Minuteman Missle
Historic Resource Study
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Section II — Life on the South Dakota Plains: Before, During, and After Minuteman

Chapter 5:
Chapter 5: Missileer Culture: Day-to-Day Life (1960s—91)

Trained and dedicated officers, troops, and technicians managed the awesome destructive force embedded within each Minuteman missile on a day-to-day level. Their lives while on three-day or twenty-four hour alert tours became intertwined with their machines and their mission. Minuteman's Launch Control Facilities (LCF) in South Dakota were operated by Air Force personnel who lived and worked at the sites. Each staff member had their own responsibilities to support the overall function of the LCF, though their primary duty was to support the missile combat crew in the underground Launch Control Center (LCC). Personnel assigned to reside at the LCF included a facility manager, flight security controllers, security alert team members, and a missile rations cook. Maintenance crews occasionally stayed overnight at the facility as well. Activities and duties of the crews evolved over the nearly three decades of Minuteman in South Dakota. The general description of the duties and procedures described below may not reflect all the varying experiences of the Air Force personnel over the years.

While on duty, the staff worked, ate, slept, and relaxed at the LCF. For Air Force personnel, the grounds became a second home for the duration of the tour. Many of the facilities were equipped with recreational facilities such as basketball hoops, ping-pong and pool tables, and weight rooms. They all had a television and some even had satellite televisions and videocassette recorders. In this sense, the sites ceased to be uniform almost immediately upon use, as crew alterations and tastes transformed the LCF into unique living and working environments. Working as a team and frequently serving the same tours, many LCF personnel and teams formed special relationships. In the late 1970s, for example, LCF personnel from Delta-01 of Ellsworth Air Force Base called themselves the "Delta Dogs" and painted a bulldog on the wall. Although the mural has since been painted over, the legacy of the "Delta Dogs" still exists in the minds of the men and women who served at the Ellsworth Air Force Base Delta Flight. [298]

Many Air Force personnel who worked in operations or maintenance at the LCFs went through the Personnel Reliability Program, a psychological screening program that evaluated missileers and support crew. Crew members were not permitted to serve alert tours if something was hindering their ability to think clearly, including medications and marital situations. Commanding officers, coworkers, and friends were asked to report strange behavior and emotional upsets of LCF and LCC personnel that may affect their job performance. [299]

Air Force personnel involved in the Minuteman missile, not just the missileers, were well aware of the seriousness of their mission and the potential consequences of their use. When Martin Pietz, who served on the electro mechanical team at Ellsworth, was asked, "Did it bother you at all that the missile you were supporting, if it were ever used, likely meant the end of life as we know it?" Pietz responded, "You're torn when you work. I mean you have exercises where you have scenarios where you have practice war, in case it, God forbid it ever happened, it wouldn't, you wouldn't sit there and think about 'what am I doing, what am I doing?'... So after, I mean you'd go home that night and you'd think about 'man, what are we doing?' So yeah, did you ever think? Yeah, absolutely! You tried to stay in the mode. It was your job to have things ready to go and hope it never got used." [300]

David Blackhurst, a former missile crew commander recalled that they took their job very seriously and described it once they were in a routine in the following manner, "After awhile we had a saying it was kind of like hours and hours of sheer boredom punctuated by seconds of panic. But basically it was a serious job." [301] Former missileer Craig Manson continued to describe the mindset of a missileer by addressing one of the most difficult questions frequently asked of them. "And so the question frequently is, 'well, you know, how could you do that job knowing that you might be called upon to participate in a war of nuclear devastation?' And I think there's a couple of things that people have to keep in mind. One, the majority of missile launch officers, even though they're fairly young officers, the majority are married and many of them have children and families, and that's crucial to keep in mind. Two, although no one ever said to a missile officer, 'we are categorically ruling out a nuclear first strike,' because of their faith in American values, I think we were all convinced that America would act only in the best interests of America and the world and not in an unreasonably aggressive posture for no reason at all." [302]

Following is a description of the principal assignments for each of the Air Force personnel assigned to a Minuteman LCF or LCC at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

At the Launch Control Facility

Facility Manager

One facility manager was on duty during each three-day alert tour. While the facility managers were accountable for managing the facility and supervising the topside crew, they were ultimately responsible to the crew commander on duty in the LCC. [303] Facility managers were typically noncommissioned officers with excellent technical and managerial skills who were in their twenties and thirties holding the rank of Master Sergeant, Technical Sergeant or Staff Sergeant. Any Air Force personnel could have applied to serve as a facility manager, including maintenance crew, cooks, and administrative support. Once the Air Force selected an individual to become a facility manager, Strategic Air Command (SAC) required that they visit one of the sites and begin on-the-job training with an experienced facility manager. There was no formal training to become a facility manager. Rather, they learned their job primarily by performing the required tasks. [304]

The facility manager's primary duties included supervising and managing LCF personnel for the combat crew commander, maintaining support equipment, and responding to emergencies under the direction of the missile crew on duty. [305] Also under this job description, however, were a host of additional duties, including everything from acting weatherman, mechanic, innkeeper, and groundskeeper, or essentially, anything needed to keep the LCF running smoothly.

