boot Hill area of town. The July heat ignited 4 of the barrels, which exploded, launching radiation soaked parts of the dogs. No one was injured, and the military immediately dispatched their Broken Arrow Team.
The second accident occurred with a train derailment on the base. The train was carrying nuclear materials and later found to be a secure regardless of the accident.
Fort Campbell is an expansive installation with its footprint touching four counties: Montgomery and Stewart counties in Tennessee, and Christian and Trigg Counties in Kentucky. The installation is approximately eight miles north of downtown Clarksville, Tennessee. Although the base is designated as a Kentucky installation, approximately 70k of the 105k total acres are in Tennessee.