Visiting a military installation has always brought an increased awareness of how to act as a civilian. The atmosphere of tension is palpable in your mind, as you are on base or on post by permission and as a guest. My first general thought as I passed through gates into Air Force or Army installations was not to do anything to raise suspicions or to make security forces nervous…generally, not for my sake, but in an effort not to make things harder on the nice folks who’ve invited me on.
While my father and grandfather served in the Army (Vietnam and World War II respectively), it was something that really never defined their lives. Yet the story of military service always seemed somehow in the background. I remember playing in dad’s Army fatigues as a kid, and being beneath an active partially military runway readily reminded one that the Cold War had just recently ended. At the end of High School I briefly considered joining Air Force service but decided it was better to be closer to help support family instead, that turned out to be a wise decision.
Since that time, I’ve wavered in between the military world and civilian. Without service, it feels sometimes as though you are looking in through a window and fail to grasp the bigger picture. While we can help tell the stories, we may fail to pick up on certain nuances only known by those who have worn a uniform. Indeed, if we had not lived in areas with military influence (considering Minot), there may be even more we do not see. Once more, a plea for those who lived history to record it.
Such thoughts came to mind as we ventured north once more to Nekoma, deciding to stop and get a few shots of Delta-Zero and Hotel-Zero.
If you might have seen our video, we remark that Nekoma is not dominated by an overwhelming concrete pyramid, instead its the massive grain elevators and wind turbines that define the area. Yet on highway one, its difficult to miss Delta. It’s yellow siding stands out surprisingly stark against the dull tans of early spring. Of any of the former Missile Alert Facilities / Launch Control Facilities we’ve seen, this appears to be the most heavily modified. A newer green tin roof has long since replaced the original shingles, and garage door bays adorn the north and west faces of the structure. The vehicle garage is long gone. If one could guess, this appears to be an auto or farm repair structure today.
Here lies an example against the usual stereotype, these former structures have not become doomsday bunkers and more often than not have not been purchased by history enthusiasts. If one can find photos or videos online of these structures today, most are not in the best of shape.
Yet Delta-Zero seems to also exemplify a successful transition from a military life to a civilian one, perhaps supporting the greater community of Nekoma. While security forces and crews traveled to and from sites, sometimes stopping at small town stores to grab a coffee or some donuts, the Air Force presence in the rural northeast of North Dakota was readily visible but typically not as interactive. Farmers rolled around missile silos, discing the soils likely without much though of the weapon of mass destruction nearby (that is, unless they set off a motion sensing alarm). While there was of course commotion when the sites were installed, the silos just became a part of the landscape.
It made one think of the reverse of a civilian entering a military installation. Instead, Air Force crews were entering areas of rural culture – often wholly different than the cultures they knew. Air Force security forces needed to maintain at least a working relationship with nearby landowners and likely had to understand what the mannerisms of that 3rd generation North Dakotan was like. Further, at least for me, there was a bigger realization a long time ago that while the military culture was fixed on base, as soon as those airmen and officers set foot into the city of Grand Forks or Minot in their off time they were in a different world – particularly if they had grown up, say, in California or Alabama.
Speaking of better understanding North Dakota, I continued on eastward to an area north of Michigan, North Dakota and nearly got stuck in mud. Another warning that online maps designated roads where there were only tractor trails (in this case, the gravel county road had muddied up in the days after a big rain).
The area was full of waterfowl and marsh plants. Drain pumps droned as they attempted to force water out of damp fields. There were some planters out though, and the land was increasingly green.
Hotel-Zero looked to be in decent shape. In fact, its close proximity to the town of Michigan and easy access to Highway 2 made it seem like a possible contender once for the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site (although this is just conjecture). Storage containers, upgrades and newer vehicles sat around the site giving the impression of ongoing work inside. It certainly did not look as lonely as Alpha-Zero nor Charlie-Zero, but the way the complex sat on a hill made it look quite apart. Photos fail to recognize the farms nearby, especially a wooded homestead directly north.
Here is another case of success. Perhaps a family came into this property, a new home for folks to contribute to the community of Michigan (along with Lakota a short distance west). The military story of this structure is long over, yet now perhaps it will become a part of family lore for generations to come. A niece or nephew will remember visiting uncle and aunt’s missile house, maybe to be inspired to learn and carry on that history as well.
When military installations close, what they leave often looms large over new civilian caretakers. Along with old Launch Control Facilities, one merely has to look at old SAC bases such as Loring in Maine or Lowry in Colorado to see this is a tall order. Huge empty hangars either need to be repurposed or destroyed – costly enterprises. Old base housing is the same way, and often environmental impacts left by the military will be felt for generations to come.
Yet we see interesting (and pretty diverse) innovation when it comes to this dilemma. In 1997, after Loring closed, the grounds supported a 75,000 person Phish concert (later, food processing, forestry operations and light manufacturing set up at the former base). One of Lowry’s hangars meanwhile supports the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.
At the risk of editorializing, this seems a unique part of American culture that deserves further reading. Considering the mass demobilization after World War II, and to a lesser extent after the Cold War, military surplus property was obtained by the civilian world and often made into something pretty useful. A definition perhaps of beating “swords into plowshares” but also that uniquely American goal of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Structures built for war (or, more appropriately, defense) that benefited the American people thereafter.
