What was the Strategic Air Command? What did it have to do with Oscar Zero? Why isn’t it around anymore?
SAC, as it was commonly known, was created in 1946 to manage the U.S. Army Air Force’s strategic bombing capability. In the years of World War II, the idea of strategic bombing was to destroy an enemy’s war-making potential well beyond the front lines. It had been experimented with in World War I however by 1939 the day of the large bomber had arrived. Over Europe, American and British heavy bombers pounded German industrial targets day and night. By 1945, American B-29 bombers were laying waste to Japanese cities leading up to the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
With the advent of the atomic bomb, there was a realization that the days of 1000 bomber raids were effectively over when a single B-29 could destroy a city with one bomb.
SAC emerged in the years 1946 to 1948 as a weak component of the Air Force, as did its sister organizations as demobilization largely gutted experienced personnel from their ranks. By 1948 however SAC had moved from Virginia to Omaha, Nebraska and had a new commander in charge.
General Curtis Emerson LeMay was the personification of the “tough boss”. Generally smoking a cigar, disapproving ideas merely with stony silence and having no tolerance for incompetence or even innocent mistakes, many histories point to LeMay into crafting the command into an overwhelmingly powerful and professional fighting force.
Much has been said about the seemingly legendary aspects of the Strategic Air Command’s rise to prominence as America’s foremost military unit during the 1950s. Much has also been criticized about the command, especially by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force’s Tactical Air Command from complaints about taking much of the defense funding to investing in an “all or nothing” approach to nuclear war. By 1964 films such as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail-Safe” would poke fun and dramatize respectively the command’s overwhelming response in a nuclear conflict.
By the time the 321st Strategic Missile Wing activated in the mid-1960s, SAC had a mixed reputation ranging from being the guardians of freedom to an organization effectively tasked with bringing about Armageddon. The command’s role was by nature controversial, however history denotes the professionalism of day-to-day operations by airmen and officers alike
Jumping ahead to June 1992, when the Strategic Air Command ceased to exist as an organization, it is interesting to note the command was active essentially throughout the entire Cold War. When one speaks to its veterans they consider General Curtis LeMay a commander who knew how to straighten things out and was an effective boss who did not put up with nonsense. For the most part they are very proud of their service with SAC with its very strict rules and ever present tension. It has been said that they prepared for war daily so they would not have to go for real. In the end historians have found SAC’s lifespan full of ups and downs but with a proud legacy that lasts in the voices of its veterans.
The signs are fewer now, even by the 1990s the stark yellow squares that stood solemnly beside entrances to many government buildings were often no more. A strange thing to younger generations, used to perhaps the blue “Hurricane Evacuation” signs near the coasts and “Emergency Snow Route” signs in the north. The origins of the often cited “shelter mania” emerged from President Kennedy’s speech in September 1961 calling on increased spending on defense along with civil defense in the wake of Soviet aggression and the construction of the Berlin Wall earlier that year.
At the risk of sounding cliche, it was perhaps “the sign of the times” as numerous locations were picked nationwide that could provide some amount of radiation protection to those sheltering inside from fallout. This was dangerously radioactive dust, ash and debris sucked into the atmosphere after a nuclear blast that the world painfully became aware of after the 1954 “Castle Bravo” nuclear test where many pacific islanders were exposed to the radioactive ash that blew downwind of the explosion. A fallout shelter was not however a “blast” shelter, it would not protect you (at least well) from a nearby burst of a nuclear weapon.
The notion of nuclear attack was evident in everyday lives as neighbors constructed bomb shelters in their backyards. Television shows discussed or at times even ridiculed the idea as evident in a few episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. Schoolchildren practiced huddling against interior school walls with their hands around the back of their necks to protect against flying debris. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, many Americans came face to face with the stark reality of the nuclear age.
Barely 10 years after “shelter mania” the world had changed dramatically. Fallout shelters once quickly stocked with water, food and sanitation supplies were nearly forgotten about in the public mind. Some towns even attempted to sell off the spoiling supplies inside, in one instance in Lincoln, Nebraska the survival rations were auctioned off to a hog farmer for his animals to eat.
In another 10 years there would be something of another war scare. Googling “Able-Archer 83”, “Euromissile Crisis” and “WarGames” (America’s Hollywood introduction to a Minuteman Launch Control Center) would offer more information, and some fallout shelters reemerged in the public eye. The enthusiasm for building them possessed in 1961 did not return however.
