Site R

Back in the days when we didn’t squander so much of our time appeasing terrorists, we used to feature a weekly Flash animation called Flash Friday. The most popular installment to date was our tribute to Dick Cheney’s “Undisclosed” location, also known as Site R. (Old post here, direct link to the animation (6MB) there.)

Earlier this week, we received an email from S.K.Johannesen, who recently published an essay on Site R in Queen’s Quarterly, a Canadian literary magazine published at Queen’s University in Ontario. (You know, one of the Canadian provinces.) With the author’s permission, we are happy to reproduce selected portions of the essay, titled “Undisclosed Location,” in the extended entry.

This is a Cold-War memoir. It is also a meditation on such things as secrecy, power, narrative, and the genius of place. I speak of a particular place, a location, a site. Not ‘site’ in the fashionable post-modern sense, but a real place, a place I had once known intimately and then more-or-less forgot about, until recently.

The place was and is, still, called Site-R. The ‘R’ stands for Raven Rock, a dome-shaped mountain in the Blue Ridge, in Adams County, Pennsylvania, near the border with Maryland and only a few miles from the presidential retreat Camp David, with which it is connected by secure fibre-optic communications lines. Site-R is, it is safe to suppose, an official secret.

Within hours of the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington, four helicopters descended noisily on Site-R, carrying Dick Cheney, the Vice-President of the United States, into its cavernous bowels. This was the coyly-termed ‘undisclosed location’ of the networks and national papers; only a few city dailies?Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Austin?reported the facts, while foreign papers have from time to time referred to a ‘bunker.’ As everyone now knows, events were set in motion here that have resulted in the war on Iraq, and who can say what other surreal adventures to come. […]

I spent some time, as it happens, at Site-R.

In the Fall of 1959, after eight weeks of basic training in Texas (in the footsteps of Elvis Presley) and another eight weeks of military police school in Georgia (where one learned just enough judo to know that the billy club was better), I was issued orders to report to Fort Ritchie, a quaint little affair of parade grounds and antique cannon and wartime barracks set in a picturesque angle of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. This was the cover, home to the people who worked in the secret site several miles away in the mountains. Besides a company of military policemen, and the usual headquarters and service people?the commandant’s staff, cooks, mechanics, drivers?the work force consisted largely of WACs, as members of the Women’s Army Corps were called, which gave to the place, women not being generally distributed in the armed services in those days, an odd college-campus or summer-camp quality.

It was never perfectly clear what all these women did when they disappeared underground. There were many signs around Fort Ritchie along the lines of ‘loose lips sink ships,’ and new arrivals were not told anything officially, not even about the existence, of our dark twin under the mountain, until we had been vetted by the FBI, a process that took many weeks, sometimes months. There were two schools of thought in the barracks about this. One held that it was best to play dumb and drag out the process, leaving out requested information on the forms and making small mistakes, which meant that you got to loaf around the barracks and do light kitchen duty at the mess hall while your service stint got whittled down. The other was that the boredom would kill you and you might as well get on with it.

In the end you got Top Secret clearance, which sounded impressive, until you learned that Top Secret was the lowest of all ratings. Not enough for carrying a general’s brief case, say, or driving his car if he had anyone in the back with him. Anyway, one heard about Site-R first from locals, in the taverns in Waynesboro, the closest town of any size, who had of course dug the tunnels and done the plumbing and the wiring and so forth, as far back as the Truman administration. They called it ‘the underground Pentagon,’ and were very proud of their part in it, and would take visitors on drives up into the Blue Ridge to show them one of the black entrance holes, which you could plainly see from the state highway across the valley, in the Fall, after the leaves were gone.

Site-R was in those days a communications centre, ganglion for the entire world-wide military nerve system. All messages from anywhere to anywhere?the Far East, Europe, ships at sea, submarines?were relayed through Site-R, coded and decoded in transit, logged, recorded, monitored. Who can say? One imagines banks upon banks, acres indeed, of grey, clanking machines, teletypes they must have been, and phalanxes of cabinets with vertically mounted magnetic spools, spinning away with spooky information, in that pre-microchip, perhaps only-just-transistorized era. Vast, redundant, useless. Top Secret was certainly not high enough to permit looking directly on these wonders, only high enough to escort and guard the WACs, who, like virgins attending a hidden mystery, disappeared and reappeared, in regular shifts, night and day, every day without fail or interruption.

Our police duties followed the same rhythms: three days on one eight-hour shift, an eight-hour break, then another shift for three days, another break, another shift, then a three day break and start over again. Days, nights, the seven-day week, the weekend, all natural and unnatural intervals and times other than this special paranoia-inducing shift-time disappeared. In this new shift-reality there were no regular meals, breakfast came at the end of an eight-hour shift, sleep became the atmosphere of the barracks, a zone at all hours of zombie-like stealth and unnatural quiet.

