1964 – When Missiles Overtook Bombers

A great number of historic events occurred in 1964. Lyndon Johnson would win the 1964 presidential election against Republican Barry Goldwater. The term “Beatlemania” describes one notable group among others during the British Invasion of rock and roll music. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes congress after a bitter fight, and a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passes in August, signaling America’s deeper involvement in the Vietnam War.

Many historians point to the 1963-1967 time period as a major cultural shift in the United States. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 was remarked as a time when, arguably, “America lost its innocence”. The American Cold War spotlight largely departed the potential nuclear battlefields of Berlin or Cuba and would instead be found in the Ia Drang Valley during November 1965.

At the same time, the United States quietly built up its missile arsenals, both within the Great Plains and on the high seas. The manned bomber on the other hand was on its way out as the single most important nuclear delivery system. On April 21, 1964, the alert rate for ICBMs outpaced the alert rate for SAC’s B-47, B-52, and B-58 bombers for the first time.

It is one of the great “what ifs” of the SAC era. What if Nixon won in 1960 rather than Kennedy? What if Kennedy was still alive? What if Goldwater won in 1964? With the last two the writing was effectively already on the wall. McNamara’s Pentagon had recognized the value in the Minuteman and Polaris force when considered against the higher costs in less-secure bombers. In November 1964 (after the election), Secretary of Defense McNamara announced that 92 U.S. defense installations would close including a number of SAC bomber bases. The first-generation ICBMs Atlas and Titan-I would be phased out while the Titan-II and new Minuteman force would continue on. The B-47, long the most numerous bomber in the command, would be completely out of service in 1966 leaving a slowly decreasing B-52 force and a smaller B-58 force already eyed for retirement.

Taking their place where B-29s and B-36s preceded them, B-47s sit idle awaiting the scrap pile sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s

Ironically, the year saw the first flights of some of America’s most advanced aircraft and spacecraft. The radical B-70, once slated as a replacement for the B-52, had long since been axed for that role but soldiered on as a test aircraft and first took off in September 1964. The F-111, a swing-wing strike aircraft (and rejected U.S. Navy fighter) took flight on December 21, and the very next day the very fast and very exotic Blackbird, the SR-71, lifted off from Palmdale California. A modified FB-111 would replace the B-58 into the 1970s while the SR-71 would confound Soviet and Chinese radar observers for many years to come (along with embarrassing at least one U.S. Navy pilot).

The aircraft were products of an exciting time in aerospace development history, yet at the same time Minuteman Is were quietly being lowered into silos in North Dakota, Missouri, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Ground had been broken in the advanced Minuteman II field around Grand Forks, North Dakota in March 1964, just about the same time Minot had completed installing it’s Minuteman Is.

To me, it is difficult to understate what April 21, 1964 represented to the American nuclear deterrent. The concept of the “triad” was becoming more clear with the mix of bombers, missiles, and submarine missiles – and predominantly that was represented by B-52, Minuteman, and Polaris. The first attempts (some successful, some mixed) at ICBMs and IRBMs (in England, Italy, and Turkey) were being studied for phase out due to expense and danger. Three first-generation Atlas-Fs had blown up on their stands that year. The medium-ranged B-58 Hustlers meanwhile, while very exciting in their operations, were exotic and costly. The B-47s were simply just on the way out and had been since 1959. Even in the world’s oceans, the awkward Regulus and nuclear aircraft carrier mission (namely the A-5 Vigilante) was giving way to Polaris. Much like the ICBM supplementing the bomber nuclear mission in the U.S. Air Force, submarines quietly took over the deterrent mission in the Navy – undersea and relatively unnoticed.

Missile maintainers at Grand Forks carefully lower the upper components of a Minuteman II somewhere in Eastern North Dakota in the late 1960s. (USAF Photo)

Yet the work experienced in those earlier programs paved the way for more efficient and more effective weapon systems, not to mention proving out operational checklists and tasks. After operating for many years as a free-fall nuclear bomber, the B-52 was now being outfitted with the Hound Dog stand-off missiles to blast their way into enemy territory – the SRAM was soon to follow. At the same time a number were undergoing modification for the conventional mission over Vietnam – notably the B-52D “Big Belly” modification occurring in 1965 allowing the bomber to carry a massive loadout of 108 bombs.

While white coveralls were still found maneuvering around the then-new Titan IIs, Minuteman put launch crews miles away from their 60 foot tall missiles. Crews could no longer walk past a few blast doors into a silo nearby. In a sense, ICBMs had become true “push button” machines ready for near instant retaliation. American early warning systems were evolving to a point that a nuclear sneak attack by the Soviets was growing less plausible, and it should be noted that in the 1964 time period the Soviets were still way behind the Americans as far as nuclear weapons and delivery systems. ICBM parity between the superpowers would not occur until after 1970, and in fact it has been said that the embarrassment of the Cuban Missile Crisis drove a crash Soviet ICBM development program – at the expense of their moon mission. (The Soviet N-1 rocket compared to the American Saturn V is a fascinating history).

So while American culture was changing, so radically were the nuclear missions of SAC and the U.S. Navy. A wealth of new technologies developed with and without defense in mind allowed for the miniaturization of weapon system components, especially solid-state electronics replacing vacuum tubes. Digital networks proved out by the air-defense minded Semi-Automatic Ground Environment were now finding civilian roles – part of which eventually evolved into the internet – but also helping provide more robust communications between military installations. Essentially, strategic nuclear delivery systems were becoming much more dependable, responsive, and relatively safe. A truly credible, and intimidating, nuclear deterrent.

Grand Forks was a development of an even bigger leap in technology with the Minuteman II, and the Minuteman III was already in the minds of Boeing designers and USAF personnel, that model leading into development during 1965. When one considers the frontiers of 1964, the growth of integrated circuits, the Gemini space program, and of course the introduction of the Ford Mustang – the future growth of science must have seemed very promising indeed. A lot of which was evolving from defense, for better or for worse.

I’d made a comment on another site a while back arguing that after 1964 the manned bomber in USAF service had its golden age behind it. You better believe the B-1 and B-52 fans didn’t like that remark. But out of the massive production of 12,700 B-17s and 18,000 B-24s that would send thousand-aircraft raids against Nazi Germany and the hundreds of B-29s attacking Japan during World War II, the atomic bomb promised that huge bomber fleets were not going to be the way of the future. The 2,000+ strong B-47 force and over 700 B-52s of the 1950s demonstrated America’s continuing reliance on strategic bombers to hopefully prevent war, but had it occurred, to help win it. In the background of all of this, the V-2s of Germany and Goddard’s American rocket work were nudging the imaginations of defense planners (and, more peacefully, the architects of space travel). Missile pioneers like Bernard Schriever and Ed Hall, as they say in the parlance of our modern times, “entered the chat”.

B-52D bombers at Andersen AFB, Guam preparing for a raid on North Vietnam during Operation Linebacker II in December 1972

After 1964, the US force level of strategic bombers fell below 1,000 while the missile force skyrocketed to 931 (from only 6 at the end of 1959). The level dropped slightly in 1965 after the first-generation missiles had been phased out, but climbed back to over 1,000 in 1967 as Minuteman deployment was completed. Bomber forces overseas drew back out of Europe where B-47s sat at forward bases for many years, and the number of SAC bases between 1960 and 1970 dropped by 20. Of course, B-52s and now FB-111s, still stood on nuclear alert. Further, to say the golden age of bombers was over to any Viet Cong soldier beneath a B-52 Arc Light raid in 1967 would be the height of irony. But the roar of jet engines on many SAC flightlines gave way to the whir of an air-conditioning unit 50 feet underground at a Minuteman Launch Control Center, or was drowned-out by the tugboat’s horn as it escorted the U.S.S. Ben Franklin ballistic missile submarine in port. Much of the nuclear deterrent fell away from the public eye underground or underwater, while the sight of a B-52 became more connected with conventional bombing as Vietnam escalated.

Bombers still stood “cocked”, but their dominance was at an end. Instead, the nuclear triad attempted to balance shortcomings and benefits for each leg. In 2021, the number of strategic nuclear bombers possessed by the entire U.S. Air Force fleet is actually less than was based at a single crowded SAC base in the early 1960s. This is not to advocate for any more or any less, just the interesting contrast over 60 years and the evolving effectiveness of weapons systems. The triad is still in existence, current calls for a reduction to a dyad (removing the ICBMs and relying instead on bombers and subs) are nothing new. Here again, we’re not here to advocate either way.

Instead, we look back at the formative years of – let’s say a third era of SAC’s history. There were the shortcomings of the first era in the late 1940s with propeller-driven bombers, and into a second era of LeMay/Power years experiencing rapid aerospace and personnel development – perhaps SAC’s own “golden years”. 1964 might mark the evolutionary watershed into a third stabilizing and technologically maturing Strategic Air Command era but also an expanded, if somewhat unwanted, conventional role in Southeast Asia.

Grand Forks AFB stood up much of it’s Minuteman force in 1966, and equipped with the more advanced B-52H model, it would operate during the later half of the Cold War on alert. Missiles unseen, bombers sitting silent with wings drooping on the alert pad right off U.S. Highway 2. From Johnson to Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. Electronics pulsed away beneath the North Dakota soil while mechanics still cursed at stubborn bolts maintaining a KC-135 on the Grand Forks flightline. Deterrence had changed, and some might argue that this more stable, reliable, and notably never-used nuclear force helped the United States wait out the Cold War nuclear threat. The Soviets had to catch up with this technology, and in doing so contributed to growing problems within their economy. Americans were playing Nintendo in the late 1980s while Soviet citizens lined up in food queues. Both nations paid dearly for their nuclear deterrents, but the Soviets attempted to limp along before finally collapsing in 1991.

While the United States did invest in third-generation systems such as Peacekeeper, the B-1 and B-2, and Trident – it’s core even at the end of the Cold War was still made up of the second-generation Minuteman, the B-52, and Polaris. Costs of updates and upgrades aside, the sustainability and continuing effectiveness of these systems are what made them notable. Not too bad for the class of the mid-60s (early 60s for the remaining B-52 airframes). The 1964 timeframe itself would provide a solid foundation for SAC to operate as a evolved deterrent throughout the remainder of the Cold War, and it’s significance should not be overlooked in any history of the vaunted command.