As the wind howls past Oscar-Zero, the museum there serves something as an intermediary too. A state-owned structure for sure, but deactivated for its original purpose serving instead to tell the tales of the Cold War. While the barbed wire and high fences look intimidating, it is one site that looks of military quality that most assuredly welcomes one and all to glimpse into what once was.
We look forward to welcoming you back.
The author, while aware of 4-H clubs, was never in one. My mother grew up on a farm south of Omaha, Nebraska while my father grew up in a farm community further west, but was never really involved with it. I was aware of their 4-H work in animal husbandry, horticulture and a great many other topics but was surprised at one visit to a state fair to see that some 4-H participants submitted not prize hogs nor tomatoes, but preparedness kits.
Rural civil defense lingered on the outskirts of Cold War popular culture. While researching, it comes up from time to time but never quite had the broad appeal as urban fallout shelters nor doomsday bunkers. Of course, when one considers the stereotypical bunker it is set in a rural setting. The made-for-TV movie “The Day After” includes segments based on a farm, largely identifying its isolated nature, but also, Steve Guttenberg.
In the 1960s, about 54% of the US population was categorized as “rural” while 45% was “urban”, yet by 2010 the figures had dramatically changed from 19% rural to about 81% urban (Census paper 2016). One would think at the height of the Cold War there would have been more put out by American civil defense authorities considering the high population living outside cities. Perhaps there is something to be said about urban nuclear targeting in this regard, maybe rural areas could have escaped nuclear war?
Of course, rural America was involved from the very start. Crop and meat production were always seen as vital strategic interests, and rural areas provided safer areas for city evacuation (even if they were typically unable to cope with such an influx of nuclear refugees no matter the era). Yet by the 1960s, with fallout being the primary threat to farms (save the Soviet ICBM that undershot an air base and burst over your unfortunate 1880s vintage barn), there was a considerable effort by civil defense authorities to reach out into America’s breadbasket and advise farmers and ranchers on how to live through an attack. For without crop and livestock production, the United States couldn’t rebuild too effectively (to put it lightly).
A number of programs and pamphlets were put out by the Department of Agriculture to
support this. In addition, there were lesson plans in first aid, food and nutrition, engineering, electricity and animal husbandry that had civil defense in mind for 4-H organizations in the 1960s. County agents, representatives of county extension offices and associated with Land-Grant state universities, suddenly had to gain another hat as a rural civil defense expert.
While rural areas would likely not be subject to direct nuclear attack (well, as long as you didn’t live near one of the growing number of American missile sites and silos in the early 1960s), the fallout threat was dire. Livestock used to open ranges, pastures and feed lots suddenly required shelter at least in the form of sheds or barns. Fallout could induce beta-burns and penetrating gamma radiation that could result in injury or death. A tin roof could somewhat alleviate this, but beyond building a livestock fallout shelter, it would be hard to protect them. (Yes, in fact at least one dairy cow fallout shelter was built near Elkhorn, Nebraska. Feed was stockpiled, caretakers were provided shelter accommodations and special techniques were introduced to continue processing milk and dairy products)
Yet one could not store and protect feed indefinitely (nor imagine two weeks confined with cows in a concrete bunker). While most dangerous elements of radioactivity would possibly subside after a few weeks, the dangerous elements of Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 would remain potent. The biological chain would first uptake these elements into exposed plants, some later eaten by livestock or humans, and then could cause harm within the body via milk consumed. As mentioned before, by the late 1960s it was thought that many of America’s Minuteman arsenal might be targeted by ground-burst nuclear weapons. As these silos ranged from the Canadian border and North Dakota’s Red River back to the Rockies, south to Colorado and east into Missouri – a considerable amount of, if not most productive American farmland would be heavily contaminated.
Another point against the validity of counterforce targeting.
This would mean that stores of grain stored within agricultural silos could be reasonably unaffected (transporting grain to populations is another matter) but any grain production within the next few years would be difficult if not impossible. What’s more, since the 1920s, American agriculture has shifted towards crop production using hybrid seeds. While more productive, hybrid seeds generally cannot be resown. A farmer would have to someway acquire more seeds instead of those within his/her own stores. Another problem, notably with wheat, is that processing is required to make it into the flour and other products usable for human consumption.
There are countless other factors, notably acquiring fresh fuels for farm equipment, locating repair parts and isolated sustainability itself. Not to mention the possible, but not proven, climate effects of nuclear winter upon growing crops under reduced sunlight.
But, holy cow, lets not get too depressing here.
Some aspects of civil defense planning in the 1960s pointed out the “frontier spirit” among farmers and ranchers, doing without and making do. Indeed, preparedness is always an aspect of life in the American Midwest be it drought, floods, hail, tornadoes, pests or low commodity prices. Dealing with nuclear war on the farm, like in the city, was going to be a tall order.
Instead, today in 2020 we look off and see huge tractors driving along, disks following,
and continuing the rural life many generations of North Dakotans have always known. Slightly off topic, I’ve been raising some lettuce, spinach, dill and chives in small planters and it is a fulfilling, quarantine-lightening experience. Not much like seeing something grow from seed to soon offer nourishment to yourself and maybe some neighbors. During the Cold War, had a shooting-war occurred, it would be difficult to imagine a farmer emerging two weeks after a heavy fallout dusted his crops and left wondering what to do.
