Olaf Engvig, author, maritime historian, lecturer, coastal skipper, ship restorer and preserver.   The Ships That Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, WAPAMA and VAERDALEN The Ships That Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, WAPAMA and VÆRDALEN

Olaf Engvig has published English and Norwegian editions of his new hardcover book: The Ships That Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, WAPAMA and VÆRDALEN. Read stories of the "Scandinavian Navy" and its impact on the U.S. Pacific coast, and two very different tales of two historic ships. Learn more!

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The latter part of the 1950s saw an increased military build-up within the NATO alliance due to the Cold War. No NATO country had such a strategic location as Norway, with its long coastline and border with the Soviet Union. The country experienced major investments in surveillance devices for intelligence purposes. The free world had to be protected! The Nike surface to air missile system (SAM) came to Norway via NATO. Norway was a key defense line for the threat from the east. The world witnessed a mutual expansion of weaponry like never before.

Scientia ad Justitiam.

When the three first grenadiers arrived at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama in mid-January 1958 from Norway, and started school together with three Danes, there were only American students at the Ordnance Guided Missile School (OGMS). We attended the school's Nike-Hercules/Ajax Track Radar Repair Education. During spring, summer and fall of that year many other NATO students arrived from all over Europe and Turkey. The Americans built new roads, barracks and parking lots around the clock in vacant areas of the base. The three first NATO students from Norway to the OGMS were Knut Hagen, Hans Helmersen and I, none of us legal adults at the time.

US Army Ordnance Guided Missle School Headquarters at Redstone Arsenal in 1958.

The US Army Ordnance Guided Missile School Headquarters at Redstone Arsenal in 1958. Wernher von Braun's V2 rocket in front to the right. The school building, Vincent Hall, with a Nike Ajax missile on the front and several Nike radar antennae on top is behind the Headquarter building. Photo Engvig.

The first couple of months there were only classes from 7:30 am - 3:45 pm. Later OGMS started evening and night classes. We, the first Norwegians to arrive, were moved from the barracks, where we stayed together with Americans, and placed in new Quonset-huts in a new area on the base. When it rained, there was red mud everywhere. We ate, in lines, at a new cafeteria in another Quonset. OGMS had become a high geared enterprise with a 24-hour operation with radar and rocket education around the clock. Professors from the Wernher von Braun team and Western Electric's field engineers taught us electronics and told us that Norway had the highest priority. We came from a strategically important NATO country. Turkey was listed in the same category. This was in the midst of the McCarthy-era in the US and America saw communists everywhere.

Nike Hercules SAM missle on display at Huntsville, Alabama in 1958.

A Nike Hercules SAM-missile on display at Huntsville, Alabama in 1958, a brand new rocket for carrying nuclear warheads during the cold war. Photo Engvig.

Information from open sources led to the general understanding that the Soviet Union was ahead in the arms' race, both in regard to conventional ground forces and the development of powerful rockets. With the Sputnik shock in 1957, America also learned that the Soviet Union was ahead in the space race.
US Army Ordnance static test tower at Redstone Arsenal.
At Redstone Arsenal, we all knew that Russian space rockets were stronger and better than their American counterparts. Redstone Arsenal had the largest rockets in the United States. The enormous roar from Wernher von Braun's night testing of rocket engines in the static test tower on the base often woke us up. The entire barrack shook, and the sky had a bright red glow in the direction of the static test tower. The build-up of a rocket and missile arsenal was most important issue in 1958.

The US Army Ordnance static test tower at Redstone Arsenal
where all rockets and missiles propulsion were tested before
they would fly. The enormous roar from the tests of new and
bigger engines woke us up and would last for several minutes at a time.
We knew this was enough to send a space vehicle well on its way.
General Medaris of the ABMA and Dr Wernher von Braun were our great heroes.

The new Nike Hercules system Norway got in the spring of 1959 was developed and assembled in the same speedy manner as our military campus and education. The upgrading of the Ajax-system to handle the much bigger and more advanced Hercules missile was not fully completed. We soon got the feeling that the system was in its early stages, plagued by bugs. After we arrived back in Norway with one of the first Hercules-systems to be deployed, we got proof that this was a correct assumption. Several field engineers came and worked alongside us three petty officers. There were constant modifications. We upgraded components and units all the time. In addition to this, we often burned secret documents in a special oven by the river as new and modified manuals arrived via courier mail.

