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The Road to Alpha-03

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Delta-32 and its new companions, a wind farm.

A clear sky gave way to a cold, enveloping fog as the vehicle lumbered North along North Dakota Route 1. Along the horizon the dark grays sometimes gave way to lighter colors in hopes that maybe the low clouds would break, but they never did. Around me a world of white, occasionally interspersed with a tree or piece of farm machinery, was a constant companion throughout the trip. Destination: the former Alpha-03 Launch Facility.

 

Journeying from Oscar, the trip to Alpha flight was a little under two hours. The original missile field extended from Alpha-03 (itself a mere two miles from the Canadian border) down to Mike-24 which can be seen from Interstate 94. This is approximately 170 miles from North to South, and combining the stretch East to West, the missile field took up an area the size of New Jersey. Early dispersal methods at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana took up an even larger span of land.

There it was time to imagine rumbling down the highway in a maintenance truck or perhaps even a Peacekeeper armored-car patrol vehicle. Of course cars are much quieter today, better shocks kept the depressions in the road caused by the freeze/thaw cycle effectively at bay. It made me wonder how things would fly around a maintainers truck as it flew down the road. Not to mention my vehicle was well heated, Peacekeeper trucks tended to lack that feature of even temperature control, no matter what time of year.

Beyond Lakota, North Dakota a few old LFs were visible off the road, Hotel-29 and

a left front view of two u.s. air force peacekeeper security police armored response_convoy trucks. the vehicles are used to patrol the base

Peacekeepers were tough vehicles but often remarked as drafty in the winter and very hot in the summer.

Foxtrot-10 among them, elements of the 447th Strategic Missile Squadron. Many more were hidden in the distance, miles away, with lingering barbed wire fences the only remains of what was.

 

Nekoma yielded the first of the 446th’s Missile Alert Facilities, Delta-0, which today has been transformed into a vehicle shop. Usually in the distance you can pick out the “Pyramid of the Prairie”, the ghostly remains of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex northeast of Nekoma. Only when I drew immediately close did the tan figure stand out along with it’s associated support buildings and bunkers. Such a massive piece of construction abandoned in the post-Vietnam realignment of military requirements and the politics of the time.

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The Missile Site Radar Building (pyramid) of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex northeast of Nekoma. This site is not open to the public and photos were taken from a road nearby

Beyond this was Delta-32, a barbed-wire fence surrounding absolutely nothing. A background of snow and a near lack of horizon made the square plot even more prominent against the gently whirring windmills nearby. An interesting testament to North Dakota’s progress, there sat unimaginable nuclear power while the wind turns the turbines of peaceful energy production now. From nuclear weapons to the Bakken Fields to wind, North Dakota certainly does not slack from the history of energy.

The lonely highway weaved north among old abandoned farmsteads, some perhaps lost in the 30’s judging by age of weathered wood, others lost during the tough times of the 80’s. Maybe some folded peacefully as offspring decided to try their luck in the city instead of pulling the plows of forefathers and mothers.

Langdon, once the epicenter of ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) as was the jargon of the 1970’s, embraces agriculture today. 1970’s construction still peeks around city corners here and there, however a Spartan missile monument in the city parks appears to be the sole reminder of ABM. The closure of Safeguard was fairly dramatic as numbers of homes and trailers erected for housing suddenly turned vacant. In the face of such adversity, the citizens of Langdon merely continued on and looked forward.

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The Spartan possessed a 5 megaton warhead to destroy incoming enemy warheads. Guidance was by radio command.

North of Langdon the snow picked up a bit, the sky grew a bit darker. The road sign proclaiming “Port of Entry” denoted I was not far from the Canadian border. Down in a small valley supporting the end extreme of a dam there were a few ice fishermen out. Back up the hill the road became empty and quiet. I shot beyond Alpha-03 accidentally but fortunately there were a few turn-arounds before the Canadian border. In the distance the border station sat, beyond just looked like a continuance of North Dakota. It was Manitoba, a different country, a land of kilometers and the French language duly posted with English. Many probably scoff at my wonder of the exotic difference that is Canada, but I’ve never been across any American border. Today would be no different.

