“Yeah, but would it have worked?”

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,

Diagram of a HEST structure built over a facility to be tested.

Diagram of a HEST structure built over a facility to be tested.

 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 HEST explosion at Launch Facility L-16 can be seen in the distance.

The HEST explosion at Launch Facility L-16 can be seen in the distance.

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.”

Charles Parkman first worked to construct the 321st Strategic Missile Wing and then he worked to blow up one of the newly constructed sites during HEST testing. Charles was a tour guide at Oscar-Zero and is dearly missed.

Charles Parkman first worked to construct the 321st Strategic Missile Wing and then he worked to blow up one of the newly constructed sites during HEST testing. This photo shows Charles standing on the HEST structure. Charles was a tour guide at Oscar-Zero and is dearly missed.

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?”


The Rocketeers of Oscar-Zero!

Rocketeer Patch“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 .

Project Long Life II

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.

One of two Missile Combat Crews assigned to Project Long Life II

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.”

From the Grand Forks Herald: “Missile Reliable, Officials Assert”

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:

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…

Mixed Emotions – Road Tripping through the 321st Missile Field

Just over a year ago I went road-tripping on a tour of the former 321stStrategic Missile Wing. I wanted to get a good look at the 14 other Missile Alert Facilities (or Launch Control Facilities). I had a few reasons for doing this. One reason was that I was deeply curious—I wanted to see firsthand what had become of the facilities since their deactivation in the late 1990s.

321st Strategic Missile Wing (copyright SHSND)

I-0 (India-Zero)

The road trip and discovering the condition of the facilities ended up being much more emotional than I ever could have imagined. And my emotions were all mixed-up. It was a powerful trip. As I drove from abandoned facility to abandoned facility there were overriding similarities. The sites were overgrown with grass and weeds. Siding had been ripped from their sides. Basketball hoops had fallen into rusted, bent heaps. Rooftop security lights were precariously hanging by their last few bolts. Piles of old farm implements and rusting vehicles cluttered the parking areas (left their by their new private owners). Critters and raccoons had set up residence and taken their part in the deterioration. It was an ugly picture all throughout the missile field.

In one sense, I felt perfectly fine with all of this deterioration. In fact, it felt somewhat gratifying. The nuclear weapon is the most powerful and lethal weapon that mankind has ever devised–the deactivation of this missile field meant there were 150 fewer of these most deadly weapons standing on ready alert. Additionally, there is certain victory in their closure–the deterrent force of these sites brought the Cold War to a cold, peaceful conclusion. In other words, it is perfectly fine that these sites are now slowly rotting away because they had done their job and they had done it well—they had brought the long Cold War to an end, and they were no longer needed. There are definite reasons for rejoicing in their deterioration–but those reasons focus on the military and political mission, purpose, and capabilities of the sites.

K-0 (Kilo-Zero)

However, when my thoughts shifted away from the structures of these sites and focused on the people of the sites, the deterioration became deeply saddening. I couldn’t help but think of the many dedicated, hard-working, well-trained people who for over 30 years kept these facilities, this tip of the US nuclear sword, in immaculate and razor-sharp condition. I couldn’t help but think of the countless Air Force inspectors who visited these sites and demanded nothing but excellence and perfection—I couldn’t imagine how their stomachs might turn at the sickening sight of these rotting facilities. I couldn’t help but think of the many young Air Force members who put gallons and gallons of elbow grease and sweat into the maintenance of these facilities. I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of hard-working civilian contractors who built these sites and especially of the seven men who died constructing the sites. I couldn’t help but think of the families and the real impacts that these sites had on their personal lives—the spouses who spent Christmas at home and alone while their loved one fulfilled a duty to the nation at these isolated facilities. I couldn’t help but think of all of the laughter, tears, struggles, and successes that were wrapped up in these facilities—facilities that were now simply and slowly rotting away.

A-0 (Alpha-Zero)

J-0 (Juliett-Zero)

G-0 (Golf-Zero)

F-0 (Foxtrot-Zero)

E-0 (Echo-Zero)

C-0 (Charlie-Zero)

C-0 (Charlie-Zero)

So, while I appreciated the fact that the sites had effectively fulfilled a national military and political strategy and it was gratifying to set aside a tool that was no longer needed, I saw these facilities as much more than tools or objects. When we build structures, we typically build them to fulfill a necessity. But, as we build and use them we can’t help but embed ourselves into them—the structure will always hold countless human stories—that ability to hold our stories is their very real power. And it’s these personal stories, these very real but invisible human connections, that makes me something of an historic preservationist, or a building hugger as some might joke. There is an incredible amount of power in place. This is why I take a great deal of pride in the historical preservation and interpretation work that the staff and I take on everyday at Oscar-Zero.

Well, those are my ramblings. What are your thoughts on the deterioration of these missile facilities? Or your thoughts on the historic preservation of buildings? I’d love to hear your thoughts—I’m sure they’d help us all further shape our own thoughts and maybe even help straighten out some mixed emotions.

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.

The Status Console (typical working station for the on-duty Deputy) of the Launch Control Center

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)

The bed in the Launch Control Center was modified to add additional privacy for the sleeping crew member

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)

Responding to the addition of women to the missile field, the Air Force converted a utility closet to the women’s bathroom

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.

Self Sufficiency: Oscar-Zero’s Secret Weapon

Self- Sufficient: able to maintain oneself or itself without outside aid; capable of providing for one’s own needs.

Being prepared for anything has been a tactic employed by everyone from ancient warriors to the Boy Scouts. The Oscar-Zero Launch Control Facility (LCF), like many other Minuteman LCF’s, is a shining example of self sufficiency in the defense network. “The function of the LCF is to provide housing, protection and support to launch control operating personnel and equipment.”Constant connection with Grand Forks Air Force

The generator system is strategically discussed by the Air Force and the manufacturer in a 1964 mock up.