In fact, fallout did happen in the 1950s and 1960s. Crops were dusted, albeit at lower levels, after nuclear tests in Nevada along with those in the Soviet Union and China. So while the worst never came, there was still a danger to be had in that field of Northern Beans. That radiation is mostly gone now (tiny traces of certain elements remain), but was a forewarning of what could be, and thankfully never was.
A controversial title? Absolutely. The Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations (McNamara serving from 1961 to 1968) could certainly be called that. After all, the implementation of systems analysis and graduated escalation during the Vietnam War spiraled out of control into the Secretary effectively micromanaging a good deal of the early stages in that war, Operation Rolling Thunder – the graduated, but careful, bombing of certain targets in North Vietnam – was considered a failure of policy on his part.
Yet these warfighting considerations did not come out of thin air, and in fact McNamara was often favorable to ideas emerging from the defense intellectual community, that, in itself was born of the Cold War and nuclear deterrence. These are best personified as the “Whiz Kids” academics that came to power during the Kennedy Administration. Suddenly civilians, often with what was considered token military experience (this was the World War II generation), were gaining access to the military realm that had not been really open to outsiders. Naturally, the defense establishment chaffed at such interruptions – most notably Strategic Air Command.
Essentially, most histories dealing with Cold War nuclear deterrence on the American side use the McNamara years as a watershed experience, and we couldn’t agree more. It was a time of transition from the Eisenhower doctrine of Massive Retaliation (responding with massive nuclear force against Soviet aggression in different parts of the world – unfortunately, crises in the late 1950s proved this an unworkable notion) and Kennedy’s evolution of doctrines in flexible response (limited or no nuclear options, or, massive attack), counterforce/city-avoidance/damage-limitation and, eventually, assured destruction.
Controversial or not, McNamara embodied and, with Kennedy, implemented, a number of strategic (and tactical) military doctrines that are still with us to this day.
A case in point resides in Carl Kaysen, who along with Harry Rowan, developed a “surgical strike” against Soviet counterforce nuclear targets during the Berlin Crisis. A plan seen today as an effective sledgehammer against a fly, but at the time rather innovative – if not scary and possibly criminal.
Both Kaysen and Rowan were economists, both affiliated at one point in their lives with
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but also the the influential RAND Corporation which discussed and developed political and military doctrines (among other topics, it still does). Their work with RAND brought them into the realm of defense and by 1961 were the Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kaysen) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Rowan), often working with Kennedy and McNamara. Their plan was developed during the Berlin Crisis, and essentially called for a smaller number of American B-52s to preemptively strike Soviet bomber and missile installations with nuclear weapons should the Berlin Crisis escalate (as opposed to a full-scale nuclear attack utilizing the very inflexible SIOP), rendering the Soviets strategically impotent and hopefully more favorable to terms. Effectively, this meant a first strike and in some circles was likened to a nuclear Pearl Harbor. It also had a vast number of shortcomings including a possibility to eliminate all Soviet strategic weapons and the fact that Soviet leadership might have failed to notice it was only a limited nuclear strike as opposed to a full scale attack. Luckily, it was never implemented nor, as far as anyone knows, seriously considered as a contingency.
Yet it was an idea at a time of “all or nothing”, world events were forcing the President to realize that aspects of military planning were restraining foreign policy, particularly the SIOP. A key thing that came away from McNamara’s controversial early pushes at the Pentagon during the Kennedy years was for the military to begin offering the president better choices in fighting major wars. This was the same year United States Strike Command came into being, a unified combatant command consisting of conventional air and ground forces tasked with rapidly responding to world crises. It was a predecessor to today’s United States Central Command and parts could be considered an early inspiration of United States Special Operations Command.
Faced with a moment of thermonuclear truth, Kennedy and McNamara pushed for flexibility. Enter Kaysen with one frightening plan, but what else could he offer? American conventional forces somewhat languished after the Korean War with the advent of Massive Retaliation, but in the 1960s they had re-emerged.
So, at long last, why the Robert McNamara Minuteman Missile State Historic Site attention grabber? Well, when you look at the deeper picture of the Minuteman II system, it was born of flexible response and has elements of the Berlin Crisis interlaced within its development. It was built with improved command and control characteristics, redundancy to help it fight a possible limited or protracted nuclear war. It’s targets could be quickly reset, and, with the help of technology and accuracy it could be considered a moderate counterforce weapon. It allowed the President new options in an increasingly bigger world.
We’ll just come out and say it, McNamara had much more to do with the Grand Forks missile field then Ronald Reagan ever did. Yet, while both quintessential Cold Warriors, McNamara faded into the background after his poor showing with Vietnam. Reagan was an up-and-comer in 1968, becoming President in 1981 and having a great deal of influence over the end of the Cold War. Reagan personified the “grand scheme” of the later Cold War years of which Grand Forks was a part, McNamara was in effect an intermediary between two eras of nuclear deterrence. Reagan, too, could be called a controversial figure depending on where you stand, history more often than not carries more remarks of controversial figures because of that very concept. Yet Reagan can be remembered as a political agent in pushing the Cold War towards an end. He abhorred nuclear weapons and sought ways to make them impotent via SDI (which, effectively prodded the Soviets) or arms treaties (making the way for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987 and eventually the START treaties of the 1990s – of which, Oscar-Zero was a part of).