 

Instead I parked on the lane leading to Alpha-03. A narrow strip of road, now overgrown with weeds and full of snow, led into the fenced site. Aerial images previously displayed likely hives for honey production, although there were none there now. Instead, intensely forlorn against the backdrop of a chilly wind and grey skies, it stared back west from it’s empty gate.

Looking North, Canada was in easy view from here. Although Alpha-08 was actually a bit closer to the border, Alpha-03 was the closest Minuteman silo to Moscow. Over the North Pole, it was 4,784 miles to the Kremlin from there, and 3,934 miles to Murmansk. Only the Atlas-F silos in the Plattsburg, New York area were actually closer – however their service lives were a brief flicker in the span of the Cold War late-1962 to early 1965. By 1965, the Minuteman II system was being constructed in the plains and valleys of Eastern North Dakota. Theoretically, Alpha-03 could have represented the first ICBM impacts in the nations of the Warsaw Pact. According to the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the “SIOP”, there would be many more to follow.

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Alpha-03, America’s (2nd) most northerly Minuteman site after Alpha-08 

But now, in January 2019, there was almost absolutely nothing to let passersby know that Alpha-03 possessed weapons of mass destruction. Quietly, it guards nothing now. It can be acknowledged that when it’s re-entry vehicle was pulled on April 2, 1996, it had fulfilled its deterrent mission. Ironically, as it once supported bee hives, it could be said that it later helped support life rather than to threaten it. Today, it’s just another fence in a snowy North Dakota field.

 

Standing there for several minutes I could imagine Security Police quickly pulling up and dismounting with M-16 rifles asking the simple question what I was doing there. I could also see a maintenance truck and the same guards keeping a vigilant eye on his or her surroundings as the Personnel Access Hatch was open, maintainers invisible below repairing a piece of equipment. Seeing a transporter-erector positioned over a silo must have been something to see. There’s a lot you can imagine looking back at that bare piece of ground.

It was time to go, especially after my hand went numb holding the camera. I imagine a number of veterans have their favorite stories about individual silos, and the hope is they’re finding a way to record them. A few years down the line the fence may be gone and the LF farmed over somehow, perhaps it would be a fitting end to it as a sword returning to the plowshare.

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Winter at Oscar

Within the warm confines of the building, one can often see the snow fence stretched out as a barrier waiver a little in the north wind. Aside from that little is moving except the occasional grain truck racing down the highway. Wisps of high cirrus clouds stripe the blue Dakota sky, perhaps a creature is stirring at Oscar – likely a field mouse looking for some warmth.

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Between November 1 and April 1, Oscar Zero State Historic Site is open for tours by appointment. Often this creates confusion to weary travelers who understand the site is “open” except that the site supervisor may not be present that day. We occasionally receive flustered phone messages due to confusing “hours of operation” data on the internet we unfortunately have little control over. Due to tour requests during all seven days of the week, it is also difficult to state what days we will be present as well.

So aside from tours, what is it we actually do during the winter months? A lot of it goes into planning, research, training, and maintenance.

As our temporary seasonal staff departs on Halloween week, visitor numbers decline. The quiet times allow for a good cleaning of the site utilizing specialized techniques designed to minimize wear and tear on historic items. We will dust, although only with dry methods as traditional cleaners are bad for preservation. Windows may be cleaned with vinegar/water solutions whereas carpets are vacuumed with HEPA-filtered equipment to trap dust. Outdoors we erect the snow fence and ready equipment for snow removal operations. We ensure propane tanks are topped off, security equipment and other sensors are continuing to perform correctly and keep an eye on things that can blow away. While we provide tours, other shoes we wear include boiler technician, groundskeeper, roofer, cleaner, accountant- just a number of different tasks that keep our jobs interesting and fun.

Beyond maintenance, the winter allows for research and planning. Quieter days allow for the consumption of white papers, research documents pertaining to the Cold War in North Dakota along with the Minuteman mission. Here we can attempt to present new information and stories to the public via social media or other research.

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1st Lt. Mezzatesta talks over the deputy consoles phone sometime during the 1980s (Photo: SHSND)

It also gives us time to conduct and review interviews with perhaps our most cherished asset, the veteran. A historic site without stories behind it can be bland and one cannot relate to it. When you hear about a Missile Combat Crew Commander firing up a hibachi grill in the Launch Control Center and cooking steaks suddenly you have a whole new “What the heck?” moment that certainly captivated myself at least. The best part of the site is hearing the stories, and we never get tired of hearing them.

