A VIETNAM EXPERIENCE: I. The Preliminaries

Cast of characters and organizations

Military Geology Branch, U.S. Geological Survey (MGB). My employer in 1954.

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed the tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. A field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer in 1966, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. A field office in Saigon.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. A pejorative name shortened from terms meaning “Vietnamese Communists” or “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)

*     *     *

Easter Bunny

My first brush with Vietnam took place during the weekend of Easter Sunday, April 18, 1954. At that time, we still spoke of the place as French Indochina. The final major engagement between French and Vietnamese Nationalist forces under Ho Chi Minh, at Dien Bien Phu, was underway. It had been going on for three months and would end on May 7 with defeat for the French. They would soon leave the region.

Good Friday was a slow day at the office. Our family was having an up-and-down year of high pressure thus far. My wife’s mother suffered a major stroke in January. Our second child, a son, was born in February. My father died in March. Now, April was bringing a beautiful spring and we were looking forward to a quiet, restful enjoyment of the weekend.

About mid-afternoon, the bosses called us together. We had a “quickie” project on our hands. We needed to produce a terrain study covering most of what we now know as Vietnam. This would consist of several sets of map overlays describing geology, soils, landforms, and water supply and drainage conditions in the region. There would also be overlays addressing military implications such as the ability of tanks and other vehicles to maneuver off roads (“cross-country movement,” we called it), and the suitability of the terrain for constructing roads and airfields.

We were members of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), U.S. Geological Survey, and this was one of the kinds of work that we did. Meanwhile, our colleagues at the Army Map Service would be adMGB EastBun_01ading studies of existing roads and airfields. In our usual whimsical fashion, we named this project “Easter Bunny.”A project like this would normally occupy at least half a dozen people for about two months. We were told on Friday afternoon that we would have to deliver final camera-ready copy by early the next Tuesday morning. Arrangements were made to keep various governmental libraries, map collections, and aerial photo collections open through the weekend, so that they could provide us with the source materials we needed.

We put about 30 people to work on the project. Even so, the schedule seemed daunting. It will suffice to say that very few of the 30 managed to go home for a night’s sleep between Friday and Tuesday. We made the deadline.

About two weeks later, we were invited to what was called a “debriefing” by a joint military team just returned from Indochina. They proceeded to make clear how our effort had fitted into the machinery of presidential decision-making.

In the waning days of Dien Bien Phu, President Eisenhower had requested a briefing on what actions the United States might be able to take that could influence the outcome of the battle. There is no doubt that he considered many factors beyond our purview, but we were kept informed on the particular role that Easter Bunny had played.

This joint military team had been assembled to examine the situation on the ground, and then to report their findings to the President. This had to be done in a few days. They requested a terrain study, among other things, to direct their attention to the principal problem areas quickly and efficiently. In a sense, they would be field-checking our results and determining their implications for national policy.

The primitive condition of the existing road net and airfields, the widespread terrain conditions that would seriously hamper road and airfield construction, and the difficulty of the terrain for any off-road movement, all led to the following conclusions during the presidential briefing: At that time, the United States could not provide the logistical support needed for large military units operating in Indochina. We could support only small units the size of one regiment or smaller.

I have no way of knowing what else the President considered, but the joint military team felt strongly that these conclusions regarding logistical support played heavily into his decision not to enter the fray in Indochina at that time. We took pride in our contribution in the form of Project Easter Bunny.

*          *          *

Unconventional Warfare

Within the next ten years, research into the “art of war” as practiced in the Vietnam conflict had become a growth industry. We used various terms, such as “unconventional warfare” and “remote area conflict.” This research seemed to have a lively future. Nikita Khrushchev spoke of “wars of national liberation,” as the new model for Communist expansion, following the indecisive results of conventional warfare in Korea.

In 1964, after serving four years as Assistant Chief of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), I welcomed the opportunity for a one-year assignment with the Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. WES was involved in research important to the future of military geology, studying new applications to unconventional warfare, and developing quantitative techniques in preparation for the coming digital age. MGB, in contrast, was pursuing the same applications and techniques it had developed during World War II. It was falling behind both in funding and in attracting bright employees.

