10/26/2012 - 17:36

On the brink of war -- and childbirth -- in Idaho

Charles G. Simpson

Charles G. Simpson

A retired US Air Force colonel, Simpson is one of the founders of the Association of Air Force Missileers, a nationwide organization with...

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I completed missile officer training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and reported to the new Titan I squadron -- officially known as the 569th Strategic Missile Squadron -- at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho in February 1962. My wife Carol and I departed Sheppard in our new sports car, stopping at the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas along the way. When we arrived at Mountain Home, we found an extremely busy base: The Titan I squadron had just been activated, the Martin Company was still completing the three enormous missile sites that would house our nine missiles, and the 9th Bomb Wing, which included B-47 bomber and KC-97 tanker units, was carrying out its deterrent mission.

Over the next four months, more and more missileers arrived, and we took part in the acceptance inspections for our sites, prepared new offices for use, and trained on the untested and complex new missile. My wife and I moved from a temporary house in town to a two-bedroom apartment on base. In July, the squadron accepted three missiles at what was labeled C-site, between Mountain Home and Boise. The Titan I used a ground-based guidance system at the launch site, and that single system had to guide all three missiles, one at a time. We accepted the other two sites soon after the first, giving us nine Titan I missiles on alert.

In the middle of 1962, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had activated six Titan I squadrons and six Atlas F squadrons across the country. The command was very concerned about the reliability of these complicated, liquid-fueled missiles and, therefore, directed us to run test exercises. Each missile had to undergo a series of liquid-oxygen-loading exercise countdowns, called propellant loading exercises, which were complete tests of the missile, the silo and all its equipment, and the guidance system. It took two days to configure the missile and another day to complete the testing. Following the test, we had to reverse the process to return the missile to alert, another two-day job. And if the test failed, we had to test that missile again until we had a successful exercise. After a few weeks of testing and many failures, the Strategic Air Command directed us to conduct 10 of these exercise countdowns on each missile, with the final two successful, to ensure we had all the bugs worked out of the new system.

On Saturday morning, October 20, we began to prepare the second of our nine missiles for these new tests. It had taken 11 attempts to complete the testing on the first missile, and we were hoping this one would go better. About 100 maintenance people were at the site preparing the missile. I was in charge of the round-the-clock office that monitored maintenance in the squadron, reported missile status to the command, and reacted with maintenance teams when a problem was detected at one of the sites. That morning, I was on duty with two of my noncommissioned officers, tracking the progress and dispatching teams, parts, and supplies as needed.

At about 11 a.m., I got a call on the direct line from the 9th Bomb Wing command post, our link to the Strategic Air Command. The major on duty told me, "Lieutenant, Headquarters SAC has directed that we return the missile to alert immediately, no questions asked and no explanation." I called Maj. Ted Grossholz, our maintenance supervisor at the site, and relayed the message; he said he wasn't going to react to that kind of direction and called the command post himself. In about two minutes, he called me back and said, "Charlie, we are returning Alpha 2 to alert -- it will be up in about four hours." We knew something was going on, but we weren't sure what it was until a few hours later, when we were briefed on the Cuban situation. On Sunday, we were told to start 24-hour coverage of all shops and to cancel all passes and leaves, and the bomb wing also began its preparations.

On Monday, October 22, as President Kennedy addressed the nation and told the world about the missiles in Cuba, we were directed to a higher defense readiness condition, known as DEFCON 3. The base's B-47 aircraft, loaded with nuclear weapons, began to disperse to other military bases or commercial airports around the country. Their KC-97 tankers followed right behind. The flight line at Mountain Home was almost empty at the end of that day.

Our squadron commander sent a second missile crew to each site, so a full crew was awake and on the consoles 24 hours a day. All leaves were canceled, all training stopped, and personnel who were away on temporary duty were recalled to the base. Two days later, on October 24, we were directed to a yet-higher readiness condition, DEFCON 2 -- in a unique manner. Instead of using an encoded message, Gen. Thomas Power, the SAC commander-in-chief, personally announced the readiness condition change to wing command posts, to aircraft on alert, and to missile launch control centers via the Primary Alerting System, in the clear, so all the world would know what we were doing.

We kept our nine missiles ready and watched and listened to the news, waiting to see what the resolution of this crisis would be. The base was a different world -- most of the families of the bomber and tanker crews left, either heading home to parents or friends or packing up campers and driving into the Idaho mountains. For the most part, only families of the missile squadron and base security and support units remained.

My wife, Carol, was about eight months pregnant and stayed close to our home during the crisis. Since my one-person position was augmented by two other officers during the crisis, I went home every night to rest for the next day. Still, while I was working, my wife had to deal with some serious problems during the crisis. For example, the military doctor who lived above us became distraught; my wife heard strange noises in his apartment, went to investigate, and found him threatening to kill himself by jumping off the balcony. She contacted the hospital commander and the security police, who quickly responded and took care of the situation.

The military returned to defense readiness condition 4 on November 20, but we were kept at an increased readiness level until the Monday after Thanksgiving. Most of us figured that the command was concerned that if it let us all off for a long holiday weekend, a few might be lost in auto accidents. Thereafter, we began testing again, trying to prove that the new Titan I missiles really would work. The governor of Idaho announced a special hunting season for the military; the season had run out during the crisis. On December 16, the 569th Strategic Missile Squadron had a big Christmas party to celebrate a return to "normalcy." The next day, my wife, Carol, gave birth to our son, Steve.

In 1962, many of us were new to the Air Force and the mission of nuclear deterrence. A lot of us, both officers and enlisted men, went on to full careers in the Strategic Air Command and the missile force. We had done our job proudly -- if filled with fear some of the time -- during the Cuban crisis. We now had no doubt about the importance of the mission and our resolve to carry it out. I continued to be part of that mission -- strategic nuclear deterrence -- for 27 more years. I am positive that the experience of living through the events of October 1962 made me a better Air Force officer and a leader who knew exactly what the mission was.