So perhaps if the summer represents our peak visitation, of when we interpret the site for the public in person, the winter instead evolves into a site interpretation over a distance. Distance education is something we’re working towards here as we well understand the difficulty of traveling in the North Dakota winter, to say the least of trying to organize a field trip.

Yes, we are “open” during the winter and await your call. Winter tours are much more relaxed and we love to open into discussion with our visitors. In between visits, know that we are quietly planning away for next year. Ensuring the site is maintained, interpreting new information to put into our tours and working to preserve the story of the Cold War in North Dakota. But we can’t do it without you. Thank you for your support and your visits.

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Alas, Babylon

 

During a winter alas babylonbreak, I thought it appropriate to read “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank during my trip to Central Florida. To pass the winter after work hours my homework was to begin reading the classics of Cold War fiction including this book along with “On The Beach” and a re-reading of “A Canticle for Lebowitz”.

The setting however for “Alas, Babylon” is during the 1959 time period when fears of “Sputnik” are still prominent in the American mind. In fact, the “Missile Gap” plays a significant part of this novel and seemingly acts as a warning that often realistically existed during the Cold War period. “Periods of vulnerability” are recorded historically specifically in National Security Council paper 68 during the Truman administration. 1954 was marked as a significant year of danger posed by the Soviet Union. 1955’s “Bomber Gap” and 1957’s “Missile Gap” soon followed with all of these myths eventually proven false. (The United States during the 1950s enjoyed massive superiorities in bombers and nuclear weapons, and while Sputnik was launched first, the United States missile program would prove to be of better quality through the mid-1960s).

In 1959 however, intelligence behind the “Iron Curtain” is sparse in “Alas, Babylon”, and fears of a Soviet attack prove true when high-yield nuclear weapons burst above Miami and Tampa with eventual attacks on Jacksonville and Orlando (then McCoy Air Force Base). Only a short message to the protagonist, Randy Bragg, by his brother who holds a high position within the Strategic Air Command alerts him to the increasing world tensions before the attack. Bragg lives by himself in an old country house on a small plantation in Central Florida and soon the attack transforms his life in many ways, forcing him into a role of leadership and essentially a hero. The reader feels his emotions as he struggles to prepare for the attack along with the experience of the moments and days after nuclear weapons burst over the large cities nearby. As with any disaster, the loss of communications with the outside world is debilitating. In 1959 the technology and culture of the period draws an interesting contrast with today’s reliance on cellular technology and the internet. In one instance the telegraph office is still contacting the outside world (although not for long). It’s difficult to comprehend such technology today.

CONELRAD

From 1951 to 1963, emergency radio broadcasts on CONELRAD or (CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation) would be broadcast on only 640AM or 1240AM to confuse enemy aircraft from homing on radio beacons. All American radio sets carried Civil Defense markings on these radio dials. It was later replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System. 

While many point to the ending of this book with a pessimistic outlook on survival, it would be my opinion that everything for the friends of Randy Bragg and to some extent the residents of Fort Repose, Florida turn out fairly well in the context of World War III. In fact it seems that the CBS television show “Jericho” of the 2000s borrows much from “Alas, Babylon” in it’s storyline of a small town struggling to survive in the midst of nuclear attacks on major metropolitan centers of the United States. In fact a map board created by a HAM radio operator with red circles around major cities is found in both stories. Some elements of “The Day After” seem to have emerged from “Alas, Babylon” as well.

I was able to finish the book by the time my airplane was maneuvering in above Orlando International Airport (the former McCoy Air Force Base).  I could only imagine the rows of B-47 bombers sitting on the tarmac there before the former SAC hangars (now sporting United Airlines livery). Initially after the attacks some of the protagonists spot high flying silver aircraft racing to the northeast and these are figured to be McCoy’s B-47s making a “base escape” and flying to their designated targets in the Communist world. SAC’s ability to deliver high-megaton weaponry in the 1959-1960 period is in a word, frightening. B-47s, B-52s and soon B-58 bombers carried very high megaton weapons when compared to the air-delivered bombs of today. The B61 and B83 bombs of today possess flexible yields of low kiloton to 400 kilotons to 1.2 megatons. Mark-39 bombs aboard B-47s could yield 3.8 megatons while Mark-36s carried within B-47s and B-52s yielded about 10 megatons. As the United States shifted away from fleets of strategic bombers to missiles (such as the Minuteman II and later III), huge nuclear yields were unnecessary as targeting improved. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was about 13 kilotons, 10 megatons is about 740 times greater that explosive power.

