February Short

Although the recent Hawaii missile warning fiasco is now old news, I remembered a real missile crisis that occurred in 1962.  So I’m including this among the short stories, even though it is not fiction.

A Missile Crisis

The summer and fall of 1961, and for the next few years, silos to house the then-new Minuteman ICBMs were being dug deep into the wheat fields around Malmstrom AFB and Great Falls, Montana as quickly as possible.  During my two years there, the first squadron of fifty missiles came on line.  There would eventually be three squadrons with a total of one hundred and fifty missiles dispersed very widely.  (At first each missile had just one warhead–i.e. an H-bomb–but within a few years, each missile carried multiple warheads, each targeting a different site.)  It was a sobering thought, whenever we stopped to think about it, that surrounding us was potential doom for fifty Soviet cities and /or military bases and untold millions, of people.

But then came fall of 1962; I was entering my second year in the Air Force, and we were looking forward to the bird-hunting season.  With one season under our belts, we felt that we now knew our way around the waterfowl and the pheasant areas surrounding the base.  The first season had been fairly productive, but this second year was going to be great if the birds cooperated by flying into our birdshot patterns.

A week before the season opened, we got orders that all personnel were confined to base, all leaves cancelled.  It was the start of what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We didn’t know much more about what was happening than what was on the radio and TV news.  That there were missile sites being prepared in Cuba and that Russian ships were on their way with weapons to equip those sites.  We were a SAC base and home to a new missile technology that posed a huge threat to the Soviets.  If a shooting war began, there was an excellent chance that we, along with a sister base at Minot, N.D., would be a prime target of Soviet missiles or bombers carrying H-bombs.

The US defense posture is rated in DEFCON units (defense readiness condition) from the  lowest–DEFCON 5, to DEFCON 1–war.  We became really worried when word came from SAC headquarters that conditions had deteriorated to a DEFCON 2.  (The only time it has ever gotten that far.  Even after 9/11, the nation was at DEFCON 3.)  There was that constant icy ball in the pit of the stomach feeling as we went about our work, expecting word at any moment that we were at DEFCON 1.  Those basement fallout shelters we had all prepared were not going to be of any use.  My only hope was that if the missiles struck or the bombs came, I might be home at night with my family rather that on duty and we would be vaporized together.

As we all know, it never came to that.  President Kennedy stood firm and, with a little concession to Khrushchev about our medium range missiles in Turkey, the Russian ships returned to Russia and the sites in Cuba were dismantled.

There wasn’t much left to the hunting season by the time we were allowed to leave base but we had lucked out! 

And that should have been the end of the story.

Except that in 2001 I was browsing a book entitled Inviting Disaster: Lessons From the Edge of Technology, when the name Malmstrom AFB jumped off the page.

During the Missile Crisis, our wing commander, Colonel A. and his staff, had ingeniously found a way to bypass the safeguards that prevented a missile launch without presidential authorization.  Thus they could have sent off the fifty Minute Men that were already operational in their silos, to their programmed targets in the USSR by their local command.  They thought that they were being resourceful, so that if the Soviets destroyed Washington or SAC headquarters in Omaha by a sneak attack before a launch order were sent, Colonel A. could retaliate.  Wow!  Remember the movie Dr. Strangelove?

Colonel A. was a tall, impressive, handsome 40ish man, who was actually married to a Punahou graduate.  He must have been one of General Curtis LeMay’s (chief of SAC) bright young officers, hand-picked to implement and command this important new missile wing. And indeed, he did demonstrate that he was bright and thought outside the box.  Too much so.  Shortly after the crisis was over, he was transferred to a desk job at the Pentagon, and a new wing commander arrived.  I never knew why, until 2001.

And now I knew the rest of the story.

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