Ticket to Mars from Dr Werner von Braun.

Problems concerning personal safety and radiation from radar components were not taken into consideration, even if some of the components we handled were marked with the radiation symbols and shipped in special containers. The focus was to get the Nike system to function well at all times. Our safety was not an issue. The only goal was to stop any intruder or a Soviet attack. The Norwegian mantra was: "Never again April 9, 1940". Less than fifteen years after WWII ended, our military leaders remembered the Nazi occupation. We would not be overtaken again.

The IFC area of a
Nike Hercules battery before
the Cuba Missile Crisis, seen
from one of the track antennae.

The IFC area of Nike Hercule battery before Cuban Missile Crisis.

By late fall of 1959 we had four Nike batteries and the maintenance department up and running in the southern part of Norway. We were constantly sent out to one of the batteries that had systems' malfunction only we were authorized to deal with. We worked 24/7 in periods and were supposed to get compensated, but never were. We were on call and worked all through many weekends with hardly any rest. Sometimes, coming or going on the roads leading up to the remote IFC-areas, we observed Russian Volga-cars with diplomatic (CD) license plates on the new deserted forest roads close to the Nike-batteries, and understood that the Russians monitored the placement of rockets in Norway. It was no coincidence, but a result of the arms' race, and perhaps the deployment of rockets in Norway, that the Soviets after the "U2-affair" chose to send rockets to Cuba. No wonder this strategic move scared the Americans and led President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev to almost starting a nuclear war during the Cuba Missile Crisis. Three years prior, Nike guided missiles were placed in Norway. It is more than likely Nikita Khrushchev knew about it.

Tracking Antenna. Missile Control Console.

Tracking Antenna

The Missile Control Console (MCC)

This is the background against which young conscribed and signed military personnel were "sacrificed" as they were over-exposed to radiation. They died young or are struggling with health issues and serious diseases or disabilities from underdeveloped and unsafe components in the radar systems. Cysts on the thyroid gland, bladder and prostate cancer and severe cataract before turning 40 are all strong indications of exposure to radioactive isotopes inside the eight tracking antennae and test masts that we climbed to replace radioactive transmitting tubes and other defect components.

The fact is that tubes and cells we handled on a daily basis contained radioactive material. It is indicative of the total lack of concern for safety that the yellow radiation labels on the boxes either were painted over or removed, or that the designed container were missing after the components had arrived in Norway. We even had a cardboard box at our workshop labeled Radioactive Waste where we would dump defective radioactive components and old vacuum-tubes containing radioactive material. We had no safety manuals, or education and training in handling and work around radioactive material. Neither did we have any protective gear.

Olaf Engvig at work with a radar unit at Console number 5. Furthermore, every part of the Nike system was secret. We knew that components were radioactive but had no way of protecting ourselves. I thought about what would happen if I contacted the news media and research units working with radiation. They were highly opposed to atom bombs, nuclear power and radiation of any type. No radiation specialist, no quality or safety inspector or any other scientific personnel outside of Western Electric and their sub contractors in the USA could control the safety and health hazards built into these radar systems when they became operational over in Europe. We had enlisted in the Nike program to get an education while in the service, but not to be harmed by radioactive components and nuclear radiation.

As soon as our enlistment ended in 1962 all three of us left the military, but we would be kept in the military reserves. Every year for more than 30 years to come I would receive a card from my unit that I was still in the military reserves. I was promoted to officer after I finished my graduate degree in the 1970s. By late 1980's I had become a two star lieutenant in the Royal Norwegian Air Force. Norway kept me available for service during 40 years of Cold War.


Visitors riding the elevator with a Nike Hercules at San Francisco's Marine Headland launch area in the 1990's. The site is now a museum.

Olaf T. Engvig     150 Chickasaw Street     Ventura, CA 93001
Phone: 818.266.5170     olafengvig@earthlink.net

New Hardcover Maritime History Book by Olaf Engvig
The Ships that Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, WAPAMA and VÆRDALEN

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