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) (continued)

In the Launch Control Center: Missile combat crew

Finding the right individuals to serve as missileers in the LCCs posed a paradox for the Air Force that was described in a 1963 Saturday Evening Post article, "the job required a reliable, stable, intelligent officer who could be counted on to fire the Minuteman in the chaos of nuclear combat—and not before. But the more intelligent the man, the quicker he would be bored by the capsule routine." Colonel Richard Butler of SAC's personnel branch told the Saturday Evening Post, "We needed a kind of hermit, but a hermit would not have the main characteristics we needed." [339]

Missileers completed a rigorous training program prior to their assignment to a missile crew. Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois began hosting a Minuteman program training center for new Air Force recruits on 21 June 1959. Students arrived at Chanute ready to study the safe operation of the Air Force's latest weapon. Training focused on classroom instruction at the Chanute Technical Training Center in three six-hour shifts. Classes included both general training for incoming missileers and specialized training in the complex systems controlling Minuteman, such as targeting or electrical systems. After completing courses at Chanute, graduates were assigned to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where they received Operational Readiness Training. This training provided them with real life experience learning launch and maintenance techniques. After graduating from the training school at Vandenberg, the missileers and technicians received assignments at an operational Minuteman missile wing. [340]

Even after completing basic training for the Minuteman program, crews underwent scheduled training and evaluations once or twice a month to make sure that they continued to perform to the strict standards. Missileers at Ellsworth Air Force Base went for regularly scheduled "rides" in the Missile Procedures Trainer (MPT), also known as "the box" or "simulator," which simulated a Launch Control Center at Ellsworth. The MPT at Ellsworth was located in the large hanger known as the Pride Hanger. Crews emerged from the training, which typically took one to two-and-half hours, having honed their skills for Minuteman procedures. Missileers completing an evaluation practiced their skills and received a score ranking their competency. Those receiving low scores (lower than four on a five-point scale) received additional training to improve their performance. [341]

During the first years of the Minuteman program, combat crews worked thirty-six- to forty-hour alert tours, with eight- to twelve-hour shifts in the LCC, separated by a rest period in the LCF. [342] While topside personnel at the LCF normally pulled a three-day alert tour as a team, the two-person missile combat crew worked a thirty-six- to forty-hour alert tour and averaged five tours in a month. The length of the tour varied for each crew depending on the distance of the LCC from Ellsworth Air Force Base and some facilities were nearly one hundred miles from base. [343]

In July 1977 the shift was changed to a single twenty-four-hour shift, with the crew being replaced by a new missile combat crew dispatched from Ellsworth Air Force Base. Former missileer Craig Manson recalled that he was happy with the change to a single twenty-four-hour shift,

"The forty-hour alert system was really draining physiologically, just difficult because your schedule was all crazy. You'd go out there, you'd pull eight hours downstairs, during which you were not supposed to sleep, and then you'd go upstairs to sleep, or watch TV or do whatever for eight hours, then you'd change-over downstairs again for another eight hours. You did this until you had a total of twenty-four hours in the hole and sixteen hours upstairs. The last eight hour shift before changeover was the night shift. And so your body clock was all off and then you'd have to be alert enough to drive home. If you were at some of the sites, you know, some of the sites were as much as 150 miles away, and so then you'd have a three hour drive after [laughs] being up all night. So I personally found it horrible, the forty-hour alerts, and I think a lot of people did. They just didn't like it." [344]

When the tour duty changed to twenty-four hours in the LCC, the missileers averaged approximately eight tours per month. A shift did not include time driving to and from the facility or the changeover briefing before and after the shift. [345] The two-person crew included a deputy missile combat crew commander and a missile combat crew commander. Only officers could be assigned to a combat crew, and generally, first lieutenants with a minimum of a year-and-a-half of experience as a deputy commander in the LCC qualified for promotion to the position of crew commander. [346]

The most important responsibility of the missile crew was constant vigilance and preparation to launch the missiles under their control. Other duties included coordinating maintenance and inspections of the missiles and monitoring alert status of the missiles and their support systems designed to ensure the readiness of their missiles. Additional responsibilities involved monitoring the systems of the LF and maintaining missile equipment logs. [347]

After arriving at the LCF, a missile crew had their identification examined by the flight security controller and then began the authentication procedure with the on-duty missile crew. After they cleared security, they descended down the elevator to the LCC, also known as the "no-lone zone," because one could never enter the capsule alone. After arriving at the blast door a voice would shout "clear" from inside the capsule. The oncoming crew shouted back and the eight-ton door slowly swung open. [348]

