Nuclear missileers hold reunion in Virginia
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.”
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.