Nu­clear mis­sileers hold re­union in Vir­ginia

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - REMEBERING - BY DAVID A. MAU­RER

In the early morn­ing of July 16, 1945, a day star of hell­fire bril­liance ap­peared on Earth for the first time.

At 45 sec­onds af­ter 5:45 a.m., in the New Mex­ico desert, the first atomic bomb det­o­nated. The blast force was equiv­a­lent to 20,000 tons of TNT, send­ing a fire­ball mush­room roil­ing 40,000 feet into the sky.

Within a few weeks, two of these un­earthly flashes ig­nited the air above Ja­pan, bring­ing World War II to an end. The lev­el­ing of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki — and the ex­tin­guish­ing of more than 200,000 lives — pro­vided sober­ing ev­i­dence that a sin­gle bomb could oblit­er­ate a large met­ro­pol­i­tan city.

Four years later, the Soviet Union had the bomb, and the nu­clear club would grow from there. This pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear weapons led to the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the mil­i­tary doc­trine of mu­tual as­sured de­struc­tion, or MAD.

This means that, in the event of a full-scale nu­clear ex­change, both at­tacker and de­fender would be an­ni­hi­lated. To en­sure that any nu­clear at­tack on the United States would re­sult in a Pyrrhic vic­tory for the ag­gres­sor, con­struc­tion of Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota got un­der­way in May 1956.

A map study of the U.S. shows that the base is strate­gi­cally lo­cated roughly in the mid­dle of the na­tion and about 50 miles from the Cana­dian bor­der. The base be­came the home for the 5th Bomb Wing of the Global Strike Com­mand.

The air­fields and squadrons of bombers are eas­ily de­tected. Not nearly as ob­vi­ous are the un­der­ground mis­sile si­los and launch con­trol cen­ters of the 91st Strate­gic Mis­sile Wing.

Clus­tered in three fields at three dif­fer­ent com­pass points out­side the base are ap­prox­i­mately 150 Min­ute­man III nu­clear mis­siles. Dur­ing ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery day, in launch con­trol cen­ters 50 feet be­neath the sur­face, two mem­bers of the Air Force await the un­think­able or­der to launch the mis­siles they’re re­spon­si­ble for.

This has been the case since June 1963.

James Green­law was among the first mis­sileers to ar­rive at the Minot base that sum­mer. He re­cently trav­eled to Char­lottesville from Mon­roe, La., to at­tend a re­union of for­mer air­men, who, like Green­law, once had their fin­gers on the nu­clear trig­ger.

“I’m 83 years old, so it was a big com­mit­ment for me to make it to this re­union,” said Green­law, who, af­ter a 20-year ca­reer in the Air Force, taught for 21 years at the Univer­sity of Louisiana. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“As far as I’m con­cerned, the peo­ple we were in­volved with at Minot were a spe­cial type. I can’t say enough about the qual­ity of peo­ple we had, and I would bet my life on them.

“The Air Force did a very good job of vet­ting us, be­cause it worked out beau­ti­fully.”

Keswick res­i­dent Michael Halseth ar­ranged the re­union, which at­tracted about 45 peo­ple from around the coun­try. A Minot mis­sileer from 1967 to 1971, he re­tired from the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, where he had served as the chief op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer for its hos­pi­tal.

“I didn’t know we had all these mis­siles in the north­ern United States when I started the train­ing,” said Halseth, who grew up in Fresno, Calif. “I had a mil­i­tary obli­ga­tion and de­cided to join the Air Force and go to of­fi­cer train­ing school af­ter I fin­ished col­lege.

“Af­ter I got my com­mis­sion and was as­signed the ca­reer field of mis­siles, I had no idea what that meant. To qual­ify for the job, you needed a top-se­cret crypto-se­cu­rity clear­ance that re­quires an FBI back­ground in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“At some point, we were all asked, ‘Would you launch these mis­siles if or­dered to do so?’ Every­one had to say yes or they would not be in that role.”

Be­ing a per­son di­rectly con­tribut­ing to the end of the world as we know it is about as seri- ous as life gets. The mo­ti­va­tion for push­ing the prover­bial “nu­clear but­ton” would have to be more im­por­tant than one’s life.

Pre­serv­ing the na­tion reaches that tow­er­ing stan­dard. Still, be­ing put in the po­si­tion of pos­si­bly caus­ing the deaths of count­less in­no­cent peo­ple is a lot to shoul­der.

“We talked about that amongst our­selves from time to time,” Halseth said. “But our mil­i­tary was al­ways in the po­si­tion of de­fend­ing our coun­try.

“And de­fend­ing our coun­try would mean that we would not be launch­ing those mis­siles un­less some­one first was launch­ing against us. If that would oc­cur, we had the dev­as­tat­ing power to de­stroy a mas­sive amount of the world — cer­tainly our tar­geted ar­eas.

“That was in­tended to be — and, I think, suc­cess­fully — a de­ter­rent to any en­emy to never con­sider launch­ing against us, be­cause the re­tal­i­a­tion would be so over­whelm­ing.”

To launch or not would be a ques­tion ev­ery mis­sileer would have to an­swer hon­estly for him­self. It could not be a “maybe” or an “I’m pretty sure.”

