Cold War Memories - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Cold War Memories May 3, 2000
Compiled by Mark Rose

A critical period is commemorated in a new National Historic Site


Test launch of a Minuteman missile
(Courtesy Tim J. Pavek)

Some of you may share my memories of running home from school when the warning sirens sounded, of a friend or neighbor installing a bomb shelter in their back yard, of the yellow and black public fallout shelter signs posted on schools, banks, churches, and office buildings, or of the olive drab cans of crackers and drinking water stacked up in the shelters. Who can forget the pictures of missile laden Soviet ships steaming toward Cuba, or the television newsreels of U.S. jets scrambling from their bases, darkening the air with trails of black kerosene soot during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962?--Mr. Tim J. Pavek, Minuteman II Deactivation Program Manager, Ellsworth AFB, statement before the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, September 14, 1999)

On November 29, 1999, President Clinton signed legislation creating the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, preserving a bit of the Cold War for the benefit of future generations who did not live through it as did Mr. Pavek.

Each year tens of thousands of tourists drive along Interstate 90, heading west through South Dakota to see the state's natural wonders, national memorials, and historic sites--Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, the Black Hills National Forest, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Wounded Knee--and continue on to Yellowstone. For nearly three decades, beginning in 1963, those vacationing families drove through the 44th Missile Wing--150 Minuteman missiles buried in silos scattered across the landscape.

[image] The unassuming face of Minuteman missile facilities: nondescript surface buildings of Delta One (left) [LARGER IMAGE] beneath which launch crews manned a subterranean capsule controlling ten missiles; launch facility (silo) Delta Nine is marked only by a fenced enclosure scarcely noticeable against the Badlands in the background (right). [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy Tim J. Pavek) [image]

Most of the tourists were probably unaware that the small fenced enclosures here and there marked hardened concrete missile silos or that some of the nondescript buildings away from the highway were above deeply buried capsules in which launch-control crews were on 24-hour alert. That will change now that the National Park Service and Air Force have teamed up to add the Delta One Launch Control Facility and Delta Nine Launch Facility to the region's list of attractions. Located near the Badlands National Park, the two sites are the heart of the new Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

The story of the Minuteman missile system and the creation of this new historic site is the story of the Cold War itself. The Soviet development of the Hydrogen bomb in 1953 and successful launch of Sputnik on an SS-6 missile in 1957 gave rise to fears the U.S. was falling behind. It was true that because they used volatile liquid fuel, the old Atlas and Titan missiles in the U.S. arsenal could only be fueled just before launching, a process that took hours. The Air Force rushed to develop a missile using stable solid fuel that could be launched at a moment's notice. The result, Minuteman, was successfully test launched at Cape Canaveral in February 1961.

Less than two years later, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy received a bit of good news: the first ten of 150 Minuteman missiles being deployed at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, had just been brought on alert. They were capable of hitting a target in the Soviet Union in 30 minutes or less (with re-entry speeds approaching 15,000 miles per hour), Kennedy later referred to the Minuteman as his "Ace in the Hole." Deployment of a second wing (150 missile silos and 15 launch control facilities) had already begun at Ellsworth AFB, near Rapid City, South Dakota, and was completed the following year--crews working three shifts, seven days a week, to help meet the Soviet threat.

[image] The eight-ton blast door leading to the Delta One Launch Control Center, or capsule, was embellished with art, continuing the tradition of pilots decorating the noses of their aircraft. A photographic record has been made of the art on the other 449 Minuteman II silos, which must all be demolished under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. (Courtesy Tim J. Pavek) [LARGER IMAGE]

Ellsworth was second of six Minuteman wings. By 1967, there were 1,000 Minuteman missiles planted in silos across the upper Midwest. Each wing was divided into three squadrons (50 missiles each), which in turn were divided into five flights (ten missiles linked to a single launch control facility). Delta One and Delta Nine were part of the Delta Flight of the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron, which along with the 67th and 68th made up the 44th Strategic Missile Wing.

Over the years the Minuteman II and III were developed and deployed. Ellsworth AFB, along with Whiteman AFB in Missouri and Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota, received the Minuteman II but not the later version. After Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet head of state, and President Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1989, the 450 Minuteman II missiles at these bases were withdrawn from alert. START mandates that all Minuteman II missiles be eliminated by December 2001. Demolition at Whiteman AFB has been completed, and the 150 silos at Grand Forks AFB will be destroyed over the next two years. As for Ellsworth, the first missile was removed from its silo in December 1991, and on July 4, 1994 the 44th Missile Wing was deactivated; except for Delta One and Delta Nine, the facilities have all been destroyed.

