Fifty years ago last month, the nation and the world waited nervously as the U.S. discovery of missile bases in Cuba threatened to trigger a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.
Roughly 1,400 miles away, at a covert photographic operations center code-named Bridgehead at Eastman Kodak Co.'s Hawkeye plant, workers provided President John Kennedy with crucial intelligence as he negotiated a peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis.
"In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, (the staff) all felt that they were part of (a project) that was extremely important to America," recalled Dick Stowe, who served as the Bridgehead program manager for five years. "We felt we were making a significant contribution to ending the Cold War-which was true. The overhead reconnaissance that Eisenhower promoted was one of the gathering mechanisms that was part of ending the Cold War."
Bridgehead began in 1955, peaked with some 525 staffers and employed more than 1,400 in total. Yet the operation remained a secret-and classified-until a little more than a year ago. Even workers' families did not know of its existence or its contributions to the nation's security.
"Silence made your career different. You couldn't talk about what you did," Stowe said.
In September 2011, the National Reconnaissance Office celebrated its 50th anniversary. The event also brought the declassification of two of the nation's top-secret reconnaissance satellite systems, Gambit and Hexagon. And with that declassification, the story of Kodak's involvement in processing, duplicating and distributing top-secret imagery from those and other overhead systems could be revealed.
Bridgehead was the conduit through which Kodak's high-performance aerial films were identified, developed and supplied to classified overhead reconnaissance programs, former program officials explained. Once exposed, those films were returned to Bridgehead, where critical imagery was produced for government intelligence agencies and photo interpreters who were analyzing targets and terrain globally.
For example, in the early 1960s, satellite imagery confirmed that a "missile gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union did not exist, former program officials said. It also gave U.S. strategists unprecedented insight into what was happening behind the Iron Curtain.
The Cuban missile crisis was just 13 days of the project's 45 years, but it underscored the importance Bridgehead had in the eyes of both U.S. and Kodak leaders.
"Kennedy was making important decisions rapidly," Stowe said. "At that moment in time, most of the overhead reconnaissance was from the U-2 program and we were in support of that. In the Cuban missile crisis there was a lot of low-altitude reconnaissance going on, and (Kennedy) wanted really rapid feedback.
"Bridgehead was asked to help establish a facility in the Washington area for rapid turnaround of film processing. We sent down 15 to 20 operators, along with machinery, and in 48 hours had a processing facility set up."
Dick Sherwood, a Webster resident who worked a total of 21 years with the program, including as program manager, recalled the deployment.
"(Government officials) came to Rochester one day and said to our CEO, 'We need some (processors in Maryland),'" he said. "Kodak management, on the spot, diverted (the equipment) from commercial customers and lined them up on the shipping dock in Rochester.
"Within an hour, one of our Bridgehead operations trucks, which were unmarked, backed up to the dock, loaded on the Versamats (photographic processing machines) and the chemistries and anything else they need and drove away."
The trucks traveled to Suitland, Md., where Bridgehead went to work installing the equipment.
"Some people (from Kodak) stayed right there to process the film brought back from the Cuban overflights," he noted.
Sherwood and Stowe were principal contributors to a book published in 2011, "Bridgehead: The Story of its Role in the Early Overhead Programs of the National Reconnaissance Office, 1955-2000."
A network of intelligence
Bridgehead was at the crossroads of the nation's intelligence community, documents show. The program closely interfaced with:
Kodak's proprietary aerial film research, development and manufacturing technologies;
Itek Corp. in Foxborough, Mass., the manufacturer of the Corona camera, America's first satellite reconnaissance system;
Kodak's K-Program, a highly classified segment of the company in Rochester building the Gambit Camera, a key component of a major satellite reconnaissance system;
PerkinElmer Inc. in Danbury, Conn., the manufacturer of the Hexagon Camera, a satellite-based broad area search reconnaissance system;
Air Force and Navy photographic field operations globally;
the U.S. photographic interpretation community, particularly the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington, D.C.;
federal intelligence and defense mapping agencies; and
Westover Air Force Base near Springfield, Mass., the government's backup facility to Bridgehead.
"It was very successful," Stowe said. "We were also providing the Air Force and Navy with state-of-the-art film materials. We were the go-between of Kodak Park and the military. We made a significant contribution there, and it came out well."
Kodak supplied special reconnaissance films for the satellite cameras. The entire reconnaissance effort had very sophisticated film, cameras and processing, Sherwood said.
