During a winter break, I thought it appropriate to read “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank during my trip to Central Florida. To pass the winter after work hours my homework was to begin reading the classics of Cold War fiction including this book along with “On The Beach” and a re-reading of “A Canticle for Lebowitz”.
The setting however for “Alas, Babylon” is during the 1959 time period when fears of “Sputnik” are still prominent in the American mind. In fact, the “Missile Gap” plays a significant part of this novel and seemingly acts as a warning that often realistically existed during the Cold War period. “Periods of vulnerability” are recorded historically specifically in National Security Council paper 68 during the Truman administration. 1954 was marked as a significant year of danger posed by the Soviet Union. 1955’s “Bomber Gap” and 1957’s “Missile Gap” soon followed with all of these myths eventually proven false. (The United States during the 1950s enjoyed massive superiorities in bombers and nuclear weapons, and while Sputnik was launched first, the United States missile program would prove to be of better quality through the mid-1960s).
In 1959 however, intelligence behind the “Iron Curtain” is sparse in “Alas, Babylon”, and fears of a Soviet attack prove true when high-yield nuclear weapons burst above Miami and Tampa with eventual attacks on Jacksonville and Orlando (then McCoy Air Force Base). Only a short message to the protagonist, Randy Bragg, by his brother who holds a high position within the Strategic Air Command alerts him to the increasing world tensions before the attack. Bragg lives by himself in an old country house on a small plantation in Central Florida and soon the attack transforms his life in many ways, forcing him into a role of leadership and essentially a hero. The reader feels his emotions as he struggles to prepare for the attack along with the experience of the moments and days after nuclear weapons burst over the large cities nearby. As with any disaster, the loss of communications with the outside world is debilitating. In 1959 the technology and culture of the period draws an interesting contrast with today’s reliance on cellular technology and the internet. In one instance the telegraph office is still contacting the outside world (although not for long). It’s difficult to comprehend such technology today.
While many point to the ending of this book with a pessimistic outlook on survival, it would be my opinion that everything for the friends of Randy Bragg and to some extent the residents of Fort Repose, Florida turn out fairly well in the context of World War III. In fact it seems that the CBS television show “Jericho” of the 2000s borrows much from “Alas, Babylon” in it’s storyline of a small town struggling to survive in the midst of nuclear attacks on major metropolitan centers of the United States. In fact a map board created by a HAM radio operator with red circles around major cities is found in both stories. Some elements of “The Day After” seem to have emerged from “Alas, Babylon” as well.
I was able to finish the book by the time my airplane was maneuvering in above Orlando International Airport (the former McCoy Air Force Base). I could only imagine the rows of B-47 bombers sitting on the tarmac there before the former SAC hangars (now sporting United Airlines livery). Initially after the attacks some of the protagonists spot high flying silver aircraft racing to the northeast and these are figured to be McCoy’s B-47s making a “base escape” and flying to their designated targets in the Communist world. SAC’s ability to deliver high-megaton weaponry in the 1959-1960 period is in a word, frightening. B-47s, B-52s and soon B-58 bombers carried very high megaton weapons when compared to the air-delivered bombs of today. The B61 and B83 bombs of today possess flexible yields of low kiloton to 400 kilotons to 1.2 megatons. Mark-39 bombs aboard B-47s could yield 3.8 megatons while Mark-36s carried within B-47s and B-52s yielded about 10 megatons. As the United States shifted away from fleets of strategic bombers to missiles (such as the Minuteman II and later III), huge nuclear yields were unnecessary as targeting improved. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was about 13 kilotons, 10 megatons is about 740 times greater that explosive power.
