Man kept close eye on aimed missiles hidden on the SD prairie
Dave Strutz, of St. Cloud, was not keen about having to possibly shoot his co-worker in the Launch Control Facility (LCF) capsule 60 feet below the South Dakota prairie. He was pretty sure he couldn’t do it. Nevertheless, if bad things happened, that was protocol for his position in the U.S. Air Force.
As the Vietnam War began to heat up, pilots were needed to fly aircraft in that southeastern Asia country.
“Many pilots had been assigned as Minuteman missile launch officers,” Dave said, “and it occurred to me that they would be taken out of the missile capsules, and would have to be replaced. So I applied to become a missile launch officer, and was accepted very quickly.”
After several months of training he became part of a two-man missile officer crew. Dave‘s ultimate job was commander in an LCF, 60 feet down beneath the South Dakota prairie. The area contained 15 LCFs, each controlling 10 missiles, and each missile was armed with one nuclear warhead.
“Each LCF was set away from the missiles so if an enemy struck the missiles nearby, we would still be able to launch the other missiles,” he said.
As a 2nd Lieutenant, his first command included 180 Air Force security personnel.
“The automatic security systems for the Minuteman-1 missiles failed often. Birds or other animals would set it off, or occasional mini earthquake tremors would knock off the targeting alignments so my sergeants had to send out two man crews to a given site to guard that particular missile until everything was OK. Because of these security failures and maintenance issues, it was rare when all 10 of our missiles would all be ready to be launched at the same time.
“My job was to convince the guys I sent out to stay out there for three days in a camper truck eating frozen meals, reading books and newspapers, and watching for Russian spies over the hill. They were sent to sites scattered throughout the western one-third of South Dakota, often two or three hours from the base.”
Dave was required to drive out and inspect these very young men. “But since all vehicles moving between them and the base had to be in radio contact, it was not possible for me to do surprise inspections,” he said.
24 Hour Shifts
Dave and his crewmate were flown out in helicopters from Ellsworth Air Force Base in southwestern South Dakota near Rapid City, and picked up 24 hours later.
“Our 24-hour duty cycle ranged from hours of boredom to frenetic activity. Due to the electronic gear surrounding us, no electronic entertainment devices were allowed–no TV, radio, tape recorder, or anything like that. We were connected to the civilian phone line, so we could use them to call our families. That was the extent of it.”
So they brought books, magazines, and newspapers, and read them. “Guys who got into the system at the very beginning were given the option of taking part in a business degree program through Ohio State, so they had assignments to keep them busy. But for my crewmate and me, the 24-hour space got to be heavy, especially in the wee hours of the morning when the other person was sleeping and I had to stay awake.”
“We would notify the base whenever a missile went into ‘red’ status, and sometimes had to electronically coordinate maintenance efforts. If several missiles were down, both crewmen would be busy.”
If the weather turned bad, which it easily could, as in winter, they would have to drive cars. “That could take a very long time, especially in bad weather. I remember one Mother’s Day my crewmate and I were due to be relieved on that morning, but there was a big blizzard out there. So we were stuck there for some 50 straight hours, and on duty, before relief could get there.” He added that there were no showers in the launch capsule.
Sixty feet above was a support building with a full kitchen with cooks and bunks for that crew. “There were also security crew guys there, too. They brought down three meals a day, which was a welcome respite. All access was by an elevator”
“One time the elevator didn’t work when we were supposed to be relieved, so we had to climb the silo wall rung after run six floors up with our briefcases tied around our bodies to get to the top. We made it, of course.“
Dave often performed his 24-hour shifts in Kilo LCF, the alternate command post for the entire South Dakota missile system.
“If the air base at Ellsworth was blown by the enemy, Kilo had extra communications equipment to receive launch orders from the President, the Pentagon, or more likely, Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt AFB and relay the coded launch message to other crews.“
Those orders would come through on a red telephone on his console. “It was the direct line to the powers to be. One morning when my deputy was asleep in the bunk in back, that dang phone rang. I nearly lost it. I picked it up and identified myself, and a voice at the other end said, ‘Very good. This is just a line check.’”
Each day a practice launch message was received. “That required us to decode and fake a launch procedure. But if the audio code was not in practice mode, both of us would copy down the message, and verify with each other that we had copied the same thing. We were allowed eight minutes to decode the message, open both combination locks on the safe, one inside the other, that held the top-secret launch documents (each crew member had his unique combination), authenticate the message with the launch documents, remove any maintenance crews working on the missiles, electronically arm all green missiles, and simultaneously turn the two launch keys.” If system launch codes were changed for security purposes, missile crews’ role was only to open safes.
“There were two control consoles, one for the commander, and one for the deputy and each console had a launch key. The consoles were about 12 feet apart, so nobody could manipulate both launch keys at the same time.“
The sense of finality was ever present for launch crews, Dave said. “There was no return. Once sent, there was no way to recall the missiles, or destroy them. Any missiles down for maintenance were returned to green status and launched ASAP.”
