Ten years ago, the last of the missiles left regionGRAND FORKS — There was a night sometime in the late 1970s when a young Capt. Richard Fuller came within an inch of launching the nuclear missiles under his command, somewhere out in the farmlands of eastern North Dakota.
By: Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald
GRAND FORKS — There was a night sometime in the late 1970s when a young Capt. Richard Fuller came within an inch of launching the nuclear missiles under his command, somewhere out in the farmlands of eastern North Dakota.
The time and the place now seem vague, but that moment of terror still stands out for Fuller, a member of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing once at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
“It’s like me walking into your office, and I have a loaded gun to your head and I say ‘Am I gonna pull the trigger or not?’” he said. “I hold for five minutes and then I walk out.”
The moment passed. It was a false alarm. The Soviet Union had launched a test missile that only looked like it was headed for the U.S. Until Strategic Air Command, which commanded the 321st, figured out the difference, Fuller waited for the order to retaliate.
Former “missileers” remember tense times such as these when their mission was to let the Soviets know that, if they ever launched a missile attack, it would mean Armageddon. They knew they were expendable because the Soviets had many missiles aimed at them in the hopes of destroying some U.S. missiles before they launched.
“You knew up front you were committed to giving your life to protect the assets that protected the country,” said Rick Duquette, who was a member of the security forces protecting the missiles.
If there were an attack, he and his colleagues wouldn’t head for a bomb shelter. They’d be topside, guarding the 321st’s missiles until their inevitable conversion to radioactive dust.
At the height of the Cold War, eastern North Dakota was home to 150 Minuteman III missiles, each capable of delivering as many as three nuclear warheads to the Soviet Union in about 30 minutes. It was said at one time that, were North Dakota to secede from the union, it would be the world’s third strongest nuclear power, which includes the missiles and bombs belonging to the bases in Grand Forks and Minot.
But the missiles also brought with them economic benefits. The Grand Forks region hosted some 4,000 missile-wing personnel and their families.
Ten years ago this month, that chapter in the region’s history closed with the departure of the 321st and the removal of the last missiles. Two years later, nearly all the missile silos were destroyed, leaving the land where they had been for the weeds.
Five percent panic
The life of the missileers and their support personnel was one of routines punctuated by moments of terror.
Nearly all of the time was spent either learning the launch procedures or finding creative ways to alleviate the boredom, former missileer Mike Brown recalled. “It was 95 percent boredom and 5 percent could be panic.”
Now the mayor of Grand Forks, he was a launch officer in the in the 447th squadron, a component of the 321st from 1975 to 1979.
Depending on Strategic Air Command’s policy, missileers such as him spent from 24 hours to 72 hours in a capsule underground waiting for the order to launch — should it ever come.
While Brown studied for his Masters in Business Administration, others might take electronic courses by mail, building TVs for classes. Fuller remembered reading a lot of The Economist and The New York Times.
A launch control capsule was a steel capsule buried under ground. In it was a smaller capsule the size of a recreational vehicle that sat on springs to absorb the shock of a nuclear detonation above ground. Even with that, the shockwaves were expected to be so powerful that their seats had seatbelts to keep them from tumbling out. They and each of the missiles they controlled would be ground zero.
If they weren’t killing time, the missileers trained. There were plenty of drills and if a missileer screwed up, it could be the end of his career.
Brown remembered having all kinds of malfunctions thrown at him and his partner. The circuit breaker might fail, or the generator or an alarm would trip at a missile silo indicating an intruder (or a rabbit). “If you failed to reset a generator and that meant you couldn’t launch a missile,” he said, “that would be a critical deficiency and you’d fail (the drill).”
Topside, security men such as Duquette, who was in the force from 1975 to 1979 as part of the 321st Maintenance Squadron, were also trained to repel intruders. “There was a conception of terrorists at the time,” he said, “but there wasn’t a name and a face like (Osama) bin Laden,” he said. Even the nuclear protesters that wouldn’t arrive until a few years later, he said, figured into the training. (He was supposed to just call for back up, he said, not shoot anyone.)
‘Playing for keeps’
During Cold War days, the United States’ nuclear forces were generally regarded as elite — or at least they saw themselves that way.
“I felt that I was doing something pretty important,” Duquette said. “It was a unique time in the world. We had been trained to protect the nuclear asset at all costs.”
And he was just assigned to protect the missiles when the maintenance crew worked on them, rather than protecting the missiles full-time.
For the officers tasked with launching the missiles, it was even more serious.
“We were executing commanders,” Fuller said. “The chain of command for nuclear execution is directly from the national command authority — the president and the secretary of defense — directly to the executing commanders.”
There was no general, no wing commander in between.
“SAC was like between Delta Force and the U.S. Marine Corps,” Fuller said. “We were in a pressure cooker environment where we were constantly imbued with the feeling that everything we did with nuclear weapons had consequences.”
