Clarksville Base was an unusual place to live and work. Security concerns affected every activity at the base. People operated with the knowledge that threats existed both outside and inside the security fence. Outside, they faced keeping the secrets of Clarksville Base from Soviet intelligence agents and from the general public. Inside the security fence, they faced the risk of working near nuclear weapons. There was never a moment when they could let their guard down.
Despite the risks involved, everyday life at the base could be very boring. Year after year would go by without an enemy security breach, and this made it difficult to stay vigilant day after day. The Marines guarding the nuclear storage bunkers served long shifts in cramped pillboxes and were not allowed to occupy themselves with books, a radio, or even a deck of cards. Serving at Clarksville Base was challenging but important work.
The Marines guarding Clarksville Base made no exceptions when it came to security. Navy Lieutenant Mercer McKinney was getting married at Hope Chapel, the church on Clarksville Base. When his bride, her parents, and her wedding party arrived at the security gate, the Marines would not let them enter. It turns out that McKinney had not put their names on the approved visitors list. It took an hour and a half to straighten out the misunderstanding.
A Close Call
The diligence and professionalism of the people who served at Clarksville Base kept them safe. There were no nuclear accidents during its operational years. However, one incident came close. In February 1960, a train was making a delivery of MK-31 warheads. Someone forgot to put on the parking brake, and five train cars rammed into a bumper at the end of the track. One of the cars came off the rails. Thankfully, none of the warheads were damaged and Clarksville Base maintained its clean safety record.
Security at Clarksville Base was continuously tested and improved. It was only breached once. Admiral John D. Bulkeley took over command of the base in 1960. After taking stock of security at the base, he was concerned that there were flaws. He spoke with the colonel who was in charge of the Marines guarding the base, and the colonel told him that the base was completely secure. Bulkeley was not convinced. He dressed in black jungle fatigues and breached the security fences at the base. He left paint cans that represented explosives in strategic locations to let the Marines know that they had been beaten. Security at the base was overhauled based on his recommendations.