Book Review: Warday

On Saturday I’d stopped into a used book store in Grand Forks to look around a bit. I stumbled upon Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka by surprise, a thick paperback, while looking around for some Louis L’Amours I was missing from my collection (he was born down in Jamestown, ND by the way. A stop at the National Bison Museum and the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse should be considered on any trip through North Dakota, but first of course Oscar-Zero.)

Once home I read Warday fairly quickly. It read like a history book full of statistics and personal stories about a fictional era in American history – that is the after effects of a limited nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States in October 1988. When you study the nuclear parts of the Cold War it was easy for a book like this to keep my interest. The two writers, real persons actually, set out on a journey across post-war America that provided a number of eye-opening scenes and tough circumstances that made one think about the greater implications of nuclear conflict.

Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka

It begins with Whitley’s own experience on what would forever be known as Warday being in New York City proper when multi-megaton nuclear warheads miss Manhattan but instead detonate over Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. While spared the initial blast, he receives a heavy dose of radiation but survives radiation sickness and eventually makes his way to Dallas, Texas with his family. An effort to head back to a family enclave in San Antonio is ended with the fact that San Antonio is no longer there. Boy do they really emphasize the fact that San Antonio isn’t there. His partner, James, is in Houston when San Antonio is struck but eventually makes his way northward. Five years after the limited attack, the two decide on a dangerous cross-country journey to document what really happened throughout the remainder of a very fragmented United States.

The basic facts of the attack were that the Soviets responded with force after the United States was attempting to field a space-based defense system (at the time when the book came out, the Strategic Defense Initiative was a major issue in Cold War politics). A Soviet hunter-killer satellite destroyed the Space Shuttle Enterprise while other suspicious Soviet satellites changed orbits over the United States soon dropping nuclear weapons. What occurs next is effectively a tit-for-tat nuclear exchange that results in the destruction of the area near New York, Washington D.C., San Antonio and the burst of electro-magnetic pulses (EMPs that can disable electronics but with no effects to human beings) over North America. The United States does the same to the Soviet Union. Multiple nuclear weapons soon fall upon Minuteman missile fields in the American Great Plains (Whiteman AFB in Missouri escapes attack for some unknown reason) and the result of ground-bursting nuclear weapons means a great deal of radioactive fallout falls upon much of America’s farmland.

The result of the EMP unintentionally ends the war as command and control on both sides break down rapidly. The resulting breakdown of a society increasingly reliant on microchips in the late-1980s is pretty tough. Famines occur within months and an emaciated society had less immune response to a deadly flu outbreak that ended up killing more Americans than the war did. It’s a tough read.

Strieber and Kunetka’s journey take them across the Southwest states, a portion of which had succeeded to form a libertarian-socialist Hispanic republic (the foreign minister in El Paso has an interesting passage in the story that reads like propaganda). California had endured the EMP but came out in good shape due to Japanese and British support (Europe had refrained from entering the war and effectively ended up becoming the center of world power again) but the state had made a turn towards authoritarianism. A journey across the plains resulted in being caught in a radioactive dust storm while the Midwest journey focused on individual stories of survival, a common theme either being that the British had helped as saviors (there is a passage concerning Prince Andrew arriving with aid in Pittsburgh that hasn’t aged well) or surviving communities had adapted communalistic ways of living after the outside world had been shut off.

The book has interesting takes on a number topics regarding culture, from the Hispanic Southwest to a less-than-surviving African American population in Chicago. The segment on the Catholic church would be sure to raise some eyebrows in regards to euthanasia while women in the book range from a terrorist leader to quiet caregivers, more often the latter. Reflections on midwestern individuals and later southerners sorta borders on the stereotypical. It very much written from a white, middle-class male perspective (and I say this being a white roughly middle-class male. It would be interesting to read reviews from a more diverse audience).

Yet the inclusion of fictional charts and polls paint an interesting picture on the technical side. There are figures included detailing hard-gotten data on wheat yields before and after the attack for instance – the massive decrease resulting in famine but also no foodstuffs being exported abroad. Considering the massive deflation of the US dollar in the book and the sudden shut-down of world-reliant consumer goods, industrial equipment, and oil – it would have been interesting to hear more about the worldwide implications of a destroyed American economy. Although that is by design, it is mentioned that the BBC limits what can be learned in the United States about overseas so the writers don’t really write about it. For instance little is known of what happened to the Soviet Union aside from it’s collapse.

The medical aspects are some of the more difficult parts of the book. Draconian measures are put into place concerning radiation exposure and treatment. Small forays into the deterioration of the ozone layer are commented upon, as are the long-term implications of radiation exposure ranging from cataracts to sterility to birth defects. The book does a good job concerning the topic of rumor that would abound in a world with less-than-perfect outside contact.

The writers put enough doubt on the survivability of American and Soviet command and control to reason why the war was so limited. Further orders continuing limited or all-out options simply couldn’t get through with EMP damage along with an uncontrollable devolution of presidential power. Although outside of a nuclear war there’s no real good way to test it, the feeling from history is that the Americans at least had a slightly more robust system in the face of an electromagnetic pulse. It’s much less than certain on the Soviet side at the time. Beyond this, the fate of the U.S. Navy on the high seas seems a little dubious and feels as though it was included as a quick way to explain a variable.

Be it any post-apocalyptic style book or movie, no matter the political views of its writers, there is the consistent theme of helplessness or hopelessness. Powerful nations and superpowers fade into jarring, devastating weakness in mere minutes after they enter World War III. Often those tasked with building or sustaining nuclear deterrents suddenly transform into persons defending peace into outright war criminals (this is most obvious in a Canticle for Leibowitz, but Warday has an interesting take as the two visit Los Alamos). I would go so far as to say any movie or book portraying nuclear war can’t be anything but an anti-war movie or book. There are no battlefield moments of glory or triumph, nor rousing speeches by generals wearing a chest-full of medals, instead there’s a common searing, blinding light and the instant deaths of thousands if not millions of persons – military and civilian.

Books like Warday present an important glimpse back into the Cold War. On The Beach and Alas, Babylon paint a portrayal in Eisenhower or Kennedy’s America. Stories like Warday skip forward to the Reagan years when more readily available alert-postured nuclear weapons are possessed by both sides – the war got a lot quicker and more technologically advanced. Beyond the Cold War the genre certainly has not gone away, in fact the outline of World War Z is somewhat similar (only zombies rather than nuclear weapons). Yet the dread of such a quick, violent war and the devastating days after is not so much found in the American psyche anymore. Considering the dread felt in many Americans after watching The Day After, the age of nuclear fear was once palpable be it inspired by a movie or real life events like the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the feeling might be mostly dormant in popular culture, as long as nuclear weapons remain on alert there is no reason for the fear to completely go away.

In the end, Warday is not a detailed look at military nuclear operations, but instead a fictionalized perspective into the results of a nuclear conflict on American individuals. The heavy tolls bore economically, sociologically, psychologically, culturally, and medically are what make the book an interesting but dark read. A look at a time in the mid-1980s when computers are still primitive and cell phones are non-existent. An updated version for 2021 would yield much different results within a narrative, especially when it came to the electromagnetic pulse. However for those who lived through the time period it might be an interesting journey through a thankfully fictionalized history.

Oh (spoiler alert), and Grand Forks gets nuked. Presumably given the estimated number of 1 to 2 megaton bursts on the Grand Forks missile field so does Oscar-Zero.

Given I’ve lived on the Great Plains my whole life and enjoy crop gardening, its probably the concept of radiated topsoil that really bothered me (granted there are a lot of other disturbing parts of this book). Dead soil is a heartbreaking thing when it can’t support life or worse poison it. Once more, the idea of placing missile silos “in the middle of nowhere” proves problematic, because America’s breadbasket most assuredly is not the middle of nowhere when it counts – feeding not only the U.S. but much of the world also.

The book is not light reading, but it certainly can give a perspective on the greater picture when it comes to the consequences in the failure of nuclear deterrence. Something a great deal of Americans, and yes Russians too, committed their lives to in an attempt to preserve the peace in their own way.

So You Want A Doomsday Bunker: Missile Silo Edition

*Not to be used as a literal buying guide nor should you attempt to explore these places without permission. Underground silos can possess areas of “dead” air, lethal build-ups of other gases, and have a risk of deadly falls.

I’m not a prepper, although I do believe in being prepared. I suppose the difference would be that preparing for common disasters that might befall an area – Earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, or even a house fire – is just common sense. A good first aid kit is important, and a few days of water and food is a good idea if a blizzard is severe enough to snow you in.

The more extreme stuff goes a little above and beyond for me. I learned of an interesting term the other day TEOTWASKI – the end of the world as we know it – and delved into a book that considered all sorts of scenarios like meteors or supervolcanos, financial collapse to a personal interest – nuclear war. Such extreme plot lines make up a great number of modern television and video games like The Walking Dead, Snowpiercer, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the popular Fallout series of video games. And why not? It makes for good drama and a plotline that can continually offer fruit for writers.

You call that a blast door?

Periodically, news interests shift back to the idea of a doomsday bunker, and more often than not it will include an old missile silo. It is a question that often comes up on tour – did doomsday preppers descend on the area once the former Missile Alert Facilities were closed down? Not that we’re aware of. Minuteman sites didn’t really provide the true “bunker” capability considering the bunkers were made inaccessible via treaty. There are however a great number of other missile silos that were effectively abandoned in 1964-1965 time frame that make up the bulk of the “old abandoned missile silo” mystique. A few of which have transformed into what some may call doomsday bunkers. In this blog, let’s take a rundown of each missile system and its benefits in protection against an alien invasion.


Rating: Poor

The Atlas-D was America’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and its deployment was greatly varied. The first launchers were on gantry towers at Vandenberg AFB in California however eventual deployment saw aboveground “coffin” launchers constructed near F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming and Offutt AFB in Nebraska. At the time, they were only rated to 5 psi (pounds per square inch) overpressure protection so a nearby nuclear hit would have easily destroyed them. Neat little complexes, unfortunately like many other Atlas sites, a few suffer from trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination along with diesel contamination.

Ruins of an Atlas-D installation in Eastern Nebraska. Bunker aside, looks like it would be a cool paintball course.