We won’t try to make any grandiose statements of Oscar-Zero being a crossroads between the blunt, all-out war concepts of World War II and the exacting, sometimes surgical methods of war that the United States practiced afterward. Vietnam would be a better example of how blurred that watershed truly was. Yet the “Deuce” system did signal an early change in how America would fight its wars for the remainder of the 20th and into the 21st centuries. With the backbone of a blunt, but more flexible nuclear deterrent, even with Minuteman II’s somewhat more precise method of nuclear war (you don’t see those two ideas mentioned in the same sentence often), America built upon its expertise in other areas to create a different deterrent – that of America’s exceptional technology, innovation, well-trained professional forces, and military leadership that was allowed to learn from its mistakes (Sometimes referred to as the “Iron Majors”, aircrews in Vietnam fed up with restrictions rose to leadership positions in the Air Force afterward, developing changes in aerial doctrine are a notable example of this).
It can be said much as the conventional forces languished in the 1950s, the nuclear deterrent did somewhat the same in the post-Cold War era. Yet by 2020, major world powers demanded a larger share of military attention than they had been paid since 1991. All of a sudden the nuclear mission is no longer in the background. Much like 1961, the world in 2020 demands innovation and thought on the part of the American defense intellectuals and the defense establishment. Tactics continually evolve, and if anything could be said of Robert McNamara he was at least trying to keep ahead, a difficult balance fiscally and militarily. History records the implementation of cost-benefit analysis in the warfighting role as a mistake, one of countless different tragedies of the Vietnam conflict, but it happened, and something was learned from it. Long after he had left political life however, his influence over nuclear policy remained and was exemplified in the relatively flexible and resilient “Deuce” system.
Sometimes, there’s just so much more to be read into how deep a missile silo goes.
The Ballad of Zulu-Zero : How a Cold War structure abandoned and decaying actually represents something extraordinary
As Spring really begins to take hold in North Dakota, I found myself – probably like everyone else – really wanting to get outside and get some work done. Today in the warm sunshine but still relatively biting north wind (we must have had a front come through last night, little bit of thunder and lightning), I slowly took up the deep t-posts from the wet, sandy soil. Snow fence laid down before them, battered by the winter, but still quite usable.
I store the t-posts behind our ISST antenna as in most circumstances guests do not venture back there (although they are more than welcome to explore the property). While walking that way I was observed by what I’ve learned are called Dakrats here (also known as flickertails or Richardson’s ground squirrels). It’s still a marvel to me how these small mammals weather the harsh cold of winter here, the same with the frogs happily croaking in the sunlit marsh. Birds are everywhere now. During the winter, grackels and sparrows fluttered about the roof now and then but today the song of the meadowlark sets an expressively upbeat mood in and around the Oscar-Zero complex.
The site would usually be hosting guests right now, our season postponed because of “you know what”, and I’d venture to say that the animal presence outside (thankfully not inside) is much more present than in years past. Although perhaps I’m mistaken.
It makes one think of the abandoned structures that effectively litter the American Great Plains. Old, weathered farmsteads dot the North Dakota landscape. Gray farm houses long devoid of human presence sag on their foundations, windows long gone, and often guarded by fallen Ash branches. Sometimes pines ring the old residences, and every so often you see a newer piece of farm machinery nearby as a farmer uses perhaps his grandparents homestead today as a storage location for combine heads.
This was a common sight driving along the roller-coaster like quality of a highway that led to Nekoma (it had fallen victim to frost-heave). To the northeast, the big gray pyramid with a single white eye looked to be North Dakota’s most militarily historic abandoned property.
There is not much of anything left of former Launch Facilities (the silos) in eastern North
Dakota. One could most assuredly buy one of these plots but it would prove to be impossible to build a missile silo home as they had been imploded. The former Launch Control Facilities / Missile Alert Facilities are a different story. Underground portions are sealed, however the buildings are still there – some for better, others for worse. This spring, Oscar-Zero undergoes painting and resealing – but most of the other LCFs will not. Of course, the topside structure was not meant to withstand a nuclear burst, but a hydrologist might point out how quickly destructive water is to an unprotected building as well. Mold sets in, and soon rot. Wooden walls will eventually deteriorate and the metal will eventually rust. In the meantime, a former Security Control Center makes for a nice cozy habitat for pigeons and perhaps raccoons.
Even concrete will crumble, the Nekoma MSR building won’t last forever (although it will likely seem like it). Army Airfields of World War II, quite visibly, crumble under the freeze and warming cycles of the Great Plains. Winds knock down disused aircraft hangars and old runways that once saw fleets of mighty B-29 bombers destined for the Marianas Islands slowly, but surely, crack and splinter away. The same goes for old radar stations like those near Finley and Fortuna. Monuments to war and defense, eventually rendered obsolete, and left to decay in the sometimes harsh North Dakota climate.
I’m sure this won’t be a popular opinion, as internet comments on abandoned military structures illustrate that its shame that these structures were left to decay, but perhaps there is a message of “a job well done” as a sparrow darts into a hole in the roof of, lets call it Zulu-Zero. It had served its purpose, and the Cold War offers a very visible lesson in this, of providing nuclear deterrence. Structures of World War II offer a different story, often constructed in the hurried pace of wartime, they were allowed to expire as a world returned to – well, at least a relative peace. Ironically, structures of war often designed with protection and surviveability in mind fall instead to the prairie wind and a gentle rainstorm. The ultimate success of that structure built to support and possibly fire some of the most destructive weapons on earth is that the good ol’ Eriksons down the road are using Zulu-Zero’s garage as a machine shed – fixing the equipment that helps with the harvest, a harvest that will feed hundreds.
