High Altitude Research Project (HARP) 1962 – 1967

HARP action.
HARP in action. This is what I saw on my visit.The HARP project has been the source of much political intrigue and speculation as to its true objective. I will not rehash that part as it is well documented in other places and I will stick to what I know and observed over the years.

The High Altitude Research Project (HARP) space gun was set up at Paragon just to the east of the runway of what was then Seawell Airport – the brainchild of Canadian ballistics scientist Dr. Gerald Bull and jointly funded by McGill University, Canada and the USA Army Research and Development Center.

The HARP project was established to develop a large gun to shoot things into space. It was originally built from a 65-foot long, 16” caliber naval cannon, the kind that might be seen on a battleship. The cannon was later joined to another barrel, extending the length of this super-gun to 120 feet and making it too big for effective military application, but perfect for satellite delivery. It was a serious attempt to use low-cost cannons in place of expensive rockets to launch satellites into space.

The HARP space gun arrived in Barbados by a USA Navy landing craft and came ashore at Foul Bay Beach in 1962. The gun was mounted on a train carriage. Lengths of tracks were laid across the beach and up the hill. This was pulled by a Caterpillar tractor. When it got to the end of the tracks the rails behind were removed and placed to the front and the process continued. The pull up the hill from the beach would have been a heavy haul. As far as I remember, as it went up the hill the tracks behind the carriage were covered with sand to stop the whole thing from running into the sea if the tow-cables broke.

It was pulled along the coast, past what is now Ocean City, Green Point and Penny Hole to its final resting-place below the runway. It must have been a tedious process. After travelling a few hundred meters the track was moved and laid out in the front.

An American sailor was killed in the unloading operation when he fell into the sea and was crushed between the landing craft and another boat. I remember my parents carrying me to Foul Bay when it was being off loaded. Although I only saw the picture of the unloading recently it is exactly as I remember it.

Other smaller guns were installed at a later date.   A little known fact is that one was installed at Ragged Point, just to the east of the Lighthouse and fired its shells north. I recently met a man from St. Lucy who told me that as a boy he used to go to the cliff and watch the shells fall into the sea.

HARP gun points 128 degrees (magnetic)
HARP gun points at 128 degrees (magnetic) across the Atlantic between Brazil and South Africa. (Paintball Koncepts at Paragon is used on Google Maps as the location)

The stated reason we were given at the time was it was to test the feasibility of putting a satellite in space. In my opinion that was never the reason for this gun. The gun points at 128 Degree (magnetic). The easiest way to get an object into space is to launch it due east. There is a lot of room in the area to position the gun pointing to the east if they wanted to.

All pictures on the gun firing show it firing at an angle and not straight up. This is not the way to get into space. Of course the reason for this may be that they did not want to shell to land back on the island.

When the gun was fired it shook the land for miles around and the BOOM could be heard over most of the island. On the days that firing were taking place announcements were broadcast over Rediffusion (a local wired radio station) that we were to keep well away from the area. Naturally that meant that I had to go and have a look. One day I went to Penny Hole with some friends. We were walking across the pasture trying to find out where the gun was when it went off. I remember a very loud noise, and seeing a huge mushroom cloud not that far away. We left in a hurry.

Once a part of the shell casing landed in the Four Roads area. The HARP staff quickly collected it. It did not kill a donkey as some reports have it.

The missiles were named Martlets, after the mythical bird on the crest of McGill University, Canada who administered HARP.

The project trained a lot of local men in radar, electronics and general mechanical engineering. Over the years I have met several whom got work and training, and made good wages at HARP.

In 1988 [21 years after the HARP Project was abandoned in Barbados] the USA decided that it wanted one of the spare barrels back. A local company, Coles Engineering, was contracted to move it on a specially designed multi wheeled hydraulically steered trolley. One end of the barrel was placed on this carriage and the other end on a low loader trailer pulled by a truck. It  was loaded on to the Barge ITCO 1401 in the Careenage. One end of the barge had to be flooded to get it to the same height as the Careenage. As the truck moved on to the barge the water was pumped back out to allow the multi-wheeled dolly to get on.

It left Barbados on 23 June 1988. It was towed by the tug La Carriere, with Ian “Blue” Cox as Captain, to Beaumont, Texas, arriving on the 08 July and was delivered to Sandia Laboratories. It was sent to a desert location where the low humidity would preserve it.

On the return trip the Tug La Carriere ran into the tail end of Hurricane Gilbert and had a very rough trip.

Whatever the true reason behind the project it is a shame that what remains of the HARP guns is being allowed to rust away neglected and forgotten. HARP was a small but important part of our history. Maybe the Barbados National Trust will recognize this and organize a restoration program.  In the meantime the HARP space guns are rusting away – all for the want of a bit of paint every few years and some energy to get out and market this piece of history.

This drawing illustrates the major components of the 17-in. HARP gun in Barbados.
The HARP space gun sits on a massive concrete base inclined at 45 degrees, is mounted a navy BB turret GIRDER which allow a CRADLE elevation of almost 90 degrees. The 86‑caliber (118‑foot)-long barrel consists of two modified MK II tubes joined in a massive sleeve by bolted, mating flanges. Four tension bars running from both the breech and from the muzzle to a cruciform spreader midway on the sleeve maintain barrel alignment and prevent droop. Elevation is accomplished by 4 steel rods running from the lower rear portion of the cradle to a hydraulic cylinders located in the pit.
When in the horizontal position, for loading or when not in use, the barrel sleeve rests on a concrete support. Behind the breech is the loading “rail” about 30 feet long with a hydraulic cylinder of half that length to ram projectiles and powder. Extending about 100 feet in front of the muzzle, there is a horizontal rail on vertical supports which appears to have been used to mount a barrel cleaning device.
The breech is marked: U S Naval Gun Factory W.NY, 16 In. No. 131, Mk D Mod O, Insp EPA, Wt 283268#. The barrel started life as a Mk II Mod 1 and was modified internally to be the ballistic prototype for the Mk 7 Mod O guns for the IOWA class ships. Tests established the ammunition characteristics before rifling the first Mk 7 Mod O barrel.
For HARP, both barrels were smooth bored to 16.4″, (16.5″ or 16.7″ as described in different articles. (Some of the illustrated parts are “incorrectly” named possibly due to the difference between army and navy names for the same part.)
Illustration: Unknown source.

