Sandia Base

Sandia Base

Sandia Base was from 1946 to 1971 the principal nuclear weapons installation of the United States Department of Defense [Albuquerque Journal, "Principal" Field of Special Weapons Now At Sandia Base", July 24, 1947, p.1, col.4 ] . It was located on the southeastern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. For twenty-five years, the top-secret Sandia Base and its subsidiary installation, Manzano Base, carried on the atomic weapons research, development, design, testing, and training commenced by the Manhattan Project during World War II. Fabrication, assembly, and storage of nuclear weapons was also done at Sandia Base. The base played a key role in the United States nuclear deterrence capability during the Cold War.


Sandia Base was located at about 35° 02' 25" N, 106° 32' 59" W at an elevation 5394 feet above sea level. It was in the southeast quadrant of Albuquerque, bounded roughly by Louisiana Boulevard SE and Kirtland Air Force Base on the west, and Eubank Avenue SE and the Sandia Mountains on the east, and Isleta Pueblo lands on the south. There were security gates on Gibson Avenue SE and Wyoming Boulevard SE.

Early History

In 1928, Frank G. Speakman and William L. Franklin, two Santa Fe railroad employees, had inaugurated a private venture for an airport. Working with the town of Albuquerque, they graded two runways on the East Mesa -- one approximately 5,300 feet long and the other just under 4,000 feet. The venture became Albuquerque Airport. Other individuals and promoters soon became interested in Albuquerque as a crossroads location for southwestern air traffic. James G. Oxnard, a New York air transportation promoter, bought Franklin's interest in Albuquerque Airport [U.S. Air Force, Fact Sheet, Kirtland Air Force Base History, [] , retrieved April 4, 2008] .

As the 1930s came to a close, two airlines initiated competitive passenger, mail, and cargo service between the Midwest and California, positioning Albuquerque as an important transcontinental airfield. Shortly after beginning activities, one of the companies, Western Air Express, decided to build its own airport on the West Mesa. This airport became known as Albuquerque Airport--while the former Albuquerque Airport on the East Mesa took on the name Oxnard Field, continuing as a private venture.

By 1939, Army and Navy pilots had begun using Oxnard Field for refueling and maintenance. The Army eventually bought the Oxnard Field property and its subsequent transfer to the federal government restricted the runways to military use only. The Army established a training depot for aircraft mechanics near Oxnard Field. By 1943, however, the mechanics' training program had ended and the depot was used as a convalescent center for wounded air crewmen and then as a storage and dismantling facility for war-weary and surplus aircraft as the war ended. Over 2,000 such planes were stripped and melted down, reclaiming some 10 million pounds of aluminum [Kirtland AFB Fact Sheet] .

Transition to Nuclear Weapons Activities

The Manhattan Project was the project to develop the first nuclear weapon during World War II by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Formally designated as the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), from 1941–1946 the project was under the military command of Major General Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The scientific research was directed by American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The project succeeded in developing and detonating three nuclear weapons in 1945: a test detonation of a plutonium implosion bomb on July 16 near Alamogordo, New Mexico; an enriched uranium bomb code-named "Little Boy" on August 6 over Hiroshima, Japan; and a second plutonium bomb, code-named "Fat Man" on August 9 over Nagasaki, Japan.

The primary research and production sites of the Manhattan Project were at Hanford, Washington, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The MED maintained control over U.S. weapons production until the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission in January 1947.

With the end of the Second World War, the United States Congress established the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S. Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act (also known as the McMahon Act) on August 1, 1946, transferring the control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands, effective from January 1, 1947. On that date, the Manhattan Project’s infrastructure and programs would be turned over to and managed by the AEC.

In the meantime, Groves and Oppenheimer faced the challenges of turning a war-driven, short-term bomb design effort into a stable peacetime operation in charge of producing and maintaining a nuclear stockpile for the nation. A serious short-term problem was retaining personnel, particularly at Los Alamos where many scientists and technicians were eager to return to civilian pursuits. [U.S. Dept. of Energy, Office of History and Heritage Resources, The Manhattan Engineer District, [] , retrieved April 4, 2008] The solutions to the challenges led directly to the transformation of Albuquerque's old Oxnard Field into the nation's principal nuclear weapons installation.

Part of the answer to these challenges was the creation of Z Division at Los Alamos in 1945. Z Division was conceived as an ordnance design, testing, and assembly arm. However, space was at a premium at Los Alamos. Additionally, members of Z Division needed to work closely with the military. Groves also decided as part of an effort to retain personnel to focus the laboratory more on weapons development by relocating various weapons production and assembly activities away from Los Alamos. Thus, the decision was taken to move Z Division to the old Oxnard Field. Already at the close of the war, the engineering group of Z Division had begun consolidating weapons assembly functions. By 1946, the site was being referred to as "Sandia Base" after the nearby Sandia Mountains.