Base (GFAFB) created a constant supply chain of personnel, equipment, food, etc to Oscar-Zero (O-0). Inversely, O-0 sent back trash, used recyclable materials, and, of course, personnel that were going off-duty, creating circular chain of functioning. O-0 was self-sufficient at any given moment (a snapshot in time so-to-speak), but it could not be so without its strong connection to the GFAFB. Once that connection broke, the clock would begin running on O-0—it would survive for quite some time but eventually it would be depleted of supplies. Strategically created this way, Oscar- Zero relied on self-sufficiency to both protect itself from being infiltrated and to assure constant survivability in isolated conditions.

Strategic planning created the ability to sustain Oscar-Zero in a variety of conditions. Items like on-site fuel tanks kept gasoline for maintenance, security, and crew vehicles. While isolated, there was never fear of running out of fuel and becoming stranded at the site. On-site water tanks provided guarantee that water never ran out for showers, bathroom facilities, drinking, and most importantly fire fighting. Facility Managers checked these gauges on a daily basis to confirm all were working at a full level. If something was below regulation standard of operating, more was brought out and attended to immediately. On a regular basis, the site operated on power supplied by the local power company but there were two backup generators on site—one above ground and one below ground. These generators were available at any time to power the facility. Should the below ground

This gauge on a water tank was checked daily by the Facility Manager, to assure there was enough water for the site. The green was the ideal amount of gallons.

generator fail, the computers in the Launch Control Center would be powered by batteries—this backup to the backup ensured that the critical link between the control center and the missile silos was never broken. A large kitchen inventory that was carefully monitored by the on-site cook and regular replenished by vehicles from Grand Forks AFB. Also on site was a fully stocked linen closet that always had an abundance of supplies to keep the site comfortable and operational. Why the full capacity?

The next generation of present day Minuteman missiles still function off of self sustaining Launch Control Facilities. This Minuteman III missile is the next generation of the Minuteman missile.

A variety of reasons dictate the preparedness of every LCF. The missile field was a place where being prepared for anything was a requirement. The Air Force operated and maintained the world’s most powerful weapon–running out of things like fuel, water, food, or power while operating and securing those weapons was simply not acceptable. Additionally, the more things the LCF could do for itself, the less contact with the outside world the site required. Security was an essential priority, and the less movement through the gates of the facility required a lesser chance for infiltration by any potential security threats. Most importantly, preparing for the worst was required. In a worst-case scenario, the ability to keep the facility running to operate and secure the missiles would be of the highest importance. While some of the dooms-day scenarios seemed like unlikely occurrences, they also had practical applications when weather turned for the worst. Many former employees remember being trapped at the LCF for what seemed like days on end during winter months, and the independence of the site set their minds at ease.

Self sufficiency allows the Launch Control Facility, and therefore the missile field, to run smoothly. This system is in practice at active missile sites today, and has positively served the nation’s ICBM force for over forty years.

1.  Technical Manual, Operation Instructions, Minuteman Weapon System T.0.21M-LGM30F-1-13, 1986.

All Photos Courtesy of Association of Air Force Missileers

Constructing a Missile Field

On February 28, 1963, the US Army Corps of Engineers selected Morrison-Knudsen and Associates as the general contractor for the sixth and final Minuteman missile wing to be constructed. (Although the Corps was responsible for coordinating this massive project, the end product would be operated by the US Air Force). Like the five missile wings which preceded it, Wing VI would be configured with 15 launch control centers and 150 missile silos (each silo containing one nuclear-tipped Minuteman missile).

The Launch Control Equipment Building (left) and the Launch Control Center (right) are clearly seen in this image. Between '64 and '66, 15 such facilities along with their above ground support buildings were constructed in the Grand Forks missile field.

A year later, on March 5, 1964, Morrison-Knudsen broke ground and construction was underway. At the time, the Grand Forks Herald correctly asserted that the project “will go down as eastern North Dakota’s most colorful and largest construction project.” The project had a tremendous social and economic impact on the area. Anybody living in the construction area could not escape its presence—the area covered 7,500 square miles (running east-west from Grand Forks to Devils Lake and north-south from the Canadian border to I-94). During the peak of construction, nearly 7,000 persons were employed. Sadly, the sometimes dangerous work took the lives of 7 of those construction workers. While many employees were local North Dakotans, many others came from across the nation. Schools quickly filled to capacity (many schools have never surpassed their enrollment numbers during those years). The Herald reported that the project injected over $35 million into the local economy in 1965 alone. The project cost the nation nearly one billion dollars ($600 million for structures and equipment and another $255 million in missile hardware). Incredibly the project was completed in just over two years and on December 7, 1966 the 321stStrategic Missile Wing became fully operational.

The supporting equipment building (left) and the top of the cylindrical missile silo are seen in this photo. Water naturally inundated many of the sites and needed to be constantly pumped out to allow construction to proceed.

Charles Parkman was a civilian construction worker that was employed in the project. Charles was the foreman of a de-watering crew. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles during construction was against the flooding waters of breeched groundwater tables, spring snow melts, and regular rains. De-watering crews kept up the struggle in order to keep the deep excavations dry enough that work would not be delayed and concrete could be poured. Today, Charles is a tour guide at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site and regularly relates his first-hand stories to guests. In 2010, we interviewed Charles as part of our on-going oral history project (“Memories of the Missile Field”). Click below to listen to Charles discuss his earliest experiences as a foreman on a de-watering crew for the Morrison-Knudsen construction company.