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B-47 bombers were once the mainstay of the Strategic Air Command bomber fleet, over 2,000 of these aircraft were built. Essentially, the Minuteman missile would take-over the B-47’s nuclear deterrent role.

Getting back to “Alas, Babylon”, essentially the reader is given early-to-mid Cold War glimpses of COD (Continuity of Government), the role of CONELRAD (Civil defense radio) and honestly one of the first works of fiction that deals with World War III survivalism. The author inserts subtle hints of criticism to civil defense measures in the book but also delivers interesting modes of survivalism techniques (for instance, the necessity of salt in the human diet and disease pathogens that can emerge when sanitation breaks down). It’s definitely an interesting tale of World War III in what has been called the “late air-atomic period” when the role of the bomber was predominant and missiles were only then entering service. It’s not for the faint of heart, although there are much more violent and depressing works of survival fiction out there. Instead “Alas, Babylon” serves as something of a time capsule to the period immediately after Sputnik but before the Cuban Crisis – a “What if scenario”. The author’s criticisms of the Cold War surely don’t measure to “Dr. Strangelove” levels but instead represent the early 1960’s change in outlooks that began to dominate American culture. By 1959, the world began to understand the dangers of nuclear fallout by atomic testing and what radiation might do to generations not yet born. “Alas, Babylon” attempts and to some extent succeeds in teaching the reader the implications of world-wide nuclear conflict.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best travel reading while heading for the land of magic and palm trees. Then again there were plenty of whimsical, fairy-tale rides to lighten the mood. I’ll have to read “On The Beach” if I ever fly to Australia, or maybe just plug in some earbuds and listen to Air Supply or AC/DC instead.

The Long Road to Safeguard

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The Missile Site Radar (MSR) complex, the towers were for an underground power plant.

During the winter months, we commonly work on maintenance, cleaning and essentially working towards making the next season even better. It also gives us a chance to study other aspects of the Cold War in North Dakota as the chilly winds whip around outside Oscar-Zero. One fascinating aspect of that history was the nation’s sole nuclear Anti-Ballistic Missile site.

The first time I set foot on the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex site near Nekoma, North Dakota, I knew I was accomplishing something I’d dreamed about since I was a teenager. SRMSC.org provided such in depth knowledge about the complex way up there in Northeast North Dakota that this former Nebraskan vowed to see it one day. So there I stood looking east towards the “Pyramid of the Prairie” as it is often called, the Missile Site Radar or MSR.

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A Sprint missile silo field. Windmills have been installed in the fields around Nekoma since deactivation.

What ultimately became Safeguard grew from a U.S. Army study in 1955 to intercept rockets. The Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules stood as state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile systems that the United States relied on for some time. These “Point” defense systems supplemented U.S. Air Force interceptors which in turn provided “Area” defenses against Soviet bombers. With Sputnik’s launch in October 1957, the U.S. Army strove over the next 12 years to perfect a new Nike missile system. First came Nike-Zeus which promised an initial but fairly incapable Anti-Ballistic Missile. It could intercept incoming nuclear warheads, but only under very favorable conditions and the system could be overwhelmed. Essentially Nike-X, Zeus’s replacement, was plagued with the same issues. New phased-array radars coupled with complex computer systems could better deal with a missile attack but a “saturation” of multiple Soviet missiles armed with multiple warheads and decoys could defeat Nike-X. Deploying dozens of defense sites nationwide near cities and Strategic Air Command bases could tip the scales, but only so much and at great costs. Nike-X, it should be mentioned, was a pre-Vietnam War system.