Once inside the capsule, the missile crew's shift began during a process called changeover, a formal procedure that allowed for the changing of crews in the LCC. The changeover included a ten-minute briefing on the weather report, call signs, a classified advisory on the day's war plan, and the placement of each crew member's padlock on the metal box that secured the launch keys. The changeover concluded with each departing crew member handing over three items to the deputy and commander- a three-by-five inch card encased in plastic and framed in metal with the day's top secret code to decipher commands from SAC; a key to be inserted into the console and turned in order to fire the missiles; and a .38-caliber revolver. The gun, worn in a holster, was for protection in the unlikely event of intruders. The missile combat crew was prohibited from taking off the holster while in the capsule. [349]

After the capsule door closed, a new crew would check the maintenance logs and inspect support equipment. [350] The duration of their shift was spent running practice drills or reviewing procedures to prepare for SAC's random Operational Readiness Inspections, an examination performed by an Inspector General to determine the effectiveness of the combat crews. [351] The crew had very precise procedures for every task. If they ever received a launch command, both crew members would open the locked box that contained "cookies," or the authentication codes. Once the crew members agreed that the command was authentic they would insert the keys and turn them at the same time, launching a missile. [352]

To launch a missile, an Emergency War Order (EWO) would have come over the SAC radio with a message that the crew had to authenticate. After they agreed that the message was authentic, they unlocked their padlock on the red metal box that contained two keys for launching the missiles. Each crew member would then buckle into their seats and the commander would count down. The deputy commander then flipped a row of "arming" switches for each of the missiles, making them readied for immediate launch. The commander opened the plastic cover over his launch control panel in front of him exposing the area for the launch key, and the deputy commander removed the plastic cover over the cooperative launch switch. Each crew member would insert their key and a "conference call" is ordered where the crew speaks via phone and headset to the squadron command post for readiness reports on other Minuteman capsules. The command post then issues a command to "launch on your count." On the commander's count, both crew members would have to turn the keys at the same moment. The two ignitions are situated far enough apart that one person alone could not reach both keys and single-handedly provide the go ahead to launch a missile. The Minuteman missile cannot be launched without a corroborating signal from another LCC, providing the second vote. [353] Launch procedures were modified slightly in later years when a launch enable control group signal panel was added to the Deputy Commander's Control Console. An unlock code was required to be inserted into the "code inert thumbwheel switches" of the launch enable control panel to enable missiles for launch. [354]

Day-to-day activities for the crew varied. Some days proved to be very slow and other days kept the crew extremely busy. While there were always unexpected maintenance indicators and outer zone security violations at the LCFs, there was also scheduled maintenance at each of the ten LFs under control of the LCC. Weekdays were typically busier than weekend shifts in the capsule because of scheduled maintenance. [355] During the course of a shift there were often procedures for the crew to practice and review. In addition there was frequent communication from base and SAC, including messages from Looking Glass, the flying command post that kept a SAC general in the air in case ground command posts were out of commission, to make sure all stations were on alert. [356]

To combat boredom, missileers often took advantage of the quiet time to study or rest. Each LCC included a sleeping compartment, where one crew member could rest. His or her partner would naturally remain at their console during such times. Outside of their duties in the LCC, missile crews underwent training several times a month, including courses in weather systems, codes, EWOs, and missile simulation training. SAC offered the opportunity for missileers to pursue academic degrees while on alert to boost morale and as incentive for crewmembers to remain in the Air Force. Many missileers possessed a bachelor's degree and used time in the capsule to work on homework and to fulfill the requirements of a master's degree. [357] When there was not enough free time between alarms to concentrate on studying, missileers often played cards, pursued hobbies, or browsed through magazines. Some missile crews referred to such activities as "frontline defense against alert boredom." [358] In another effort to combat boredom and keep in touch with the world above, former missileers have relayed that there were instances of tapping into the radio communication system to listen to radio programs and football games on the same system that unannounced radio checks were received from SAC. In one case missileers pulling alert at two different LCC facilities worked together to allow one of the missileers to listen to a football game without being caught. A missileer at another LCC agreed to respond to the radio check from SAC posing as the other missileer and then to call him via telephone to relay any information. [359]

