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Area 51, code name: Watertown


In the Nevada desert, 126 miles north of Las Vegas, sits a military base that has been shrouded in secrecy since the Eisenhower administration.

It is widely known as Area 51, a fact the government finally acknowledged just last week, but a curious, little-known detail is a code name used by the spies who worked there: “Watertown.”

One of the creators of the installation, former CIA Director Allen W. Dulles, was born in Watertown and spent the early years of his life here.

But the story about how the site came to sometimes be referred to as “Watertown” is slightly more complicated.

According to a history of the U-2 and OXCART aerial reconnaissance programs released by the CIA in June, the dried lake bed selected for the testing of the aircraft and the training of their pilots would sometimes flood with rainwater runoff from nearby mountains, giving it the unofficial nickname “Watertown Strip.”

The U-2 program, which was developed to allow American forces to spy on the Soviet Union with the aid of long-range, lightweight, high-altitude aircraft that could avoid enemy fighters and radar equipment, was enacted with the signing of a contract between the CIA and Lockheed Aircraft Corp. on Dec. 9, 1954.

Mr. Dulles had gone to President Dwight D. Eisenhower several days before the contract was signed to propose that the CIA take over the program. The president agreed, and Mr. Dulles was closely associated with the program during his eight-year tenure at the agency, even when it brought him under significant criticism.

Perhaps for that reason, former CIA contractor T.D. Barnes, Henderson, Nev., told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the “Watertown” nickname was given to the area because it was the name of Mr. Dulles’s hometown.

Mr. Dulles was born in Watertown on April 7, 1893, to Edith Foster Dulles and the Rev. Allen Macy Dulles, who was pastor of First Presbyterian Church from 1888 to 1904.

Mr. Dulles spent the first 11 years of his life in Watertown, where he attended public schools with his elder brother, John Foster Dulles, because their parents could not afford a private education.

John Foster Dulles, who was born in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25, 1888, and spent 16 years of his life in Watertown, served as secretary of state under President Eisenhower. The Dulles State Office Building on Washington Street was named for him.

The younger Mr. Dulles was said to be a frequent visitor to Watertown and Henderson Harbor, where his family maintained a summer home.

On May 1, 1960, in the final year of the Eisenhower administration, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and confessed he was a spy. President Eisenhower accepted personal responsibility for the flight and admitted that the U.S. had been conducting surveillance flights over the Soviet Union for four years.

In fall 1961, President John F. Kennedy ousted Mr. Dulles as CIA director after criticism over the Bay of Pigs operation.

In 1963, Mr. Dulles was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of the president who had fired him.

Nearly six years later, after a case of the flu turned serious, Mr. Dulles died Jan. 29, 1969.

His enduring contribution to the Cold War fell ingloriously into obscurity.

After a runway expansion, the “Watertown Strip” was converted in August 1959 for work on project OXCART, an endeavor to create a supersonic spy plane that would present a nearly undetectable profile to ground radar.

The result of that project was the Lockheed A-12, which was in service from 1963 to 1968 and was a precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird. The OXCART program ended after only 29 operational missions.

Financial burdens, technical problems and concerns about a reprise of the Powers incident made officials nervous about deploying the aircraft.

The OXCART was the last high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft produced for the CIA, according to its history of events. The remaining planes were given to the Air Force and Area 51 passed into legend, as far as we know.

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