Nike-X then transformed into Sentinel by 1967, an Anti-Ballistic Missile system that promised to defend cities and bases from lighter attacks such as an accidental launch from the Soviet Union or from China (themselves in 1964 having acquired the bomb). Continuing research and development was producing a fairly capable ABM system, Sentinel seemed to offer a more reasonable approach and politically there was a push to develop a system after the Soviet Union assembled their own ABM defense around Moscow by 1964. Sites around cities and bases were picked for deployment by the President Johnson administration working with the U.S. Army, but growing opposition against the arms race, in the light of the troubles of 1968, began to cast doubt on ABM deployment. Earth movers began clearing ground near Boston, but a NIMBY movement soon took hold (Not In My BackYard). Focus instead shifted to North Dakota.

Back in 2018, standing within a snowbank I marveled at the Spartan missile silo field. Thirty of them, 66 feet tall each, were once contained below in blast resistant silos. Spartan itself was nearly as large as Minuteman and contained a much more powerful 5 megaton warhead. Nearby Sprint missile silos looked smaller but just as potent. Whereas Spartan was designed to destroy incoming warheads in the high atmosphere, Sprint was hoped to clean up the rest closer to the ground. A cone-shaped missile, it blasted out of its silo and soon went hyper sonic as the MSR radar tracked the surviving nuclear warheads. Sprint’s warhead was smaller, but would also detonate lower in the atmosphere.

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I tried to imagine the engagement between the automated systems of Safeguard and a number of incoming Soviet Re-entry vehicles coming in out of the atmosphere. The sky would become blindingly bright as Spartan warheads burst in the high atmosphere while Sprints bolted up out of the ground, screaming towards the remaining Soviet warheads in a last-ditch effort to spare the Minuteman missile fields of eastern North Dakota from destruction. The system had to be automated, human interaction and targeting would simply take too long.

Safeguard emerged as the replacement to Sentinel when the Nixon Administration took office. Instead of city protection, Safeguard would instead protect American nuclear forces (particularly Minuteman) and eventually Washington D.C. as well to preserve the “second strike” capability. Construction began at the Nekoma site in Spring of 1970. A sister site in Montana progressed as well until 1972 when it was discarded in favor of a full commitment to North Dakota. Even before construction began many realized that Safeguard would not have long to live. Many documentaries suggest that it was proof of the U.S. commitment to “having a bargaining chip” during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) negotiations of the early 1970s. Congressional support for ABM began to recede and funding was cut. A once vaunted nationwide ABM defense idea was headed for the scrap heap. Safeguard, with all of its technical advances, still could be overwhelmed. Construction progressed, and the advanced systems of Safeguard briefly stood up in eastern North Dakota.

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Sprint (left) and Spartan (right) on the White Sands test range in New Mexico (U.S. Army Photo)

Contrary to popular belief, the system did not operate for a single day before shutting down. An initial operational capability began in April 1975 with a full operational capability on October 1, 1975. Congress decided then the next day to cease operations and by February 1976 the MSR radars were permanently shut off. Still, after such a long build up, and such a long development, America’s nuclear ABM system was active only for a period of months. Soon after the site went into mothball, systems were removed but over time much of the interiors of its buildings decayed except for the Perimeter Acquisition Radar complex near Cavalier, North Dakota whose systems were soon taken over by the U.S. Air Force for long-range radar capabilities.

43 years later the site is quiet, almost forlorn looking. The four-foot thick concrete walls of the pyramid don’t look to decay any time soon whereas other parts of the site have been claimed by history. The Cavalier County Job Development Corporation hopes to develop the site as it would indeed provide a unique place to run a data center, or a number of other businesses. Its hard to ignore the history as you pass by it, and there is so much more to the Safeguard story than is explained here. The “Prairie Pyramid” lingers on as a testament to technological advances and interesting if not confusing political goals.

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Support structures to the site on the left with the MSR straight ahead.

Swords to Plowshares

“Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity…” – Ronald Reagan addressing the 42nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly

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A 321st Strategic Missile Wing Minuteman missile silo is demolished on October 6, 1999 in accordance to the START treaty (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The “Swords into plowshares” concept has often found itself wrapped into dismantling Cold War weaponry, specifically nuclear weapons. An important part of the American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile story involves the protests by activists nearly from the very start of missile deployment. Many “Doves” sought ways to eliminate or at least reduce the number of nuclear weapons in an effort to avert world catastrophe. “Hawks” in contrast often considered nuclear weapons as a basis of peace in an unstable world. One might compare and contrast President Ronald Reagan’s early tough rhetoric against the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union and then later work to eliminate nuclear weapons, especially as he met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. Times change, and as history proved President Reagan, people change too.