Getting back to “Alas, Babylon”, essentially the reader is given early-to-mid Cold War glimpses of COD (Continuity of Government), the role of CONELRAD (Civil defense radio) and honestly one of the first works of fiction that deals with World War III survivalism. The author inserts subtle hints of criticism to civil defense measures in the book but also delivers interesting modes of survivalism techniques (for instance, the necessity of salt in the human diet and disease pathogens that can emerge when sanitation breaks down). It’s definitely an interesting tale of World War III in what has been called the “late air-atomic period” when the role of the bomber was predominant and missiles were only then entering service. It’s not for the faint of heart, although there are much more violent and depressing works of survival fiction out there. Instead “Alas, Babylon” serves as something of a time capsule to the period immediately after Sputnik but before the Cuban Crisis – a “What if scenario”. The author’s criticisms of the Cold War surely don’t measure to “Dr. Strangelove” levels but instead represent the early 1960’s change in outlooks that began to dominate American culture. By 1959, the world began to understand the dangers of nuclear fallout by atomic testing and what radiation might do to generations not yet born. “Alas, Babylon” attempts and to some extent succeeds in teaching the reader the implications of world-wide nuclear conflict.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best travel reading while heading for the land of magic and palm trees. Then again there were plenty of whimsical, fairy-tale rides to lighten the mood. I’ll have to read “On The Beach” if I ever fly to Australia, or maybe just plug in some earbuds and listen to Air Supply or AC/DC instead.
During the winter months, we commonly work on maintenance, cleaning and essentially working towards making the next season even better. It also gives us a chance to study other aspects of the Cold War in North Dakota as the chilly winds whip around outside Oscar-Zero. One fascinating aspect of that history was the nation’s sole nuclear Anti-Ballistic Missile site.
The first time I set foot on the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex site near Nekoma, North Dakota, I knew I was accomplishing something I’d dreamed about since I was a teenager. SRMSC.org provided such in depth knowledge about the complex way up there in Northeast North Dakota that this former Nebraskan vowed to see it one day. So there I stood looking east towards the “Pyramid of the Prairie” as it is often called, the Missile Site Radar or MSR.
What ultimately became Safeguard grew from a U.S. Army study in 1955 to intercept rockets. The Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules stood as state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile systems that the United States relied on for some time. These “Point” defense systems supplemented U.S. Air Force interceptors which in turn provided “Area” defenses against Soviet bombers. With Sputnik’s launch in October 1957, the U.S. Army strove over the next 12 years to perfect a new Nike missile system. First came Nike-Zeus which promised an initial but fairly incapable Anti-Ballistic Missile. It could intercept incoming nuclear warheads, but only under very favorable conditions and the system could be overwhelmed. Essentially Nike-X, Zeus’s replacement, was plagued with the same issues. New phased-array radars coupled with complex computer systems could better deal with a missile attack but a “saturation” of multiple Soviet missiles armed with multiple warheads and decoys could defeat Nike-X. Deploying dozens of defense sites nationwide near cities and Strategic Air Command bases could tip the scales, but only so much and at great costs. Nike-X, it should be mentioned, was a pre-Vietnam War system.
Nike-X then transformed into Sentinel by 1967, an Anti-Ballistic Missile system that promised to defend cities and bases from lighter attacks such as an accidental launch from the Soviet Union or from China (themselves in 1964 having acquired the bomb). Continuing research and development was producing a fairly capable ABM system, Sentinel seemed to offer a more reasonable approach and politically there was a push to develop a system after the Soviet Union assembled their own ABM defense around Moscow by 1964. Sites around cities and bases were picked for deployment by the President Johnson administration working with the U.S. Army, but growing opposition against the arms race, in the light of the troubles of 1968, began to cast doubt on ABM deployment. Earth movers began clearing ground near Boston, but a NIMBY movement soon took hold (Not In My BackYard). Focus instead shifted to North Dakota.
Back in 2018, standing within a snowbank I marveled at the Spartan missile silo field. Thirty of them, 66 feet tall each, were once contained below in blast resistant silos. Spartan itself was nearly as large as Minuteman and contained a much more powerful 5 megaton warhead. Nearby Sprint missile silos looked smaller but just as potent. Whereas Spartan was designed to destroy incoming warheads in the high atmosphere, Sprint was hoped to clean up the rest closer to the ground. A cone-shaped missile, it blasted out of its silo and soon went hyper sonic as the MSR radar tracked the surviving nuclear warheads. Sprint’s warhead was smaller, but would also detonate lower in the atmosphere.