During my year in Vicksburg, the Remote Area Conflict Section of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded the research at WES. During the same year, MGB acquired a new chief (whom I’ll call George for now, and Nemesis later on), lost more funding, and underwent a major reduction in force.

I made a special trip to Washington to urge George to develop ties with ARPA, hoping to secure new research opportunities. George would have none of this.  He wanted no involvement with ARPA.  But his boss was enthused, and so the three of us went together to meet the director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. The meeting went well, and we picked up a small project for me to carry out after my assignment at WES: A feasibility study for an environmental research project on the salt deserts of Iran. Perhaps Iran was being recognized as a possible future site for a “war of national liberation.” If this feasibility study succeeded, it was expected to lead into the larger study, making MGB once again relevant to the research goals of the modern world.

After I returned to Washington, completed the feasibility study, and submitted the manuscript to George, I saw something unusual for the Geological Survey: a manager making substantive changes to the researcher’s findings. I read over these changes and accepted them. Too bad, for I completely missed the negative implications of one of his changes, to the effect that Iranian salt deserts are unique, and unlike any other deserts elsewhere in the world.  That was true, of course, but I hadn’t considered it particularly relevant to the issue at hand.

It was fully two years before that statement came back to haunt me. I was with a new employer and on assignment in the Middle East when I met one of the old-timers from ARPA. I asked whatever happened to the salt desert study. He said, “It’s your fault. The ambassador killed the project because of what you said in your feasibility study. You and I both know those deserts are unique. That’s why we needed the study so badly, because we’ve never fought in such places and we need to know a great deal about how their environment would affect military operations. But the ambassador doesn’t think a research project is worthwhile unless it applies to the whole world.”

Indeed, since then we have already found ourselves operating in those deserts, and we may not yet have seen the last of them.

In the short term, however, I stayed on with George for another 6 months, and then found employment in the fields I had been seeking – research on applications of geology in unconventional warfare. And, beyond anything I had ever wanted, the new job involved extensive field assignments in Vietnam and Iran.

*          *          *

Nemesis

My new job was with a “think tank” named the Research Analysis Corporation, a private not-for-profit firm supported by contracts with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. I joined the Unconventional Warfare Department, where they were finding many new applications of geology and terrain science in this type of warfare.

Every new job presents unanticipated problems, but I did enjoy being rid of George. But wait! I soon learned that George and I had changed jobs at the same time. He had moved into nothing less than the position of director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. He succeeded the very man he had been unwilling to talk to several months earlier! I never did figure out the personal politics of all this.  Perhaps he foresaw his move to ARPA, and simply didn’t want any connection with the Geological Survey in his new position.  But it was clear – alas! – that he was now overseeing the contract of the department I worked in.

In me, he apparently saw possibilities for new kinds of projects, and he dealt directly with me while ignoring all the layers of bosses between us.

His first approach seemed innocuous, though unpleasant. He wanted me to evaluate a military environmental research project that had been underway for several years involving faculty and graduate students at a highly respected university. I found that its management had failed in a number of ways. The various parts of what should have been a unified approach had been studied separately, and by now were completely incompatible with each other. I explained my findings to the researchers and considered their points until we reached a conclusion that all of us considered fair. Then I dutifully presented my report to George. He used it as a basis for discontinuing the project. I knew that was his intent all along, and that I was his chosen hatchet man. Such are the humilities we sometimes endure to make a living. By now I was well along in the transition from “George” to “Nemesis.”

His next approach was a bit more troublesome. He discussed the problem of Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam, and said that a research program was underway to help in detecting  them. The project was now at the point where they needed to have a geologist – like me – look at the tunnels and observe their geologic settings. This could be useful in two ways: (1) predicting where tunneling might or might not be feasible; and (2) determining the types of soils, rocks, and moisture conditions that any detection apparatus would have to be designed for. George reminded me that our contract would soon be up for renewal, and said that I should keep this in mind if I had any problems with the assignment.

