ADVERTISEMENT

Tourists peered into the Delta-09 missile silo where an ICBM, a leftover from the Cold War, still sits in Wall, S.D.

FRANK BURES • Washington Post,

Cold War era sites feature weapons of mass attraction

  • Article by: Frank Bures
  • Washington Post
  • May 17, 2013 - 11:30 AM

In the early 1980s, when I was a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, in a small town in Minnesota, our teacher, Mr. Odegaard, asked us if we wanted to see something. We did. So he took us down a little-used stairway, through a door and into a tunnel beneath our school. He flicked on the lights. The sound of our shuffling feet echoed down a long, dark corridor.

“The walls down here are solid concrete,” I remember him telling us, “and you need three feet to stop gamma rays. When the Russians launch their missiles, this is where I’m coming!”

Another day around that same time, I was sitting outside with my best friend Jon discussing this when he told me that after the missiles were launched, his dad was going to drive them to ground zero, because he didn’t want them to die slow, painful deaths. I had no idea what my family’s plans were.

Such were the dilemmas of the Cold War, which seems so strange and distant now. I was thinking about this recently when I stumbled across the mention of an abandoned missile facility south of Minneapolis, where I live. So I drove for an hour and finally turned down a dirt road that rolled through cornfields until it came up onto a high, wide hill, where I could see for miles in either direction. There, sequestered behind a high barbed-wire fence, was a series of low concrete buildings, with doors hanging off their hinges.

The ruin was one of four Nike missile sites that had been positioned around the Twin Cities. Corn leaves rustled in the wind, and crickets sang in the midday heat. I looked up at the blue sky and tried to picture the rockets racing against hope — the noise, the terror, the end.

But it all seemed far away. The empty place felt like an echo of the future it had once promised.

When I got home, I started looking for other places like it and discovered that there are many more and that they’re becoming popular tourist destinations. Every day, the Cold War gets a little colder. And as it does, interest in these nuclear relics heats up. So, with a mixture of grim fascination and nostalgia, I pulled onto Interstate 94 and drove northwest to the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in the hamlet of Cooperstown, N.D.

Oscar-Zero

If not for the security fence and antennas on the roof, I might have mistaken the place for just another prairie ranch. In fact, it was the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility, underneath which lurked a massive survival chamber where two men had sat waiting to turn the keys that would unleash Mr. Odegaard’s nightmare.

Oscar-Zero was one of 15 command centers in the 321st Strategic Missile Wing — one of six such missile wings built across the Great Plains. This one had 150 Minuteman missiles that could be launched in minutes and reach Moscow in half an hour.

The Minuteman missiles were a cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which once numbered 32,000 warheads (and ultimately cost $5.5 trillion). But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the climb down to the current 5,000 or so weapons began. After the START treaty was signed in 1991, three of six Minuteman wings were shut down, including the 321st.

In 2009, the State Historical Society of North Dakota opened Oscar-Zero for tourists, along with the topside of a Minuteman silo 2 miles east of town called November-33. Site Supervisor Mark Sundlov told me he expected about 6,000 visitors this year but said interest is growing. I could see that interest myself when I walked into the lobby at Oscar-Zero. It was a small room, and all told we were 15-odd nuclear tourists. We trundled off together into the underworld.

First we passed through the bunkhouse, where the support staff had lived and which remained a kind of museum of 1980s decor. Sherry Lind, our guide, then directed us to an elevator, and we piled in to begin our descent. Sixty feet down, we entered what could have been Mr. Odegaard’s dream survival chamber: two huge rooms surrounded by 4 feet of reinforced concrete. It was like stepping into a giant petrified cocoon.

We walked past the 13-ton blast door, into the equipment room, and Lind said there had been enough food, water and generator fuel for both the two missileers and the support crew to survive for nine weeks.

“What was the plan after nine weeks?” I asked.

Lind shrugged. “I don’t really know,” she said. “Either starve down here or take your chances with the radiation. You were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t.”

Across the hall, we stepped into the control room, where two missileers had been present 24 hours a day in case the war came. They sat in red chairs facing a console where they would turn their keys to arm the missiles.

“Now if you look up there,” Lind said and pointed into a corner, “you’ll see an escape hatch. Behind it is a three-foot metal tube filled with sand, and it goes to the surface at a 45-degree angle. That’s so that if there was a blast, and you were down here for your nine weeks, and your food ran out, and you couldn’t open the blast door, you could try that one.”

Around the edge of the hatch door at our end, someone had written, “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter.”

“Fascinating,” said an old man next to me, as we filed out and began our ascent. “Just glad we never had to use it.”

‘Nixon’s Pyramid’

Almost 100 miles north from Cooperstown sits one of the strangest ruins of the nuclear era. Technically, it is known as the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard facility, but it is also called “Nixon’s Pyramid.” I could see it long before I got to it: Its primeval shape grew bigger as I drew near, and it stirred something like awe.