Many missileers called the "jack-of-all-trades" facility manager their "house mouse." The phrase derives from the concept that the LCF performed much like a small hotel serving as a location away from home where security personnel, cooks, and missile crews, and sometimes missile maintenance crew ate, slept, and relaxed, in addition to worked. [306] Despite the frequent lightheartedness of the personnel at the LCF, the facility manager had a difficult and potentially stressful job. In an article published in 1974, Sergeant Roger Wang stated that the primary reason for facility managers is to "support the two guys who someday may have to turn the keys to fire the Minuteman." [307] The purpose of a strategic missile site, to defend the nation by offering a constant and vigilant threat of counter-attack, was rarely far from the minds of such airmen.

After arriving at the LCF, the facility managers used the day's code to get onto the site. Although the LCF security staff knew the facility manager was coming, everyone accessing the site—even those recognized—had to be authenticated before entering the site as a precaution against sabotage or attack. This emphasis on security was included even in routine activities. If the facility manager needed to go down to the capsule, for example, he would first have to authenticate the codes received from Ellsworth Air Force Base with the combat crew. One facility manager, serving at Delta-01, once read his code backwards to the combat crew. Realizing his mistake, the crew asked if he was sure this was the way he wanted to state the codes. Unfortunately, the facility manager did not understand their hint, and was forced to return to Ellsworth Air Force Base to reverify his codes. [308]

After arrival at the LCF, the facility manager's first task would be to walk the facility and the grounds with the manager on-duty for a briefing, where the work performed by the previous alert tour, and the work required for the next, would each be detailed. Every day at the facility offered similar duties. After rising in the morning, the facility manager would phone in a weather report to the helicopter pilot on-duty at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Following breakfast, the facility manager took care of other daily responsibilities. Morning chores included inspection of the LCF grounds, including the water treatment tank, the power generators, and the sewage lagoon. After the daily inspections, the facility manager typically spent much of the day maintaining the facility and repairing support equipment, including replacing light bulbs and refueling vehicles. In the summer the facility manager was responsible for mowing the yard and in the winter he or she shoveled the drive. [309]

Facility managers were also responsible for meeting any individual that entered the LCF property, including everyone from branch chiefs, maintenance crews, and local law enforcement to family members and local ranchers. All visitors needed approval to visit a site, including family members. Visitors could be sponsored by Air Force personnel who prepared a request letter that was then reviewed and approved through the chain-of-command. The facility manager was effectively never off-duty while on an alert tour. If a maintenance crew was scheduled to arrive in the middle of the night for a Remain-Over-Night (RON), for example, the facility manager was required to brief the visitors on safety and arrange for their meals and living quarters. [310]

The facility manager also had the job of calling in stand-bys or personnel replacements as needed. Three days in close quarters sometimes prompted disagreements between LCF personnel. In such cases, the facility manager had the authority to send the aggressor back to base and call in a replacement to finish the alert tour. Emotional problems and medical emergencies at the base or at home also warranted the facility manager to call in stand-by personnel. [311] Although never off-shift while on alert tour, being facility manager offered unique rewards. The manager was the only LCF personnel assigned a single room. Other topside crew shared a room with as many as three others. Some facility managers even had a private television in their bedroom, though again, the amenities of Minuteman II LCFs varied by the time the system came off-line. [312]

Flight Security Controllers

Every three-day alert tour at the LCF included two flight security controllers. The flight security controllers were typically noncommissioned officers with the rank of Sergeant (now Senior Airman), Staff Sergeant, or Technical Sergeant, typically in their twenties. Regulations demanded the presence of one security controller in the security control room at all times, and therefore, each of the three days of the alert tour was split into twelve-hour shifts with one controller manning each shift. The security controller on-shift monitored the LCF grounds, as well as all ten Launch Facilities (LF) in their flight area. The security control room featured windows overlooking the entrance gate and grounds. [313] From this station, the security controllers would check identification of visitors or replacement crews entering the site. A security team's first duty upon arriving at the LCF was a changeover process with the security staff on-duty, including inspections of the building and grounds. The previous security controller would brief the new team on what LFs were down and which ones were under maintenance. The changeover procedure was always the same between shifts and rarely changed. [314]

Each security controller also supervised a two-member security alert team. If the missile combat crew received indication that security was breached at one of the LF sites, they would notify the security controller who would dispatch the security alert team to investigate. The security controllers were also responsible for storing and issuing weapons and ammunition to personnel at the LCF. Weapons were stored in a locker located in one of the security bedrooms and the weapons cage in the security control center. [315] The Air Force equipped the security controllers with M-16s, the military's standard rifle after its introduction in 1964, with 240 rounds of ammunition or an M-60 machine gun. [316] While on alert tour, but off-duty, security controllers would often spend time playing games, working out, resting, and relaxing. The windows in the security bedroom were darkened to enable controllers assigned to the night shift to sleep during the day.