Warchapter%20TunnelTunnel_rats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never refused a legitimate project assignment because of reasons like fearing or disliking it. I always pointed out, however, any concerns I had as to whether its goal could actually be achieved.

The problem I saw in this case was one of security. As soon as American forces secured an area and found tunnels, they searched the tunnels and then destroyed them completely. The best opportunities to examine tunnels in detail would be in areas currently being secured or not yet secured. I knew from previous experience that no responsible commander would allow a civilian employee to get on his bicycle and move alone into such places. Military escort would be required.

Which led to a further possibility: A military commander might say to me, “Look, I’ve got a war to fight here. We’re busy, and we don’t want to add to the risks we already have. Your little geologic field trips just aren’t important enough for us to fool with. Go back home.”

I discussed this with George. He sent a cable to Saigon. They replied that I should proceed as planned. End of discussion. I went to Vietnam.

(Only after arriving in Saigon, and getting to know the military folks there, did I learn that I had been a laughing stock even before arriving. George’s cable had asked the question, “Can you guarantee the safety of this geologist?” In a war zone, yet!)

This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback).

 

AN ALASKAN POST SCRIPT

Twenty-five years after Project Soda Straw and the Restless Glacier had faded into dim memories, I found myself once again preparing to go to Alaska. Still with the Geological Survey, I no longer pursued problems of military geology, but was now involved in environmental analyses of mineral resource developments on the public lands.

Since my earliest studies of geology, the Malaspina Glacier had fascinated me. It was a perfect example of a “piedmont glacier,” one that had poured out of high mountain valleys onto the coastal lowlands where it spread out into the shape of a huge circular blob, about 35 miles in diameter at its maximum stage some years ago. It was one of the few Alaskan glaciers large enough to show up on even the smallest-scale maps of the territory.

The proposal —

Near the head of this glacier, surrounded by five miles of ice in every direction, was a small chain of hills known as the Samovar Hills. It was about to be designated as part of a National Park. The Shell Oil Company held a lease on it for petroleum development. It was a promising site – tar could be seen in some of the creeks that drained the hills and fed downstream into Oily Lake.

Federal regulations provided that Shell would be compensated for the taking of this land, if they had done any work to develop the lease. Alas, they had done no work at all, and they stood to lose it without compensation. But it was not too late to file a development plan.

Before any development plan could be approved, an environmental assessment would have to be made.  Very likely, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would also have to be prepared and processed under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. I convened a meeting in Anchorage where all the “usual suspects” – representatives of various Federal and State agencies having an interest in this development – joined to discuss preparation of an EIS. The Federal agencies included the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and maybe more.

All the Federal representatives (the “Feds”) agreed that an EIS would have to be prepared, and that their agencies should participate. I was able, by observing the relative states of alertness and sleepiness among those at the meeting, to nominate a fellow named Peter as the leader of the task force that would prepare the EIS. He was unique in the depth and variety of questions he raised during the meeting.

Before our meeting adjourned, we heard a history of negotiations to date with Shell Oil. A couple of months earlier, after providing a general summary of the development plan, the company’s team was open to questions. First and foremost was:

“How will you get the oil out, given that the hills are completely surrounded by glaciers?”

Several days later, they announced their plan for getting the oil out. The quality of this plan indicated that we were not dealing with the high-powered scientists and engineers known to inhabit the company. Instead, we were dealing with a junior team considered “good enough” to deal with an EIS task force. The plan follows:

PLAN A: BUILD A PIPELINE ACROSS THE GLACIER

RszSamvrGlac2(b)-tube

Suppressing some humor and astonishment, the Feds calmly pointed out that glaciers move more or less constantly, and therefore a fixed pipeline would not be sustainable.

This time, the company team needed a week or two to come up with a revised plan, as follows:

PLAN B: BUILD A PIPELINE ON WHEELS ACROSS THE GLACIER

RszSamvrGlac2(b)-tubewheels

Again, the Feds were respectful as they pointed out that glacier surfaces can change rapidly, and can present such features as crevasses, meltwater channels, and other kinds of obstruction that could snag wheels and tear a pipeline apart. A pipeline on wheels would not be sustainable.