You can click on the thumbnail image to see a larger image with captions.

A selection of photos from the Facebook group: Old Time Photos Barbados.

The third and final 16-inch gun of the HARP program was installed at the Yuma proving grounds in Arizona. This gun was practically identical to the Barbados HARP gun, although it did sport several improvements as a result of lessons learned during the construction of the Barbados gun system. Unfortunately the Yuma gun enjoyed only a short operational life with only a few launch series being conducted there. The Yuma Gun’s sole claim to fame was that on 18 November 1966 it lofted a Martlet 2 vehicle to a world record altitude of 180 km. Compare the dry hot Arizona environment to the salty marine environment of Paragon where the remains of the 16-inch Barbados HARP gun is rusting away neglected and forgotten.

Below is an aerial photo of the HARP guns in 1970.  It was sent to us by Jim Webster.

HARP aerial photo 1970
In 1970, Bob Gibbs was a station engineer for BOAC. While getting up his hours for his pilots license, from the Barbados Flying Club, I [Jim Webster] often got to go along for the spin (he had to practise spins and stalls). On one occasion I [Jim Webster] got this picture of the Harp Guns. As you can see they were still pretty well intact: one big gun, medium gun and to the left a baby gun.

Three videos of HARP taken in Dec 2016.

The uncut video

HARP continues to slowly rust away. Here are some images of HARP from a walk to the HARP site at Paragon on 19th February 2022.

Location of the HARP Super Gun:

Listed below is some background on the HARP Project:

Additional background

  • PBS Frontline: The Man who made the supergun. Documentary broadcast on 12 Feb 1991. Frontline examines the career of Gerald Bull, who early in his career led the HARP project in Barbados. Transscript.

Responses to “High Altitude Research Project (HARP) 1962 – 1967”

  1. Roland Schweizer

    The Sailor that was crushed by the Barge, was a U.S. Army Private from PA.

    We stored his body in our Refrigerated Food Truck until a plane from Patrick Air Force base flew down to pick up the body.

    Sailor’s at the NavFac in St. Lucy had to stand guard 24/7 till the plane arrived.

  2. John & Betty Marshall

    William I have only now read your story about the HARP Gun. However, my parents with us were on holiday at “New Haven” (now demolished) on the cliff above Foul Bay Beach. We met many of the personnel connected with this gun and my cousin Robert Hutson has several photos of it. It was a very lovely holiday as the house was always full with friends who wanted to witness the goings on!

  3. David Cook

    I was the US Army photographer that was assigned to Project HARP at the beginning. I shipped down on the lander and photographed the project for a few weeks until I got reassigned to Europe. I am pretty sure that is my photo showing the railroad tracks and the the ship in the background. I was the only photographer there for most of the time. Local newspaper person could have come by. I was fortunate enough to capture on motion picture when one of the guns went back down the incline and smashed into the sand barricade. What had happened was there were two tractors pulling the gun up the hill. One of the drivers drove into a tree and stopped. That threw all the weight onto the second set of cables. They slowly stretched and snapped. That threw the weight back onto the first set. They also snapped and the gun rolled back down the hill. Was a fascinating temporary assignment (TDY). I was 24 at the time.

  4. Judith Lewis

    That was an extraordinary read! I was there. If I can find the old photo of my siblings and me standing near the gun, would you like it for your collection?

  5. Dan Philips

    Fascinating story that led me to the back story of a man determined to build these and other long guns, no matter what the risk or cost [ending with Mr. Bull’s assassination by Israeli agents].

  6. Laercio Oliveira

    Very interesting and informative article about a not so well know space run era experiment. Thanks for sharing with us.

    1. Anstey A

      An interesting historical perspective which reawaken a direct experience buried deep in my subconscious related to what was termed the misfiring of the gun in its early trial. The article made mention of the donkey with regards to this event. Other keys facts were left out and the area referred to was incorrect. Apart from those closely involved working with the project, one could say that I had a loose a relationship with it.

      I was a near victim when missile landed in my back yard sending the donkey into a series of spins, shaking the ground and I was rooted where I stood, shocked; overcome by fear and a series of outer body experiences.

      The project team tracked the missile where it landed supported by trainee Police Officers from Seawell Training School. On arrival, the team’s main interest was recovery. They showed no concern or interest in my wellbeing or anyone else.

      To the best of my knowledge neither the Project Team or National Government offered an apology, compensation, social and emotional support to the family and residents in the immediate vicinity. There was and still is a complacent attitude and disregard to the impact the project made in the area. For example, the radiological impact on myself and the area; the health and social impact on residents as well as the radiation fallout on the crops and environment.

      Yes no one died in the aftermath. But government and academics need to be clear and more transparent with people when embarking/engaging in all projects.

      It is good to be reminded of the journey of the project. However, sanitising the full facts, to present a respectable academic view of history – never quite work out in the long term. It is also true that lessons learn on our sojourn help us shape a better future.

      Perhaps those who wish to learn more about the incident could dive deep into the archives of The Advocate and now defunct Sun/Sunday Sun.

      Good Stuff.

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