In January, 1947, the rest of Z Division completed its move to Sandia Base. That same month, Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson and Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal established the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project to assume all of the military functions of the Manhattan Engineering District. The ASWP took over the Albuquerque base. Z Division and AFSWP brought to Sandia Base the strict secrecy which had prevailed at Los Alamos. In 1947, amid much public speculation about what was going on at Sandia Base, the military would only say that the activities at Sandia Base were secret under the Atomic Energy Act. [Las Cruces Sun-News, "Work at Sandia Base Listed As Secret Project", August 26, 1947, p.1, col. 6] When Secretary of the Army Kenneth Claiborne Royall visited Sandia Base in 1948, he falsely announced that "guided missile" development was underway at the base. [Albuquerque Journal, "Army Describes Its Sandia Base Here As Secret "Guided Missiles Project," January 4, 1948, p. 1, col. 1]

The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project and its Successors

AFSWP was given responsibility for discharging all military functions relating to atomic energy in coordination with the Atomic Energy Commission. General Groves was placed in charge and reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Concerned about the postwar status of the nation's nuclear stockpile, Groves had already dispatched Col. Gilbert M. Dorland to Sandia Base to evaluate the engineering efforts being made there. Dorland eventually assembled a group of about sixty young Army officers, later nicknamed the "Sandia Pioneers," to oversee the bomb fabrication efforts. Dorland also established a nuclear weapons training school at Sandia Base. [James L. Abrahamson, The Sandia Pioneers, American Diplomacy, July 2002 [] , retrieved April 4, 2008]

The Pioneers learned and practiced how to assemble atomic bombs and how to load them onto aircraft for long range missions. The aircraft used for these practice missions were B-29's similar to the ones that flew the first atomic missions over Japan in 1945. The Pioneers and the 509th Bombardment Group (successor to the 509th Composite Group that flew the 1945 missions) flew the practice missions from Kirtland AFB to Wendover, Utah. The 509th was stationed at Walker Air Force Base near Roswell, New Mexico.

On April 12, 1950, a B-29 from the 509th Bombardment Group crashed at Sandia Base shortly after takeoff. Thirteen crewmen were killed. The military imposed strict security over the crash site. The official version of the crash stated that the B-29 was on a routine "navigation training flight." The Air Force said the B-29 had taken off from Walker AFB and had landed at Kirtland AFB to "refuel." [Dallas Morning News, "B-29 Cracks Up in Secret Area", April 13, 1950. ]

At Sandia Base, the Pioneers worked with Sandia Laboratory and the AEC to perfect the design, assembly, storage, and delivery of atomic weapons. In 1948, the Pioneers supported Operation SANDSTONE, the atmospheric test series at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

The SANDSTONE test series was successful, but logistics, weather, security, and safety suggested the need for a continental test site. [U.S. Dept. of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office, "Project Nutmeg: The Birth of the Nevada Test Site", [] , retrieved April 4, 2008. ] Thus, AFSWP conducted a top secret study, named Project Nutmeg, to search for such a site. In 1950, AFSWP concluded that a site on the Air Force's Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range in Nevada was the right place. President Truman approved the location, known as Frenchman's Flat.

The first continental atomic test was conducted on January 27, 1951. A weapon assembled at Sandia Base was dropped from a B-50D bomber in the successful "Able" shot. Thereafter, some 927 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests occurred at what is now known as the Nevada Test Site. These tests were supported by AFSWP and its successors from Sandia Base and its successor.

In 1959, AFSWP was redesignated the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA), headquartered at the Pentagon. The Sandia Base organization was designated Headquarters Field Command, DASA. Over the next dozen years, Field Command was headed by Army, Navy, and Air Force officers.

Sandia Base personnel were dispatched to assist in two major incidents involving the loss and recovery of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. In 1966, a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker aircraft collided in mid-air over the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain. This event is referred to as the Palomares incident. Three of four missing nuclear weapons were found near the fishing village of Palomares in Andalucia. The fourth was found in the sea after a lengthy search. The second incident occurred in 1968 when a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule, Greenland. Three weapons were recovered; a fourth is believed to remain in the ocean.

Always on the itinerary of key political figures, Sandia Base hosted President John F. Kennedy on December 7, 1962. [The Albuquerque Tribune, "JFK Heads for Albuquerque", December 7, 1962, p.1] On April 17, 1966, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey toured facilities at Sandia Base. [Albuquerque Journal, "Humphrey Tours Sandia, Kirtland Facilities", April 18, 1966, p.1]

In 1971, DASA was redesignated Defense Nuclear Agency. The field activities remained at Sandia Base, which was merged into Kirtland Air Force Base. Defense Nuclear Agency returned its roots by being renamed Defense Special Weapons Agency (DSWA) without further change of mission or functions in 1996. DSWA was abolished, effective October 1, 1998, with functions transferred to the newly established Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

Sandia National Laboratories

After the move to Sandia Base, Los Alamos Laboratory's Z Division grew to almost 500 people and became a separate branch of Los Alamos on April 1, 1948. Named Sandia Laboratory, the organization continued its rapid growth, swelling to approximately 1000 employees by mid-1948.