After several weeks of study, the company team came out with a new plan, really quite sophisticated, as follows:     

PLAN C: BORE A PIPELINE BENEATH THE GLACIER

xSec2c Smovar copy copy

Boreholes would be drilled at a 45-degree slant from each side of the glacier, with the intent that the two would meet at great depth beneath the center of the glacier. A radioactive source would be placed in the bottom of the first borehole to reach the center. A radiation-sensing device would guide the second borehole to within three feet of meeting the first. Explosives would then be used to shatter any rocks separating the boreholes, so that oil could pass freely from one to the other.

Such a scheme had never been carried out before. However, each of the critical steps had, separately, been used successfully: slant drilling, radioactive homing, and transfer of oil via shattered rock.

Plan C was complex and somewhat dubious, but we couldn’t reject it out of hand as we did with Plans A and B. We would have to take it seriously. The next item on our agenda would be a visit to the Samovar Hills.

The field trip —

Our party of about twelve men flew in a small plane to the airfield at Yakutat, about 400 miles from Anchorage.  Here we transferred into a large helicopter for the second hop, into the Samovar Hills.  That flight covered a distance of 55 miles, 12 of which were over Yakutat Bay.  Water in the Bay was extremely cold, in the temperature range where a human could survive only a few minutes.  As a safety precaution, we all put on insulating suits, which I can describe only as resembling the “bunny rabbit” suits that little boys are sometimes forced to wear during Christmas or Easter parties.  The principal differences were (1) these suits lacked long ears, (2) the facial opening was small, and (3) the suits were stiff and hard to manage in the confines of a helicopter.

RszaSamovar pix 35_0008    RszaSamovar pix 35_0005

As we flew over the Malaspina glacier, we came to realize what an enormous body of ice it was.  At our altitude of about 5,000 feet, there were times when we could see nothing beyond it.  Its surface was striped with bands of moraine (rock debris).

RszaSamovar pix 35_0007     RszaSamovar pix 35_0006

Landing on the edge of the Samovar Hills, we found ourselves in a pleasant green oasis among the vast expanses of ice.  At times, the nearby ice seemed likely to overwhelm the lower parts of the hills, but we soon realized that the ice was losing, not winning, that battle.

RszaSamovar pix 35_0004  RszaSamovar pix 35_0001

Adjoining the hills were extensive areas of level land where drilling operations could easily be set up.  Each man was busy observing features related to his own discipline.  I noted the tar in the creek.  The fish and wildlife expert was studying a large bear turd, which he dissected by hand to learn what the creature had been eating.

After several hours on the ground, we donned once again the “bunny rabbit” suits and made our way to Yakutat and thence on to Anchorage.

The task force —

Several weeks later, the EIS task force convened at Geological Survey headquarters in Reston, Virginia. I now had a better chance to get to know Peter, the man of deep and varied questions. My nomination of him as Task Force Leader had been approved. Now I realized the enormity of my misjudgment. He had only one-way communication valves. He could ask brilliant questions, and could pronounce weighty judgments. But he lacked any attention span whatever, either to absorb the answers to his questions, or to hear the judgments or opinions of others.  He talked incessantly.

I spent a couple of weeks wondering how on earth we could cope with Peter and get anything done on the EIS. And wondering how I had ever managed to be so wrong in nominating him as a leader.

But I must have done something right along the way. The proposed development plan had been working its way upward through Shell Oil, and had finally reached the level of the aforementioned high-powered scientists and engineers.   These were practical people who sought assured results. They did not take well to dubious and experimental ideas like boring a pipeline beneath a glacier five miles wide. The development plan was withdrawn. The EIS was canceled and the task force, Peter and all, returned to their normal jobs.

I had been rescued from the consequences of my own folly. I never again had to don the “bunny-rabbit” costume.