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President Reagan and Soviet Primer Gorbachev chat in the Oval Office (National Archives Photo)

As this site supervisor listened to 20th Air Force Commander, Major General Fred Stoss, explain the implications of rising international tension regarding ex-Cold War adversaries at a conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming, it was an interesting occurrence of history possibly repeating itself. For many years there were notable issues in the American “nuclear enterprise” as many scholars call it; nuclear weapons were accidentally attached to a bomber and flown cross-country without knowledge, there were also cheating scandals and what many considered a deterioration of morale among Air Force personnel assigned to ICBMs. Today, efforts are underway to replace venerable missile field support helicopters and even the nearly 50 year old (although greatly updated and refurbished) Minuteman III missile that once made eastern North Dakota its home. In the Air Force community there is a push for pride to be a nuclear operator as leadership attempts to refocus on the importance of the nuclear deterrent force that took a back seat during the War on Terror.

 

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Harvesting wheat in North Dakota

In a field near Velva, North Dakota meanwhile, a missile still awaits beneath a 110 ton blast door. Farmers tread lightly near these silos, as cameras and sensors detect intruders near the fences promising a quick response by very intimidating, buzz-cut Security Forces armed to defend these sites. Often visitors to Oscar-Zero are astounded to know missiles are still in operation, with dedicated officers and airmen still travel to control sites and silos. Many also still question the value of these sites. According to “Atomic Audit: The costs and consequences of U.S. nuclear weapons since 1940”, $5.5 trillion had been spent on the American nuclear arsenal up to 1996 (and the amount is represented in constant 1996 dollars).

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Minuteman III missiles remain on alert, such as this site on the plains of Montana (U.S. Air Force Photo)

Sometimes controversial, the effort at Oscar-Zero is to portray both sides of the nuclear weapons debate, as both are intertwined with North Dakota history. Often we can point to President Reagan, our namesake, as an individual passionate in one regard to defend America who was also fully aware of the consequences of nuclear weapons and sought out ways to eliminate them. Our site is a relic of the Cold War, but the Minuteman missile system remains in service. Some might say the “sword” that was Oscar-Zero has been transformed into the “plowshare” of remembrance and learning. The history is told but also there is an effort to provide education for our nation’s future. Another Cold War president put it this way:

“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

– John F. Kennedy

The More things change…

April 8, 1968, fifty-years ago today, found Grand Forks in the midst of an average spring day. The high would reach 39 degrees while a trace of rain was recorded in the weather log. Today there is a slight chance of snow instead of rain.

On the nation’s billboard Top for April 13, 1968 was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (notable as the performer died the previous year) and “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro. Other hits included performances from The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Manfred Mann. This month in 2018 finds Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey at the top spot followed by Bruno Mars, Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line.

April 1968, and the entire year 1968 would be very notable for history. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and the Vietnam War raged on, especially around a hamlet named Kne Sanh near the 17th Parallel in the then-named South Vietnam. Soviet troops stationed in Hungary prepare to invade the nation of Czechoslovakia (today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia) due to the “Prague Spring” uprising. America progressed with its goal of landing on the moon by launching an unmanned Apollo 6 atop the mighty Saturn V rocket.

Back in North Dakota during April 1968, two officers assigned to the United States Air Force sit 50 feet below ground protected by a 6-ton blast door, duly noting maintenance events in logbooks and never straying too far from their missile status console.

Some things change, some things don’t.

Above, we see a missileer crew from the 1960s at an undetermined base dressed in white coveralls (the initial standard uniform for missileers since the early days of the Strategic Air Command ICBM mission) – Image Courtesy of Association of Air Force Missileers.

Next to this photo finds a current crew within a redesigned capsule at Malmstrom AFB in Montana wearing flight suits. (Image Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Their roles are the same, keeping an eye on their flight of ten Minuteman missiles within their “Flight”. Five flights in a squadron, typically three to four squadrons within a wing. On April 8, 2018 there are a little less than 40 capsules left in Air Force service staffed by 80 men and women around the clock. On April 8, 1968 there were a little less than 100 capsules staffed by 200 male crew members in Minuteman across the Northern Plains of the United States. There were also 54 Titan-II missile sites staffed by around 270 personnel.