Of course, any passionate historian’s heart will likely seize up if they happen to pass by Zulu-Zero and notice that the roof had fallen in over the former Facility Manager’s bedroom. Speaking from personal experience an effort to save a former Air Force building and turn it into a museum had proved too much to take on, the building was too far gone, but as soon as its torn down gone too are many memories and stories that could be sparked within veterans who remembered their time there. Likely, this structure I speak of will revert to a mowed grass lot – joining a number of its former predecessors – with a driveway leading to nothing. Perhaps it will prompt the question “why?” within some passerby in the future.
Likely, too, that Zulu-Zero will one day collapse on its own or at least join the nearby ancient farmhouses as quiet monuments to the past. Birds nesting in its debris could not
tell the story of the time Airman First Class Jim Zuiechek sledded off the roof after a snow drift grew over the structure, nor a tense moment downstairs in the capsule during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Structure upkeep is not cheap, but then again a pencil and a piece of paper is.
As Zulu-Zero reverts to open pasture, perhaps its story lives on captured on microfilm or on a hard drive somewhere (hopefully something cool like a hologram or better by that point). The LCF meanwhile has long outlived its purpose, but it did that purpose so well it didn’t end up a 800 foot deep radioactive crater. Instead, it yielded to nature. A robin perched on the weathered concrete slab covering the elevator shaft peacefully sings its evening song as the sun sets in the west. History turns into biology, but a story in some form continues.
For two and a half years, I’ve avoided discussing another Cold War passion, well, frankly, because it doesn’t have much to do with North Dakota. The reason this blog is here is to delve into the stories of the Minuteman missiles in the Grand Forks missile field, and the airmen and officers who operated, maintained, guarded and administered them. Luckily, many of those veterans of the Cold War are still around and can share their knowledge and personal history behind these systems. Just yesterday I was astounded about how much I learned about just food service in the missile field from a simple Facebook post.
When I was much younger, well before the internet and social media, I heard the stories my grandfather told about serving as a supply sergeant in Papua New Guinea during World War II, not to mention his amazing stories from the Great Depression. My father had his share of stories as well being deployed to Vietnam as a draftee, driving a truck for a transportation company northwest of Da Nang, along with Agent Orange exposure that eventually claimed his life.
While I appreciated his stories about Army days, we lived beneath the flight path of a major airport in Nebraska and I loved airplanes. Often I remember running outside when the roar of jet engines approached or the “whomp-whomp” of Huey helicopter blades came near. He took me fishing often at a lake near the airport and mentioned one day that the now empty tarmac was once full of bomber planes. When I inquired further, he mentioned the missile silo that used to be out where he grew up.
I’m continually searching for a book I read back in 4th grade that had to do with the nuclear arms race, as it left a considerable impression. Looking back its hard to think what teachers thought about a student continually interested in the Cold War and nuclear weapons looked like. Yet finding out that the “bomb” was not only once deployed near where I lived, but that many hundreds of them were likely nearby, peaked my interest. So began a life-long interest, and essentially an obsession, with a former Strategic Air Command base called Lincoln.
Searching the public library yielded few results, there were no books on the subject (although that’s about to change) and people could only remark that “Yes, there was once a base out there”. Lincoln had closed in June 1966, pretty much when the Grand Forks missile field was getting into the swing of things – but that’s no coincidence.
Twenty years ago I took to the internet, building a free webpage exploring the idea of Lincoln Air Force Base. Soon, data began to pile up not only from the internet, but from the veterans themselves. There were at least 90 B-47 Stratojet bombers there from 1954 to 1965 supported by about 40 KC-97 propeller-driven tankers. In 1962, Atlas-F Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silos were built around Southeast Nebraska. It had become a massive base, 6,000 personnel there at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But there had been no easy way to ascertain that, a number of the stories via email soon filled my inbox. A veteran and now good friend who had served with the Atlas-F squadron invited me to a veterans reunion where I learned so much about the missile force from grey-haired gentlemen. I left these events memorably with a cramping writing hand, what they were saying was like opening a treasure chest of information. Unfortunately, the veterans of Lincoln AFB no longer hold reunions – there’s just getting to be too few of them.
Fourteen years later, with some college and museum internships along the way, I found
myself at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site. It was the other “half” of the Cold War I’d surely read about but never really delved into. After all, it had been the pre-1965 Strategic Air Command that had fascinated me the most. Minuteman was interesting (I’d interned at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota), but it wasn’t until I started talking with the veterans that things really started to click. Minuteman was, basically, the replacement for the hundreds of those beautiful B-47 bombers that adorned SAC base tarmacs including that one at Lincoln. Post-1965 SAC began to take on a new fascination as one explored the technical weapons systems, the strategic policies, the events that went into Minuteman and everything into the rest of the Cold War. A crowded, noisy flightline had ceased to be at Lincoln, but largely quiet and poised Minuteman II missiles were freshly installed into the eastern North Dakota soil west of Grand Forks. It really seems to be a watershed moment in Cold War history that I look forward researching more about.