*          *          *

Note: The illustrations for Plans A, B, and C are, of course, fictitious. They consist of “props” in color against the background of a black-and-white photo by the U.S. Geological Survey. When seeking “props,” I started by looking for a suitable soda straw to represent the pipeline, and I used something very similar to a straw. So now the Alaska cycle is complete, having started with Project Soda Straw, and ending with a pipeline project that recalled a soda straw. The two projects shared a common fate: Neither one produced any usable results.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

 

Project Soda Straw

Spring was here at last! The spring of 1952. For our little family, it followed a hard fall and winter, especially for my wife. She had faced the usual problems and restrictions of pregnancy, combined with an emergency appendectomy early on and, for several weeks afterward, disabling pain caused by a nerve pinched during labor. Now these issues were receding and we were enjoying the spring in all its glory and abundant life, made more abundant by the recent birth of our first child, a boy.

We looked forward to a busy summer, introducing the newborn to a large extended family.

Then one day the boss asked me to accept a field assignment in Alaska, running from June 1 to mid-September. Except in the most serious of family crises, I would never reject an assignment for personal convenience. But I always examined an assignment closely, not wanting to waste time and effort on some ill-conceived “boondoggle,” as we called such things. Put to that test, this assignment came up short.

WbRszaAK 1_0008Our Alaska Terrain and Permafrost Section, it seemed, had bought a small drilling rig, powered by a gasoline engine. It could be carried by two men. I was being asked to test it in the field and to prepare a report for a couple of government agencies, recommending for or against the purchase of more rigs. It had a small diamond coring bit, shaped sort of like a doughnut, designed to extract core samples from hard rock for prospectors seeking mineral deposits.

However, our rig was bought to study permafrost, a layer of permanentlly frozen ground that underlies much of Alaska, extending from a few feet beneath the surface to great depths. The area of interest was in sands, gravels, and clays deposited by past glaciers in lowlands and valleys. We wanted core samples of the frozen sediments, and we wanted to explore for ground water resources that might be held within the permafrost.

Yes, the drill was designed for hard rock, but isn’t frozen sediment the same type of thing? Hardly. Drilling quickly melts the frozen material into some kind of muck. The churning of this slop would surely prevent recovery of any decent kind of core sample.  And, when drilling stops, the muck refreezes quickly and can permanently trap the drill.

How can such a small drill-hole (about 1.5 inches diameter) be used to detect ground water? My colleague Paul Johnson, an experienced ground-water geologist, said it best, “Well, you could put a soda straw in it.” And thus was born the name of the project.

From thoughts like these, I decided that the assignment was simply preposterous. But that wasn’t something to tell the boss. The drill had been bought and so, in simple government logic, it would have to be tested.

When I rejected the assignment, I cited other factors. Without experience in either drilling or gasoline engine operation, I would be solely responsible for keeping this piece of machinery in running order. Visiting various field parties, I would have to ask them to help me with all the tasks of brawn that drilling involves – an unlikely hope, inasmuch as they were all deeply absorbed in their own work. And what if I found the drill useless within a couple of weeks? What would I do through the rest of the summer?

After mulling my objections for three or four days, the boss presented me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: I would be supported by a geologic field assistant experienced in engines and in drilling. Also by an experienced ground-water geologist – none other than Paul Johnson of soda-straw fame! And finally, the three of us could conduct ground-water research studies, with or without the drill, for the rest of the summer. And so I made my way to Alaska on the first of June.

*          *          *

Air travel in the early 1950’s was distinctly a different experience from today’s version. Crowded airports were a rarity, and the travelers were shown the courtesies – and the luxuries, particularly in food – that are now reserved for Very Important Persons. Even the atmosphere added to the quality of the experience, much of the time permitting clear views of the beautiful lands beneath. Banks of haze and smog, so widespread nowadays, were seldom encountered. I did my best to get seats by the windows, and my camera was always ready to click.

WbRszaAK 1_0010   WbRszaAK 1_0011

I made a brief visit in North Bay, Ontario at the Longyear factory where our little rig, known as the Porta-Drill, had been produced. Afterward, on the final flight from Edmonton, Alberta, we spanned three time zones and ended early the next morning in Anchorage.