One of the complications of having to launch any missiles late due to maintenance problems in a war involved B-52 bombers that were flying around and near the Soviet Union 24/7.
“If a missile was to launch late, we had to go to a thick book of numbers showing where the Air Force bombers would be, so we didn’t end up blowing our own guys out of the sky. That was done by mathematical calculation. I often wondered if those B-52 crew members knew how dangerous it was for them.”
At the time, Dave said, the entire buildup of the Minuteman system was in “full speed ahead” model.
“The whole tone of the place was permeated with Cold War mentality made obvious by those massive B-52 nuclear armed bombers and their tanker support aircraft in full view. You have to remember that in 1957 Sputnik went up, and our entire country was terrified that the Russians were ahead of us,” he said.
But on a personal level, Dave said the most stressful part was the constant training and retraining.
“We’d get reevaluated with no notice, or get notified while on duty that a half hour from now a group of trainers were going to come out, and we would be put through the whole rigmarole with built-in surprise contingencies. If we didn’t pass, we would be removed from the duty roster for retraining, and that would mean big implications for the future,” he said.
Everything they did was tape-recorded during their 24-hour shift, so if there were any problems, they could come back and check, similar to a cockpit flight recorder.
Another difficulty was that Kilo had a whole bookshelf of classified materials. “Every time a new crew came to relieve us, they had to sign that all the pages of every binder were there. If they weren’t, then my crew would be in a stack of trouble, because we had abused the classified pages.”
The problem was that there were hundreds of pages. “So nobody was going to stand there and check every page of every binder. You just signed, and got a receipt, and kept them for a year.”
Once Dave was out of uniform, he kept all those receipts as proof that if any pages were subsequently missing, he wasn’t the culprit. “It was an ongoing process. Because our classification was top-secret, pretty high, there would be major consequences if we messed up. Even if a page that said ‘left blank’ was gone.”
The missiles that Dave was in charge of were Minuteman-1s, which included one nuclear bomb on each missile. Later Minutemen had three nuclear bombs per missile that could go to different targets at the same time.
The locations of the missiles were supposed to be officially classified. “But you could go out on a little dirt road and find a tiny little sign, ‘Oscar2 is this way,’ and though it was all classified, in reality we wanted the Soviets to know what we had, just as we knew what they had. Deterrence was the key to survival, and thankfully it worked.”
Dave said, “There were other safeguards against unauthorized launches.“ If another crew in the squadron attempted an unauthorized launch, other crews could hit the inhibit launch bar to delay action pending required follow-up action.
Dave said it’s scary to look back and see the responsibility he carried. “Many people today have no concept of what was going on in those days, in what’s politely called ‘collateral damage.’ The missiles were aiming at various places in the Soviet Union, and if one hit an industrial city or military complex, a lot of innocent people would be eliminated. The thing that helped keep my sanity was that the Soviets had the same virtual capability of doing the same to us. It was called MAD, or mutually-assured destruction.”
Dave discovered that he wasn’t the only one who had fears.
“I remember when I was a lieutenant and flying in the chopper with a captain beside me who had done it longer than I had. I said, ‘Captain, can I ask, what if today’s practice message turned out to be the real thing?’ That was a hypothetical question, of course. He thought for an instant, and said, ‘The first thing I’d have to do was clean off my chair.’ That was reassuring, because if this experienced guy could feel that way, I could as well.”
The part of the missile work that Dave enjoyed the most was the time off.
“I worked seven or eight 24-hour shifts per month, and would have to go on base once a month for follow-up training of coding messaging and so on, or grocery shopping at the PX or taking in a movie at the theater.”
With that extra time, Dave started teaching at a high school without a degree, which wasn’t required in South Dakota. “It’s what got me into the real profession of teaching.”
He attended the University of Minnesota on the GI bill, received a second bachelor’s degree in social studies education, and came to St. Cloud to begin teaching. He received a dramatically less beginning salary than his captain’s pay.
“No way could I have attended grad school without Uncle Sam’s VA benefits,” he said.
Strutz taught high school history, economics, and psychology in St. Cloud for 33 years.
At the same time, negatives came with the pluses. “The tough part was leaving my wife and children. With only one car, I could share rides with another lieutenant nearby, so one spouse had a vehicle. I felt good about doing my duty, but I certainly would never have wanted to make it a career. I was married, and we had two little kids, and I didn‘t want them raised in a military setting.”
Getting out of the Air Force in 1967 was more difficult than Dave thought it would be.
“I felt strange, alone and vulnerable, with no more family medical insurance, and my standard of living dropped. And there was nobody telling me what to do, which I had gotten used to.”
He added that his missile service with its stressors paled in comparison to the sacrifices demanded of ground troops in southeast Asia. “The Marine vet friend who lost his leg never once complained about it. Like later U. S. fighters in the Middle East, their love of country and personal bravery surpasses anything I experienced 60 feet below South Dakota’s prairies.”
Strutz said his Air Force career wasn’t quite like he expected when he first signed up to serve. “They told me if I joined the Air Force I would see the world, I got to see western South Dakota,“ he laughed.