At the end of every shift the missile crew proceeded through the changeover process with the incoming crew. After the procedure they traded salutes with the new crew and rode the elevator thirth-two feet to the LCF, carrying with them bags of classified trash to be burned in the code-burner on the grounds as a security precaution. [360]

Although Minuteman missiles were never launched in anger, President Carter did transmit a message over the SAC radio once in 1977. In the midst of a typical shift, the SAC controller unexpectedly warned the combat crews to "standby for a message from the president of the United States." With their hearts pounding, waiting for the authentication code to launch Minuteman, the president said, "Hi, you all. I'm here at the SAC command post and I wanted to see how this thing worked." Although crew members can laugh about it now, the threat of a nuclear attack was very real to them at that moment in 1977. [361]

During active duty, the Minuteman missile and the life of the missileer in the LCC was not as secretive as one might have guessed. In a few cases, national reporters were allowed into the LCC to complete articles and news stories about the missileers and life in a LCC. These events were unusual in that they allowed the public and the Soviet Union to see our military defense systems. However, SAC had a history of showing off our military and technological strength. For example, a massive media campaign accompanied the activation of Project Looking Glass, as reporters received tours of the plane and some even went on test flights.

In the early years of the active Minuteman program, LIFE magazine ran an article titled "How it Feels to Hold the Nuclear Trigger." Reporter Richard Stolley and a photographer Bill Ray spent twenty-four hours in an LCC in South Dakota with a SAC escort officer and Minuteman missile crew commander Allen Lamb and deputy commander William Christians. The resulting article and photographs in the 6 November 1964 issue documents the routine activities of the crew at the Lima-01 LCC. This article may have been one of the first to give the country and the world a direct look into the LCC and the duties of a missileer. [362] In January 1978 NBC's The Today Show was producing a series of stories on SAC and they were sent to Ellsworth Air Force Base, a base with both missiles and bombers, to film. A missileer crew, including Gary Andrews and Craig Manson, were hand picked to be filmed performing an alert tour in the LCC at Alpha-01. The reporter, Eric Burns, and the film crew received a visitor briefing prior to being brought down to the capsule to film. Former missileer Craig Manson recalled the following discussion during the briefing, "And part of that briefing was, 'If you hear that warble tone coming out of the box up there, then you must turn off your cameras, go to the back of the capsule, turn around and face the blast door.' Now being journalists, they were highly aggravated at this. And Eric Burns said, 'You mean, we can't film what you do?' And we said, 'no.' And he said, 'Well, what will you be doing?' And I said, 'We will be determining whether or not we have to take emergency action under an Emergency War Order.' And he said, 'Well this would be great history. We want to get that on film. We've got to be able to see that.' I patted my .38 and said, 'no' " [363]

Prior to the visit by the film crew the missile crew received its own briefing from Air Force Public Affairs. The missileers were instructed to give the following response if they were asked a question about nuclear weapons. "And they said, 'Here is your response to the question about nuclear weapons: I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of nuclear weapons at this installation.' " Manson recalled, "And the reason we could say that is because it was true." Manson continued to explain that some missiles had communications and some had warheads and that was what was secret. As it turns out the reporter did not ask about nuclear weapons. [364]

Manson also recalled that, "At Ellsworth, for several years—not always, but for several years—Delta-09 did not have a warhead on it. And I knew that. It was classified at the time, but I knew that. But I didn't know which other ones might not. And Delta-09 didn't for a number of years because Delta-09 was known as the off base training element." [365] When asked about common misperceptions about serving in the missile business, Craig Manson stated that a minor irritation was that "everybody talks about a button. It's not a button, it's a key." [366] On the more serious side, Manson stated, "... because of television and movies and in part because of the image the Strategic Air Command cultivated for itself, people have the idea that missile launch officers were somehow bloodthirsty killers with few morals and no soul and ready to kill millions of people with the turn of that key. And that's just not so. One of the things that's made America great is that we do not have a warrior class in America like some ancient civilizations or some societies today. Our military is drawn from ordinary people living in ordinary communities, growing up with the same values that they perceive around them and missile launch officers come from that same group of people—ordinary Americans with mainstream values." [367]

Changes in Missile Culture

Early on in America's missile era, SAC employed only experienced aviators to staff the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos. However, as these missileers were deployed for service in Asia, SAC began recruiting less experienced Air Force personnel from agencies such as the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Therefore, by the 1970s missileers were typically between the age of twenty-two and thirty, and only a handful had any flight experience. During this time, as many as nine hundred new missileers were trained yearly to staff the 1,054 operational ICBMs. [368]