I tried to imagine the engagement between the automated systems of Safeguard and a number of incoming Soviet Re-entry vehicles coming in out of the atmosphere. The sky would become blindingly bright as Spartan warheads burst in the high atmosphere while Sprints bolted up out of the ground, screaming towards the remaining Soviet warheads in a last-ditch effort to spare the Minuteman missile fields of eastern North Dakota from destruction. The system had to be automated, human interaction and targeting would simply take too long.
Safeguard emerged as the replacement to Sentinel when the Nixon Administration took office. Instead of city protection, Safeguard would instead protect American nuclear forces (particularly Minuteman) and eventually Washington D.C. as well to preserve the “second strike” capability. Construction began at the Nekoma site in Spring of 1970. A sister site in Montana progressed as well until 1972 when it was discarded in favor of a full commitment to North Dakota. Even before construction began many realized that Safeguard would not have long to live. Many documentaries suggest that it was proof of the U.S. commitment to “having a bargaining chip” during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) negotiations of the early 1970s. Congressional support for ABM began to recede and funding was cut. A once vaunted nationwide ABM defense idea was headed for the scrap heap. Safeguard, with all of its technical advances, still could be overwhelmed. Construction progressed, and the advanced systems of Safeguard briefly stood up in eastern North Dakota.
Contrary to popular belief, the system did not operate for a single day before shutting down. An initial operational capability began in April 1975 with a full operational capability on October 1, 1975. Congress decided then the next day to cease operations and by February 1976 the MSR radars were permanently shut off. Still, after such a long build up, and such a long development, America’s nuclear ABM system was active only for a period of months. Soon after the site went into mothball, systems were removed but over time much of the interiors of its buildings decayed except for the Perimeter Acquisition Radar complex near Cavalier, North Dakota whose systems were soon taken over by the U.S. Air Force for long-range radar capabilities.
43 years later the site is quiet, almost forlorn looking. The four-foot thick concrete walls of the pyramid don’t look to decay any time soon whereas other parts of the site have been claimed by history. The Cavalier County Job Development Corporation hopes to develop the site as it would indeed provide a unique place to run a data center, or a number of other businesses. Its hard to ignore the history as you pass by it, and there is so much more to the Safeguard story than is explained here. The “Prairie Pyramid” lingers on as a testament to technological advances and interesting if not confusing political goals.
“Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity…” – Ronald Reagan addressing the 42nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly
The “Swords into plowshares” concept has often found itself wrapped into dismantling Cold War weaponry, specifically nuclear weapons. An important part of the American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile story involves the protests by activists nearly from the very start of missile deployment. Many “Doves” sought ways to eliminate or at least reduce the number of nuclear weapons in an effort to avert world catastrophe. “Hawks” in contrast often considered nuclear weapons as a basis of peace in an unstable world. One might compare and contrast President Ronald Reagan’s early tough rhetoric against the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union and then later work to eliminate nuclear weapons, especially as he met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. Times change, and as history proved President Reagan, people change too.
As this site supervisor listened to 20th Air Force Commander, Major General Fred Stoss, explain the implications of rising international tension regarding ex-Cold War adversaries at a conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming, it was an interesting occurrence of history possibly repeating itself. For many years there were notable issues in the American “nuclear enterprise” as many scholars call it; nuclear weapons were accidentally attached to a bomber and flown cross-country without knowledge, there were also cheating scandals and what many considered a deterioration of morale among Air Force personnel assigned to ICBMs. Today, efforts are underway to replace venerable missile field support helicopters and even the nearly 50 year old (although greatly updated and refurbished) Minuteman III missile that once made eastern North Dakota its home. In the Air Force community there is a push for pride to be a nuclear operator as leadership attempts to refocus on the importance of the nuclear deterrent force that took a back seat during the War on Terror.