Paul Johnson was waiting at the Anchorage Hotel, an overcrowded place in which he had been lucky enough to find a room. An annex to the hotel, renovated and still standing today, had been opened in 1936. But he was in the original rickety frame structure, built in 1916 and headed toward demolition in the 1960s.

As Paul opened his door for me, I was nearly overwhelmed by a dense cloud of alcoholic fragrance. In the midst of the cloud he stood, his face a brilliant red, showing clear signs of fatigue. Beyond him, I could see a fellow I didn’t know, passed out on a bed. “Good Lord,” I wondered, “what am I getting into?” I saw only one positive sign: Paul was smiling from ear to ear. He seemed very glad to see me.

Slowly, the story emerged. Yes, Paul was tired after a series of flights from Washington, arriving just a few hours earlier and well past midnight. Before boarding that last flight, he committed an error common to inexperienced air travelers. He opened a bottle of whiskey for one shot, then replaced the cork and put it in his suitcase. That bottle found new life in the rarefied upper atmosphere. Now he had all his clothing from the suitcase hung out to dry. Hence the fragrance. As for the other fellow, Paul didn’t know him. The hotel was pairing strangers off in the same rooms. This fellow was on a night shift and had arrived just a bit earlier for his daily snooze. Paul’s red face, I finally recalled, was a permanent fixture. And so, all irregularities were accounted for.

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Mid-century Anchorage was coming out of its earlier stage as a rough-and-ready frontier town. Perhaps I was naïve, or had read too much tourist literature, but I was surprised to see such modern urban touches as parking meters and traffic lights.

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*          *          *

Most of the camping gear and field equipment that we would need – including the Porta-drill – were in a storage shed in Palmer, a town 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. It served Alaska’s small but principal farming district, noted for its greatly oversized vegetables, the apparent result of endless daylight through a short growing season. The downtown area of Palmer extended a couple of blocks; the town’s one hotel, the Matanuska, stood nearby. All told, my field assistant and I spent 3 or 4 weeks of that summer in Palmer awaiting word from our bosses as to what we should do next. The ground water research that had first been offered had never panned out.  The food was excellent, but the principal entertainment consisted of two pieces of music on the jukebox: Blue Tango and Jealousy.  Tangos were in style that year.

WbRszaAK 1_0004     WbRszaAK 1_0005

One critical item, a jeep, had been shipped to Fairbanks the previous fall for a major engine overhaul. So we took an railroad trip of about 350 miles to pick it up. As the train passed through the Alaska mountain range, fog and clouds prevented any view of the famous Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak, at 20,320 feet. But we did see other lesser mountains that were spectacular enough for me, given that I had never before traveled beyond the eastern United States.

WbRszaAK 1_0009

Then we drove the 500-mile trip back to Palmer, via Tok Junction near Alaska’s eastern border. We could have saved 100 miles by using the Richardson Highway, but parts of it were under construction and closed. Much of this trip was over other roads, also under construction and rough, but open, where speeds above 25 mph routinely bumped our heads against the ceiling of the cab. And so this trip required 5 days.

During the drive, we came to know and appreciate the lodges spaced at wide intervals along the highways. WbRszaAK 1_0001They were rustic, usually built of logs, and they featured bars, dining rooms and rooms for overnight guests. Paxson Lodge was strategically located at the junction of Richardson Highway with the road heading into the future Denali National Park, known at that time to us “palefaces” only as Mt. McKinley National Park. The road map showed these lodges as small towns, but in reality there were  few structures other than the lodge itself, a gas station, and perhaps one or two small shops for basics such as alcohol, tobacco, and groceries. I eventually spent a week at Paxson Lodge, but I failed to appreciate it as I should have, because it lacked any postal service, and my wife and I were accustomed to daily exchanges of letters.

During the long drive, it became apparent that Alaska was enjoying spring in June. Some of the major rivers were still covered with ice and snow, as seen in this view (featuring the author as a young man) of the Robertson River from the Alaska Highway.