The smallest error could be enough to prevent promotion, which effectively ended an airman’s career. One of Brown’s colleagues jabbed a pen into a faulty speaker in a fit of rage and was drummed out. “To err is human, to forgive is not SAC policy” was a common saying for a reason.
To these old-time missileers, the recent mishap at Minot Air Force Base, when crews wrongly sent six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, indicate how far their profession had fallen in importance.
“The Air Force does not have a clear, dedicated authority responsible for the nuclear enterprise and who sets and maintains consistent, rigorous standards of operation,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June in regard to that incident. “The investigation concluded that these shortcomings resulted from an erosion of performance standards within the involved commands and a lack of effective Air Force leadership oversight.”
Fuller, who served from 1976 to 1980 in the same squadron as Brown, said it’s hard to imagine the mentality of that time anymore.
“We were playing for keeps,” he said. “If we screwed up, we were done for.”
Today, we have Sept. 11, he said. The threat of nuclear war was as if we had something bigger than that, he said.
The power missileers had access to was so great that they had permission to kill to protect it.
If he had missile codes with him on his way to a silo and he ran a red light, Fuller said, the police did not have the power to touch those codes. There were occasions when the police didn’t understand that, he said, and missileers had to call their M-16-armed security forces to prevent a “showdown.”
To be expendable
There was a term for the game that the United States and the Soviet Union played: It was called mutually assured destruction, with the oddly appropriate acronym “MAD.”
The idea was that if one side launched the missiles in a sneak attack, the other would launch back, thereby ending both sides’ civilizations as they knew it. So neither side dared attack, thereby preserving the tense peace known as the Cold War.
That was why it was important to be ready to end the world if the order came. Deterrence had to be realistic.
The drills could come at any time and, until the messages from the secretary of defense were decoded, missileers never knew if they were really going to drop the big one.
“You’re trained and you’re emotionally numb to it because you’ve done it so many times,” Brown said.
As for Fuller, he said he was terrified.
Everyone involved knew the consequences of thermonuclear war.
The security forces knew they were done for because they’d be at those silos until the end.
“Among my colleagues, we were gone,” Duquette said. “We were expendable were a nuclear war to occur. It was a given.”
Even the launch officers in the shock-absorbing capsules didn’t have any illusions.
Sure, they had shovels to dig their way out, Brown said. But a nuclear detonation above ground would probably turn the sand to glass, he said, and those capsules would turn into tombs.
Today, Fuller said, he doesn’t think he’d be so prepared to go to war.
In the military’s vision of MAD, civilization might collapse but someday it would rebuild.
Toward the end of his military service, he learned about nuclear winter, a theory that said a nuclear exchange would throw up so much dust as to blot out the sun. That wouldn’t just end civilization, it would lead to massive extinctions. As the plants died from lack of sun, the animals that feed on them and the animals that feed on those animals would die, too.
“If I had to do it again knowing what I know about nuclear winter,” he said, “I wouldn’t be able to go to war.”
Outside of the military, the impact of the 321st was largely limited to the economic realm.
There were 15 launch control centers where the crews stayed on duty, ranging from close to the border with Canada to Interstate 94 near Fargo.
Oscar Zero was the center closest to Cooperstown.
While the airmen didn’t live in town or do much business, they did visit the local restaurants, bars and grocery stores, said Don Loder, a retired Cooperstown implement dealer.
“We’d go into the ma and pa convenience stores and we’d clean them out, especially in the winter” Brown said. “Of course we brought junk food. It was either that or — there was something called ‘pressed fish portion.’”
He and his crew used to drive out of their way just to hit the Dairy Queen in Larimore, he said.
That’s on the way to the Golf-Zero or Hotel-Zero control centers.
Grand Forks, though, was where the impact was really felt.
There were so many 321st airmen and their families that by one 1995 estimate, they contributed $68 million to the local economy. That’d be $96 million in today’s money.
Military personnel bring outside money into the economy, in this case money from Washington.
Grand Forks didn’t have a chance to sort out the impact of the 321st’s departure though because the year before the last airmen left, the Flood of the Century struck.
Ten years on, it’s not the money but the history that matters.
Most of the silos and control centers are gone. The end of the Cold War and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991 obligated the United States and Soviet Union to cut their nuclear arsenals.
The 321st’s arsenal was one of those cut, its missiles seen as overkill for peacetime.
Only Oscar Zero on state Highway 45 and a silo called November-33 on state Highway 200 survive. Zero denoted a control center, while any other number denoted an unmanned silo.
The State Historical Society is expected to reopen Oscar Zero as a historical landmark.
Don Vigesaa, a state representative from Cooperstown, pushed a funding bill through the Legislature that helped make that happen.
“We’ve preserved a lot of forts that protected North Dakota: Fort Abercrombie, Fort Totten, Fort Lincoln,” he said. “We looked at Oscar Zero as a modern day outpost protecting our land. The fact that the United States of America was defended from right here in North Dakota was, I thought, worth preserving.”
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