Perestroika, the INF Treaty, START, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communism in Eastern Europe marked many points where it could be said “When the Cold War ended”. Within the Strategic Air Command the pulling Minuteman II missiles off full alert and nuclear-armed bombers off 15-minute ground alert worldwide surely marked a watershed moment. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. Perhaps it was here that the Cold War officially ended.
In 2017 sites like Oscar-Zero stand as museums, no longer staffed by Air Force personnel with “the little brass keys”. Those obvious artifacts of the Cold War, like the Greenbrier Congressional evacuation location in West Virginia or Site SF-88, a Nike-missile air-defense site north of San Francisco undergo preservation and interpretation. On the other hand there are still a few designated fallout shelters nationwide that quietly assume different missions. Once so designated to save lives after an attack, they live on as often cold, bare concrete environments of dank basements. And yet other products of the Cold War, computer-networking technology, space communications, GPS, lasers have become everyday facets of life.
It can be interesting to stand back and consider how much the Cold War influenced American culture and technology, and how much of it lingers as testaments to earlier times when the world for the first time became vulnerable to a human-created cataclysm.
Maybe in one way its fitting for that 56 year old fallout shelter sign to finally wear out it’s fasteners and fall away to dissolve into rust (although not if eBay has something to say about it). On tours, guides often state how that the success of the Minuteman program was that it was never used. At the end of the Cold War, a fallout shelter and a Minuteman missile never put to purposes, to wait out their lifetimes with nothing happening and surely that was a victory of the Cold War – the fact that a catastrophic war never occurred.
Looks a bit confusing…
Communications via a military headquarters and its subordinate units has always been crucial in warfare from semaphore (communicating via flags) to homing pigeons, satellite communications to even using calling cards on a payphone to request artillery (this actually happened during the 1983 Greneda conflict). With missile sites, the importance is absolute and required a number of different strategies.
The Minuteman Launch Control Center received its Emergency War Order (EWO) messages via the Primary Alerting System (PAS). On a regular test basis, these would actually enter the site using plain telephone wire or the (HICS) Hardened Intersite Cabling System network . The Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS – sorry, more acronyms) primarily utilized phone lines but due to the fact that phones would go down during a nuclear war, other plans were devised.
HF or High-Frequency radio antennas were set up at Minuteman sites as they became operational. Using Single-Side Band (SSB) radios, an antenna could fairly reliably communicate over some distance. “Receivers” built at the sites had an antenna that could be raised out of a protective enclosure, if that antenna was lost there were five more reloads. Only Squadron Command Posts or Alternate Command Posts had “Transmitters”.
VHF or Very-High Frequency was used to communicate with nearby maintenance and security teams in the area driving in vehicles. It had a backup ability to communicate with nearby Launch Control Centers and even the Wing Command Post back at Grand Forks AFB but was
UHF or Ultra-High Frequency was fairly long ranged but relied on a line-of-sight approach. This meant that airplanes could utilize this type of transmission fairly well at higher altitudes. Back on the ground at Oscar-Zero a hardened UHF antenna (that looks like a white cone) could communicate the the Airborne Command Post of the Strategic Air Command, code-named “Looking Glass”. This modified 707 airliner could take over the command role from Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska in case that had been destroyed.
SLFCS or Survivable Low Frequency Communications System entered the picture a little later during the 1960s. It transmitted both on Very-Low Frequency or High Frequency channels from a few different sources, special radio towers once located in Nebraska and California or by airplane (like “Looking Glass” or later the Navy’s rough equivalent E-6 Mercury airplane). VLF transmits more slowly but is better protected against the Electro-Magnetic Pulse of detonating nuclear weapons that can bring power spikes to electronics, disabling or destroying them.
One of the last strategic improvements in communications seen at Oscar-Zero was the ICBM Super-High Frequency Satellite Terminal (ISST) which can be seen as a white dome sitting above the Launch Control Facility today.
After the 321st Missile Group stood down in 1997, there have been continuing communications improvements with the Minuteman system at other bases.
Lastly, Medium Frequency (MF) transmissions were only used at Wing VI (Grand Forks AFB) and a single updated squadron at Malmstrom AFB Montana. A transmission antenna extended out beyond the LCF in a field and allowed a backup ability to launch missiles miles away in the Launch Facilities should a breakdown in the HICS system occur (Hardened Intersite Cabling was the primary way to launch missiles and communicate with the silos if maintenance was ongoing).
Whew…we actually wrote this article for some collaborative education and encourage readers with a better knowledge of the Minuteman communications system to share their thoughts. Historical information pertaining to these systems are less frequent on the internet and we hope to construct a better understanding of the Minuteman communications system.
Welcome back to Oscar-Zero, the Launch Control Facility apart of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historical Site. Our other location is the November-33 Launch Facility (or LF) missile silo located two miles East of Cooperstown, ND.
