Missile Museum Gives Insight for Cold War Defense Readiness
by Vera Marie Badertscher, ArizonaHighways.com, July 2004.
Winner, web features, National Federation of Press Women.
Arizonans learn to be wary of underground dens that provide havens for dangerous rattlesnakes, lizards and spiders. From the 1960s to mid ‘80s, a more powerful threat hid under the baked earth of southern Arizona. Gauges and switches monitored air and power and lights blinked red and green in the command bunker of Site 571-7 where Titan II missile crews waited for a doomsday message. One of the original 54 Titan II missile silos now welcomes visitors. The missile inside has been defanged. No nuclear material remains in the warhead.
Hard hats teeter on people’s heads as they scan the console three stories below ground. They are looking for the red button, the one made famous by thrillers. But there is no red button—just two sealed key switches. Everyone’s eyes are drawn to the top drawer of the safe, painted red and sealed with two locks that look as innocent as the ones on your gym locker.
“That is the EWO portion,” explains former Missile Combat Crew Commander David Runt, “Emergency War Orders.” Inside, along with war orders, two puny keys waited to launch an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile carrying an atomic weapon.
The Titan Missile Museum Historic Site in Sahuarita, south of Tucson, was rescued when the Air Force destroyed all the other aging missile sites in 1984. To comply with disarmament treaties, a hole has been cut in the warhead from this former training missile and the silo door is blocked halfway open so that Russian satellites can confirm it is unusable.
A dozen former missileers are among the volunteers leading visitors on a one-hour tour beginning at the museum’s new Count Ferdinand von Galen Titan Missile Education and Research Center. Opened in November 2003, the center houses exhibits, a gift shop, classrooms for education programs and temperature-controlled archives that allow the public access to the library. Dave Runt, who served five years on missile alerts in Kansas, comes down from Phoenix twice a month to revisit his past and share his knowledge about missile sites that were identical in Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas.
Before climbing down 54 steps into the silo, Runt leads people past rocket propellant trailers, antennas and crew vehicles parked “topside.” As he starts the tour, he spouts statistics like a science professor as he describes the first stage of launch.
“Stage one engines can generate 430 thousand pounds of thrust. Two 747s side by side on a runway at max throttle—not quite 430 pounds of thrust. Enough to get the 330-thousand-pound missile 41 nautical miles high, 41 miles down range in just two and a half minutes. That’s a lot of git-up-and-go.”
When he opens the door to the “entrapment area” Runt says he flashes back to his days on alert. The smell of hydraulic fluid and the cool hard metal bring it all back. Here at the top of the stairs, the crew commander established his identity by using a secret set of numbers to decode a table of letters, and pass the coded message on to the on-duty crew by phone.
Then, as the relief crew entered the silo, the commander picked up another phone and identified the crew, saying something like, “Crew 024 at blast door six.” He pressed a button and the crew on duty pressed another to unlock the first of a series of three-ton blast doors. Two blast doors stayed closed between the crew and the missile and between the missile and the outdoors at all times. In case of earthquake—or nuclear attack— those inside the silo would be snugly cushioned from shock.
The two officers and two enlisted crew members spent their 24-hour alert following checklists, monitoring for problems, painting, cleaning, and studying. Mostly it was routine. But twice it was different for Runt. Although details are still classified, he can share the general story.
One evening in the late 1970s, about 8 p.m., Crew Commander Runt went upstairs to Level One of the Control Center near Wichita, Kansas, and stretched out on the bunk to sleep. About 3:00 a.m. Kansas time or 0900 Zulu, worldwide military time, the PA system blared. “Commander, come here!” The young lieutenant who was the Deputy Crew Commander had only been on a couple of alerts and panic tinged his voice.
Farmers were hauling themselves out of warm beds and heading for the milk barn. Newspaper boys were rubbing sleep out of their eyes. And all over the world, missile commands, pilots, and military bases were getting a persistent message from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to prepare for the unthinkable.
Runt leaped out of the bunk. “When you hear the klaxon or the PA system in the middle of the night, you tend to hit the ceiling,” he says. He pulled on his blue fatigue pants and shirt, shoved his feet into his heavy combat boots and dashed down the metal stairway to level two of the Control Center.
Radio messages from SAC specified the level of military readiness. This time the message skipped all the preliminary levels. It escalated to the order to get the keys out of the safe and insert them in the switch. Only two possibilities remained. The next order could be to stand down. Or it could be the “go to war” message that would send a warhead flying around the world.
Movie plots thrive on the chilling possibility of accidental launch. In real life, checks and counterchecks made that next to impossible. The short radio message, in alphanumeric code, blared over the radio speakers again and again and again. The deputy and an enlisted man on duty independently copied the code and checked and rechecked their work. They relied on information in a red notebook to interpret the category of the code. They determined that the message was real—not an exercise.
Runt verified the message. He and the deputy opened the locks they had placed on the red safe. They withdrew the launch keys and classified documents.
When he came on duty the previous day, Runt had checked with the off-going commander to ensure the lead seals on the keyswitch were in place. Now the two officers snapped the wires that secured the seals. They inserted their keys.
“In my memory that key looks huge,” Runt says now.
As he and his deputy sat at the console, they were prisoners of the keys. Because of the “no lone zone: two-man policy mandatory” rule, two of the four-man crew always manned the control center. Both officers stayed put, smoking cigarettes. Adrenaline substituted for caffeine. They avoided coffee because the restrooms were upstairs, Runt explains.
And so they waited, and wondered. They were not alone. All the missile sites and aircrews worldwide stood at advanced readiness posture. The clock ticked on. The relief crew arrived the next morning. The status had not changed.
As Runt drove home, he knew the military was on a hair trigger but he couldn’t share his thoughts with anybody. Sooner or later he would find out what was going on. Eventually, the readiness order was cancelled. The crisis ended. Now, some twenty-five years later, Runt still guards the secrets of why it happened and how it ended. Like the location of the pre-programmed targets, the information is still considered classified.
Runt says he didn’t spend the time away from the silo worrying, although curiosity gnawed at him. “It’s probably faith in the system. ‘ The system’ meaning peace through deterrence. You have an understanding that your side knows the consequences and you have faith that the other side understands that too…that they wouldn’t do anything dumb to set off a nuclear war.”
“Fifty-eight seconds from key turn to liftoff. There’s no stop button. Thirty to forty minutes from now, somewhere on the other side of the world, target two and everyone there will cease to exist,” he says.
As the underground portion of the tour ends and the group heads back upstairs, Runt hopes he has impressed upon the visitors the awesome destructive power of a nuclear explosion equal to nine million tons of TNT. Visitors, he hopes, now know how it felt to be sitting in that silo waiting for the “go to war” message that never came.