In a field near Velva, North Dakota meanwhile, a missile still awaits beneath a 110 ton blast door. Farmers tread lightly near these silos, as cameras and sensors detect intruders near the fences promising a quick response by very intimidating, buzz-cut Security Forces armed to defend these sites. Often visitors to Oscar-Zero are astounded to know missiles are still in operation, with dedicated officers and airmen still travel to control sites and silos. Many also still question the value of these sites. According to “Atomic Audit: The costs and consequences of U.S. nuclear weapons since 1940”, $5.5 trillion had been spent on the American nuclear arsenal up to 1996 (and the amount is represented in constant 1996 dollars).
Sometimes controversial, the effort at Oscar-Zero is to portray both sides of the nuclear weapons debate, as both are intertwined with North Dakota history. Often we can point to President Reagan, our namesake, as an individual passionate in one regard to defend America who was also fully aware of the consequences of nuclear weapons and sought out ways to eliminate them. Our site is a relic of the Cold War, but the Minuteman missile system remains in service. Some might say the “sword” that was Oscar-Zero has been transformed into the “plowshare” of remembrance and learning. The history is told but also there is an effort to provide education for our nation’s future. Another Cold War president put it this way:
“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
– John F. Kennedy
April 8, 1968, fifty-years ago today, found Grand Forks in the midst of an average spring day. The high would reach 39 degrees while a trace of rain was recorded in the weather log. Today there is a slight chance of snow instead of rain.
On the nation’s billboard Top for April 13, 1968 was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (notable as the performer died the previous year) and “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro. Other hits included performances from The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Manfred Mann. This month in 2018 finds Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey at the top spot followed by Bruno Mars, Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line.
April 1968, and the entire year 1968 would be very notable for history. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and the Vietnam War raged on, especially around a hamlet named Kne Sanh near the 17th Parallel in the then-named South Vietnam. Soviet troops stationed in Hungary prepare to invade the nation of Czechoslovakia (today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia) due to the “Prague Spring” uprising. America progressed with its goal of landing on the moon by launching an unmanned Apollo 6 atop the mighty Saturn V rocket.
Back in North Dakota during April 1968, two officers assigned to the United States Air Force sit 50 feet below ground protected by a 6-ton blast door, duly noting maintenance events in logbooks and never straying too far from their missile status console.
Some things change, some things don’t.
Above, we see a missileer crew from the 1960s at an undetermined base dressed in white coveralls (the initial standard uniform for missileers since the early days of the Strategic Air Command ICBM mission) – Image Courtesy of Association of Air Force Missileers.
Next to this photo finds a current crew within a redesigned capsule at Malmstrom AFB in Montana wearing flight suits. (Image Courtesy U.S. Air Force)
Their roles are the same, keeping an eye on their flight of ten Minuteman missiles within their “Flight”. Five flights in a squadron, typically three to four squadrons within a wing. On April 8, 2018 there are a little less than 40 capsules left in Air Force service staffed by 80 men and women around the clock. On April 8, 1968 there were a little less than 100 capsules staffed by 200 male crew members in Minuteman across the Northern Plains of the United States. There were also 54 Titan-II missile sites staffed by around 270 personnel.
Last month, March 2018, all of the nation’s remaining Minuteman capsules were staffed by female crews for a time in honor of women’s history.
Some things have changed. The mission really hasn’t. Minuteman was designed as a reliable weapons system deployed not to be used but rather serve as a deterrent. Some may point out ironies in the fact that while missileers staffed sites in April 1968 to deter war, B-52 bombers pounded North Vietnamese Army positions around Kne Sanh. Others will point out that a cataclysmic nuclear conflict had not occurred.
Today on a cold spring day in North Dakota, crews continue to sit behind blast doors and await the call they hope never to come. Another site in eastern North Dakota, deactivated for 21 years instead brings visitors into the capsule where the door no longer closes and electronics have long since been turned off. An interesting thing, an historical site dedicated to a history that is still ongoing.