At the end of October 2017 the weather here has made a turn for winter. Gusty winds out of the Northwest at 50 mph and some scattered snow showers have turned the horizons around Cooperstown into a gray haze. Much of the crops in the area have been harvested and Oscar Zero rides out the winter storm as it has for over 50 years.
Our blog has been quiet for four years and we thought it proper to note some anniversaries that have occurred in 2017. 20 years ago in July Oscar Zero pulled its last “alert” (a 24-hour tour of duty for two missileers commanding the Oscar flight of 10 Minuteman III ICBMs) while 55 years ago this week saw the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a critical moment of the Cold War. Plans for installing the 321st Strategic Missile Wing’s complex of 150 Minuteman II silos and 15 Launch Control Facilities were on paper then however construction would not begin until March 1964.
60 Years ago this month saw the launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite by a Soviet R-7 rocket. A rocket of this size also could hurl a nuclear warhead across the earth in 30 minutes or less. An event which quickly motivated America’s own missile program.
While Oscar Zero focuses in on North Dakota’s front-line role during the Cold War, we hope to delve this blog into many aspects of the conflict that profoundly effected world history. The historic site represents only one of many hundreds of Cold War installations nationwide from the massive under-mountain air defense installation in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado to a long-forgotten emergency radio transmitter site near Belfield, North Dakota. All had a role in a time of tension that threatened human existence worldwide.
One lesson that tends to be explanatory of the Minuteman missile force was that it quietly sat (and continues to sit) in underground silos specifically to prevent war. Weapons actually deployed with the purpose that they should never be used, but always ready to be called upon if required.
Missile crewpersons, maintenance personnel and security troops among others have braved the winters for over half a century to maintain and command the sites that provide a credible nuclear deterrent. Oscar Zero remains back off highway 45 four miles north of Cooperstown as an artifact of an earlier time and a testament to the men and women who aided in the defense of the United States.
When guests see the extreme design features of the below ground launch control center and equipment building at Oscar-Zero, they are typically amazed and impressed. Most guests have never seen anything like a 13.5 ton blast door, a floor that is suspended from the ceiling by shock isolators, or 5.5 feet-thick concrete and steel walls. After taking in all the unique features, a few guests always ask, “Yeah, but would it have worked?” The Air Force asked that same question.
Along with all of the testing that the Air Force has conducted for the Minuteman system, the High Explosive Simulation Test (HEST) was designed to answer that very question—would the design features that supposedly made Minuteman survivable actually work?
In simplest words, the idea of HEST was to cover a launch facility (missile silo) or launch control center with explosives and then blow it up and see what happened. Or as the military explained:
The objective of the technique is to simulate the overpressure and superseismic air-induced ground shock from a nuclear detonation. Operational and small scale tests have demonstrated the feasibility of simulating overpressures (for about the first 200 msec) from yields up to 10 Mt and for overpressures up to 3000 psi.
In order to pull off this test, a HEST facility needed to be constructed. According to the military,
A HEST facility consists of a platform structure constructed above the surface of the ground over the installation to be tested. The platform supports an overburden of earth and forms a cavity between the bottom of the overburden and the ground. An earthen embankment is built around the perimeter of the platform. Primacord is wrapped on wooden racks that are suspended in the cavity. . . .The intensity of the pressure pulse depends primarily on the loading density (amount of explosives per unit cavity volume).
The Air Force conducted two HESTs in the Grand Forks missile wing at launch facility L-16. Because that silo was only about 20 miles from Oscar-Zero we are often visited by citizens who still remember (usually with a puzzled sort of laughter) the time the Air Force blew up their own missile silo. The first test was on September 22, 1966. The second was two years later on September 5, 1968.
The results of the 1966 test were dismal. The silo was subjected to overpressures estimated at 1,000 psi and it suffered severe damage. The Air Force summed up the results:
Loose soil . . . and a high water table contributed to displacement and flooding of the underground launch equipment room and some flooding in the [launch] tube itself. Normally, the water within the launcher could have been pumped out, but the movement of the shock-mounted floor of the equipment room had been violent enough to break the emergency power line, leaving the pumps useless. The shock wave also forced mud into the air conditioning system, disabling it and insuring the gradual overheating of delicate electronic equipment. Mud buried the batteries that provided emergency power but did not disable them.
The Air Force immediately responded to the poor results by spending an estimated $49.5 million on shock improvements for the nation’s Minuteman systems. While they did change the design of some pipes, blast valves, and conduits, most of the money was spent on “correcting faulty welds, insuring sufficient cable slack, and otherwise adjusting existing equipment.”