Yet the history does not seem that old. I easily remember VHS tapes and corded telephones in the 1980s and 1990s. The veterans here are often only middle aged instead of being older like those at Lincoln. But here is where we recognize the danger of losing history. Back in 2003 when I was a teenager, I readily kick myself now for not interviewing those veterans who were growing elderly. They were a generation born of the 1930s and 1940s, some of them World War II veterans. They had experienced things I could scarcely imagine, yet speaking with them they didn’t regard their stories as historic or worth putting down on paper. Fourteen years later, of course, their numbers have shrunk. World War II veterans seemed plentiful when I was a child, now they are nearly gone. The early Cold War veterans are headed the same way.
When I saw the Historical Society of North Dakota’s page on current history today, about what you are doing or have done during the COVID-19 crisis, it made me reflect on the numerous late Cold War veterans. As a 34 year old, it made me reflect on my own mortality. Not because of the virus, but that we’re all, of course, growing older.
Perhaps the best way to construe this is as a plea, not only to the veterans of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing but to us all – please, please consider writing down your story. The more stories there are, the better historians can collect information and tell the real history down the road. I can’t look at a memoir from a Missile Combat Crew Commander and discern how the Missile Site Chef really operated, nor his/her thoughts or stories, nor vice-versa. We have veterans talk about their time from, say, 1976, and we try to build some interpretation around that. But of course that is not the whole story – what about someone from the 80s or 90s? or 60s for that matter?
Realize that your story is important, and it’s absolutely worth writing down or sharing. We hope to begin videotaping (or recording I guess they say nowadays) individuals who come out to the site who want to share their story in the months and hopefully years ahead.
If that is one thing I’ve learned from all this study and research, about Lincoln Air Force Base or Grand Forks Air Force Base, and even my late father, is that time is truly precious and we can only learn when the history-makers are still around. There are so many, so many questions I wished I could have asked my father before he died. His was a remarkable story worth preserving, and yours is too.
In conventional war, a build up and deployment of forces to a region takes a considerable amount of time. Operation Desert Shield and the subsequent Desert Storm comes to mind as it was one of the author’s earliest childhood memories – of M1A1 Abrams battle tanks breaking through sand berms on their way into southern Iraq, flightlines full of F-15E Strike Eagles and laser-guided weaponry. But these forces didn’t magically appear, it took a Cold War-trained U.S. military a few months to gather and deploy the resources to fight, as a part of an international coalition, what was considered a very powerful Iraqi army. A diplomatic campaign began first, backed by American Air Force and Naval air power which was quickly deployed to the region during Operation Desert Shield. The offensive aerial bombing campaign, kicking off Operation Desert Storm, by coalition forces did not begin until January 16, 1991 (Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990). The ground war itself got underway on February 24th.
Desert Storm seemed in some ways the demonstration of American forces actually designed and trained to fight on the battlefields of central and eastern Europe against numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces. Indeed, a few of the all-stars in the US military’s arsenal – AH-64 Apache helicopters, A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, the M1 Abrams – were specifically designed to do battle with Soviet tanks rolling across West Germany. Weapon systems that utilized the west’s strength in technology.
Strategic Air Command B-52s played a significant role of course, conducting cruise missile strikes. SAC’s tankers were a critical asset to units deploying overseas and in the theater of battle, but B-1 bombers stayed home remaining on nuclear alert. American ICBMs played no visible role, but could have provided a deterrent against Saddam Hussein utilizing chemical or biological weapons. Tactical air power was the preeminent theme throughout the Gulf War. The nuclear battlefield was a thing of the past, and a technologically powerful United States was emerging from the Cold War as it’s victor.
While it seemed long to deploy forces to the region, the United States did so much more
rapidly than any other nation on earth could hope to consider. Logistics was a critical point during the Cold War and America spent a great deal of time and effort on the subject. Rapidly deploying conventional forces from North America to Europe in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion was considered a logistical nightmare that needed to be overcome, there were even fears of a repeat of World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic as Soviet submarines and long-range bombers fired salvos of torpedoes and missiles at NATO transport ships attempting to reinforce Western Europe. Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy has an interesting take on this type of campaign.
Who would have thought World War III might have been so complex? But due to Cold War technology and lessons learned of German Blitzkreg in World War II, time would have been a factor that would have worked against NATO if a conventional war in Europe had come to pass. It would have been quite difficult to slow a fully-mobilized Warsaw Pact invasion of the west, at least conventionally.
At the strategic nuclear level meanwhile, time was absolutely everything. The Soviet Union could deploy nuclear weapons into the American heartland within 28-30 minutes (substantially less with SLBMs), and vice-versa. The logistics of an all out nuclear war, a World War III that for some reason or another did not start on the battlefields of Europe, just didn’t matter – save for communications if that could be so counted. Strike forces found in ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers had to be ready instantly – not within days or hours, they had to respond in moments. SAC bases, and missiles for that matter, were vulnerable. The Navy’s SLBMs were markedly less so, but the Single-Integrated Operational Plan might have designated SLBMs for time-critical targets in the Warsaw Pact – say a Soviet bomber base.