Sleep was not possible on duty of course, unless you were sent up on top of the mountain with the dog-handlers, a smelly crew who enjoyed exemption from most of the niceties of military courtesy and inspections. There was nothing to do up there except stay clear of the deceptively cuddly-looking and unnervingly intelligent Alsatians, who were only ever trained to one man, and who were promptly shot if the man transferred or was discharged, and so one stretched out on gunny sacks in the guard shack and dozed away to the idly subversive drawls of the handlers, all of them West Virginia moon-shiners and good-old-boy anarchists, who amused themselves with elaborate schemes for sabotaging Site-R by pouring things down the vent holes and the like.

Things were different if you were assigned to the checkpoint at the main entrance on the side of the mountain. I worked there with a morose sergeant of Canadian extraction from Maine, named Gagnon, who had, like all sergeants, a capacity for drinking great quantities of appalling coffee, and a nostalgia for Korea, where enterprising sergeants had owned whorehouses, or shares in them, which were sold on at good profit. The talk at the checkpoint in short was of a more professional cast than was the talk on the mountain. As were the duties, which consisted of challenging anyone approaching along the access road to stand at the barrier and be recognized, and then (a job which fell to the junior man) dragging out the garage creeper to look under any vehicle, watching especially for short lengths of sawn-off broom handle labelled TNT that crafty counter-espionage agents liked to stick up around the muffler clamps or battery tie-downs just to keep us on our toes.

I also spent eight-hour shifts walking the curving outer entrance tunnels practicing fast-draws with the clumsy .45 Colt we were issued. Or prowling the decontamination shower-room maze beside the bomb-blast doors, with which the complex was meant to be sealed during a nuclear attack. (The doors themselves, massive things moved on steel tracks, were only a second line of defense, as the curving outer tunnels were designed, like a lucky horseshoe, or a Chinaman’s front door, to spin evil away into confusion and impotence.) The call of sleep in the never-used and tiled shower rooms was nearly overpowering, but much too risky to succumb to, as the watch officer could steal up on you undetected.

The best spot was on the roof of one of the underground buildings. These were built like ordinary office blocks, five of them, four stories high, long rectangles, each set inside one of five parallel caverns, and each one with a steeply pitched roof as though it were sitting outside in the weather. The post I speak of was reached through a trap door in the roof of the middle one, directly below a main ventilation shaft. You were escorted there by a sergeant and then left alone. An ordinary wooden chair straddled the roof ridge. In front of the chair a low stool also straddled the ridge, and on it was a black plastic telephone, on which you were to report every fifteen minutes to the officer of the watch, to show you were awake, and on which you were also to report any unusual event, such as Russians abseiling down the air shaft after having killed the dogs and the dog handlers on the top of the mountain. One naked light bulb hung from the vault of rock just overhead. A tar-paper roof sloped away to abysses on either side, without guard rails or other protections.

I was equipped for this post with a sub-machine gun of the type called a grease gun, a primitive and sturdy weapon of no accuracy and considerable danger to its user. My predecessor at this post went berserk and used his grease gun on the light bulb and the chair and the telephone, before turning it on himself. I was thought to be mentally tougher. My secret was that I smuggled paperbacks past the watch officer in my emptied gas-mask holder, and devoured vast quantities of literature in this way.

The WACs, the military police, the counter-espionage agents who crawled about occasionally, were in any event only a skeleton force. For all the acreage of clanking and whirring communications equipment, the bulk of these buildings, which consisted of sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, war rooms, lecture and briefing amphitheatres, kitchens and dining rooms, infirmaries and brigs, a barber shop, armouries and store rooms, lay silent, still and waiting, a kind of Cold-War Gormenghast, whose real purpose was the circumvention of a key principle of Cold-War logic, namely Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. Site-R was there as an escape hatch for a small civilian and military elite. A bolt-hole for cheaters, hiding out in a safe hole while ordinary people were evaporated, or wandered dazed in a poisoned landscape. An empty netherworld, a place of wide important-looking corridors, of vast underground reservoirs of uncontaminated water, of executive toilets whose toilet paper rolls were never depleted, ever in readiness.

So far as I know Site-R never fulfilled its true mission during the entire long history of the Cold War. Not when The Wall went up, not while Krushchev dithered over the Cuban missiles. Site-R was waiting for Dick Cheney. […]

–S.K.Johannesen, extracted from Undisclosed Location, originally published in Queen’s Quarterly, vol. 111:1, Spring 2004. Used with permission.


Comments: 15


curious for an alleged american, to refer to German Shepherds, as Alsations, I thought only the Brits called them that, a legacy of WW1.


Lots of people call them alsations

It kinda bleeds over.


I was stationed there for almost 5 years, leaving in 1981. Contruction inside the site was still in progress when I departed.

