The third stop of our trip was unbelievable! We journeyed a couple of miles up the road from The Badlands National Park to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. What we found there was one of the most fascinating adventures anyone in our group has ever experienced. The Site is comprised of a not to be missed visitor center, a missile silo (Launch Facility Delta 09) with a missile still in the silo (It has been defanged), and a command center (Launch Control Facility Delta 01) just down the road. Although the visitor center and the missile silo are must visits, the highlight of the historic site is the Delta 01 tour. The tour of the once top secret underground command center, the center from which the fate of the world lay in the hands of twenty something year-old kids (trained young men, but kids nevertheless), was eye opening, frightening, and one of the most remarkable tours I have seen.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site tour is a relatively new tour, and it is by reservation only. People who stop at the site expecting to book a tour on their day of arrival are likely to be turned away. The tour is usually booked solid for three to four weeks in advance and sometimes longer, so anyone wishing to book the tour should do so weeks, preferably months in advance, to ensure a spot on the tour. Why is the tour so popular? First, it takes you thirty feet underground to visit a Minuteman Missile operation center that few people have ever seen; second, you get to enter the small command module buried thirty feet underground where teams of two men worked three-day shifts waiting for coded orders authorizing them to insert their individual keys into the doomsday machine that would have launched Minuteman ballistic missiles and ignited World War III. It is a little disconcerting to think encased inside eighteen inches of steel and concrete layers designed to survive earthquakes and nuclear blasts you are standing in a place that once held life, as we know it, and the end of time in balance; three, the tour is conducted by veterans who were there and know the inside details; and fourth, the tour is limited to six people per tour, which provides easier access to the guide to clearly hear what he says as well as to ask questions.
Having scheduled our tour three months in advance, we drove straight to the tour site as directed. The tour began the moment we arrived at the gate of a desolate yellow-tan building hidden in plain sight off South Dakota’s Interstate 90 down a dirt and gravel road. Surrounded by chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, we found ourselves in the world of a Tom Clancy novel, only this was not fiction. This highly secret command center was once home to a contingent of eight security and maintenance men above ground, a cook, and two teams of two men who alternated three day shifts thirty feet underground with the fate of the world in their hands. These two men held the keys to launching up to ten Minuteman missiles, each with a 1.2 megaton thermonuclear warhead anchored to its top. This one site had the capability to launch its missiles with pin-point accuracy anywhere in the world the moment it received the proper orders, codes, and firing sequences from the President of the United States. Thank God, such orders were never given although the fabulous exhibits at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site visitor center show how close we were to nuclear war on more than one occasion. It is chilling to think we were almost never here!
As ordered, we arrived at the tour site at 10:10 a.m., thirty minutes prior to our tour time. At precisely 10:40 a.m., our military escort/guide appeared at the ten-foot chain-link gate. Air Force Colonel (retired) Brad Riza, a regular visitor to the site during its heyday in the 1960s to 1990s, was our commanding officer for the tour. After a brief debriefing outside the gate, Colonel Riza led our party of six, the four in our group and a couple from California, inside the building to tour the facility.
Colonel Riza gave a masterful tour, and his pride in his country and the role he played in the Minuteman Missile era was unquestionable. He spoke in detail of the Cold War between the United States and Russia (Soviet Union), and how the missiles acted as a line of defense for the nation and as a deterrent to the Soviets or any other aggressor who might threaten a nuclear attack against America or its allies. The missile field was scattered across the central and northern Great Plains of America next door to ranchers, farmers, and small towns. Their purpose was to protect the freedoms and posterity of the American people as well as allied nations around the world.
One thousand Minuteman missiles were deployed during the last twenty-five years of the Cold War. If launched the Minuteman Missile would travel over the North Pole and strike its target in less than thirty seconds. However, within seconds of the launch, missiles would be incoming in retaliation. There was only one guarantee if these weapons were used – the aggressor and the target nation would both be destroyed, which made an attack by either side unthinkable. The greatest deterrent to nuclear war – the only trump card the people on either side of the Cold War could depend – was there would be no winners! Therefore, why play if nobody could win?
Colonel Riza spoke of the Minuteman missiles as a deterrent not as a weapon of aggression, but primarily he spoke of the rigors and stress the young men (many barely in their twenties) endured while stationed in the missile fields. They spent long mentally draining hours isolated from family and friends, not knowing if they might have to turn the key that would ultimately destroy the world and all they loved. These men were forbidden to talk to family and friends about their job with the Air Force. Faced with protocols that meant strict adherence or immediate court martial, imprisonment, or even death, they lived in a vacuum absent of any normalcy most young men enjoyed.
Part of Colonel Riza’s job was to evaluate the metal condition of the men assigned to the doomsday computers buried deep beneath the yellow-tan building on the surface. There was no room for error or departure from protocol. Violate protocol and orders were clear – shoot to kill even if it was the cook, your best friend, or the Colonel. The survival of the nation was at state; everything else was collateral damage including human life in the bunker or outside the bunker. There were no second chances! The fate of the country depended on these young men to execute their orders without hesitation or error. From 1963 to 1991, the fate of the United States depended on the threat of nuclear retaliation as a deterrent to Soviet Union aggression. Finally, in 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed by President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the number of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads effectively ending the Cold War.
Today, there are no active ICBM silos in South Dakota, but 400 Minuteman Missiles are still deployed across the upper Great Plains of the United States. The Russians have a like number spread across their country. Even though the Cold War has subsided, nuclear missiles intended as a deterrent remain on alert in the United States and Russia. The biggest difference is today it is no longer a two-nation dance. China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and others have all bought tickets and are clamoring to get on the dance floor. This escalation means the Minuteman missiles are more important than ever, and they will remain on alert through at least 2050. Hopefully, by then the world will have come to its senses.
Every American needs to visit The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site! The story it tells is a story everyone needs to hear. All of us have one life, one family, and one country; to jeopardize any of the three with nuclear weapons is the sign of a madman. We have lived as madmen long enough, but unfortunately, the day of the madman does not appear to be over. Therefore, I take comfort there are men such as Colonel Brad Riza and thousands of young men who give up their youth and innocence in the service of our country to ensure our freedom and way of life.
Thank you, Colonel Riza for your service and for a great tour! May God continue to bless you, our country, and the young men and women who serve our country 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours per day.
God bless America! Americans, if you can, GO visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota. It might scare you, but it will make you proud to be an American.
©Jack Linton, July 23, 2017