Female Missileers

The rank of crewmembers was not the only staffing change over the years. The Air Force restricted its female members to noncombat positions until the late 1970s. Fighting against the policy, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire pushed for the integration of women on missile crews, stating that it was unlikely that women would be exposed to enemy fire in a position launching missiles. In 1977 reporter Andy Plattner asked, "Should women be assigned as missile launch officers, who potentially would be firing nuclear missiles in the event of war?" [369] SAC funded several research studies in the 1970s to determine public sentiment on this question and the views of male crew members already serving. The results showed that the public, as well as Air Force personnel, felt that women have the mental and physical attributes required to be a missile combat crewperson. [370] However, male crew members felt the integration of women would call for several modifications to their time spent on alert. Furthermore, many wives of crewmembers preferred that the crews were either all-female or all-male. [371]

Women began serving on missile crews for the first time in 1978 on the Titan II missile system, though with some important distinctions. Citing privacy, moral and spousal concerns, SAC took the recommendations of the research studies and required missile combat crews to be either all-female or all-male. [372] Forty-two women served on Titan II crews in this manner until deactivation of the missile system between 1984 and 1987. [373] Soon thereafter, SAC was directed by the U.S. Air Force Headquarters to begin integrating women as Minuteman missileers, but with the same stipulation, only all-female crews could serve. [374]

Women were assigned to "topside" duty at Ellsworth's fifteen LCFs beginning in the mid-1980s; however, the underground LCCs continued to be staffed entirely by men until all female missile crews were allowed by the Air Force in 1986. [375] Ten women were assigned to Ellsworth and served as five all-female Minuteman missile crews. The use of single-gender crews was not without its problems, however. For example, if a female missileer was unable to pull duty for any reason and there were no female replacements available, a male crew had to replace the female crew, leaving it potentially serving more alert tours. After several studies and surveys, SAC began allowing male/female missile crews on 1 January 1988. This not only reduced scheduling issues, but it also increased the opportunities for women in the Air Force. [376] In August 1989, First Lieutenant Michael A. Harbison and First Lieutenant Lisa A. Atkins served Ellsworth's first mixed-gender alert tour at LCC India-01. [377] Once women integrated with men on missile crews, SAC required that missile operations were tasked to guarantee equal career progression for women and men. [378] Pointing out that the training and the standards were the same for both men and women, one former female missileer felt that there were no biases based on gender when she served at Ellsworth Air Force Base in 1991 and 1992. [379]

Race Relations on Base

In 1949 the Air Force became a fully integrated branch of the armed services when President Truman ordered on 26 July 1948 that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." [380] Four years later, in 1952, the Air Force was, in practice, completely desegregated.

The Air Force made proactive efforts to deal with race relation issues to alleviate or eliminate potential problems. Training programs, such as "social actions" (remembered by a former missile crew member), were instituted to prevent discrimination. [381] Oral interviews with past personnel of Ellsworth Air Force Base during the late 1960s through the early 1990s offered a positive view of race relations on base. Ken Bush, an African American who served at Ellsworth in the mid-1970s, recalled that race relations within the Air Force "were pretty good at the time I was there." [382] Former site manager David Burris who served at Ellsworth in the late 1970s and early 1980s stated that he believed that there was very little racial divisions on base and it may have been less than the general society, "because you all worked together and everything." [383]

No matter their gender, race, or age, each missileer and each member of their support team was charged with one overriding duty—the maintenance and control of the Minuteman missile. Even stationed in rural South Dakota, they were in a real way on the Cold War's front lines. They considered themselves defenders of freedom and the American way of life. Chief Master Sergeant Martin Pietz, assigned to the 44th Strategic Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base from 1972 to 1994, described his mission as the following, "Our mission, the way we saw it was, even though we were located in the middle of South Dakota, we were defending the United States from Russian aggressors. The Soviet Union, I mean basically, that was it. We were...looking at defending our country from the Soviet Union." [384]

Other segments of American society considered themselves veterans of the Cold War as well, including those who found the Minuteman's very existence both abhorrent and a danger to global peace. Having focused on Delta-01 and Delta-09 and the men and women of Ellsworth, we now shift our focus to Cold War dissenters, the Cold War's climax, and the ways American society has begun the process of remembering this half-century conflict.

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003