Rating: Good

Of all the old missile sites, Atlas-E seems to make the most sense as a good little doomsday bunker. They’re partially buried and were once rated to 25 psi (not great but not bad). The missile bay that sat within the complex would make a great garage for your Mad Max-style vehicles. The interesting thing about Atlas-E sites is that they have a fairly checkered past across the board. 548-7 near Topeka, Kansas was once planned as a massive LSD manufacturing site (although the drug was not yet in production there). Astoundingly, the DEA reported a two-year 99.5% drop in availability of LSD within the entire United States after the site was raided. Another Topeka site instead became Jackson Heights High School near Holton, Kansas. One can visit an Atlas-E site at Missile Site Park northwest of Greeley, Colorado.


Rating: Very Good

While the -D and -E series were stored horizontally, the Atlas-F was stored vertically in a true missile silo. It’s 100 psi rating and a great number of silos available (72 of them across the US, even upstate New York) made them effectively the de-facto missile silo doomsday bunker. Everything is underground, the Launch Control Center and the hardened silo, and they are fairly inconspicuous. At least one in the Schilling field (Salina, Kansas) was converted into a true doomsday bunker while a number of others have been built into homes. Many of these sites too suffer from contamination issues (the Lincoln AFB field for instance only has a single silo out of twelve declared “clean” by the US Army Corps of Engineers). A fair number had flooded with groundwater over the years with 174 foot deep silos lacking much on the walls (the “cribbing” was often torn out for scrap metal).


Rating: Just awesome

Titan-I complexes are what people think of as something of an underground survival town. A Titan-I complex supported three massive 160 foot deep silos all interconnected via underground tunnels. A domed powerplant made up the largest capsule in the complex (and I understand the capsule is huge) with a sizeable launch control center as well. When abandoned sites go up for sale they tend to be very expensive. If one searches the internet, there are a number of photos and even video out there of these old sites. At one point at least a former Larson AFB, Washington site was being used as a scuba diving center.

Do you see the size of those cars down there on the bottom left? Titan-I complexes were HUGE.


Rating: Pretty good (but no silo)

A number of former Titan-II installations have been making more news lately as owners work on the sites or they come up for sale. There were 54 of these spread out across Arizona, Kansas, and Arkansas with the last sites deactivating in the mid-1980s (as opposed to the mid-1960s like those above). The access portal descends into a large rectangular space (once with stairs and an elevator, I understand these were removed) with one area going to the Launch Control Center capsule and the other to the silo. The silos themselves were demolished with the LCCs generally being left alone. A Titan-II site is open for tours at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona.


Rating: Not really that great

Deactivated Minuteman installations (Ellsworth AFB area, South Dakota, Whiteman AFB area, Missouri, Grand Forks AFB area, North Dakota) were rendered incapable of being used as ICBM launchers again via the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I) and for many years it was forbidden to disturb the soil at these sites. The silos (and their support structures) were imploded meaning that any missile silo today is merely a space of ground with a lot of concrete and rebar chunks to be found if one dug deep enough. The Missile Alert Facilities meanwhile were left intact (save for the 564th Missile Squadron sites in Montana that were demolished) however the elevator shaft was filled with debris and capped with concrete. There has been at least one instance of a landowner removing debris from the elevator shaft and accessing the underground Launch Control Center and Launch Control Equipment Building, however all that was left below were the blast doors and some metal racks. The understanding was the Air Force was okay with ground disturbance after 2009 although the Environmental Protection Agency was involved due to reports at some sites of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) and diesel contamination.

Of the five Peacekeeper Missile Alert Facilities, one has turned into a museum (Quebec-01) while at least one more has been demolished (Romeo-01). A Google Earth scan of the others show them still there but it’s hard to say if the imagery is out of date. It is assumed underground areas are now inaccessible. Silos were not imploded but instead rendered unusable by way of dirt fill and a concrete cap.

There are three (technically four) accessible Minuteman missile sites available for tours – Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Wall, South Dakota, The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown, North Dakota, The Oscar-01 Missile Alert Facility located on the grounds of Whiteman AFB near Knob Knoster, Missouri (this is a little trickier to get on as a civilian), and the Quebec-01 State Historic Site south of Chugwater, Wyoming (formerly Minuteman, later a Peacekeeper site)

Bonus Round – Nike missile sites

Rating: Poor

There were 134 Nike-Hercules batteries built around the United States near major cities in the mid to late 1950s, most of these containing underground storage magazines for the defensive missiles. Sites were divided into launcher sites and Integrated Fire Control (IFC) complexes that also housed administration and barracks. Fascinating structures, but usually not what you think of with a doomsday bunker.

And lots of others

Listen, when I spot an old bunker for sale somewhere the first thought in my mind isn’t “Would it withstand a zombie horde?” but instead “Would it make a good museum?” then again Cold War history is a bit of an obsession on this end. Occasionally you’ll see the old AT&T “Long Lines” bunkers come up, and those are truly fascinating bunkers given their roles in history but their size. An ultimate might be if Cheyenne Mountain Complex was ever closed by the USAF and put up for sale…which is probably fairly unlikely. Continuity of Government bunkers out east around Washington D.C. (notably the Greenbrier and Mount Weather) occasionally rise to headlines as do the Emergency Government facilities in the United Kingdom (the York Cold War bunker comes to mind) and the Diefenbunker up in Canada.

Yet the concept of the doomsday bunker, at least on the individual level – not so much a community shelter, often times feels quite American in origin. Born of the Cold War when worries dwelled on blast effects and latent radiation being emitted from nuclear bombs, it has evolved and often embraced many more exotic worries. Of course, there can be a balance between stockpiling acorns in fear of a mutant squirrel uprising or sticking one’s head in the sand. From the Minutemen of Concord to the Minuteman missiles of Parshall, North Dakota, preparedness has been a promoted staple in some segments of American cultural history. Cold War research demonstrates that this was performed far from an equal basis across socio-economic and racial lines (and that topic most assuredly merits further research). Films demonstrated the feasibility of building shelters in backyards or taking a loaded family station wagon into the country to stay with relatives in crisis times. But what if you had neither? To put it bluntly, the best way to survive a nuclear war (at least initially) was if you were wealthy and advantaged enough to have a workable backup plan or could buy a doomsday bunker outside of target zones. Half-hearted attempts at fallout shelter construction and provisioning in the mid-60s, along with poor crisis relocation planning in the early-80s, demonstrated to many that you were truly on your own. Enter the possibility of a bunker mentality, literally. The Cold War was a psychologically taxing time for many.

CERT volunteers in Ontario, California (Photo: City of Ontario)

In the end, the concept of an old missile silo turned bunker has captured the imaginations of a great many people. Doomsday seems to periodically appear on our radar screens be it the Y2K bug in 2000 or a Mayan calendar in 2012. What is real are the powerful tornadoes that ripped through Alabama just yesterday (3/17/21) or threats of earthquakes in California. One does not need a fully stocked former Atlas-F silo to ride out these disasters, but instead a little foresight and planning. While we try to only advocate history, we might also suggest learning first aid and CPR, finding out more about your community’s involvement in Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), donating blood, donating time at a local food bank, getting to know your neighbors…doing the things that can help prevent personal doomsdays for others and ourselves.

An old missile silo is pretty cool, just remember there are other ways to defeat doomsdays.

Interpreting the Strangelovian at an old nuclear missile site

Delving into Cold War culture yields many, many interpretations of the Arms Race and the viability of a nuclear deterrent. There were sci-fi classics that explored the fantastic new sciences behind nuclear fission and fusion and how they either helped the world into a new, utopian age or resulted in mutant ants destroying a town. The art of spy-craft found in James Bond to the more contemporary Bridge of Spies staring Tom Hanks and even back to some Reagan-era absurd comedy found in Spies Like Us. There were 1980s teenage coming-of-age movies set against the background of the Cold War like The Manhattan Project, Wargames, and Real Genius.

There were movies of post-nuclear attack desolation and remorse like 1959’s On The Beach or the 1964 BBC teleplay The War Game. The Day After and Threads both meet those descriptions as well and are perhaps more contemporarily notable in the minds of those who watched both films. Others took the post-war environment into very different directions, most notably the action-oriented Mad Max films but also the dark comedy A Boy and His Dog (staring a younger Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame). In Damnation Alley, ICBM crewmen survive a nuclear attack and make an adventurous journey across post-war America. When it was released in 1977, the thought was it would do better at the box office than the studio’s other science-fiction film that year, Star Wars.

However the reigning go-to Cold War movie will likely forever remain Dr. Strangelove or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. The story behind the movie is fascinating, with director Stanley Kubrick having totally immersed himself in the realm of nuclear war before the movie was shot. Kubrick bought the rights to the book Red Alert , a book that essentially provided the storyline for Dr. Strangelove, and worked with author Peter George to transform a screenplay into a satire of the Cold War.

George C. Scott portrayed General ‘Buck’ Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. Moreover representative of higher ranking military generals. According to TCM, Scott considered Turgidson as his favorite movie role. (Dr. Strangelove 1964 Columbia Pictures)

When watching the movie recently with persons unfamiliar with the work, I realized how dated things must have seemed that were once at a forefront of American culture and politics. The mention of “-Gaps”, such as the 1955 “Bomber Gap” or the 1957 “Missile Gap”, events where many Americans believed that the United States was behind in the arms race (both ultimately being untrue in the end), probably failed to resonate. The counting down of checklists aboard the B-52, endemic to Strategic Air Command culture (and other aspects of military culture) may have been considered dull or repetitive but according to veterans these were quite realistic. The worry of General Turgidson about communist plots and conspiracies have not really been a huge part of American culture since the 1960s. Sure elements remained, consider Red Dawn for one example in popular culture, but not-so-much the front-page garnering headlines of the McCarthy era.

It is foremost the nuances of Strangelove that made it a classic dark comedy. The calm and collected philosophical discussions while bombers are racing towards targets, the proposal by General Turgidson about the benefits of a first strike against the Soviets, the deeply disturbing suggestions by Dr. Strangelove himself of breeding an “ideal” society deep within nuclear-protected mineshafts. Keep in mind, World War II and Nazism had only been vanquished 19 years before the movie’s release.

