John Clauson thought he knew his father. He thought his dad was just a hardworking IBM computer salesman.
But as an adult, John learned the shocking truth – Wallace Clauson was a mathematical and mechanical genius who had spent more than 40 years working as a government-employed engineer helping the U.S. fight the Cold War.
It’s a true story John is now sharing with the world in his brand new book “Missileman: The Secret Life of Cold War Engineer Wallace Clauson.”
John first began to suspect something strange was afoot in 1970, when his father came home one day and calmly told the family they would be moving to Switzerland. When John, who was in 10th grade, asked his dad why, Wallace replied he had to build a water dam in Tehran, Iran.
“And then I really started to wonder, hmm, why are they building a dam in Iran and my dad needs to go?” John recalled during a recent interview on “Ark Midnight” with John B. Wells. “And I was thinking, I don’t know, maybe they need computers. I mean, all of that was a pure cover.”
It was many years later that John would learn the true reason for the family’s relocation: Wallace needed to help the U.S. bring missiles into Iran to guard against the Soviet Union, which had just moved hundreds of missiles into Egypt.
However, as a teenager John had nothing more than an inkling that something was a little strange. His mother didn’t seem concerned about his dad’s behavior, so John and his siblings were not concerned, either.
Besides, the IBM computer salesman cover was not a complete fabrication; Wallace really did work for IBM, although it was for their covert Federal Systems Group. What’s more, he really did work with computers; he designed the computer installed at the nuclear radiation lab in Livermore, California, where he worked when John was born.
“My mom just figured, ‘You know what, Dad works at a thermonuclear plant which has computers,’” John said. “We never really started to connect the dots.”
There were many dots the Clausons could have connected. John recalled how his dad used to leave the house in a limousine. When the limo pulled up to the family’s house, there was always a man sitting in the back who would get out first and look around before Wallace brought out his luggage and got into the car. Young John knew that was strange, but he did not yet know the man was a security guard assigned to protect Wallace.
When John was three, a group of armed military men pounded on the family’s front door one day and rushed in to get Wallace. The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, and the military men needed Wallace to verify whether it was a missile. Wallace told them to relax; the trajectory and speed suggested it was a satellite, not a missile. But John didn’t know what was going on at the time.
As a kid, John didn’t know his dad was one of the U.S.’ biggest secret weapons in the Cold War. Wallace was involved in the creation of “the world’s scariest, nastiest weapon ever designed and built” during his time in Livermore, John revealed on “Ark to Midnight.”
“What they did was take a nuclear reactor, attach it at the end of a missile, and put a supercharger on it, on the top, and ram air into the nuclear reactor,” John revealed. “And this thing could fly 3,500 miles an hour, and it could circle the Earth four times before running out of fuel and crashing down.”
Because this weapon generated so much heat at certain friction points, Wallace was tasked with figuring out what was heat-resistant enough to withstand such extreme heat pressures.
The government first discovered Wallace when he was 17 years old. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just created the National Defense Research Committee, which was to conduct scientific research into the development, production and use of devices of warfare. The government scoured the country for the best and brightest scientific minds they could recruit to the NDRC. When they asked one textbook publisher, he told them there was a 17-year-old boy in Iowa who had been correcting their astrophysics textbooks.
When government recruiters met with Wallace, they were stunned by what they found. They gave him a math question and told him if he couldn’t solve it in two hours, they weren’t interested in him. The two men then went to the restroom, and by the time they came back Wallace had solved the problem, rewritten the question, and left.
The government then assigned Wallace to work undercover at Iowa State College on the first computer ever made. After leaving Iowa State, he would join the NDRC committee that worked on advanced radar applications. Wallace designed microwave radar sets and spent World War II in Jacksonville, Florida, installing them in submarines and airplanes. John believes they were crucial in protecting American ships from German U-boats.
“Without that microwave radar, supply ships might not have made it across the Atlantic, if we weren’t able to pick off the U-boats,” John asserted. “That was a key development in the success for us in World War II.”
Wallace Clauson finally told his son about his secret life in 1989, when he knew he was dying of cancer. He wanted John to share his story with the rest of their family, but for 15 years John tried desperately to forget what his dad had told him. John had a busy professional life and a family of his own, and he didn’t want to take on the burden of his father’s past life.
But before Wallace died, he had given John a workbench with a stack of 90 business cards strapped to the bottom. John discovered the cards long after his father passed away; they were all cards from Cold War contractors.
“So it was my dad telling me, ‘Johnny, don’t forget what I told you,’” John said. “He didn’t tell me to write a book, but once I got into the research I found so much stuff that my dad had inferred or hinted or found, and that’s what we’ve compiled in “Missileman.”