Family of AFTAC Headquarters’ namesake visits for first time

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
In 2014, the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center held a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially commemorate the naming of its headquarters after an iconic leader and pioneer of long range detection.
The Air Force Technical Applications Center christened its 276,000 square-foot facility after Walt Singlevich, a giant in the field of atomic energy and nuclear research.  Eight years later, 12 of Walt’s relatives paid a visit to the center Nov. 22 to learn more about his role during the Atomic Age.
Composed of nieces, nephews, in-laws, and great nephews from New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida and Arizona, the extended family traveled to Patrick SFB for the sole purpose of expanding their knowledge about Walt’s legacy.
“This is such a great opportunity for us,” said Melissa Singlevich, Walt’s niece, “because for the longest time we were told that Uncle Walt’s job was highly classified, so we never really knew much about what he did during his time with the Air Force.”
Walt began his career in 1944 where he was assigned to the Manhattan Project – the research and development program that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II.  After several years in industry, he began working for the Air Force’s Office of Atomic Energy in 1952, where he directed the research for many nuclear tests that took place in the South Pacific and at the Nevada Test Site.
The elder Singlevich ultimately became AFTAC’s senior scientist, and throughout the 1980s until his death in 1992, he operated the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System; directed the work of 850 scientists, engineers, technicians and analysts; and oversaw 20 laboratories in the U.S. and overseas.
While that information briefly describes Walt’s role in nuclear event detection, it only scratches the surface. In order to provide the family with a greater sight picture into Walt’s considerable contributions to national defense and global security, AFTAC invited Dr. James “Mike” Young to come out of retirement and serve as a visiting docent for the family.  Young was AFTAC’s Command Historian for 11 years before bidding farewell to government service in May 2022.
“Melissa is spot-on with her assessment,” said Young.  “Like many other AFTACers of that generation, Walt and his colleagues were never allowed to discuss anything about their work on the Atomic Energy Detection System due to the extreme sensitivity of the mission.  The family seemed extremely interested in learning as much as they could about his service.”
The Singleviches were given the rare opportunity to spend time in the AFTAC Heritage Room, where the center houses some of its priceless artifacts and historic memorabilia.  They also got to see the commemorative plaque dedicating the building to their patriarch, as well as the framed portrait of Walt sitting at his desk, complete with a set of toy trains in the foreground.
“Uncle Walt absolutely loved trains,” said Jack Singlevich, Walt’s nephew.  “When I was about 10 years old, I spent the Christmas holidays with him and (his wife) Aunt Joan.  He had an elaborate Lionel train collection set up all through the living room.  While I sat and watched, Uncle Walt and his friend and colleague Dr. Uri were on their hands and knees playing with the trains like little kids.  It was a sight to behold, and definitely not what I thought nuclear scientists did in their spare time!”
It's no easy feat having a federal building named after an individual.  For the Air Force, it requires several layers of higher headquarters coordination, dozens of pages of justifying records and documentation, and ultimately the seal of approval from the Air Force Chief of Staff.  Young was the catalyst who made that happen for AFTAC.
“I felt we had an obligation to the memory of Walt Singlevich to dedicate our new facility after him,” he said.  “It really is a big deal to get the most senior Air Force leaders to sign off on a request of this magnitude, but it was worth the effort because now Walt’s family has inherited an important legacy, and they can take pride in knowing the highest levels of the Air Force agreed he was well worthy of this honor.”
Throughout the visit, Young discussed some of the major projects Walt was involved with and the importance of that work, especially during the dangerous years of the Cold War.  He also confirmed the rumor the family had been hearing about for years – that Walt was, in fact, the original “Roswell Alien.”
“I explained to them that back in the day, Walt and his team would launch balloons from Alamogordo Air Force Base in New Mexico to collect radioactive particles from detonations at the Nevada Test Site.  The scientists were testing their ability to use this technology to detect secret Soviet nuclear tests, and due to the nature of the work, they had to wear protective gear – full suit, hood, and respirator.  On one occasion, a rancher’s wife stumbled upon Walt when he was retrieving his large mylar balloon and immediately fainted right there on the spot, thinking she had seen an alien!”
The family got a kick out of that humorous anecdote!
When asked about what they thought about their trip to the nuclear treaty monitoring center, each family member had varying perspectives, but similar sentiments.
“Our visit to AFTAC was the highlight of our trip to Florida,” said Patrick Lane, husband to Kimberly, Walt’s grandniece.  “It was an honor to learn more about our ‘famous’ relative and celebrate his accomplishments with the base personnel.”
Kim added, “I was uncertain what we would see or learn, but the tour was fantastic and so educational!  Up until our visit, I had no idea the critical role AFTAC has in our national security, and how its importance continues to grow.”
Paul Singlevich, Walt’s grandnephew, seemed most impressed with the esteem and reverence the AFTAC workforce has for the scientist.
“I knew Walt played an important role in government, but I didn’t realize it was ‘portrait-on-the-wall, name-a-building-after-him’ important!  I really liked learning that his portrait gets daily morning greetings from current employees. It underlies the camaraderie among the AFTAC staff – a very special group of people who are devoted to protecting us all.”
Before the tour wrapped up for the day, the family posed for a few group photos – one with the aforementioned lobby portrait, and also one next to the plaque showing Walt as the first inductee to AFTAC’s Wall of Honor.
“This opportunity exceeded anything I thought would happen,” Melissa said.  “The time and thought that went into our visit was awesome, and I learned so much about the organization and the importance of the mission.  We can’t thank the men and women of AFTAC enough for their hospitality and heartfelt welcome.”
Paul and Cynthia’s son, Spencer, seemed to capture the visit in a single sentence: “It was the best day ever!”