The 321st Strategic Missile Wing became fully operational in 1966. Operations began with a missile crew force that was comprised solely of male missile combat crew members. In 1975, the Air Force began to examine the possibility of bringing women into that crew force. Thirteen years later, in 1988, the first women “pulled alert” in the control centers of the 321st. Below is a very brief examination of some of the issues surrounding the inclusion of women onto the crew force—this is not meant to be a full and comprehensive treatment of what may have been the most significant social change to happen in the missile field during its over 30 years of active operations. Our goal is to simply remind all of us that things do change and that some things that we now simply assume were not always so.
Working 50 feet below ground, in the small Launch Control Center (LCC), for a twenty-four shift, awaiting orders to launch the world’s most powerful and destructive weapon isn’t the description of an easy job. Missile crew members required discipline, integrity, attention to detail, and a constant awareness of the destructive power that was in their hands. Missile crew members did their jobs in two-person crews. Each individual crew member brought different strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics to the table. For years these crew members were strictly males. One of the most significant changes to the missile crew force was the integration of women into the crews. For the 321st Strategic Missile Wing, that moment came in 1988 and followed a thirteen year long debate that weighed the pros and cons of females becoming launch officers.
There were a number of questions that the Air Force had to address prior to assigning women to Missile Combat Crews (as they were officially titled). One of first questions was short but somewhat complicated: Is missile duty actually combat duty? When the conversation began in 1975, women were not yet allowed in any type of combat duty. Although women had officially been serving in the armed forces for decades, they filled roles that didn’t put them in the direct line of fire. Since missile crews were considered “combat crews” could the Air Force place women onto these crews without violating prohibitions against women serving in combat roles? After all, the crews that would be called upon to turn the keys to launch a massive nuclear strike were certainly participating in nuclear combat. Eventually, the Air Force determined that the indirect nature of the nuclear strikes that the crews could launch, meant that serving on a missile combat crew wouldn’t actually put women in the direct line of fire.
Another issue that arose concerned a stereotype that deemed women to be too “fragile” or “emotional.” Some leaders asked: If women were called upon to launch a massive, retaliatory, nuclear strike, could they follow through with the orders—or would their emotions prevent them from launching their weapons. Eventually, this irrational stereotype was seen for exactly what it was and it also was defeated during the debates surrounding the integration—women obviously had all of the characteristics to make successful and reliable combat crew members.
Jeff Langley, a Flight Security Controller in the missile field and a member of the 321st from 1983 until 1993, recalls women’s ability to perform their duties in the missile field: Jeff Langley Interview (Audio)
While there were many proponents advocating for the addition of women to the Minuteman crew force, there were also many opponents. Perhaps some of the most significant opposition came from the spouses of male crew members. Many wives of the male crew members adamantly opposed the idea of their husbands being enclosed in the small, underground, LCC for 24 hours (or more) with another woman. In turn, this opposition drove a fear that the addition of women could lead to male missileers feeling pressured to avoid or leave the missile career to appease their spouse. The Air Force also considered the appearance of impropriety with a male and a female isolated together in the small space. In order to alleviate some of these concerns, and to provide additional privacy, when women were eventually added to the Minuteman force, the Air Force changed the physical landscape of both the LCC and the Launch Control Support Building (topside). In the LCC, both the sleeping area and the lavatory were modified—most significantly walls, with a door, were erected around the lavatory to increase privacy. Topside, the Air Force eventually modified a utility closet to serve as a women’s bathroom.
Dennis Almer, interviewed with his wife Gayle Almer, served as a missileer in the 448th missile squadron from 1975 to 1979. This was a key time during the debate surrounding the transition to mixed-gender crews–Dennis and Gayle reflect on the different reactions and responses to the proposed transition: Dennis and Gayle Almer Interview (Audio)
Although the Air Force listened to the complaints of those who thought women didn’t have what it took to be successful crewmembers and those who argued that women would cause unnecessary disruptions to the spousal relationships of the male missileers, the change moved forward. The Air Force determined that the positive effects that the addition of women to the Minuteman force could have outweighed the concerns. Equal treatment for men and women was of the utmost importance as women’s rights continued to expand in all career fields during the 1980’s. Career progressions for women in the military had been stagnant and creating new opportunities for women were critical at that time.
James Lancaster, a Flight Security Supervisor during the mid to late 70’s, details the transition of women into the missile field. Before women served as missile crew members in the below ground control centers, they filled topside roles, including roles on the security response teams. Lancaster worked with the first women who served as security forces in the 321st Missile Wing. In the clip below, he details the different attitudes that came with that transition and how things changed: James Lancaster Interview (Audio)
Women were first officially assigned to Titan missile crews in 1983, and found their way to Minuteman Missile wings three years later in 1986. Then in 1988, the first women “pulled alert” in the Grand Forks missile wing. Women were first assigned to all female crews. The Air Force attempted a “separate but equal” approach in order to appease some of the opponents of the new policy. However, gender specific crews created a great number of difficulties. Traditionally, new crew members were assigned to a seasoned crew commander—the crew commander was responsible for mentoring the new missileer and providing a sort of on-the-job training—because there were no seasoned Minuteman female crew members, this became exceedingly difficult (or nearly impossible). Additionally, some male missileers began to resent their female counterparts because the gender specific crewing often meant that women sometimes couldn’t pull as many alerts because of scheduling. And, finding a gender-specific replacement during emergencies (or illnesses) was near impossible. Faced with the numerous difficulties posed by gender specific crews, the Air Force determined that mixed gender crews was the next, and obvious, step for the wise utilization of military personnel.
Serving as a Missile Combat Crew Commander and also as a Flight Commander, Warren Tobin recalls the variety of ways the missile field changed when women began active duty: Warren Tobin Interview (Audio)
Dennis Burdolski, a maintenance team member and team chief from 1985 until 1997, provides a missile maintainers perspective about women in the field and details some of the difficulties that maintenance work presented to female service members: Dennis Burdolski Interveiw Audio
The debate over bringing women onto the nuclear missile forces raged for over a decade. Eventually, women entered the missile combat crew force. Since their entry, women have served our nation with distinction and have played a vital role in our nation’s policy of nuclear deterrence.
During the writing of this blog, we realized that we have zero images of women serving in the 321st Strategic Missile Wing. If anybody out there can help us fill that gap in our historical record, we would greatly appreciate the help. Also, if anybody would like to add to this blog, please post in the comments area!
Sources: Although, there aren’t any published sources that deal directly with this topic, a couple of Masters Theses which tackle this issue have been completed. Those works, along with a number of oral histories that we’ve conducted, were the basis of much of this blog.
John L. Donovan, Captain, USAF. “The Integration of Women onto Minuteman Missile Crews.” 1991, Masters Thesis, Central Missouri State University.
Duane A. Carolus, Captain, USAF. “A Study of the Attitudes of Married Minuteman Crewmembers and their Wives Concerning Female Minuteman Crewmembers.” 1978, Masters Thesis, School of Engineering of the Air Force Institute of Technology, Air University
The Association of Air Force Missileers, published an edition of their newslestter that dealt specifically with “Women in the Missile Force”. AAFM Newsletter, Volume 16, Number 2, June 2008.”
“Memories of the Missile Field” Collection, Property of State Historical Society of North Dakota. Created by the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site.