Yet when one reads real-life nuclear weapon policy and histories, Strangelovian passages will always catch your eye. Strategist Herman Kahn, a defense analyst who Dr. Strangelove was partly based off of, explained himself of the clear differences in a post war world where 20 million Americans perished or 150 million Americans died after a nuclear war (Fail-Safe’s Dr. Groteschele was modeled in a similar fashion). Considerations by civilian scientists arriving in Omaha during 1961 (Strategic Air Command Headquarters) where the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan had been crafted – that general U.S. nuclear war plan – were astounded at how inflexible it was. Herman Kahn comes back into the picture here, stating that the US had failed to create a workable war plan and, in his words (not ours), had instead created a plan for a “war-gasm”. Once the “go-code” for launching America’s nuclear arsenal was given, everything would be in the air flying against Sino-Soviet targets. There would be no real nuanced strategy (SAC’s in-house docu-drama The Power of Decision is a good reference to this). Interactions between military personnel and the civilians (namely McNamara’s Whiz Kids) probably led to some of the satirization of the command leadership in Dr. Strangelove, but not its crews (think Major Kong) who were instead steadfast and professional in their mission.

Edward Teller, considered the father of the hydrogen bomb (although many were involved on the project), was one of the inspirations for the Dr. Strangelove character.

After Strangelove, Western culture was hard pressed to attempt anything serious about nuclear war for some time. Even when it did, it seemed a curly-haired man in dark glasses and wearing a single black glove loomed in the distance. In the days after the Cuban Missile Crisis when humankind was said to have looked into the abyss of nuclear war and was sobered by what it saw, Kubrick instead considered the dark comedy element of something so monumentally horrible, and the Cold War was never going to be the same.

Interpreting the Cold War with this in mind, is tough. I think back to watching Ken Burn’s The Civil War and the sober telling of the Battles of Antietam or Petersburg and consider if such a thing could be done with the Cold War. It could, but I’m not sure it would capture the whole story. The soldiers of the Cold War were not on some far away battlefield, but our next door neighbors. One day they might have gone off for a missile alert tour and you would not have seen them again, not because they were wounded in a firefight but instead that you both perished in the ensuing burst of Soviet warheads detonating upon your community. The total war of World War II had devastated Europe and much of Asia, both civilian and military alike. However for the first time in its history, the American, whose society had been spared damage by the sake of two large oceans, could now lose their lives in the space of thirty minutes time. Not only that, but survival did not ensure that things would get any better. Everything you knew, everything, could vanish in an instant of bright light. The consequences of nuclear conflict are simply unimaginable.

Subsequently, American culture but world culture too for that matter, responded in many ways. Preparedness, fear, determination, apathy, worry, dread, stoicism, mistrust, question, protest and dark comedy. Using comedy as a form of statement, a protest, or perhaps instead interpretation.

As we reconsider movies, their roles in shaping how we view history and how appropriate they may be for modern times, Dr. Strangelove speaks a language that was purposely controversial and very much from a different time. Consider General Jack Ripper’s paranoia about water purification via *fluoridation (we originally said chlorination, thanks comment section!) – a conspiracy theory held by a number of persons at that time. Or look to one of General Turgidson’s folders entitled “World Targets in Megadeaths”. Aside from the name of a metal rock band, what does that mean? It means there was a time in American history where firepower was so devastating that the unit of measurement “Megadeath” was created. It’s meaning? One megadeath equaled one million deaths. The world has experienced many horrible events throughout human history, however it would be hard to think of anything more horrible than a global nuclear conflict.

B-52 bombers conduct a Minimum-Interval Take-Off (MITO). This allowed for multiple aircraft to become airborne in a hurry and make a ‘base escape’ before Soviet warheads landed on a base.

Is it fair to use Dr. Strangelove as a microcosm of 1960s nuclear thinking? To use it as a tool to introduce history-learners to the Cold War? Probably not, and this is most assuredly not out of “gatekeeping”, the movie can of course be enjoyed on its own by anyone. The problem is in many cases today history is often viewed through cinematic lenses. The Old West didn’t all look like The Good, the bad, and the ugly. The roaring twenties cannot be explained just by watching Some like it hot. Instead they can be set against the greater stories of those eras, and also how Hollywood (or others) interpreted those eras later in order to make captivating films. Even something like The Civil War can’t get it all, although the documentary would be an excellent introduction to the American Civil War, it lacks the compactness and personally dramatic story for a shorter attention span that a two-hour feature has. So Dr. Strangelove is often the only experience someone might have about the Strategic Air Command and the nuclear thinking of the 1960s (A lot lesser so today, it’s not exactly a modern show on a streaming service). Movies can alter perceptions on a tour say at a missile site but on the other hand inspire interest and a desire to know more. It really is a two-way street.

Ultimately, it is difficult to understate the cultural effects of the film. It truly does touch on a multitude of subjects not only in military terms but on the side of the civilian sciences that revolved around nuclear weapons. It considers the effectiveness of machines, the fallacies of an arms race out of control, absurdities of nuclear war, and the politics of a different time in American history. It was made in an age on the frontiers of science, on the edge of space, a revolution in culture soon to take place, and an ongoing Cold War whose existence was beginning to be more thoroughly questioned. At a historic site many years later, any interpretation needs to be dynamic to fit personal needs and interests. This movie opened for us a new method of Cold War interpretation. We can consider the seriousness of it all but, if appropriate, we can discuss the Strangelovian aspects of the conflict.

After all, unlike the cinematography of the movie, not much is ever totally black and white.

Shelter-In-Place: From 1962 to 2020

In March 2020, we all experienced something dramatically new in our lives. Businesses closed, events were cancelled, and here at Oscar-Zero we waited until June 15, 2020 to open – something wholly new to us. From Cooperstown, North Dakota it was and remains difficult to fully understand what was going on elsewhere as the pandemic set in. All we knew was that there was a run on toilet paper for some reason, and of course cleaning supplies. Work with the professional staff of the State Historical Society of North Dakota back in Bismarck provided us with hand sanitizer, signage, protective gear, and guidance on how to move forward and conduct safer tours.

Yes, there are museum accessioned rolls of Air Force toilet paper at Oscar-Zero.

That all seems like a long, long time ago. Safeguards remain in effect as of March 2021.

Many years after the Cold War ended, a modified version of “Shelter-in-place” had gone into effect. However instead of seeking shelter from fallout for a few weeks in a basement, playing cards, or trying to get a snippet of news over the radio, we had a luxury of the internet and even video conferencing while we binge-watched TV. To be truthful, it’s difficult to compare the two versions of shelter-in-place but we still experienced a certain isolation that was most likely new to us and faced an uncertain future. This was a tough time for many of us, and a number of us lost loved ones in the past year.

It might be because of growing up in tornado alley, but emergency management has always been a fascination to me. I remember my father looking out with concern at turbulence in the clouds and watching the local weather forecast closely. Our “cubby hole” beneath the stairs at our Nebraska home was lined with pillows and quilts probably once a year when Tornado Warnings were declared. In middle school I remember three times seeking shelter (once in practice) for different reasons. At least once we practiced another sort of “Shelter-in-place” when the teacher cut the classroom lights and locked the door. The Columbine Shootings had occurred that year and spurred active-shooter drills. The two other times the danger was more nature-oriented but were quite real, again from threat of tornadoes. I vividly remember a girl in my grade crying fearfully as we huddled in a mechanical room beneath heavy-looking equipment that I figured would crush us if a good tornado hit – and once in a subterranean part of the “old” wing of the school, a fallout shelter sign was still there when I attended school in the late 1990s but all the gear was gone.

The 1957 Fargo tornado was rated as an F-5 and caused 25.2 million in damage (236 million today). Hector International Airport can be seen to the right

The more you read and understand about public fallout shelter spaces, the more you understand how much of a bummer it would have been to ever occupy one for a minimum of two weeks. A dark underground space probably without much light, the air humid and dense if the shelter was full of other occupants. A tense feeling as there wasn’t probably much known about the outside world. Chemical toilets, a daily ration of some water, cardboard quality crackers, and carbohydrate supplements – hard candy, later thought to have a dye that caused cancer ironically enough. Then after two weeks? Then what?

Well, you’re sipping a drink, munching on something tasteless, and it’s dark and crowded — a Greenwich Village nightclub.

– Herman Kahn, Cold War strategist when asked about life in a fallout shelter
Well that’s easy, my basement looks like that anyway (Protect and Survive pamphlet, UK)

With the worries of public shelters in mind, suburban Americans were invited (and at times urged) to create their own private fallout shelters within their homes – everything from an actual bunker to an expedient shelter of books, sandbags, and other items piled on a table that you would dwell beneath. The inequalities of these programs are not often mentioned, but are readily evident. Those who had the space and funding to create backyard bomb shelters in the suburbs could do so while anyone within built-up urban areas were at a major disadvantage, not least of which was being within probable target zones where a fallout shelter wasn’t going to do any good. Whatever public shelters in cities were in existence by the program’s peak in 1963 were soon to begin a period of neglect if not outright abandonment in the late 1960s, had they been stocked in the first place. Any nuclear crisis management within cities in that period and beyond must have been beyond daunting. It presents a possibility that the survivors of a nuclear exchange would be predominantly rural and perhaps suburban populations. Crisis relocation plans, the idea of evacuating major cities during crisis before a nuclear attack, attempted to rectify this – however it never could get past the likely clashes that would occur between rural host areas and urban evacuees had an evacuation been successful – even if there were adequate stocks of food, shelter, and medical supplies. A worry of nuclear refugees could, and did in fact create “protect my fortress” like thinking in the 1960s – the “gun thy neighbor” debate was a microcosm of this.

A Soviet poster promoting civil defense. While the Americans had the term “Put your head between your knees and kiss your…rear end…goodbye”, the Soviets had one as well concerning wrapping yourself in a bedsheet and making your way to the nearest cemetery in case of nuclear attack. Pessimism could be found on both sides.

It is interesting to compare the panic-buying that took place in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Spring 2020 rushes on toilet paper and cleaning supplies. It’s also interesting to consider an ongoing survivalism culture that the Covid-19 pandemic likely intensified in some areas. During the Cold War the sociological and psychological impact of the “Bomb” is hard to overstate as it created new layers of dread in societies. Modern survivalism, arguably, emerged in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Yet for as much emotion and distress that a large-scale disaster can provoke (even if it hasn’t happened), there still is a great deal of logic and thinking that has gone into remediation and mitigation during disasters – not least of which are the inspiring stories of humanity we’ll often hear in the wake of a disaster.