[image] The main building of the Delta One Launch Control Facility housed an eight-man support and security crew (left). [LARGER IMAGE] The launch control center, or capsule, with the consoles from which the missiles could be launched (right) [LARGER IMAGE] was buried 31 feet below the main building. (Courtesy Tim J. Pavek) [image]

In 1993, the Air Force and National Park Service had recognized the importance of preserving a Minuteman II launch control facility and launch facility at Ellsworth in 1993 because they were closest to the original Minuteman installations. A feasibility study concluded in 1995 that Delta One and Delta Nine, near Interstate 90 and the Badlands National Park, were suitable for inclusion in the National Park system. Since 1993 the Department of Defense Legacy Program has provided funds to preserve the two sites, and Ellsworth AFB and Badlands National Park have developed a plan for day-to-day maintenance as well as long-term preservation and protection of them.

Delta One is situated on 6-plus grassy acres enclosed by a security fence 1.7 miles north of I90 at Exit 127. It consists of an aboveground building and heated garage for patrol vehicles along with an underground launch control center. In the main surface structure were a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and security systems for monitoring the ten launch facilities linked to Delta One. An example of the first version of launch control facility, Delta One has life support equipment in the aboveground building (in later versions they were contained in a buried equipment room alongside the LCC). Buried 31 feet deep, the launch control center at Delta One is connected to the surface by an elevator. It consists of an outer, protective shell (29 feet in diameter and 54 feet long, with four-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls lined with 1/4-inch thick steel plate) in which, suspended on pneumatic shock absorbers, is a 12' by 28' box-like room with the two launch control consoles and communications equipment. The launch control center (commonly called a capsule) was manned 24 hours a day by two officers, who, if necessary, would launch the missiles. Each morning a new two-officer crew came out from Ellsworth to relieve those coming off duty; aboveground, on three-day shifts, were two security officers and two two-man armed response teams as well as a cook and a facility manager.

[image] Aerial view of the Delta Nine Launch Facility (left) [LARGER IMAGE]; explosive gas generators would have opened the 80-ton hexagonal door covering the silo if a launch had been necessary (right) [LARGER IMAGE]. (Courtesy Tim J. Pavek) [image]

The most prominent feature of the unmanned Delta Nine Launch Facility, about 1.6 acres just southwest of I90 at Exit 116, is the silo itself: 12 feet diameter and 80 feet deep, made of reinforced concrete with a 1/4-inch steel-plate liner. The massive, hexagonal door over the silo (made of three and 1/2 foot thick reinforced concrete) weighs in at more than 80 tons. This door will be welded half-way open and given a transparent roof that protects the silos and lets visitors to peer into it, but also allows for satellite verification that the silo is nonoperational in compliance with START. At later LF's the power-supply structures were buried deeply, but Delta Nine retains the original configuration, set into the ground but not entirely buried.

Bill Supernaugh, superintendent of Badlands National Park, outlined how the new historic site might be set up. A visitor center at Exit 131 on I90 will for present a broad perspective of the Cold War and the Minuteman system. Guided tours will depart from the visitor center to the Delta One Launch Control Facility at Exit 127, about four miles away. After returning, visitors can drive through the Badlands to Exit 110 then proceed to Exit 116 (about six miles) for a self-guided tour of the Delta Nine Launch Facility. For those who want more, the Ellsworth Air and Space Museum, farther west on I90 (just outside Rapid City) has a Minuteman displayed above ground as well as a launch-control training module.

[image] Plan shows the Delta Nine launch facility converted into an open-air museum with a transparent cover over the half-opened silo. (Courtesy Tim J. Pavek) [LARGER IMAGE]

The new Natinal Historic Site will go beyond simply archiving a sample of Cold War structures. For example, oral histories of the missileers who worked at Ellsworth AFB have already been recorded."It is the story of the people of South Dakota and other states who lived alongside military installations," says Pavek, one of those interviewed and recorded. "It is the story of a local rancher who tells of working through the bitter winter, helping mine 80' deep holes that would become missile silos--of a missile maintenance team battling a fierce winter blizzard to bring a missile back on alert--of a rancher who helped out an Air Force alert crew stranded on the backroads of the missile field--or of the elderly lady who owned the land surrounding a missile site and told us we wouldn't have to blow up her missile site, she wouldn't tell anyone, since we might need it again some day."

The new Minuteman Missile National Historic Site will open for visitors in four to five years.

Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

Sources for this article include documents and illustrations provided by the National Park Service; Bill Supernaugh, superintendent of Badlands National Park; and Tim J. Pavek, Minuteman II Deactivation Program Manager, Ellsworth AFB. Especially useful was Minuteman Missile Sites: Management Alternatives, Environmental Assessment (produced by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, and Department of Defense, US Air Force, Legacy Resource Management Program). Published in 1995 by the National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Region, Minuteman Missile Sites includes a history of the Minuteman ICBM missile system based on that written by historian John F. Lauber of Hess, Roise and Company (Minneapolis) for a 1994 National Historic Landmark nomination.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America