It had operated for just eight months in 1975 as a radar facility armed with Sprint and Spartan missiles to defend the 321st missile wing from a Soviet attack. The pyramid had a large white circle on each side facing the sky, like eyes.

The gate to the facility was open, so I drove into the sprawling, empty complex. Buildings sat vacant, and weeds grew up through the cracks in the parking lot. There was one building with a car next to it; I walked inside and found the caretaker, an imposing man named Neil “Buzzy” Holman, who invited me to sit down. He offered me some coffee, then informed me that I couldn’t go see the pyramid without Army permission, though I was welcome to drive down the gravel road next to it and look all I wanted.

“You get many people up here?” I asked.

“We get a few,” he said. “Some try to break in, and I’m not a good guy to do that with.”

“Is the pyramid big inside?”

“It’s huge. What you can see, that’s just a third of it.”

“What’s inside?”

“Nothing. They gutted it. It’s tomb now. That’s all it is.”

A hunt for active missiles

I decided to try to find some of the 450 land-based ICBMs still active, still on alert. I drove a few hours east from the pyramid to a dying prairie town called Drake, home to 10 Minuteman missiles from the 91st Strategic Missile Wing, based out of Minot Air Force Base.

Ten missiles were positioned around Drake, and it seemed as though they would be easy to find. I double-checked my maps with a book called “Nuclear Heartland: A Guide to the 1,000 Missile Silos of the United States,” put out by Nukewatch in the 1980s. It was meant for protesters.

The book also gave the nicknames of each missile. They were mesmerizing. Some were literary: Farewell to Arms, Naked Lunch and Grapes of Wrath. Others were ironic: Sod Buster, Harmful If Swallowed and Guided Gas Oven. And others were straightforward: Cancer, Just War, Eisenhower’s Sorrow and Omnicide.

I eventually found all 10. The second, Cossack, sat on a rise where I could see its blast door clearly from the road. I went on to a third, High Tech, and my heart leapt a little when it came into view. This happened every time I spotted a new one, not because there was anything to see, but because it felt as if I was doing something wrong, seeing something I shouldn’t.

A first in Cold War sites

There was one more stop on my post-pre-apocalyptic Cold War tour. A few hours from Drake sat the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. Its main office was situated in a mobile home at the exit to Badlands National Park. That was where people could stop to get directions to both the Delta-01 Command Center and the Delta-09 missile silo, several miles to the west. Next year, however, a much bigger headquarters and interpretive center is scheduled to break ground across the highway. Still, it was the first National Historic Site dedicated to the Cold War. Even though there were no signs for the site, Chief Ranger Pam Griswold told me they’d had nearly 60,000 visitors the previous year.

I drove west a few miles, past the sharp peaks of the Badlands, and pulled into the parking lot of the Delta-01 Command Center — once the hub of its nuclear wheel, and one of the two remnants of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing.

Inside, I joined up with a tour group just as it was headed underground. As we got out of the elevator, the difference between the two was clear. Delta-01 was part of the second missile wing built; it had just one room, about half the size of the control room at Oscar-Zero, the sixth one built. Here there was no equipment room with power, water, food or air filters. I asked the tour guide, Signy Sherman, about this.

“These guys,” she said, “had about 24 hours of oxygen down there. Pretty much when they turned that key, they were … expendable. There’s an escape hatch they could get out. But once you get to the top, what are you going to find?”

Perhaps this was just a more honest post-apocalyptic scenario. Sherman could see my concern, which she thought misplaced.

“We know from declassified information,” she explained, “that there was a 10-megaton nuclear weapon pointed at this facility. Ten megatons would have created a mile-deep crater. It would have destroyed everything from here to Kadoka, 20 miles that way, to Wall, 20 miles that way. If this capsule managed to survive, it would have fallen a mile.”

After we came up from below, I drove on to the final place. On the freeway, I rolled down my window, felt the summer air, and tried to imagine the area becoming a crater 40 miles wide and a mile deep. Mr. Odegaard had never said anything about that. Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe that was for the best.

Somehow, though, seeing these places made me feel slightly more at ease, as if it was all a bad dream from which we had mostly awakened. Calling it history seemed to put it more firmly behind us.

There was no one at the Delta-09 missile silo when I first pulled in. Unlike the active silos I’d seen, this was wide open and had a glass cover over the top. I walked over to the silo, looked down and took a sharp breath. Till now, all the missiles I’d seen had either been miniature reproductions or old photos. But this one was life-size and just a few feet away. It took me by surprise: It didn’t look like a machine. It didn’t look terrifying. It was smooth and white. It looked like something cared for, something feared and loved. It was — and there’s no other word for it — beautiful.

After a few minutes, other cars pulled in, and tourists poured out. As the crowd grew, so did my sense that history was becoming entertainment, that something deadly serious had been made into a diversion. Normally, I would feel a kind of loathing at that notion. But as I drove away, with the sun nearing the jagged horizon, I thought of mile-deep craters, of escape hatches, of gamma rays, and I wondered if turning terror into tourism might not be our greatest achievement after all.

 

© 2014 Star Tribune