"The way of recovering it was to send an airplane up with a bunch of hooks trailing behind it over the Pacific and grabbing the parachute and crank it into the aircraft. An antiquated step by any measure, but it worked and was used the whole time," he said.
Each recovered capsule was taken by courier to the project area at the Hawkeye plant. The film was removed from the capsule, processed, titled and printed to make copies, using specialized equipment designed in-house, former employees explained.
Stowe said that when a satellite recovery vehicle arrived, the Bridgehead crews worked around the clock to deliver the required film copies.
"We would immediately go on two 12-hour tricks for two or three weeks. You didn't get to see your family at all," he said.
In early 1955, Kodak president Albert Chapman was contacted by a senior CIA official who requested Kodak's direct involvement in the U-2 program. The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft could reach an altitude of some 60,000 feet while carrying film cameras for imaging targets of interest behind the Iron Curtain.
The U.S. government needed expertise in four areas: identifying and supplying proper camera films for the U-2 missions; providing technical support in handling exposed camera films; processing exposed camera films; and making copies and enlargements of imagery for photo interpretation.
The first covert center was set up in spring 1956, in a building owned by the Navy on Lincoln Avenue on the city's west side. Processing, chemicals and printing equipment were taken from all parts of Kodak and installed there, Bridgehead employees said.
Once the processing capability was in place, most U-2 films were returned secretly to Rochester for processing, duplication and shipping to photo interpreters in the nation's capital. Successful U-2 missions provided much-needed information, driving the need to improve and expand film-processing capabilities.
That demand led to plans for a bigger photographic operations center at the Hawkeye plant. The facility's location, where Driving Park Avenue crosses the Genesee River gorge, prompted the name Bridgehead.
In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower initiated a space-borne aerial reconnaissance effort. Corona became America's first satellite-based reconnaissance system, carrying fore- and aft-looking cameras and films in a 70mm-wide format. In support of Corona, Kodak produced camera films on Estar base and supplied them to Itek.
After exposure and recovery, the film in its recovery vehicle was flown to Rochester, where it was transferred to an unmarked truck and taken to Bridgehead.
Processing original negative films was critical-every original film was irreplaceable, Kodak employees said. After processing, the original negative was broken down into manageable lengths with the addition of identifying headers and trailers.
Titled information was added to each frame, and the rolls were prepared for printing onto black-and-white duplication films. After printing, the duplicate positive films were processed on high-speed processors and boxed for shipment.
Typical shipments resulting from processing and reproducing a single Corona mission totaled a few tons. Special enlargements needed for briefing senior government officials, including the president, were part of each shipment, they said.
Corona was operational from 1960 to 1972; in 1995, it was declassified. In the meantime, the development of two other film-based satellite systems, Gambit and Hexagon, was undertaken by the government.
The Gambit Camera system was designed, developed and produced by Kodak at the Lincoln plant and Hawkeye facilities and was used to monitor and evaluate specific known targets. The Hexagon Camera system was produced by PerkinElmer and was employed as a broad-area search system looking for new targets.
The Hexagon system was launched with two supply rolls of 6.6-inch-wide film, each some six feet in diameter-approximately 160,000 feet of film in each roll. Building those rolls to maintain their integrity through handling and mission launch environments was a major feat of Kodak engineering, employees said.
From 1955 to the late 1980s, Bridgehead operations received and processed film from 300 recovery vehicles. More than 8 million feet (in excess of 1,500 miles) of original negative and color positive films were processed. In addition, more than 200 million feet (some 38,000 miles) of duplicate films were printed and processed.
The program's end
By 2000, deconstruction of Bridgehead's film-processing capabilities was under way. In August 2004, as part of its restructuring strategy, Kodak sold its special government business operations to ITT Exelis Inc. By 2009, the photographic operations centers at both the Hawkeye and Lincoln plants were gone.
After the information was declassified last year, Sherwood said, the book on Bridgehead's history was distributed to some 1,400 employees who had worked in the program or their families. For families, it provided a chance to learn what a spouse or parent actually did at Kodak.
"It was a series of events and activities that would never be repeated. It was a onetime thing, and there was a shroud of security over it," he said. "There was a lot of pride in the achievement, doing a job no one else was doing or could do.
"This was a service to the country (by Kodak)," he added. "Kodak management at the very top, and all the way down and in between, went out of their way."
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