A big worry was over what was called a “Bolt out of the blue” attack, and yes it’s acronym
was boob. Meaning the Soviets would strike massively without obvious signs of impending aggression or provocation. While unlikely – more likely there would be a time of increased tensions or detection of an increased military posture – it had to be considered. This is why a EC-135 “Looking Glass” was constantly airborne from 1961 to 1990, why nuclear armed B-52s sat at the edge of runways ready for a quick take off and why (remaining so to this very day) American ICBM crews sat at consoles monitoring their missiles for quick launch – pre-attack planning meant however this was most assuredly not a “shot from the hip”.
This is what one author (Edward Kaplan in To Kill Nations) explained as the fantastic compression of time. There was no time to muster forces, to deploy overseas, all there was was a possible early warning detection of a Soviet nuclear strike. By the 1980s, infrared satellites could detect heat plumes coming from launching Soviet ICBMs. Over the horizon radars could scan the oceans watching for the SLBM threat, but it all came down to duty officers in those early warning collection centers deciding if the threat was real or not. The major time factor was the human decision process, not including the president’s decision to release nuclear weapons.
A human being, perhaps a Colonel with a family of four, had to instantly decide if millions of lives were to be extinguished.
That is the scary part about the Launch-on-warning concept, with a thought of use em or lose em, that put thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Because of this, essentially, the logistics of World War III were complete before it would have even began.
In the post-attack environment, especially at the time of massively deployed nuclear arsenals in the 1980s, whatever logistic capabilities remained likely would have broken down into mere survival mode. Missile silos would almost certainly not be re-equipped with support bases likely destroyed. Surviving bombers were hoped at one point to complete missions, be re-equipped with fuel and weapons, and continue the fight – however this was unlikely as well. Submarines would find home ports and SLBM resupply-capable ports destroyed. There is the notion of a protracted nuclear war, a weapons exchange taking place over days, weeks, or even months instead of a few hours in which case perhaps deployments and supply could have been sustained. It would be difficult to consider human decision making and patience however in this environment.
While some American strategic forces may have watched Desert Storm on television, seemingly out of the spotlight with some questioning the relevance of nuclear forces in a post-Cold War environment, it could be said that they remained the embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Stick”. After all, within the ideals of the Strategic Air Command and its successors, a perfect weapon was one that was never used. To this end, the system of logistics that supported weapons systems being instantly before war threatened contributed to the overall deterrent power of nuclear weapons. Like its Revolutionary War fore-bearer, Minuteman was ready at a moments notice.
Due to the recent popularity of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, sometimes there is a mistake in identity with Oscar-Zero’s Minuteman. The difference between a Titan-II missile and a Minuteman is almost night and day. Simply put, the Minuteman was solid-fueled (okay, the post-boost vehicle was liquid fueled) while the Titan-II was all liquid-fueled. At the November-33 Minuteman site, if someone dropped a 9 lbs socket it wasn’t going to cause a fuel leak and eventually detonate the missile (This is not to say there were not other risks with the system). The Titan-II was a heavy hitter, along with a great space launch vehicle, but each ICBM in it’s silo necessitated a great deal of care. Minuteman did away with the heavier parts of maintenance, as did the Peacekeeper – arguably the Titan’s replacement.
Titan-IIs, as opposed to Titan-Is, utilized a relatively stable liquid fuel found in Aerozine-50. This mix of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) provided the United States with a true “storable” and instantly available fuel. Atlas and Titan-Is before this utilized RP-1, a highly-refined kerosene as fuel. This was however impractical for long periods of storage within the rocket necessitating complex fueling procedures at active sites.
Back at the Titan-II, the problem with Aerozine-50, along with the Titan-II’s oxidizer dinitrogen tetroxide (supplying the fuel oxygen to successfully continue burning), is that they were both very dangerous to handle – it is, after all, hypergolic rocket fuel. While Aerozine-50 is quite toxic, dinitrogen tetroxide can interact with moisture on the skin, in the eyes and when breathed in can cause horrific problems in the lungs. This is why the Rocket Fuel Handler’s Coverall Outfit (RFHCO) suit plays a spotlight role in Command and Control, fuel and oxidizer handlers were required to wear these when working with the Titan-II.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain in 1960, the Soviets were playing a game of catch up – much to the surprise of those in the West suspecting a missile gap ever since October 1957. True, the R-7 rocket which put Sputnik and the dog Laika into space was proving to be a fairly reliable launch vehicle (although there was a notable absence of testing in 1958). On the other hand, it was not destined to be a great military weapon. Eventually resulting in the SS-6 “Sapwood” (so named under the NATO designation system), the missile was expensive, difficult to deploy, and extremely vulnerable. The R-7 was destined to served better as a propaganda weapon. Only 4 were ever deployed as ICBMs.
Sergei Korolev, the R-7’s champion, went down in history as the Soviet rocket pioneer, whereas a gentleman named Mikhail Yangel could be called another father of Soviet ICBM development. Yangel recognized the importance of practicality when it came to missiles, and as news arrived about the American Atlas – a smaller missile that promised much better performance and reliability (relatively) over the R-7, a new sense of urgency for a new Soviet ICBM was created.
His R-16, known in the west as the SS-7 Saddler, went through a rapid development in 1960. Skipping over the liquid oxygen/RP-1 combination used in the R-7 and Atlas, the missile would be the first to use storable fuel, a huge leap forward. Unlike the later Titan-II however, it would use straight unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine as fuel (a little more stable than Aerozine-50, however a little less energetic) and an oxidizer known as red-fuming nitric acid. The combination would come to be known as “Devil’s Venom” by Soviet scientists due to its extremely volatile nature, not to mention toxicity.