Security Alert Team

Two security alert teams were assigned to each LCF. The two-person team typically included a Sergeant (now Senior Airman) and an Airman or Airman First Class ranging in age from eighteen to the mid-to-late twenties. The two-person security alert teams rotated being on-duty during the three-day alert tour. The security alert teams, under the supervision of the flight security controllers, were responsible for periodic site inspections and responding to any security breaches that occurred in the flight area, including the LCF and all ten LFs. [317] It was their duty to secure an LF, for example, following an alarm or security breach and remain at the LF until the site was secure and alarmed. Although Air Force records do not indicate any potentially dangerous breaches of security at a Minuteman LF, the security controller frequently dispatched security details to the LFs to verify the integrity of the site. Each LCF and LF was equipped with an alarm system that sounded, if tripped, in the LCC. To combat sabotage the systems were unusually sensitive and the alarm was often set off by squirrels, rabbits, and even grasshoppers.

Some of these dispatch-call incidents proved unusual experiences for security teams. As reported in LIFE magazine in 1964, in one instance in South Dakota, an alarm buzzer indicating an LF breach sounded in the LCC and the commander phoned the topside flight security controller who immediately dispatched a security team to the site. The armed security team hurried to the site, where to their surprise they discovered two camels rubbing against the fence. The animals had escaped from a nearby Passion Play. [318] Another incident proved to be a prank. After realizing security teams would respond to such innocuous occurrences as cows grazing near the fence, one local threw a raccoon inside the fence. The local prankster was eventually caught and released after questioning. [319]

Not everything was life or death at the Minuteman sites, and local residents learned not only to coexist with the sites, but also to share the plains with Air Force personnel. "They were usually a bunch of fresh faced kids sent to God's forsaken half acre or something," rancher Gene S. Williams recalled, "I know a couple of times when it was a hundred degrees and there were boys that were stationed up there [a Launch Facility] and my mom took ice tea up to them . . . I suppose now they would have gotten into great trouble because they could have been drugged or something, but you know, that's just how it was." [320]

The security alert team was also responsible for escorting maintenance teams onto the LF grounds. Getting access to the grounds, just as accessing an LCF, required a valid authentication number. Personnel who required authentication received a number and a table of numbers with corresponding letters from Ellsworth Air Force Base. The maintenance personnel would state what table he was working off of and call out the letters that corresponded with his number using a phonetic alphabet. If they had the wrong number or read the code wrong, the standard procedure was for the security to "jack them up" against a fence or wall and check their identification. [321] In order to access the missile launcher, two sets of codes were needed—A side codes of security personnel and B side codes of maintenance personnel. On some occasions, when repairing the launch system or security system proved time-consuming, the flight security controller would send a two or four person "camper team" from base to the LF, capable of working and securing the site overnight, until maintenance completed the necessary repairs. [322]

In addition to their security duties, the security alert team was also responsible for assisting the facility manager in housekeeping duties at the LCF. Their typical areas of responsibility included the hallways, office, day room, bathroom, and their bedrooms. [323]

Missile Rations Cook

One cook was scheduled for each three-day alert tour at each LCF. Missile rations cooks typically held ranks from Airman First Class up to Staff Sergeant and were typically in their twenties. The cook was required to prepare requested meals for the personnel and visitors of the LCF. The cook also assisted the facility manager in responding to emergencies and in standard housekeeping duties. The cook's primary responsibility was for the cleanliness of the kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms. [324]

The cook was responsible for serving four meals per day, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight meal. The cook not only served topside crew, but also had the responsibility of taking meals to the missile combat crew in the capsule, and was required to go through the authentication procedure with codes every time they entered the capsule. Most meals were prepared at another site, packaged in foil, and then frozen. The cooks simply heated the foil packs in the oven. Some cooks showed remarkable creativity in completing their tasks, however, making soups or stews out of leftover foil packets, or making seasoned croutons for the salads out of bread. [325] At some facilities, the cook would even barbeque for LCF personnel. After collecting money from the crew, they would have the security team stop at a local store to pick up chicken, steaks, or hamburgers when they were sent off the grounds on other errands. [326] The Delta-01 facility often had fresh breakfasts with eggs sold to them by a nearby rancher, in yet another display of the way missile crews integrated into the daily life of local residents. [327]

Maintenance Crew

Although maintenance crews did not serve regular alert tours at the LCFs, they routinely entered the LF and LCF grounds to perform inspections, conduct routine upgrades, or make necessary repairs. The maintenance force was responsible for ensuring that all systems were operable and on ready status by following precise technical orders written by Air Force engineers. The rank of the maintenance crew varied depending on the experience and responsibilities of the team, and could range from Airman up to Captain.