After the lights went out and the hurricane-force winds continually roared, we had “sheltered-in-place”, not daring to go outside during Hurricane Sally. When we did after the cyclone made its way to the northeast, there were branches down and some roof damage to other homes. When we worked on a generator in an attempt to keep a deep-freeze frozen, neighbors out cleaning up readily saw our difficulties – came over – and spent hours trying to help us. Vehicles patiently waited in line for fuel at gas stations while elderly neighbors expressed deep thanks to younger neighbors clearing away debris for them. Three days later the electric utility came through and there was a very audible cheer that went up as they restored power. A fleet of trucks that raced in after the hurricane with utility workers spending countless hours restoring electricity. That was our first experience with a hurricane, and we cannot attest to the recent events in Texas.

While the overwhelming immensity of a nuclear war was just eventually too much for the general public to prepare for or want to consider, resulting in a sense of apathy towards countermeasures and civil defense, some of the disaster preparedness actions born of the Cold War have truly borne fruit. The first tornado warnings ever declared were based off data from U.S. Air Force radars at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. Civil defense sirens were adopted for use in tornado warnings and later other civil emergencies. AMBER Alerts and SILVER alerts utilize programs evolved from emergency broadcast systems. Studies into survival foods likely found new ways to feed the world. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, through good and bad, evolved beyond nuclear war protection efforts to everything from flood planning to pandemic protection.

An old fallout shelter sign, Ramsey County Courthouse, Devils Lake, North Dakota 2021

As we continue to navigate through the pandemic a year later, consider the fact that a few years down the road we’ll be interviewed ourselves about “where we were” or “what we did”. The year was truly historic and will be remembered. A Londoner from 1978 would never have imagined “shelter-in-place” would mean something beyond nuclear conflict. From both eras, lessons were and will be learned. Emergency management will continually evolve even as fallout shelter signs fade on old buildings.

Schoolchildren in through the 20th century prepared for prairie blizzards, black-out drills, duck and cover, tornadoes, earthquakes and active-shooter drills. As we navigate the 21st century, some threats remain and other threats may emerge, but the human desire to help neighbors in the midst of hard times will endure.

The Legacy of America’s Nuclear Triad

Any news search in the past week or so using the term “ICBM” yields a great many articles relating to the future of America’s ICBM program. Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, otherwise known as GBSD, has received a great deal of attention from multiple news outlets. The missile is intended to replace Minuteman III and extend American ICBM operations into the 2070s. The common thread among articles concerning GBSD questions the necessity for a new ICBM (thereby finding ways to extend the lifespan of the Minuteman III fleet into the 2030s or even beyond) or the outright retirement of the Minuteman III fleet without a replacement – instead putting a focus on what would become a dyad of strategic bombers (B-2s, B-52s and the upcoming B-21) and ballistic missile submarines (currently Ohio-class but soon the Columbia-class SSBNs)

A display model Minuteman III. While the type has been in service since 1970, there have been many upgrades over the years

As an ICBM historic site, we read about the future of American nuclear forces but remain neutral as to their deployment. After all, our mission is to preserve and interpret the history of the citizens of North Dakota. We study the past but take note of how history has influenced the present day and beyond. We do encourage an open dialogue and are neither “For” nor “Against” anything, at least not publicly (we’re human after all). What a tour involves is the matter-of-fact in the daily lives of missileers, maintenance personnel, chefs, and security forces. Yet politics and the Cold War go hand in hand. Clausewitz’s “On War”, a staple of military reading, stipulates itself that war is a continuation of politics by other means. From Truman to Reagan and beyond, the political ramifications regarding nuclear policies, the number of Minuteman missiles to be deployed, ABM, civil defense, etc., are what make the stories some of us lived so interesting. There’s a reason we can be drawn to controversy and drama. How and why did we get here in 2021 and the discussion of GBSD?

At least in modern times (we’re not great on older military history), one can denote the rise of the British Navy in the late 19th century as a strong deterrent force. Soon, America’s “Great White Fleet” emerged as a deterrent against aggression towards the United States. Quickly fast forward forty years and America’s new deterrent is the atomic bomb, partly playing the same role as the Great White Fleet but also as a stabilizing force in protecting American occupations and interests around the world, at least for a while. Readings from the late-40s, notably about the “Revolt of the Admirals”, are heavy with the fact that the US Navy was seen as suddenly losing it’s dominance as America’s ultimate projection of power. In the admiral’s revolt, some in the Navy fought back against what they saw as wasteful spending on the Air Force’s massive B-36 Peacemaker bomber when taken against the cancellation of a “super aircraft carrier”, the USS United States. That fight had been lost, and the ship was relegated to history while more B-36s rolled off the production line. By the mid-1950s, although the Air Force still dominated “the bomb”, the Navy was developing not only a multitude of nuclear weapon delivery systems on their own (most notably the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile) but also putting a great emphasis on the all-powerful carrier battlegroup that superseded the USS United States (via the USS Forrestal and beyond to the nuclear-powered Enterprise and the prolific Nimitz-class carriers).

Concept drawing of the USS United States, a larger aircraft carrier capable of conducting nuclear operations. The US Navy also considered nuclear operations via amphibious bomber aircraft and early cruise missiles (US Nat’l Archives)

With Polaris especially in 1960, the Navy was now strongly involved in the nuclear deterrence mission. And as Strategic Air Command was fielding Atlas ICBMs, the nuclear triad was coming about. From then on out, the bomber, the land-based missile, and the sea-launched missile were seen as each offering a number of positives and negatives but when put together offered the United States an all-powerful and always ready deterrent.

Yet, as readily seen during the Eisenhower era when nuclear weapons were to be viewed as the supreme deterrent in preventing major wars, the United States was sometimes forced to evolve other deterrents as well, non-nuclear ones – some for better, some for worse. In the later Cold War, the Rapid Deployment Force could be seen as one of these. A way to massively project American non-nuclear military forces around the world in a short amount of time. RDF was replaced by US Central Command (USCENTCOM) and became the key part of the War on Terror.

By the end of the Cold War, it was seen by many that the nuclear deterrent was a lumbering dinosaur when contrasted against the sleek F-117 Stealth fighters, M1 Abrams tanks, Patriot missiles, powerful Navy carrier battlegroups and US special forces groups in the first Gulf War. The pendulum had swung well away from SAC, and it deactivated in 1992. The American nuclear deterrent, the triad, was still seen as necessary but would in effect languish in the background of new high technology warfare.

By the mid-2010s, non-state actors involved in the War on Terror were most assuredly not gone, but cultural vocabularies began to change again, from IEDs to hypersonic missiles. Operation Iraqi Freedom was fading a bit within American culture, but state threats were re-emerging (if they in fact ever left). In an age of information warfare, drones, and covert operations – the role of the nuclear triad came back into focus, although there were questions regarding its relevance. Air Force Global Strike Command was created in 2009 and set against the legacy of the Strategic Air Command in an effort to revitalize the force. Nuclear weapons systems that had often come of age during the Carter and Reagan years were seen as requiring replacement (or even Kennedy years with the B-52 and Nixon with the Minuteman III). So much had happened since the end of the Cold War, not least of which the rippling effects of 9/11 (of which we will reflect upon 20 years later this year), but the triad effectively remained in a 1980s technological stasis – at least as far as the weapons systems themselves – and it was aging. What role did it have now? What role of the missile submarine? the nuclear cruise missile? the Minuteman III?

The Russian Federation still puts great emphasis on its ICBM force. Seen here is a Topol-M road mobile ICBM.

We’re not here to answer that. What we can offer is insight and details of the Minuteman missile program in Eastern North Dakota along with a lesser charge to preserve a greater Cold War history.

What can be said is that the Minuteman missile has had an impressive history of maintaining a ready nuclear deterrent. While there have been difficulties (as their have been across the triad), perceptions of missiles being on “hair-trigger” status are unfounded and were often born of the 1960s when nuclear surety was, well, in a word, complicated (depending on the system). There are benefits and drawbacks in fielding 400 ICBMs on the American Great Plains, just like there are with the other parts of the triad. However the role of the ICBM is to be forever interpreted at Oscar-Zero, no matter what the outcome of Minuteman III or GBSD. This does include the good and the bad as we work to preserve and interpret the whole story of the missile field.

In the end, the story of the American nuclear triad is a diverse one, a complex one. Full of politics, internal and external, along with triumphs and tragedies. There are technical details to personal anecdotes. From the fusing mechanism of a W78 warhead to the contents of a tasty foil pack. There’s a lot to be studied, and some of it is controversial from past points of view to the present day and beyond. It is a subset of Cold War history that found a home in Guam, Diego Garcia, Lakenheath, Palamores, Holy Loch, and even a little community in North Dakota called Cooperstown.

Chugging Along – How Oscar-Zero operates through the winter

Well brrrrrr

With winter in full gear in North Dakota, and considering the bitter cold that has raced down the Great Plains into Texas this week, let’s look at how the airmen and officers at Oscar-Zero stayed warm and conducted operations even when the power went out. We’ll look too at how we currently operate the site in the wintertime.

Cold Vehicles

These can still operate, but there aren’t many takers anymore. An outlet for vehicle block heaters.

A curious feature of the parking lot at Oscar-Zero to some guests are the power outlets located strategically along the edges of the lot. Anyone from warmer climates might wonder if these would be for maybe plugging in electric vehicles. Instead, they are for vehicle block heaters (sometimes just generally known as head-bolt heaters, but there is a difference). As temperatures plunge, the ability for a vehicle to start deteriorates. Fuel cannot vaporize as well in the cold and oil can thicken, leading to a hard start or the vehicle not starting at all. A block heater warms the engine block to prevent this from happening to an extreme level. In addition, a weak battery sometimes cannot hold a good starting charge when it gets too cold. Sometimes we’ll hook up a ‘float charger’ too, kind of like mini-jumper cables that lead back to a plugged-in controller that maintains the battery.