On September 5, 1968 the Air Force conducted its second HEST in the Grand Forks missile wing—and, this time, the results were greatly improved. The silo withstood the overpressure of the blast far better than the previous test and “even the air conditioning system performed adequately.”
We often think of the Minuteman system as static. However, it is anything but static. To this day, through continual testing and modification the military continues to improve both the Minuteman and its control and launch facilities—HEST was only the beginning of cyclical testing and enhancement.
So, what do you think, ““Would it have worked?”
“Rocketeer Days” will be offered at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site for youth in kindergarten through twelfth grade this summer. Every Tuesday in June and July, the site will host a lesson and fun activity for students that will center on rocket and space education. K-4 students will be hosted at 11 a.m., followed by students in 5-8 grades at 1 p.m., and students in grades 9-12 will be challenged at 3 p.m.
Students first will be immersed briefly in a classroom-style setting to learn an aspect of rocketry or space science. Building on what they have learned, they will then launch into a fun activity, creating something they will take home as a souvenir. The lessons are designed to meet national and state scientific learning standards. Each session will last approximately one hour.
At the end of each lesson, the students will earn a special “Rocketeer” patch that celebrates their accomplishment and designates them as an official “Rocketeer of Oscar-Zero!”
Each “class” is limited to 12 seats, including parents and students. Participants must call to register before the event. Registrations must be made at least one day in advance. Students can be registered for any of the sessions, but they may find that the activity of that session is not age-appropriate for them.
All activities are free.
To register or get answers to any questions, call 701.797.3691 or write firstname.lastname@example.org .
For a video of this blog :
October 19, 1966, was another beautiful day on the northern prairie. The day had started with temperatures in the low 20s but by noon the temp was climbing into the 40s. The approximately 150 people that were gathered about 6 miles south of Michigan, North Dakota were excited to witness the launch of a Minuteman II from the H-24 (“Hotel-24”) launch facility (one of 150 such facilities that had been recently constructed in eastern North Dakota). The launch, part of the Air Force’s “Project Long Life” promised to be quite the spectacle for the high-ranking Air Force Generals, local VIPs, countless reporters, and numerous local citizens. This was to be the second launch in “Long Life”–the first had occurred over 1 year ago near Newell, South Dakota when the 44th Strategic Missile Wing launched one of their missiles. Granted, the specially modified test missile was altered to ensure the missile was powered for no longer than 7 seconds and would impact within a mile of its launch point, it still promised to be an incredibly exciting sight for those gathered on the prairie. This was the Air Force’s second attempt at this launch–the original attempt was scheduled for Oct 12 but was postponed several days when the Air Force had discovered a malfunction in the special test equipment on the missile. However, since the malfunction was found days in advance, there was little excitement or concern over the postponement.
The gathered crowd on the 19th also included five farm families that the Air Force had forced to evacuate their homes. Although the Air Force was very confident that it “knew” where the missile would come down, it nonetheless wanted to ensure nobody was harmed. The Hamre, Yoney, Danda, Senger, and Anderson families all waited patiently along with the others for the eventual launch. Donald Hamre and his family not only evacuated themselves but also their herd of cattle that was in a pasture that overlapped the expected impact area.
As the time to launch grew closer the anticipation mounted.
Then the Launch Director, Lt Col James Simmons and the Task Force Commander, Col Joe Schonka announced that the launch would be delayed. The crowd was disappointed and confused. The Air Force went into action and a helicopter hurried a replacement for a failed component from Grand Forks Air Force Base to the launch site. However, the leaders felt that hurrying the repair was just too risky and the launch was indefinitely postponed.
Suddenly the gathered folks probably felt a bit more of a chill in the 40 degree afternoon. Of course, everybody wanted to know one thing, “What went wrong?” The Air Force explained that an electronic part that isolated the test missile from armed missiles in the same area had malfunctioned and they tried to reassure everybody that if it had been a wartime scenario, they could have gone through with the launch but it just wasn’t worth the risk in this test environment.
So, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted the 10 mile, 10,000 foot no-fly-zone surrounding the launch site, the road blocks around the two mile perimeter were removed, and the farm families were allowed to return to their homes.
A few days later, on October 26, the Grand Forks Herald reported that the next attempt would take place on October 28. The anticipation began to build once again.
On the morning of the 28th, the no-fly-zone went into place, the road blocks cordoned off a two mile area, and the farm families were forced to evacuate their homes. The nearby people of Michigan and Petersburg, North Dakota waited in what must have been dubious anticipation.