Each Minuteman wing included a deputy commander for maintenance who operated the base maintenance complex and was responsible for planning, scheduling, and directing all maintenance of LCF and LFs in their wing. Air Force maintenance included four divisions and two squadrons. The Field Missile Maintenance Squadrons (FMMS) and the Organizational Missile Maintenance Squadrons (OMMS) were responsible for the actual maintenance of the Minuteman missiles and support equipment. [328] The FMMS maintained hydraulic and pneumatic systems, site support equipment, and test equipment. This squadron also performed periodic maintenance at the sites. The OMMS had a mechanical and electrical branch that were responsible for the transportation, installation, and removal of missiles, the reentry vehicles and systems, propulsion system rocket engines, and the emergency rocket communications systems. The OMMS also repaired electrical, surveillance, and access systems. [329] Despite routine maintenance and inspections at the LFs, the deputy commander for maintenance routinely received notification of equipment faults at LFs and LCFs directly from the missileers in the LCC. [330]

A maintenance team chief, responsible for supervising the crew, attended every maintenance call. Even with the presence of a security alert team on all maintenance missions, the maintenance team chief was responsible for authenticating their access with the missile commander in the LCC. The team chief was accountable for all activities at the site while they were performing maintenance duties. [331] As of 1963 maintenance teams at LF sites were required to be in contact with the LCF a minimum of every thirty minutes. [332]

Maintenance crews transported their equipment in "U-vans" or utility vans. This van was a three-quarter-ton pickup with a utility box on the back. The utility box had several different compartments that organized the equipment and tools needed to make repairs at the LFs or LCFs. [333] Work on an LF frequently required access to underground facilities. To do this the maintenance crew had to pass through "formidable mechanical barriers" in a process that sometimes took up to an hour. First the security pit weather cover was removed, a combination was entered, and the security pit vault door was removed. These security procedures allowed retraction of the locking shaft and operation of the controls for the pump and two hydraulic cylinders used to slowly raise the steel and concrete primary door (personnel access hatch). After securing a metal ladder, the crew descended a few feet down the cylindrical shaft and entered another combination into the secondary door (B-plug) and retracted the locking bolts. After a preset timed interval, the large steel plug would lower to the level of the upper equipment room. The crews could then climb down the equipment room surrounding the launch tube, lower their equipment, and begin their maintenance tasks. [334] Two shotguns, ammunition, and gas masks were placed in each silo in 1978 to increase security at the site. [335]

Maintenance crews were only permitted to be in the field a total of sixteen hours on a dispatch to ensure a level of alertness. After completing pre-maintenance tasks, including vehicle and equipment checks and briefings, the team drove to the site, went through the authentication process, and began accessing the underground missile. Since the sixteen hours must include time to return to Ellsworth Air Force Base and go through the pre-maintenance tasks in reverse order, a maintenance team may only have five hours to perform maintenance at the LF. Due to the distance of many of the missile silos from Ellsworth Air Force Base, maintenance crews often remained at the closest LCF overnight on RON. [336]

Although maintenance was usually routine, crews sometimes faced unexpected circumstances. In one unusual incident in 1975, for example, a maintenance crew was dispatched to a Minuteman LCC at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to help free four trapped missile crewmen. The incident occurred when two missile crewmembers arrived at the LCC to relieve the crew on duty. They entered the LCC and proceeded through the changeover process, only to discover that the blast door would not open. Maintenance responded to the call of the missile commander for assistance, but the blast doors were designed to resist force from the outside. Through a small hole, maintenance passed technical instructions to the four crew members to dismantle panels from the door. It took eight hours to remove the necessary panels and to dislodge the first of four three-inch pins. Several hours later only one pin remained in place, but it would not budge. A special welding team arrived at the site, and spent an additional four hours cutting through the door. After thirty- and forty-two-hour alert tours, respectively, the two crews were finally free to exit through the twelve-foot by twelve-foot hole. [337] The blast door at Minot, described above, is not the same configuration as Ellsworth's blast door. [338]

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003