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Vint Hill cold warriors receive warm welcome

Times Photos/Adam Goings
Bud Reynolds, left, recipient of a Knowlton Award for outstanding intelligence work at Vint Hill, talks with fellow award-winner Nelson Johnson through a live video conference on a tablet computer held by Johnson's son, Nelson Johnson Jr.
Earlier this month, military intelligence workers returned to what used to be their Officer's Club in Vint Hill.

The men, women, and their families filled the Vint Hill Inn for the annual Army Security Agency Alumni Association picnic. Once, they worked in secret, surrounded by the chattering keyboards and machinery of an espionage nerve center.

On Aug. 9, they mingled as a group of amiable retirees. They wielded smart phones and tablets orders of magnitude more powerful than the Cold War-era gear now preserved in a nearby museum.

The cold warriors and their families chatted with each other about what it was like living on that base, and how things have changed.

"Having all the old people together like me, it's like a bunch of kindergarten kids," said John Grosskopf, who lived on base twice -- from 1972 to 1973, and 1974 to 1976. "It's sad to see what they've done to the barracks, but Wes tells us it's coming back."

Weston Kennedy, vice president of Vint Hill Village, told the veterans about how the company just purchased almost 300 acres at the former Army base. He went on to say the former soldiers a sense that they wouldn't be forgotten, especially since one of their team member's father was stationed there at one point.

"We see history. Farm to military has a very distinct local heritage," he said. "We want to keep the theme as it gets redeveloped. We want to remember what this place was."

He also said their former post could one day serve as Main Street to the burgeoning suburbs around it.

Jim Freese, a former major-general, lived on the base from 1964 to 1966 with his wife of 62 years, Dottie. He said his home on the post has since been torn down. "It had a small-town atmosphere," he said.

"It was a wonderful place to serve. I would hope what this young fella, this gentleman, talked about might come to fruition," Freese said, referring to Kennedy.

Some of the retirees received Knowlton Awards, named for Thomas Knowlton, an intelligence pioneer in the Revolutionary War. The awards honor military intelligence workers who contributed to their field.

Nelson Johnson, Jr. stood up to receive the award on behalf of his father, Nelson Johnson Sr., who was at Georgetown Hospital.

"Dad really wanted to be here today, but he's been having some trouble with his foot," he said. "This week, doctors had to take it off."

Johnson held an iPad, connecting to his father – after several tries – so he could share a live video feed of the ceremony. The failed attempts to connect didn't seem to bother the crowd of former communications experts.

"They know that's coming out of Vint Hill," joked Al Lindley from his seat, "They're probably jamming the frequency."

A few minutes later, the smiling face of Johnson's father appeared on the tablet screen.

"Hi guys, sorry I couldn't make it, just had a little detour, but I'll be back in, back on track in a couple weeks," Johnson said to his buddies, without hinting at the seriousness of his hospital stay.

“Hooah!” said Lingley, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, before presenting the awards.

“Hooah!” came the answering cry from the crowd.

Joseph Aldridge was set to give the benediction to the former troops, but started by saying, "My wife and family didn't know what I did, just like your family didn't know."

"We swore before the face of God to defend ourselves against all enemies," he said.

Clandestine history
Jason Hall, executive director at the Cold War Museum at Vint Hill said the amount of iron oxide in the soil there made the whole farm act as a giant antenna, and aided the U.S. in decoding one of the most important transmissions of World War II.
In 1942, The U.S Government bought the 721-acre Vint Hill Farms from Mitchell Harrison $127,500.
In 1943, Vint Hill played a critical role in eavesdropping on enemy communications when it intercepted a message that helped lead to the D-Day invasion at Normandy Beach.
Vint Hill became a model for similar field stations around the world. Vint Hill employed more 2,000 military and civilian employees and became a busy training center for cryptanalysts and radio operators throughout the Cold War.
In 1974, the mission of Vint Hill changed to research, development and logistics for the Army and Department of Defense. After the Cold War, the base was no longer regarded as necessary by the military and the property was closed.
Afterward, The Vint Hill Economic Development Authority (EDA) was established to trasform the former intelligence nerve center to a residential center.
Now, Vint Hill residents and visitors can find echoes of the area's legacy in the Cold War Museum at 7172 Lineweaver Road. The museum, established in 2009, now stores more than $3 million in Cold War-era artifacts, including books, missiles, monitoring equipment and items from the U.S. and Soviet space programs.
For more information, visit www.coldwar.org or call (540) 341-2008.
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