There are no fossils at Oscar-Zero to look upon, no portraits of important Old West figures, nor impressive steam-powered wheat threshers. Instead two oddly designed keys dangle near their insertion points. Once locked within a red box, the keys no longer have any use. Three hours west of Oscar-Zero meanwhile, keys still exist for an unthinkable mission, safely contained behind a small safe door.
One hopes they may never be inserted and turned after those crews received proper, verified launch orders.
That the launch keys were never used, something all of us hope remains the same.
If one had worked with the National Park Service at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Kadoka, South Dakota before 2013 – they would become very familiar with “The Groobers” song “Little Boxes”
“Little boxes in Wyoming, little boxes in Dakota, little boxes in Montana, little boxes all the same…there are green ones, and green ones, and green ones, and green ones, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same”
This song would play at the end of each orientation video. A parody Malvina Reynold’s 1962 song “Little Boxes”, in turn a satire of suburban America, the Groober’s version relates to the Launch Control Centers and the Air Force’s fondness for sea-foam green paint within the structures.
With 100 Launch Control Facilities and 1,000 Launch Facilities (silos) built between 1961 and 1967, Minuteman came to represent the bulk of the American ICBM arsenal.
As seen in the image on the left, with the red representing current Minuteman wings and the black showing the now deactivated areas, the role of the ICBM in Great Plains history is profound.
Yet Minuteman was only a part of the story. While the Peacekeeper missile would be housed within Minuteman silos by the late 1980s, the Atlas and Titan missile complexes that came before were found in a number of other regions in the United States.
The Atlas missile represented a massive investment in unproven technology. While Atlas-D missiles were stored horizontally in “coffins”, above-ground structures, Atlas-Es were based in buried coffin like structures and Atlas-Fs were positioned in 180 foot deep silos that required 24/7 construction efforts due to the urgency of the Cold War in the 1960-1962 time frame. From upstate New York to Texas, the deserts of southeast New Mexico to the plains of Nebraska, the role of the Atlas within SAC’s ICBM force was quite short. With the last missiles going “on alert” in late 1962, all were retired by the end of April 1965.
Titan missiles, the -I version activating in 1961, were built as a follow-on/backup to the Atlas. Titan-I facilities were massive structures linking three silos with a control center, antenna silos and a power generation room (all of this underground). Titan-Is were also deactivated by April 1965 while the Titan-II would activate in 1963 with its last model not being pulled from its silo until 1987. A huge missile with a huge warhead, Titan-II complexes were very large themselves.
So while Minuteman was being built across the Northern Plains and Missouri, dozens of other silos were already operational. Not tied into disarmament treaties, many Atlas and Titan silos sit empty and abandoned today. A handful have been turned into underground homes and while one Titan-II complex has been preserved as a museum, there are no Atlas sites designated as such today. A pity considering their pioneering task of American ICBM deployment.
Those “Little Boxes” were found throughout the American West, with a few still “On Alert”. The rest will quietly sit out millennia, super-reinforced concrete structures that will last generations. Something to consider perhaps if you’re caught driving on the backroads of upstate New York, that a missile silo might lie just beyond the trees.
The Minuteman missile system was a radical departure from regular Intercontinental Ballistic Missile development. While the Atlas and Titan missiles were very large, used liquid fuels and required a great deal of maintenance – Minuteman was about the opposite of all of those things.
Seen from left to right, Atlas, Titan-I, Titan-II and Minuteman
Minuteman-II would greatly improve on Minuteman-I by the mid-1960s by incorporating enhanced electronics, better accuracy, increased survivability against attack and a longer range. Minuteman-II would prove such a good weapons system that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided that only one wing (later a squadron) would be built expressly for Minuteman-II (Grand Forks) while many original Minuteman-I sites would merely be updated to accept the new model. The type would serve in the U.S. arsenal until 1995.
Development on the Minuteman system was not yet complete however as development of the MIRV (Multiple, Independent Reentry Vehicle) was ongoing and soon to be deployed atop the Minuteman III missile. Built upon the successful Minuteman II missile, aside from MIRV Minuteman III could boast even greater accuracy with an improved “third-stage” thrust system (providing finer control over a portion of the missile’s flight time) and a post third-stage “Bus” – a sort of a “fourth-stage” that carried the warheads and could fine-tune the trajectories of its MIRVs.