The University of California, long-time manager of Los Alamos, indicated that it no longer desired to be involved in the engineering part of nuclear weapons development. Thus, in 1949, AT&T's manufacturing arm, Western Electric, accepted the management role on a no-profit, no-fee basis. Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Western Electric, was formed to manage the lab. AT&T maintained the contract until 1993 when Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) took over. The largest organization at Sandia Base, it became Sandia National Laboratories in 1979. It now operates facilities in Albuquerque and Livermore, California. The organization continues to expand into new areas of research, such as renewable energy sources.

Manzano Base

In August, 1947, the Denver Post ran a copyrighted story that claimed the military was building a secret base consisting of huge caverns for atomic weapons defense purposes. The Post said the new base was in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Sandia Base. The military responded by issuing a statement that operations and construction near Sandia Base were top-secret. In fact, however, the AFSWP was building one of several bases around the country that would be used for nuclear weapons storage. The AFSWP code-named the base "Site Able."

Construction of Site Able was delayed by a workers strike in which laborers demanded a 25-cent per hour increase in their minimum wage of $1.75 per hour. [Albuquerque Journal, "Quick Peace Seen in Secret Project Walkout Near Here", April 13, 1948, p.1, col. 5]

On February 22, 1952, the now-completed Site Able was renamed Manzano Base and turned over to the operational control of the Air Force. The Denver Post story apparently was correct insofar as it described the general nature of the base. What appeared to secure bunkers were visible to people (mostly military personnel) who went to a recreational camping area nearby known as Coyote Canyon. The military, however, never officially confirmed the nature of the activities at Manzano Base. At one point, a military spokesman said that Manzano Base had nothing to do with Sandia Base. [Las Cruces Sun-News, "Strike Stops Work at Vital Secret Base", April 13, 1948, p.8, col. 5] Other bases similar to Manzano were Killeen Base near Fort Hood, Texas, and Bossier Base, adjacent to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

On July 1, 1971, Manzano Base was merged, along with Sandia Base, into Kirtland Air Force Base.

Other Incidents at Sandia Base

On March 18, 1950, a fire of undetermined origin swept through the stockade at Sandia Base, killing fourteen prisoners. Several officers and military firefighters were seriously injured. [The New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) "Quiz in 14 Deaths at Sandia Base Brig Ordered By Military", March 19, 1950, p.1, col. 4]

The Sandia Base Community

Because of the presence of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project and its successors, Sandia Base had military personnel of all of the services as well as Department of Defense civilian employees. Sandia Lab meant even more civilians as part of the base community.

Although most of the base was restricted, the rest of the base resembled other U.S. military installations in the world. By the 1950s, there were places for several thousand military family members to live, shop, go to school, be educated, recreate, and worship. The Army was given charge of running these parts of the base.

Housing for military families existed in three areas of Sandia Base. In the southwest corner of the base was an area of Wherry housing [So named for U.S. Senator Kenneth Wherry, R-Nebraska, who sponsored the authorizing legislation.] known as Zia Park. On the northwest side of the was Capehart housing [So named for U.S. Senator Homer Capehart, R-Indiana, who sponsored the authorizing legislation.] known as Pershing Park. This area stretched from Wyoming Boulevard almost to the Gibson Avenue gate. East of Wyoming Boulevard was an area of Capehart housing known informally as "The Loops" because the streets were circular and had names such as "10th Loop," 11th Loop, etc.

There were two schools on the base. Sandia Base Elementary School was on Wyoming Boulevard between Pershing Park and the Loops; Wherry Elementary School was located in Zia Park. Both schools were operated by the Albuquerque Public Schools system. Older children from Sandia Base attended Van Buren Junior High School just outside the base and Highland High School in southeast Albuquerque.

Like other military bases, Sandia Base had an officers club, an NCO club, a commissary, a base exchange, a movie theater, a swimming pool, a library, and a teen club. Sandia Base also had a club for civilian employees. There were two chapels, a hospital, and a pre-school on the base.

Merger with Kirtland Air Force Base

On July 1, 1971, Sandia Base and Monzano Base were merged into Kirtland Air Force Base, their neighbor to the west. The merger was concurrent with the change of DASA into the Defense Nuclear Agency. The Air Force thus took over host responsibilities for the nation's military nuclear weapons program.


ee also

* Albuquerque, New Mexico
* Kirtland Air Force Base
* Manhattan Project
* Sandia National Laboratories
* Nuclear Weapon
* Leslie R. Groves

External links

[ Kirtland Air Force Base]

[ The Manhattan Project]

[ Nevada Test Site]

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