WbRszaAK 1_0015Arriving back in Palmer, at last we were ready to test the drill! We set up first just outside Palmer, and gradually moved northeastward along the Glenn Highway. Most of the sediments here were sands and gravels, which made one of our dire predictions come true: Drilling melted the permafrost, the coarse abrasive grains collapsed against the drill bit, and a diamond bit was reduced to a useless nub after a few feet of drilling.

The local geologists and soils scientists urged us to return to Fairbanks, where an agricultural research station contained a broad basin of muck showing the classic signs of permafrost: polygonal patterns in the surface soils. This fine material would not cut so quickly into the bit. And there we staged the season’s final performance.

As we passed the depth of 30 feet, progress slowed; we were reaching the maximum weight of drill pipe that we could raise and lower by hand, without a hoist of any kind. Then a further dire prediction came true. During one of the delays, the thin layer of melted muck quickly refroze, and our entire tool assembly was trapped. The situation was rescued with a wrecker of the Alaska Highway Commission. Using its entire lifting capacity until the front wheels rose off the ground, the wrecker managed to jerk the drill assembly loose and retrieve it.

There was one consolation for all this trouble.  We were in Fairbanks just in time to enjoy the Fourth of July WbRszaAK 1_0007 celebrations.

We were in no mood to continue the tests. I had speculated that we might find the drill rig useless in a couple of weeks. Actually, we needed only ten days. The only test not completed: We never found a soda straw adequate for detecting ground water, particularly since the drill holes always collapsed promptly upon removal of the bit.

Now it was time to write the report. With tongue in cheek, made evident through complete truthfulness, excruciating detail, and ample illustrations, I described and quantified the rig’s performance. I showed “before and after” shots of the diamond bits put to short periods of use. In the final evaluation, I was careful to note that the rig was designed for coring in hard rock, not for the uses we put it to. That was only fair to the rig and its maker.

WbRszaAK 1_0014                 WbRszaAK 1_0012

In 1997, the Geological Survey proudly published a listing of the many valuable products of the Military Geology Unit during its period of operation from 1942 through 1975. There, under the heading “Special Reports for Office of the Chief of Engineers, 1942-1963,” this listing is preserved for posterity:

Report on field operations with portable core drill in Alaska
(Fairbanks, Northway, Palmer), J. R. Burns, 1952, 17 p.
RT, Perma, GW.

 This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

 

 

Environment Work by Nixon later undone by Reagan

Columnist Carl Tate has on several occasions (including News Virginian, Apr 28, 2013) referred to President Nixon’s important contributions to the environmental cause – pushing for and signing into law the National Environmental Policy Act, creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and further landmark legislation including the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.  These credits to Mr. Nixon are correct and welcome.

Tate has also commented that the environmental cause has advanced very little since Nixon.  Are we then to conclude that results of the environmental movement to date are solely a gift from the Republican Party?  Hardly.

The missing link is this: What Richard Nixon gave to the environmental cause, Ronald Reagan did much to take away. Some of his appointees have been widely recognized as major influences reversing Nixon’s environmental accomplishments.

I served under one of these appointees, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, as chief of the office of environmental affairs in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and here I observed reversals of Nixon’s environmental accomplishments.

The USGS program to analyze environmental impacts of open-pit coal mining on the public lands was stopped in 1982 when Mr. Watt decided that, henceforth, such mining would be considered as having no significant environmental impact.

Earlier, the USGS furnished scientific information that narrowly averted completion of a nuclear reactor being built at Bodega Head, California, within a few hundred yards of the notorious San Andreas Fault, creator of major earthquakes. We began mapping a variety of geologic hazards (earthquakes, landslides, etc.) that deserved consideration in land-use planning. This stopped in 1982, when Deputy Assistant Secretary William Perry Pendley informed us that the Department did not want Washington bureaucrats to be involved in land-use decisions; the decisions should be based solely on free-market forces.

Within Mr. Reagan’s still-popular policies, we should be aware that this negative environmental stance continues to deter recovery and progress in the cause that Mr. Nixon aided.

(The above was published March 1, 2014, in the Waynesboro VA News Virginian, as a Letter to the Editor.)