Along with Yangel, a decorated Air Marshal from World War II named Mitrofan Nedelin was tasked to oversee the project. The pressure on Nedelin by the Soviet leadership to produce a practical ICBM was intense. While the advances by the Americans were notable, by late October 1960 there was another deadline – it would look great to have a successful R-16 test in time for the anniversary of the October Revolution.
Rocket development in 1960, on both sides, was on the frontier of science. While the American Atlas promised great potential, it was also suffering a number of setbacks. While the first Atlas-D was placed on alert status, theoretically ready to launch in 15-minutes in September 1959 it was offline pretty quickly. The rapid deployment of Atlas-D and Atlas-E to Strategic Air Command squadrons in 1960 and 1961 was plagued with reliability problems. This should have been expected, it was a brand new weapons system and the pressures of the Cold War pushed it into the field probably too quickly. Atlas-F, in its silo-configuration, faced similar setbacks when it was rushed into service during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With lessons learned, Titan-II and Minuteman-I deployment went a little more smoothly (although, notably, Minuteman-II at Grand Forks suffered alert readiness setbacks in 1966-1967 due, once again, to the rapid advance of technology).
While range-safety officers sat with a finger over the self-destruct button at Cape Canaveral, Florida should something go wrong in an Atlas test flight, along with rigorous safeguards to protect lives and property, the Soviet methods of safety were, in a word, lacking.
As the fully-fueled R-16 sat on it’s pad on October 24, 1960, Marshal Nedelin reportedly set up a folding chair near the missile to direct the work, pushing workers to move faster. The previous day a test on a blow-out mechanism that was proving unreliable was ordered by Yangel. When the valve blew out, it would allow fuel to flow into the turbopump chambers and sustain the missile’s thrust. Incredibly, they were testing this by having technicians crawl into a hatch and listen to the gurgling sound of the highly toxic fuel to see if the blow-out mechanism was really working. Had there been a leak, the technicians would have likely died, but as we’re about to see they probably did anyway.
As this was going on, a problem was found in the onboard electrical control system, requiring technicians to replace wires damaged by a short circuit. Safety rules denoted that the missile be defueled and sent back to the factory for proper modification, however Nedelin disregarded this and ordered that the fix be made on the test stand. This took all night to complete, and by late in the afternoon on the 24th another test of the blow-out mechanisms was underway. Another short-circuit occurred, this one however ignited the second-stage engine. Flames from the engines shot down into the larger first stage fuel and oxidizer tanks.
What occurred next was nothing short of horrific. A tidal wave of flame descended onto the pad as the rocket exploded. Film cameras captured the scene as technicians run away in flames, some drop to the ground never to get back up. Aside from the fire, the toxic vapors of the nitric acid claimed more lives. There was nothing left of Marshal Nedelin nor his folding chair. Yangel survived, lucky to decide on a smoke break within a fire-resistant bunker nearby. 100-150 lives were lost, among them many talented engineers, technicians, and scientists. The setback that would befall the Soviet ICBM program would be costly, but the first mention in official Soviet histories of the disaster would not be published until the Perestroika period of the 1980s.
After the accident, the R-16 continued into a slow development. Some estimates put it’s
deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis at 50 missiles, although it’s more likely only 20 were available – possibly less. Before Cuba, it is probable that Soviet Primer Khrushchev saw the Nedelin Catastrophe as a major problem in confronting the Americans during the especially tense Cold War period in 1961 to 1962. Already available Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) promised a quick tilt back in the “balance of terror” if deployed to Cuba to make up for the lack of ICBMs. As October 1962 arrived, it found the Americans with a healthy – if not completely reliable – number of Atlas-D, -E, -F, Titan-I and even a handful of Minuteman missiles (October 27) on alert status. As history notes, Khrushchev’s gamble failed.
One could say that Nedelin’s impatience could have changed world history. What might have the world looked like if the Cuban Crisis did not take place? Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964 quite possibly never have happened and ICBM parity with the United States would have occurred much earlier than it did.
While the CIA’s Discoverer satellite took pictures of the complex, seeing something very catastrophic had happened, the United States made steady gains in it’s ICBM program. The Minuteman program had been in existence for a few years by then, soon to undertake flight testing. With Polaris already deployed on a few U.S. Navy submarines the writing was clearly on the wall. Solid-fueled systems were the future in the United States, at least militarily. The Soviets continued with liquid-fueled systems (replacing the nitric-acid oxidizer with Nitrogen Tetroxide like the Titan-II) but eventually embraced solid-fuels as well. The R-36M, known in the west as the SS-18 “Satan” remains in service using liquid-fuel systems.
History is full of “what ifs”. Small decisions and little errors that have decided what the world looks like today. The errors that occurred on October 24, 1960 most definitely were not little. The Cold War is full of them, including a major decision by a Soviet air-defense commander named Colonel. Petrov in 1983 that could have saved the world. On the technical side, what if there had been a major accident when developing solid fuels in the United States? Would Minuteman have entered service as soon as it did? Would Titan-IIs have left service by 1987 if the Damascus Incident didn’t occur? A lot of conjecture, but history is made up of facts, and it’s up to us to learn from their lessons.