So what are MIRVs anyway? Before Minuteman III ICBMs could only deploy a single warhead to their targets. The U.S. Navy Polaris A-3 missile meanwhile deployed in 1964 could deliver MRVs (Note: not MIRVS). The MRV (this variant sometimes called “The Claw”) lacked the “independent” ability to maneuver warheads to specified targets and could “shotgun” a target area with multiple warheads.
A Minuteman III Re-entry shroud (right) with its “bus” or reentry system (left)
A MIRV could be guided independently, meaning in the Minuteman III the post-boost “bus” could maneuver in space and point each of its warheads towards specific targets miles a part. MIRVs would enhance the U.S. nuclear arsenal without the cost of building more ICBMs and could potentially overwhelm Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) measures to intercept individual warheads. The Soviet Union would later deploy MIRVs of its own, the SS-18 specifically was to be armed with such warheads and was thought to target Minuteman missile fields in the United States.
After a relatively short development time, Minuteman IIIs were deployed beginning in 1970, 1972 at Grand Forks AFB sites. With the Minuteman III still in service, it’s MIRV potential has been downgraded due to international treaties. Many (unknown if all) Minuteman IIIs possess a single nuclear warhead today. Today the U.S. Navy’s Trident II submarine force remain equipped with MIRVs, providing a portion of the American nuclear “triad”.
What was the Strategic Air Command? What did it have to do with Oscar Zero? Why isn’t it around anymore?
SAC, as it was commonly known, was created in 1946 to manage the U.S. Army Air Force’s strategic bombing capability. In the years of World War II, the idea of strategic bombing was to destroy an enemy’s war-making potential well beyond the front lines. It had been experimented with in World War I however by 1939 the day of the large bomber had arrived. Over Europe, American and British heavy bombers pounded German industrial targets day and night. By 1945, American B-29 bombers were laying waste to Japanese cities leading up to the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
With the advent of the atomic bomb, there was a realization that the days of 1000 bomber raids were effectively over when a single B-29 could destroy a city with one bomb.
SAC emerged in the years 1946 to 1948 as a weak component of the Air Force, as did its sister organizations as demobilization largely gutted experienced personnel from their ranks. By 1948 however SAC had moved from Virginia to Omaha, Nebraska and had a new commander in charge.
General Curtis Emerson LeMay was the personification of the “tough boss”. Generally smoking a cigar, disapproving ideas merely with stony silence and having no tolerance for incompetence or even innocent mistakes, many histories point to LeMay into crafting the command into an overwhelmingly powerful and professional fighting force.
Much has been said about the seemingly legendary aspects of the Strategic Air Command’s rise to prominence as America’s foremost military unit during the 1950s. Much has also been criticized about the command, especially by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force’s Tactical Air Command from complaints about taking much of the defense funding to investing in an “all or nothing” approach to nuclear war. By 1964 films such as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail-Safe” would poke fun and dramatize respectively the command’s overwhelming response in a nuclear conflict.
By the time the 321st Strategic Missile Wing activated in the mid-1960s, SAC had a mixed reputation ranging from being the guardians of freedom to an organization effectively tasked with bringing about Armageddon. The command’s role was by nature controversial, however history denotes the professionalism of day-to-day operations by airmen and officers alike
Jumping ahead to June 1992, when the Strategic Air Command ceased to exist as an organization, it is interesting to note the command was active essentially throughout the entire Cold War. When one speaks to its veterans they consider General Curtis LeMay a commander who knew how to straighten things out and was an effective boss who did not put up with nonsense. For the most part they are very proud of their service with SAC with its very strict rules and ever present tension. It has been said that they prepared for war daily so they would not have to go for real. In the end historians have found SAC’s lifespan full of ups and downs but with a proud legacy that lasts in the voices of its veterans.