(*We would just like to add at the insistence of one of our staff members more fluent in state history that the inventor of the head-bolt heater was a North Dakota native, Andrew Freeman. He also attended the University of North Dakota.)

In older days, people would simply disconnect the battery and take it inside with them to keep it warm. In the morning they would hook it back up and hopefully be on their way. In even older times, people would drain the oil from a vehicle with the same thought process. When worst came to worse, some would even start a small fire beneath the engine to warm it. We don’t recommend that.

Before a snowfall and cold conditions, we hook our skid-steer up to ensure it starts when we need it. Our garage is unheated.


Between summer and winter, we watch for when our bulk fuel delivery service carries either #1 or #2 diesel. #2 diesel will work better in higher temperatures, but in winter it has the problem of ‘gelling-up’ starving the engine of fuel (and if you run a diesel engine out of fuel it can take a bit of effort to get it running again). #1 has a lower viscosity (thickness) and works better in cold temperatures. We use diesel here in our mower and our skid-steer.


Since 2017, we’ve worked to add redundancy and efficiency to our boiler system (a huge relief to be not on site and not worry as much about something failing). The units operate on propane and require a very close watch to ensure we don’t run our tanks out when its cold. Many houses have ‘forced-air’ systems which push heated air (via propane, natural gas, or electric heat) throughout the venting systems in a home. Oscar instead primarily relies on boilers heating water and pushing the heated water via pump to radiators located in most rooms topside. The system is a complex one, particularly because we also have an ‘air-handling system’ that pushes air-conditioned air throughout the site in summer with a heat pump helping a bit in the winter before it gets too cold. Before a propane system was installed, Oscar-Zero relied on an oil-burning boiler system. We think this was replaced sometime in the mid-1980s.

Two 1000-gallon propane tanks at Oscar-Zero. No, our delivery driver is not named Hank Hill.
Our new boiler system has proven much more efficient and reliable.

We’ve had some frightening moments when a boiler motor starts making noise or the system itself is having problems when it’s -30 out (we had a relief valve fail a few years back resulting in the fluid level in the system dropping). Before a few radiator repairs we went into the historic kitchen and ran electric radiators to help ensure the water lines didn’t freeze. In addition to all of this, we have an electric heater that runs in our orientation room (a room with an outdoor-exposure to the west, north, and east not hooked up to the radiator system).

Needless to say, it takes an awful lot of energy to keep the site warm and functional in the winter.

The day room / dining room radiator bank along the north wall at Oscar-Zero. Carpenters concealed the radiator during the 1980s remodel.


During a nuclear attack…or a blizzard…the power may go out. And the Air Force considered this.

Commercial power entered into the site as a 3-phase, 480-volt connection. A transformer in the utility room still hums away. Being in a rural location means that electricity outages are a little more frequent.

Historically, the site featured to diesel-powered generators – a 75KW topside and a 110KW down below in the Launch Control Equipment Building. The topside one was replaced by an 80KW unit the site still uses during outages (we test it monthly) while the one below remains in place but is not functional. The LCEB generator was supplied fuel via a 110 gallon “day tank” located inside the LCEB that could be fed from a massive 14,300 underground tank outside of the capsule. A bulk oil tank also supplied the diesel engine with additional motor oil as needed. This allowed for the generator to theoretically work for 2500 hours unattended (104 days) before fuel and/or oil was all expended.

The topside generator had an underground diesel tank as well, although we’re not sure if this was separate from the 14,300 gallon tank or not. An above ground 500 gallon tank can still be found behind the orientation room. It is no longer used, instead the new generator is supplied by a nearby tank within the generator room.

The Launch Control Equipment Building sustained the Launch Control Center in a multitude of ways including the brine chiller (large gray boxes to the right) used to help cool electronics and the make-up air fan (large gray box closest to viewer) that supplied fresh air to the LCC. This was located in the other capsule across from the LCEB.

Should the below-ground generator fail, a motor-generator would automatically shift from an alternating current drive motor to a direct current drive motor (Commercial and generator power are AC, batteries are DC and require a shift in operation). 32 batteries would be engaged to support Launch Control Center operations for a short period.

Today, none of the below-ground auxiliary electric systems work. The tanks are drained and the batteries are long gone. Our topside generator can operate our elevator if the need arose.

Finally, the site supervisor can generate enough static electricity by walking up and down the hallway of Oscar-Zero to power a city the size of Detroit.

(Okay, maybe not that last one, but it feels like it sometimes)

Love Song to the BUFF – The B-52 in North Dakota

To say the B-52 Stratofortress has a slight following among aviation enthusiasts may be the greatest understatement ever uttered on this blog. Among Strategic Air Command veterans it’s history is viewed with a sense of awe unparalleled to any other aircraft. Of course, it’s combat history and service longevity helps. The story goes that when the last B-2 Spirit bomber is retired a B-52 will be shooting touch-and-goes on the neighboring runway.

When I was about 12, I’d been a ready watcher of the old Discovery Channel Wings program and the episode on the B-52 was my favorite. It’s still available on YouTube and worth a watch, particularly for it’s interesting 1980’s stock music. My first memorable close up to the B-52 was the -B model at the Strategic Air Command Museum first at Offutt AFB, Nebraska and later near Ashland. At Ashland, while the aircraft was impressive, what I recall vividly was the Security Police mannequin in a display case near the bomber. Wearing a parka, winter gear, and an M-16 rifle, the mannequin took me to a 2am flight line at Minot in the dead of winter. The aircraft guard trying to keep warm and stay alert while snow whipped around the mammoth and “cocked” nuclear bomber as stadum lights glowed down fiercely through the dead of night. Since then there was always a mystique about Cold War North Dakota that I was lucky to later experience.

North Dakota’s experience with the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow*) has been far reaching. Recently a B-52H from Minot AFB performed a flyover with a B-1 and B-2 over the Super Bowl, once more bringing the old workhorse to the spotlight. However, the B-52’s mission orientation has changed dramatically over the years at both Minot and during it’s life at Grand Forks. Yet in one big way, it hasn’t. Let’s take a look at the B-52 in North Dakota.

These are equipped with Electro-optical viewing blisters that allow for crews to navigate more easily at low level and in nuclear environments. (USAF Photo)

Considering how closely the B-52 has come to be thought of in relation to the Peace Garden State, it’s service actually did not begin until nearly the end of the bomber’s production run. The B-52 first took to the air in 1952, nine years before it’s tandem landing gear touched down on the Minot runway. Initially, the pre-production YB-52 sported a tandem seating arrangement much like the aircraft the B-52 essentially evolved from, the B-47. Celebrated Air Force General Curtis LeMay personally stepped in and requested that the bomber have a conventional side-by-side airliner arrangement instead. From it’s entry into service in 1955, the BUFF went through a number of evolutions in the late-1950s including the production the B-52D, a model intrinsically tied to it’s service in Vietnam but also eventually the B-52G, a model featuring advancements in fuel capacity and changes in crew arrangements. The G model was the most prolific BUFF with 193 produced and would eventually see service at Grand Forks.

As North Dakota Air Force Bases initially began as Air Defense Command bases, the B-52 found it’s way to an almost natural environment for it – that of the Northern Tier Strategic Air Command base. “Peace Persuader” landed at Minot during July 1961 and began service with the 4136th Strategic Wing. This name would change in 1963 to the 450th Bomb Wing and finally became the 5th Bomb Wing in 1968.

Peace Persuader behind a Minot team. (USAF Photo)

April 1962 would find the first B-52H model land at Grand Forks AFB beginning service with the 4133rd Strategic Wing, also moving on in 1963 but with the designation 319th Bomb Wing.

Both units were equipped with free-fall nuclear weapons but were also soon equipped with the AGM-28 Hound Dog stand-off missile designed for destroying enemy Surface-to-air missile installations in the B-52’s flightpath.

While the B-52F and B-52D soon found themselves committed to the Vietnam War and Operation Arc Light (the B-52D undergoing a modification in the mid-60s to “Big Belly” standard, the ability to carry a massive 108 bombs), the B-52H remained solely committed to the nuclear deterrent mission. It’s turbofan engines and advanced avionics made it a powerful threat to Soviet air defenses. During 1972 and 1973, B-52Hs at Minot and Grand Forks were equipped to carry the Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) that served as an advanced replacement for the Hound Dog, in addition, more SRAMs could be carried. These would serve into the 1990s.

AGM-69 short range attack missiles (SRAMS) and Mark 28 thermo-nuclear bombs in the bomb bay of a B-52H Stratofortress aircraft, as a downloading operation takes place during Exercise GLOBAL SHIELD ’84 (USAF Photo).

By 1979, the B-52D was soldiering on in the conventional role but it’s days were numbered. B-52Gs had served as conventional bombers during the Operation Linebacker II raids in 1972 but it was clear that the B-52H would require a conventional capability. Strategic Air Command initiated the Strategic Projection Force concept with the 319th Bomb Wing at Grand Forks proving the core concept. In 1981, B-52H aircraft from the base took off on a 15,000 mile round trip flight from the base to Egypt to support the BRIGHT STAR exercise in 1981 by laying down conventional bombs on a simulated runway. The long endurance flight to deliver conventional bombs would become a hallmark of the B-52 thereafter.

While Minot B-52Hs continued in service, Grand Forks traded it’s H models for G models in 1983. In an effort to extend the combat effective life of the -G model, these aircraft were equipped with Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) that could allow the B-52 merely to stand-off and fire missiles at enemy targets at a safe distance. During a GLOBAL SHIELD nuclear exercise in 1986, a Grand Forks B-52G fired an ALCM, a SRAM, and delivered a gravity nuclear weapon all during the same mission. The B-52 era would end at Grand Forks in 1987 as the B-1B Lancer began to replace it.

In September 1991, the last B-52H models were pulled from alert status at Minot AFB. Since their beginning at the base, a contingent of B-52s were always fully fueled and fully armed in response to Soviet attack. The hope was these aircraft could be aloft within 15 minutes warning to escape the base should it be hit by an incoming missile.

After the Cold War, the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot continued it’s ability to deliver nuclear weapons, but became increasingly important in conventional warfare. As the B-52G was retired, the dwindling -H models were eventually consolidated either at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana or at Minot. After 9/11, the aircraft were called upon time and again to support Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom utilizing precision strikes and close air support missions.