Last month, March 2018, all of the nation’s remaining Minuteman capsules were staffed by female crews for a time in honor of women’s history.

Some things have changed. The mission really hasn’t. Minuteman was designed as a reliable weapons system deployed not to be used but rather serve as a deterrent. Some may point out ironies in the fact that while missileers staffed sites in April 1968 to deter war, B-52 bombers pounded North Vietnamese Army positions around Kne Sanh. Others will point out that a cataclysmic nuclear conflict had not occurred.

Today on a cold spring day in North Dakota, crews continue to sit behind blast doors and await the call they hope never to come. Another site in eastern North Dakota, deactivated for 21 years instead brings visitors into the capsule where the door no longer closes and electronics have long since been turned off. An interesting thing, an historical site dedicated to a history that is still ongoing.

There are no fossils at Oscar-Zero to look upon, no portraits of important Old West figures, nor impressive steam-powered wheat threshers. Instead two oddly designed keys dangle near their insertion points. Once locked within a red box, the keys no longer have any use. Three hours west of Oscar-Zero meanwhile, keys still exist for an unthinkable mission, safely contained behind a small safe door.

One hopes they may never be inserted and turned after those crews received proper, verified launch orders.

That the launch keys were never used, something all of us hope remains the same.

Little Boxes

If one had worked with the National Park Service at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Kadoka, South Dakota before 2013 – they would become very familiar with “The Groobers” song “Little Boxes”

“Little boxes in Wyoming, little boxes in Dakota, little boxes in Montana, little boxes all the same…there are green ones, and green ones, and green ones, and green ones, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same”

This song would play at the end of each orientation video. A parody Malvina Reynold’s 1962 song “Little Boxes”, in turn a satire of suburban America, the Groober’s version relates to the Launch Control Centers and the Air Force’s fondness for sea-foam green paint within the structures.

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Source: National Park Service

With 100 Launch Control Facilities and 1,000 Launch Facilities (silos) built between 1961 and 1967, Minuteman came to represent the bulk of the American ICBM arsenal.

As seen in the image on the left, with the red representing current Minuteman wings and the black showing the now deactivated areas, the role of the ICBM in Great Plains history is profound.

Yet Minuteman was only a part of the story. While the Peacekeeper missile would be housed within Minuteman silos by the late 1980s, the Atlas and Titan missile complexes that came before were found in a number of other regions in the United States.

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Source: Wikimedia

The Atlas missile represented a massive investment in unproven technology. While Atlas-D missiles were stored horizontally in “coffins”, above-ground structures, Atlas-Es were based in buried coffin like structures and Atlas-Fs were positioned in 180 foot deep silos that required 24/7 construction efforts due to the urgency of the Cold War in the 1960-1962 time frame. From upstate New York to Texas, the deserts of southeast New Mexico to the plains of Nebraska, the role of the Atlas within SAC’s ICBM force was quite short. With the last missiles going “on alert” in late 1962, all were retired by the end of April 1965.

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Strategic Air Command Missile History

Titan missiles, the -I version activating in 1961, were built as a follow-on/backup to the Atlas. Titan-I facilities were massive structures linking three silos with a control center, antenna silos and a power generation room (all of this underground). Titan-Is were also deactivated by April 1965 while the Titan-II would activate in 1963 with its last model not being pulled from its silo until 1987. A huge missile with a huge warhead, Titan-II complexes were very large themselves.

So while Minuteman was being built across the Northern Plains and Missouri, dozens of other silos were already operational. Not tied into disarmament treaties, many Atlas and Titan silos sit empty and abandoned today. A handful have been turned into underground homes and while one Titan-II complex has been preserved as a museum, there are no Atlas sites designated as such today. A pity considering their pioneering task of American ICBM deployment.

Those “Little Boxes” were found throughout the American West, with a few still “On Alert”. The rest will quietly sit out millennia, super-reinforced concrete structures that will last generations. Something to consider perhaps if you’re caught driving on the backroads of upstate New York, that a missile silo might lie just beyond the trees.