“The fact is, this coun­try has the best de­fense and a very good of­fense,” Green­law said.

“We were part of that of­fense, and if we were to break down and not do the job we were asked to do, that would weaken the of­fense.

“I al­ways looked at it as a team ef­fort, and that’s what car­ried me through,” Green­law con­tin­ued. “I will say there were a num­ber of times I thought about what would be go­ing on with our fam­i­lies back at the base if we did launch the mis­siles.

“It prob­a­bly would cause World War III — and to­tal dev­as­ta­tion. I did think of that, but it did not de­ter me. I would not have hes­i­tated should the pres­i­dent send us a mes­sage that he wanted those mis­siles launched. And the pres­i­dent is the only one who can give that or­der.”

The two men said their train­ing was on­go­ing and ex­cel­lent. The train­ing in­cluded rou­tinely spend­ing time in a launch sim­u­la­tor where they would go through the pro­ce­dure of fir­ing the mis­siles.

Even pre­tend­ing to launch nu­clear war­heads was so nervewrack­ing that, on rare oc­ca­sions, a mis­sileer would crack un­der the strain. Halseth saw it hap­pen a few times.

“Peo­ple would get so in­volved in the sim­u­la­tion that they would back away and say they couldn’t do it,” Halseth said. “The few that I saw elim­i­nated ini­ti­ated it them­selves, stat­ing to the Air Force that they could no longer do this job.

“The other con­cern is that we were 50 feet un­der­ground in a small launch con­trol cen­ter that was on shock ab­sorbers. If some­body had a prob­lem, it would likely be claus­tro­pho­bia, be­cause we were down there for 24 hours at a time, to­tally sealed in be­hind 8-ton blast doors.

“We could not go any­where, and some peo­ple couldn’t han­dle it.”

The pro­ce­dure to launch the mis­siles has to be fast and pre­cise. A check­list would be fol­lowed to the let­ter, right up to the sec­ond the mis­sile fuel ig­nited and the war­head started on its ir­re­triev­able flight.

Each launch con­trol cen­ter has a two-man crew con­sist­ing of a com­man­der and deputy com­man­der. In­di­vid­ual cen­ters are usu­ally in con­trol of 10 mis­siles.

“The deputy and the com­man­der were about 15 feet apart at two dif­fer­ent mon­i­tors,” Halseth said. “Each mis­sile had a tog­gle switch that had to be flipped for it to be launched.

“We each had a key that would be in­serted into a con­tainer. We would have to si­mul­ta­ne­ously turn those two keys at the same time af­ter first arm­ing the mis­siles.

“When we turned the keys, that would put a vote into the sys­tem for those mis­siles. It took two votes to launch the mis­siles, so an­other launch con­trol cen­ter in­ter­con­nected with us would also have to put in a vote.

“Once you have two votes in the sys­tem for those armed mis­siles, they would launch within the pre­scribed time­frame.”

The only thing painted red in the launch con­trol cen­ter was the safe that con­tained the launch codes. The safe con­tained two locks, one of which had to be opened by the com­man­der and the other by the deputy.

Un­der­scor­ing the se­ri­ous­ness of this is that each per­son is armed with a loaded pis­tol. The men were never told what the pis­tols were for, but it was im­plied that deadly force was au­tho­rized if it ever came to that.

“The only thing they would tell us was to load the pis­tol be­fore we went into the launch con­trol cen­ter,” Green­law said. “And to keep it loaded the whole time we were out there, and not to un­load it un­til we got back.

“Re­mem­ber, no­body could get to us be­cause we had to open the blast door from our side. If some­one went wacko and wanted to end it for ev­ery­body in the world, there would be the other guy with his pis­tol.”

All the train­ing and prepa­ra­tion was di­rectly linked to launch­ing the mis­siles. What would fol­low was an­other mat­ter.

“The plan af­ter we launched was never as clearly ar­tic­u­lated as the plan to launch,” Halseth said. “We were told it would take a pretty di­rect nu­clear war­head hit on our launch con­trol cen­ter to blow it up, but it cer­tainly could be done.

“I’m not aware of any thought given to what’s next af­ter we do our job.”

As Green­law put it, “What was em­pha­sized was to do our job as quickly and as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble.”

The trust the na­tion put in each of the mis­sileers to do his job was a tremen­dous source of pride for each of them. It’s a pride that hasn’t flagged dur­ing the pass­ing decades.

“The mis­sileers were a tightknit bunch, like fam­ily,” Halseth said. “I think we all learned about loyalty, team­work and dis­ci­pline.

“We were down there alone, two men, for 24 hours, with no way to get to us. There is a tremen­dous amount of trust and re­spon­si­bil­ity put into that twoman crew to ex­e­cute their job if needed.

“There (are) teams down there right now.”

MELODY ROB­BINS/THE DAILY PROGRESS

James Green­law (left) and Michael Halseth, mis­sileers who served at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., were at the Char­lottesville re­union of peo­ple who once manned nu­clear mis­sile si­los and launch cen­ters.

A 1960s photo shows mis­sileer Michael Halseth (right), of Keswick, and a col­league in a launch sim­u­la­tor at the Minot base.

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