Years After Fighting The `White Train,' Nuclear Protesters Now Want To Save It

The last time Jim Douglass saw the "White Train," he was trackside, part of a protest to stop it.

He thought then that the cars, carrying nuclear warheads for Trident missiles at the Bangor Submarine Base near Bremerton, should be stripped and scrapped, along with the policy of stockpiling nuclear weapons.

So did thousands of others in the Seattle area, including Raymond Hunthausen, then the Catholic archbishop of Seattle, who once called the Trident submarine the "Auschwitz of Puget Sound" and often took part in the mid-1980s protests.

Now, more than a decade later, most of the railroad cars are being scrapped, as useless relics of the Cold War, defunct tools in the balance of terror.

But Douglass, a founder of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, and other anti-nuclear activists now aren't so sure the cars should be destroyed. Rather, they'd like to preserve one or more of the cars - to turn them into a museum to commemorate their cause.

"As thousands of people stood along those tracks and prayed and protested, the people of this country became more conscious of the arms race and took many means to protest it. And the arms race eventually was stopped," said Douglass, who lived in the house closest to Bangor with his wife, Shelley, to monitor shipments.

"Why not give one of those cars to Ground Zero . . .?" asked Douglass, who now runs a shelter for the homeless in Birmingham, Ala.

The Department of Energy office in Albuquerque, N.M., which is in charge of the rail cars, is noncommittal.

"We're going to have to talk to our management on that. This is sort of a new one," said spokeswoman Tracy Loughead.

The idea of preserving the cars for history's sake is not new.

Most of the almost 60 cars - stored for years at the Texas plant where the weapons they carried were made - are to be dismantled and scrapped. But about eight cars are to be preserved by the Department of Energy (DOE).

The National Historic Preservation Act required DOE to confer with historic-preservation officials in Texas before destroying the cars, to see whether they might be historically significant. It was agreed they were.

"These rail cars moved nuclear weapons and components to military and Department of Energy installations around the continental United States from 1957 until the mid-1980s. As such, these properties are significant for their associations with the Cold War," said a letter from the Texas Historical Commission in May of 1996 to DOE.

Train repainted, then abandoned

The White Train, so called because it originally was painted white to deflect solar heat, was painted a variety of colors in 1984 in a failed effort to deflect protesters' attention.

In 1985, according to DOE documents, it was decided to terminate rail shipments, in part because of the protests. The DOE then started to use tractor-trailer rigs to carry nuclear shipments on the highways, where they are harder to track.

In 1992, plans to ship the train to Russia to help the former arms-race enemy transport nuclear weapons destined for dismantling fizzled, and plans to do away with the cars were begun.

Among those slated for DOE preservation are one bomb car and one escort car, in which armed special agents rode. Those two have been requested by the National Atomic Museum, now on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

It would be about two years before the cars were put on display, said Mark Sifuentes, a DOE spokesman. Part of that delay is that the museum is expected to move off-base.

Plant would keep six more cars

Another six cars are to remain at Pantex, the weapons-manufacturing plant operated since World War II by the DOE in an area between the communities of Panhandle and Amarillo.

Pantex lately has been engaged in dismantling nuclear weapons, not building them. The public has never been allowed on plant property.

"We'll just kind of move them around on the track where they won't be in the way. There's no money for the moment to do anything with them except just leave them," said Carl Phagan, Pantex's environmental-resources protection section manager.

"We hope fondly to be able to find some money, somehow, somewhere, to make some of them accessible to the public at some point."

When that happens, Phagan said, the protesters would not be left out.

"We recognize the importance of the protest movement in this. However we tell the Pantex story, protest is a part of it," he said.

The protesters would rather tell their own story, however.

Protesters want their own focus

"What we would like is a park that celebrates the human resistance to nuclear weapons, not a celebration of them," said Brian Watson, a spokesman for the Poulsbo-based Ground Zero.

If it happens, it will be because of Glen Milner, a Lake Forest Park electrician, who was arrested for trespass trackside in 1985 along with Douglass.

In addition to this year persuading Shorecrest - his children's high school - to display anti-war brochures in the counseling office, he has been diligently tracking the White Train. He hopes to bring a part of it home for a museum.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Milner has obtained documents on plans for White Train disposal and preservation.

He has engaged staffers in U.S. Sen. Patty Murray's office to investigate the matter, and he has raised the sympathy of historic-preservation officials, who say they may ask DOE to talk with him.

"It could be a lesson that citizens can speak up and make a difference," Milner said, "that they can change the outcome of the world. Years from now, people would look back and realize how close we were to nuclear war."