The crowds of dignitaries, locals, and journalists came again to the remote missile silo on the prairie. This time, they were joined by protestors who had just received word of the launch the night before. The protestors were led by Reverend Robert L. Branconnier, one of two Roman Catholic priests from the University of North Dakota. This man of the cloth felt it was his “responsibility as a priest to be a prophetic voice and warn of danger.” He and his fellow protestors were there to raise questions about the morality of these nuclear weapons that indiscriminately targeted large population centers.
As the protestors picketed and the on-lookers waited, the launch progressed. Finally the time came when the below ground launch crews, one crew led by Major John J. Phelan and the other led by Major Carl E. Stone, began their launch procedures. Simultaneously, the crews turned their launch keys, but the missile just sat quietly in its silo and refused to launch.
Disillusionment rapidly spread throughout the gathered crowd. This was the third scheduled attempt to launch, and the third failure.
The Air Force confirmed that the crews followed through with their launch procedures, but that the first stage of the rocket simply failed to ignite.
As cynicism spread throughout the crowd, someone asked, “When will they try it again?” One person answered, “How about April 1!” Another answered, “How about October 31–tricks and treats!” While another chimed in, “Maybe they should have called it Project Long Wait”
After just witnessing a massive two-year construction project that emplaced 150 nuclear missiles in North Dakota soil–missiles that despite other successes, now appeared extremely unreliable–the local confidence in the wisdom of the Air Force must have reached an all-time low.
As for Rev Branconnier and his protesters, they were relieved to witness the failure. Branconnier hoped that this “would spark a discussion on the campus,” where he felt there was “an increasing apathy toward the use of these weapons.” He went on to wonder “. . .how much this cost. How many University students could have been given loans with this money?”
Over a month later, on December 7, during ceremonies when the Strategic Air Command accepted the fully operational 321st Strategic Missile Wing the Air Force announced that they had not given up on “Project Long Life” and that the test would occur sometime in 1967. The Air Force proclaimed that despite the previous failures, they had complete confidence in the Minuteman II.
Then, in February, the Secretary of the Air Force sent a letter to North Dakota Senator Milton Young to ensure him of his confidence in the Minuteman. Brown wrote, “an analysis of the facts involved in these attempts does not reduce our confidence in Minuteman II reliability.”
In the summer of 1967 the Air Force moved forward with their plans to launch a test missile from the Grand Forks missile field but they had renamed the project. Project Long Life was now referred to as Project Giant Boost. Perhaps the Air Force was hoping for a “Giant Boost” to the reputation of the Minuteman II missile.
The Air Force scheduled the test launch for August 14–anticipation and hopes were high. When the day arrived, and everything was in place, the test failed…again.
According to the Office of Air Force History, “When the launch aborted, the Air Force rushed a 7-second missile to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it was successfully launched.” Secretary Brown believed that that successful test must have restored public confidence in the Minuteman; he certainly had confidence in the missile.
Brown may have been satisfied, but the confidence of many of the stoic, practical farmers of the Northern Plains, who tend to follow a “show me and then I’ll believe you” philosophy probably never returned after the 4 scheduled, and 4 failed attempts to launch the Minuteman from their backyard.
As it turned out, after that first successful launch from an operational silo in South Dakota in March of 1965, that first test of Project Long Life, the Air Force never again launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from an operational site.
The failure of Project Long Life and Giant Boost scarred the reputation of the Minuteman. However, if all you knew of Minuteman test launches was those failures, your knowledge would be very incomplete. Test launches of Minuteman missiles have occurred over 100 times in its 50 year history. Today, the Air Force still conducts numerous annual test launches. These tests are typically very successful. A very significant difference between Long Life and the test launches that have occurred since then (and still occur today) is that the Long Life tests were to take place at operational missile silos and all other tests occur from Vandenberg Air Force Base (on the central coast of California).
Photos in video and this blog courtesy of:
- State Historical Society of North Dakota
- Association of Air Force Missileers
- Grand Forks Herald
- John Whiteside graciously donated copies of his personal scrapbook that he kept while a Targeting and Alignment Officer at Grand Forks Air Force Base in the mid-1960s. His scrapbook provided insight into the importance of Project Long Life in the early years of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing
This project was provoked by the numerous times the staff at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site have been asked “How did they test the missiles?” While the guides often share this story they also explain the numerous, and successful, tests that the Minuteman has experienced at Vandenberg Air Force Base. We’ve met more than our fair share of North Dakotans that remember project Long Life II and who still wonder if the Minuteman of Grand Forks ever would’ve launched if called upon…thankfully we never had to find out…