By 2021 the B-52 found itself in a familiar place. As threats and provocation from nuclear states grew during the late 2010s, the B-52s of Minot could be found carrying out long-distance exercises across the Atlantic and Pacific. In 2017, the nuclear capability of Minot B-52s was reduced to the ALCM as nuclear free-fall bombs were deleted from it’s inventory.

This neat photo showcases a B-52D (foreground) with a B-52G landing in the background. The bomber evolved in many ways over the years. (USAF Historical Support Division Photo)

Current projections place the B-52 in active service until 2040, beyond the scheduled retirement date of the B-1 and B-2. The B-1 was actually started in an attempt to replace the B-52 fleet but this never came to fruition while the B-2 complimented B-52 capabilities. The aircraft has seen countless upgrades and modifications over the years, leaving any Air Force crew from 1961 in awe of what became of their aircraft. It is interesting to see serial numbers from 1960s photographs in black and white just to fast forward to a photo from 2015 of the same aircraft still flying.

Does the B-52 really deserve all the love it gets? Did you seriously think we would answer that? We might as well poke a grizzly with a short stick. The B-52 is an embodiment of American engineering and endurance. By the late 1980s it was considered a dinosaur with little future. A weapon system that would have a heck of a time conducting it’s original mission of high-altitude nuclear strike against Russia. However, partially because of the work of the 319th Bomb Wing at Grand Forks AFB, the B-52H was found to be an adaptable airframe that could both vaporize airfields but deliver precision-guided munitions in Afghanistan. It is funny to consider that the ‘saber rattling’ the B-52 continues to provide as it flies over the Baltic or South China Sea once originated under Operation Chrome Dome and evolved under various nuclear and conventional exercises over the later Cold War years. Like the aircraft carrier, the B-52 became a venerable projection of American power across the world. It seems the news rarely fails to pick up on the overseas movements and exercises of these aircraft. Only a week ago (Feb 2021) Stars and Stripes reported that four B-52s deployed to Guam on a ‘Strategic Deterrence’ mission. When the BUFF moves, people take notice – friendly or adversarial.

These are possibly the same aircraft – 60-0017 or 61-0017, in either event both are still in service (60-0017 seen above serves at Minot, 61-0017 serves at Barksdale) (USAF Photos)

In the end, it is impossible to predict the end of service for this aircraft. A B-52H from 1962 certainly is not the same aircraft as the same serial number flying today, yet it’s mission is the same. Just as Stars and Stripes reported, in 2021 it was ‘Strategic Deterrence’. On the frigid alert pad at Grand Forks in 1965, it was also ‘Strategic Deterrence’. As a missile-oriented historic site, it is a difficult statement to make. But when you think of SAC, you think of the BUFF.

Wild Cards and What Ifs: How hard it must have been to plan for nuclear war after 1960

Nearing the climax of Wargames, the War Operations Plan Response computer (BG MAC…okay, the WOPR) flashes through dozens of nuclear war scenarios that had been programmed into it. It flashes by so quickly you only catch brief snippets of words before it goes on to the next. The first two are easy, US FIRST STRIKE, USSR FIRST STRIKE. Often when the Cold War is considered, the “Bolt Out Of the Blue” (yeah, good luck with that acronym) nuclear strike seems to be the “go to” on how World War III often starts in fiction. The next plan, NATO/WARSAW PACT falls more in line with what happened in The Day After and almost in Red Storm Rising, but the remainder of the scenarios vary wildly (we pulled the list up off of Reddit), from the JAMAICA DECOY to the UGANDA MAXIMUM and the VIETNAMESE INCIDENT.

GREENLAND DOMESTIC? I’d like to have read the background on that one.

I’m sorry General Beringer, I can’t seem to find US SPARKPLUG (Wargames, MGM Films)

What is interesting about all of these names is that Wargames reminds the viewer that there were, and are, many more scenarios and world events that contributed to the Cold War than just the US and USSR. Planning all of these nuclear scenarios out has given jobs for many years on the American side at Strategic Air Command (now Strategic Command) Headquarters at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. Plans would trickle down in a highly classified shape to the nuclear forces, including the missiles controlled by Oscar-Zero. The hope was the plans could become responsive enough to different scenarios. At Oscar and at all Minuteman sites, a goal throughout the Cold War and beyond was to make retargeting the missiles much faster than in the early days.

Now the number of weapons have gone down since the end of the Cold War, but there are still a great number of nuclear powers out there ranging from the big ones – the United States and the Russian Federation to states of minimal deterrent strength – the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and probably Israel. As years went by, nuclear planning became much more complicated.

The SIOP, the Single Integrated Operational Plan – America’s strategic nuclear war plan, in 1960 was relatively simple. The National Security Archive reports that a full pre-emptive attack upon communist forces around the world required over 3200 weapons against 1060 targets in the Soviet Union, China, other Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe and other allied nations in Asia – namely North Korea. We’ll call this warplan AMERICAN KITCHEN SINK.

SIOP-62 is remains classified.

Honestly, this is often a ‘whew’ moment. The United States wasn’t just planning on retaliation against the Soviet Union if it attacked, or strike it pre-emptively if it was showing signs of attack preparation, it planned to attack virtually everything communist on the other side of the world – the so-called Sino-Soviet Bloc. In December 1960, the Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Shoup, famously objected to the war plan explaining that hitting an non-complicit China with nuclear weapons should the Soviets go to war was “…not the American way” (Kaplan’s Wizards of Armageddon Pg 270). Incoming Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was similarly dismayed as SAC commander General Thomas Power joked that he hoped the Secretary “didn’t have any relations in Albania, because we’re just going to have to wipe it out.” (Pg 272).

Over time, the SIOP changed and things became more complex. The plan became more flexible but the number of nuclear states increased. The United Kingdom eventually joined in the SIOP plan, first committing it’s V-bombers and later its submarine force. Good deal, it is a coordinated nuclear force that hopefully rationalizes the plan (however you can do that in a nuclear war). There was soon a wild card however. France broke with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by 1966 and planned its own nuclear deterrent and strategy. It’s adversary, the Soviet Union, was shared with NATO but there wasn’t much for joint coordination.

So here’s a big problem. If there is a ground war in Europe, Warsaw Pact tanks are way past West Germany and breaking into Dijon. France decides unleash it’s nuclear arsenal against Soviet cities (they had no plans to strike military targets – No counterforce for the Force de Frappe). The Soviets are probably going to decide hit back at France and NATO and the United States because its a “use it or lose it” situation. There wasn’t a good way of knowing a French attack wasn’t at the behest of NATO anyway. Any laid plans by the Americans to hit Soviet military targets is now pretty much useless. We’ll call that war plan FRENCH MISTAKE. WINNER: NONE

French missileers at their consoles, possibly speaking in French (Nuclear Nightmares, Corinth Films)

On the other side of the world, China developed a nuclear capability in 1964, at first with a great deal of input and support by the Soviets. As Primer Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 1956 party congress, it was pretty shocking to the other communists in attendance – including Stalin fan Mao Zedong. Relations soured between them and there were border skirmishes in 1969 that led to fears of nuclear war between the two nations. The Soviet/Chinese relationship in the Cold War merits further reading. What was more certain now in 1969 was that there was no more Sino-Soviet Bloc, it was quite possible during a World War III they would be adversaries. The SIOP of 1960 now made even less sense.

Here’s another scenario, China conducts a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan in 1975. We’ll name this one CHINESE REALLY BAD IDEA. The U.S. 7th Fleet is caught in the crossfire and China strikes Kadena Air Base on Okinawa (an American far east base) with a nuclear weapon.

Do you: A. Launch a single Minuteman III missile from Oscar Flight in North Dakota against an air base in mainland china B. Launch a Polaris from a submarine in the East China Sea C. Conduct a conventional strike against a Chinese air base

China’s 1964 “Project 596”, their first nuclear test. There is a clip of this in the documentary “Trinity and Beyond” and its pretty crazy (Like riding horses with gas masks towards ground zero firing AK-47s crazy)

One of these could not happen – firing a Minuteman III from North Dakota against China. Why? It certainly had the range, it was going to be way more accurate than the Polaris, but it’s trajectory was all wrong. To hit China from North Dakota meant a flight path OVER the Soviet Far East. Anyone watching early warning radars in the Soviet Union wasn’t going to take that lightly.

By 2021, there are more players holding nuclear cards at the table. Delivery and command and control systems possessed by each have grown in complexity since the end of the Cold War. It would be hard to imagine the number of scenarios that have grown in the nuclear world since 1960, and all of a sudden that huge list on Wargames makes a little more sense. As General Eisenhower paraphrased Helmuth von Moltke (a Prussian field marshal in the late 19th Century) “Plans never survive contact with the enemy”. It seems at times they may not survive contact with allies either. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August seems to emphasize this point. In the end, thankfully, Cold War contingency plans were never borne out. However the nuclear shadow still casts itself today in plan books throughout the world.

REDACTED – A Kansas Broken Arrow in 1962? How far to dig into a touchy subject

As time moves on, new stories from the missile field start to fade. A lucky part about Oscar-Zero is that many of its veterans are still around. In fact, one 321st Missile Wing veteran, General John “Jay” Raymond, remains in military service – just the Chief of Space Operations for US Space Force – you know, not too big a deal (we’re joking of course).

When you get down to asking veterans questions, often times you’ll see a look of hesitation in their eyes or speech. It had been 50 years since they served in North Dakota, but was that question still a little too far? Would it violate OPSEC? OPSEC stands for ‘operational security’, a guard against careless talk that’s not necessarily classified but people just don’t really need to know it. Worse would be to violate classified, secret or top secret notes of a missile system.

However when a missile system has been long, long retired – like that of the Atlas-E – a researcher might pry a bit deeper. My own experience researching an Air Base (not Grand Forks) revealed a great deal that was still classified from 1960. Why is it still classified? Did it just never reach declassification review? (more than likely) or does it hold something that is still a military secret? Perhaps it holds something embarrassing, like a note about a nuclear incident. One must tread lightly when working to uncover such things.

While perusing a recently declassified document from the National Nuclear Safety Administration, I found a familiar list of nuclear accidents that had occurred in the 1950s. It appears to have been produced in 1966, the same year as the infamous Palamores B-52 incident (four nuclear weapons descended and were ultimately recovered after a B-52 collided with a KC-135 over the Mediterranean Ocean).

