When Air Force Technical Sergeant Robert D. Roller reported for duty at Camp Cooke on Feb. 24, 1957, he stepped into history as the first Airman to be stationed at the future missile base, now know as Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
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VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - When Air Force Technical Sergeant Robert D. Roller reported for duty at Camp Cooke on Feb. 24, 1957, he stepped into history as the first Airman to be stationed at the future missile base, now know as Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
“The gate was locked and there were no guards on duty to greet visitors,”
In 1957, the Department of Defense listed Camp Cooke as an abandoned Army post, closed four years earlier at the end of the Korean War. Except for minimal maintenance, accomplished by a skeleton crew from the neighboring Army Disciplinary Barracks (today the federal penitentiary at Lompoc), the deserted camp had fallen into disrepair.
Sergeant Roller’s presence at Cooke followed a series of important Air Force decisions that would shape Vandenberg’s future. In 1955, the Air Force and its contractor team of aerospace companies began the development of the Atlas and Thor missile systems. Responsibility for locating a launch site and for obtaining initial operational capability for the new weapon systems fell to the Western Development Division or WDD (redesignated Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in June 1957) in Los Angeles. The WDD established a site selection board that examined some 200 potential launch sites.
In June 1956, the board recommended the selection of Camp Cooke, concluding that the availability of the camp and its isolation from populated areas were ideal factors for safely launching ballistic missiles and rockets. Air Force Headquarters agreed, and on Nov. 16, 1956, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson, ordered the transfer of 64,000 acres of Cooke to the Air Force. It was June 21, 1957 when the official transfer took placed.
Sergeant Roller read about the plans to activate Camp Cooke while stationed at Luke AFB, Ariz., as a communications specialist. With his enlistment option coming due, Roller decided to “re-up,” and received the orders he had requested to go to Cooke.
When Sergeant Roller got to the front gate at Cooke in February 1957, he was surprised by what he had found.
“The gate was locked and there were no guards on duty to greet visitors,” recalled the retired sergeant. “I drove toward Lompoc to the Army Disciplinary Barracks and showed my duty orders to the guards at the reception center. They were surprised to see me. They handed me a set of keys to the Pine Canyon gate at Cooke and off I went to explore my new home.”
Sergeant Roller said he was most impressed with the vastness of the installation.
“But I felt a little uneasy being around hundreds of deserted buildings and not seeing a single human being,” he recalled.
A couple of days after his arrival, Sergeant Roller met Army Master Sgt. Nathan Candy of the Disciplinary Barracks.
“Having grown up in Santa Maria, Sergeant Candy was a great help to me in getting acquainted with the area, and with many other issues that came up,” said Sergeant Roller.
Sergeant Candy arranged temporary quarters and meals at the Army dining facilities for Sergeant Roller, and later for new Air Force arrivals to Cooke. Army assistance also included transportation and tools. For several months the Army helped, until the small Air Force contingent became self-supporting in their new facilities.
Another person Sergeant Roller met shortly after arriving at Cooke was Maj. Frederick K. Smith.
“Major Smith was the only other Air Force person at Cooke when I got there,” recalled Roller. Major (later, Colonel) Smith had arrived at Cooke on Dec. 1, 1956. Two months later, on Feb. 15, 1957, the WDD established the first unit at Cooke, the 6591st Support Squadron which Major Smith headed. By the time the squadron was discontinued and its resources transferred to the newly activated 392nd Air Base Group on April 15, 1957, it had consisted of four officers and three airmen.
Among the numerous rehabilitation projects that required immediate attention at Cooke were the telephone and teletype systems. As an experienced communications specialist, Sergeant Roller was put to work troubleshooting lines and installing new ones.
“Occasionally, I had to climb poles and string wire to get certain systems to work,” he said. “I was fortunate that the Army had available inside and outside cable records of the camp.”
In April 1957, Sergeant Roller received temporary assistance from 17 civilian workers brought in from the Air Force’s Air Material Area in San Bernardino, Calif. They repaired more than 600 communications lines. However, permanent personnel were slow to arrive at Cooke. It wasn’t until May, when the Air Force had issued contracts for new construction and facility renovation work that the tempo of activities and the flow of personnel into the base started to pick up.
During the summer of 1957, Sergeant Roller was put in charge of setting up a telephone office and switchboard. “I was also responsible for hiring civilian telephone switchboard operators. At that time, all calls coming into and leaving the base had to go through our base operators,” he said. “We needed trained operators to handle the traffic.”
In June 1957, the base was redesignated as Cooke Air Force Base. The name stuck until it was changed to Vandenberg AFB Oct. 4, 1958, in honor of the late Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Sergeant Roller said his most exciting experiences at Cooke occurred when the base started launching missiles in the late 1950’s.
“I don’t know the failure rate, but it seemed that whenever a missile exploded after liftoff, farmers from all over the valley would gather up the pieces and return them to the base. Every time I went out to watch a missile launch, I had a sense of wanting to dive under my car for protection,” he said.
After leaving Cooke in November 1959, Roller received assignments to Greenland, Japan, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Hawaii. He retired from the Air Force in February 1968.