One rumor that was never quashed was that Fort Dietrich would use the incinerators inside Site R for “Their Mistakes”. The site also had a signifcant shredder/mulcher. It looked like a giant garbage disposal.

The “Plant” inside the mountain could never stay clean. My tour consisted of 4 days in, 7 days off, 3 days in, 7 days off. My watch was 12 hours on, 12 hours off. For our duty, the only excuse for leaving the 3 or 4 day tour was an emergency or special waiver to attend college classes. I never had either reason to leave. Handkerchiefs were almost pitch black after 4 days of breathing dirty air.

A readiness posture was ALWAYS expected, and I was there for a few “Slam Door” and “Button Up” events, Three Mile Island, the Chinese invasion of Viet-Nam, and two Norad computer errors indicating a Soviet missle attack. I remember one of THOSE being reported some time after the fact.

The presidential suite was located above our computer room. Lots of stories about each president, Nixon supposedly had the suite done for his daughter completely in pink.

The enlisted communication personnel (USArmy) who had a weigh or discipline problem were tasked to climb the towers to chip ice.

While in Vietnam, Black soldiers referred to Fort Ritchie as a punishment assignment. Racial harmony wasn’t welcome then. It WAS the Mason-Dixon Line.

There WAS harmony with the locals, regarding the Site. Deer hunting was permitted certain times during the season. When the foilage needed thinning, locals were permitted to get their firewood from designated areas, under careful watch of course. Some of that harmony disappeared when the Army decided to contract out the job, and then the same contractors would try and peddle their firewood at ridulously high prices.

Enough said for now. I would suspect Dick Cheney will have this in his VP Office safe by Tuesday morning.

John Doe Smith III

I have been on the roof of the Site R building, and clearly I saw a squared roof, under a huge single man-made cavern. It is a single building and not five buildings as stated. His recollection is older than me !


I left there in 1990 after 3 years as Patrol Sup/SOG. Hunting was no longer permitted on the property, and was closed to the public. We worked in 12 hour shifts, leaving after each shift (every day), back to Ft Ritchie.


I liked the faux windows in the mess hall, it did my heart good to see “outside” whilst Happy Jack dished up food…


Site R MP’s can be found at or on Facebook under “572nd MP Compant”


I also served as a Platoon Sergeant at the site from basicallly 1979-1982. Does anyone recall the “submarine drills” conducted @ the resevoir for the “newbies”?


Stationed at Ft. Ritchie in 1963 to 1965, as an MP K9 man,,, we lived in the old WWll wooden barracks until sometime in 64 when we moved into the new brick bldgs down by the mess hall. I mostly worked at the top of the Mt. at site R with my dog “SIR”,,, he had a great reputation as the meanest dog in the unit,, He saved my butt a number of nights when the Sgt. of the guard tried to sneak up the road to catch us off guard (sleeping)… We also had a micro wave site a bit closer to the Ft. that a K9 unit would be assigned to on the night turn,, this site was actually on the Appalachin trail… and hikers were always a welcome sight to us lonesome soldiers!!
I have returned to Ft Ritchie which is no longer a military fort,, a number of times,, it’s in a most beautiful setting and I never regretted being stationed there,, I spent many Sunday’s at the local drag strip “Mason Dixon” in Hagerstown MD. and I enjoyed many local friends that I still visit on occasion!! Anyone feel free to contact me at


the golf course and NCO Club was ok.


Boy what memories of things like the dome area, nine and three shifts, submarine watch and blowing the valves.


My uncle died “by accident” at Ft. Richie in Feb. of 1963. I’m doing research and would love any info on Martin J Flahive.

Daniel "Dano" Chaffee

Wonderful times there! Started at Ft. Ritchie, then moved to Ft. Detrick when Ritchie closed. I was an SOG, later 1st Platoon Sergeant and used to work 12 hr shifts in the moutain with my people until I left there in 1999. Great bunch of golfers and friends there in the area!!


i was statiion at fort ritchie at the aviation section at hagertown airport from 1973 thru 1975 it was one of my best duty left to go to ger. Ret 1984.


I spent a weekend there back in the October, 1969. The Pentagon had a yearly drill where some of us valued “chairborne rangers,” and accompanying brass, were bussed to “Fort Ritchie” (I don’t remember it called anything more exotic/specific) to save the American way of life. Sure enough, all the state-of-the-art Selectric typewriters were awaiting us, dusted off and ready to go. The JCS was supposed to go to another, apparently still undisclosed, site, but they didn’t want to take the two hour bus ride, and some bean counter wouldn’t let them take choppers for a “dry run”, so they were written out of the scenario as being killed when their chopper crashed.

This left the second string to run the war, and that is probably why the drill lasted only 48 hours instead of a week. Our virtual troops fought gallantly… right to the end…


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