Two MK-28 Bomb Casings from the 1966 Palomares, Spain Incident at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

Alright, here’s the Travis AFB, California incident in August 1950 – well, it was actually Fairfield-Suisun at the time – a B-29 carrying General Robert Travis, along with a Mark-4 nuclear bomb, crashed on take-off. The bomb exploded, but there was no nuclear core. It still killed 19 people (including Travis, whom the base would soon be named), and even without a nuclear core it was an incident involving a nuclear weapon. There is a lot to consider about nuclear weapon design over the years.

A few more were familiar, Seymour-Johnson 1961 – yes, the Goldsboro Incident. Yuba City? Another B-52 incident. Forbes Air Force Base March 1962? There was never an incident at Forbes, I would have read about it.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…oh wait, yes we are (548th SMS)

Alright then, time for some sleuthing, what was at Forbes in 1962? It was south of Topeka, Kansas. The 55th Reconnaissance Wing was there, that’s right, RB-47s – but they weren’t nuclear capable. Didn’t the 40th Bomb Wing transition to Forbes after Schilling in Salina? Yep, B-47s bombers were there – but there’s no recording of an incident or crash. A 310th Bomb Wing B-47 at Schilling crashed in July 1962 creating a large explosion but that was in western Kansas. What else was at Forbes? The 548th Strategic Missile Squadron and their 9 Atlas-E coffin-launchers around Topeka.

With only a mention of Forbes in March 1962, I set to work. If it was major enough, like an explosion, there might be a news article about it. Eventually I found one –


Okay, if it was a cancelled ‘Broken Arrow’ – an accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, warheads, or components that does not create a risk of nuclear war – why is it still listed as a major nuclear incident in 1966? There are documents now available discussing relatively minor (although still serious) nuclear incidents (someone hit an unarmed bomb with a forklift, one dropped on the ground).

A Freedom of Information Act request resulted in a 29-page document from the National Nuclear Safety Administration. A great deal of it is blanked out not by the DOD (Department of Defense) but the DOE (Department of Energy) – stewards of American nuclear technology.

Let’s dig a little further. I was starting to feel like a private eye with a whole mess of folders on my desk (- top computer), all I was missing was the fedora and the trench-coat (although an insulated trench coat sounds kind of nice today in North Dakota).

I found mention of the incident and where it occurred on Jim Kirkpatrick’s trusty missile website, mentioning a forum post back in 2005 about the incident. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access it, a dead end. It did shed more light on the incident. Apparently it was a solid-fuel motor that ignited due to a static discharge –

After a standboard evaluation, the site was being reconfigured for standard alert duty but a stray static charge, while reconnecting the firing cable, caused the sustainer engine’s SPGG to fire (Solid Propellant Gas Generator, SPGG). The turbo pump spun up dry and disintegrated, sending shrapnel into the fuel tank (of missile 44-E). The tank depressurized causing the missile to collapse. It was apparently sent back to Convair for repair. It may have been returned to service and later scrapped.

Jim Kirkpatrick
Atlas-E installation. This “coffin” style launcher was buried partially below ground, a big improvement over Atlas-D. Atlas-E and Atlas-F featured internal guidance. (Photo: Siloworld.net)

Atlas missiles required pressurization, or to be put into ‘stretch’, in order to maintain their rigidity. The skin thickness was no more than a dime in some places. Really, the Atlas was liquid oxygen/kerosene-fueled balloon-like rocket with three engines on the bottom. Minuteman was much easier to work with in relative terms. But if an Atlas depressurized and collapsed, it was like crushing a soda can.

And if it’s heavy re-entry vehicle and warhead are atop the missile, things got complicated really fast. Check out this YouTube video of an Atlas-Agena booster depressurizing on its pad.

The report neither confirmed nor denied a nuclear weapon being present, standard protocol for Strategic Air Command. However I stumbled across an eyewitness description of the event on an historical digital magazine website

On Tuesday, March 13, 1962, an incident occurred at Worden Site #2.  Described in newspapers of the day as both a fire and explosion, the Air Force immediately issued denials that either ever happened. The Air Force’s initial denial was voiced in the Garden City Telegram of March 14, 1962, saying of the report of an explosion or fire, “It was an erroneous report, originated when smoke from a motor was carried through ventilators,” said Capt. Albert E. Hanneman, public information officer at the base.”  The story began to change slowly as The Emporia Gazette of March 15, 1962 quotes an Associated Press story by The Topeka Daily Capital, “The Topeka Daily Capital said today an alarm at an Atlas missile site was more than just a ‘smoke scare’. The newspaper said it had learned the complex and costly Atlas missile had completely ruptured as a result of a malfunction within the missile itself. Air Force officials had reported Tuesday night that the alarm which sent emergency equipment scurrying to the launch site was due to smoke from an overheated electric motor.  Later officials said the malfunction occurred inside the missile and caused it to buckle. The newspaper said the warhead was removed Tuesday night and the missile itself may be returned to the factory for investigation by a team of experts to determine what caused the malfunction.” Jim Scott was quite familiar with the incident at the Worden site, as a personal acquaintance was present when the event occurred. The Stone Crew, the lead Standboard Crew, were performing routine checks of the missile’s electrical systems while the rocket lay horizontal in the missile bay.  The Standboard DMCCC, 1st Lieutenant Larry White was performing checks, carefully following a checklist created by General Dynamics and provided to the Air Force. White read each of the checklist orders aloud, and as he performed each task, he place a check-mark with a grease pencil beside each directive. Lieutenant White was seated against one of the rocket’s booster engines as he performed the checkout, and without warning, the booster engine exploded.  Tiny sparks of stray electrical energy were created in the circuit-testing process, itself, and insofar as the system wasn’t grounded at the appropriate times to drain the stray voltage, a large enough spark was created to ignite the pyrotechnics of the solid propellant gas generators (SPGG) which surrounded the rocket engine.  The explosive charges, when triggered correctly, send the turbine blades into motion, starting the rocket.  In this case, however, since the rocket contained no liquid fuel which served to lubricate the engine, one of the booster engines exploded, causing the turbine blades to break apart, damaging the missile both internally and externally. When Lieutenant White opened his eyes after the explosion, he was horrified to see the missile’s nuclear nosecone lying on the floor of the missile bay (emphasis added by this blog). A piece of one of the turbine fan blades was embedded in the missile bay wall. The explosion triggered an extensive investigation by the Air Force and General Dynamics.  It was determined that White had followed all of the procedures contained in the checkout list, and that the fault was due solely to an inaccurate list created by General Dynamics.

Hoots, Greg ‘Fifteen Minutes Till Doomsday” Flint Hill Special 10 Feb 2020
A Mark-4 Re-Entry vehicle atop a horizontally-stored Atlas-E at a Forbes site (Photo 548th SMS)

Had the missile had been fueled, Lt. White would have vanished as the missile exploded, but this seems to have been a much smaller explosion than if the whole missile went up in flames. Still, the airframe fell apart. Unfortunately, Atlas was just that volatile to handle. However in this case it appeared components in the missile burst and caused it to depressurize. In that case the re-entry vehicle (and the nuclear warhead inside) would probably have just dropped off to the floor. Technically, this qualifies as a ‘Broken Arrow” as it was the jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component.

Case closed…right? Maybe, maybe not. I couldn’t find the reference, but I’d remembered an accident at a Lincoln Atlas-F site to the north of Forbes when the Atlas came unshackled in ‘stretch’ and the re-entry vehicle fell in on it like a lead weight on tin foil resulting in a ‘near Broken Arrow’. The warhead was briefly out of control but it sounded like there was no fire. Was that the difference? There was a fire at the Forbes site that made it a Broken Arrow? Or was the 1966 report erroneous?

In any event, it will retain interest into the future. A once hushed-up incident regarding a nuclear weapon in the middle of Kansas during a time of high Cold War tension. Would McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, be persuaded that the first-generation ICBMs should go off alert as soon as possible because of this particular accident? What target was now uncovered in the Single Integrated Operational Plan because of the loss of this missile? Are there any eyewitnesses left who could describe what really happened to declare a Broken Arrow aside from the gentleman in the article? Would they want to? It might be a subject covered by OPSEC or fully classified after all.

We’re not quite sure where this occurred, there is no caption for the photograph. All we know is something went terribly wrong at this Atlas-E site. (Siloworld.net)

Sometimes it feels as a researcher that you’d like to ask every question under the sun but realize, first of all that you don’t want to make an interview uncomfortable and secondly you don’t want to make a reputation. If you ask too deep of questions that may or may not be classified anymore, you might gain a reputation within a veterans community of in the least asking too many questions. Moreover, you maybe uncovering embarrassing topics of history that will make a heritage look bad or at the worst maybe even being some sort of spy. It is a Catch-22 at times, as you’re seeking the total truth, the good and the bad. It’s hard to know when to ask and when to shut up. The Atlas-E a magnificent feat of engineering quickly fielded as a nuclear deterrent and an excellent satellite launcher in later years, but also a volatile thing prone to problems in its rushed early capability. A very expensive deterrent considering it’s lifespan and the advent of the solid-fueled Minuteman. Did it in fact deter the Soviets in the early 60s? Or did the B-47s at Forbes do that, the RB-47s themselves providing strategic warning at signs of World War III. Too many whys and not enough answers.

We return to the fact that Snark, Thor, Atlas, and Titan were the first generation of an ICBM deterrent that paved the way for not only Minuteman development but how an Air Force was supposed to actually deploy and support these weapons. Minuteman may be remarkable in the fact for how unremarkable it was in the day-to-day dealings of the Cold War. A stable weapon system that maintained a high rate of alert (thanks to its crews and maintainers). They quietly waited underground with few issues that ever came to public light (maybe the Ellsworth 1964 accident being the most notable). And that’s perhaps the neat take away from Minuteman, it did its job so well that no one really noticed. A quiet deterrent readily visible from Moscow or Beijing, but not obvious on the front page of the Fargo Forum.

There is much we still don’t know about the Cold War and perhaps will never know. In the very least, incidents like March 1962 let us remember that while great weapons of deterrence came to be during the Cold War, they were far from perfect and still threatened lives through accidents.