Saturday, June 23, 2007

- Idaho Statesman
Edition Date: 01/22/07

Not many people can claim to have driven a truck down an icy road into the Bruneau Canyon pulling a trailer with a nuclear warhead on it. Andy Kimbrell is one of them.

Kimbrell was among those who responded to a Statesman story last week on the Cold War nuclear-missile complexes buried in the deserts of Ada and Owyhee counties in the 1960s.

When I was writing the story, I couldn't find a single one of the people who worked at the sites. Since it was published, they've been doing everything but crawling out of missile silos.

Roy Coon of Emmett helped build the Ada County site. Boisean Merlyn Knight learned computer skills on the guidance computer from one of the underground complexes. Kimbrell, also of Boise, worked at all three of the sites.

The stories they tell are of an era and mindset that now seem like science fiction.

"I've been a carpenter all my life, and that was the biggest project I ever worked on," Coon said. "It had steel and concrete doors 4 feet thick. The underground power house and other buildings were mounted on springs. They said it would survive anything but a direct nuclear hit."

Kimbrell trained for a year before being assigned to Mountain Home Air Force base as a 21-year-old warhead technician.

"I was a science-fiction fan, and it was like walking into a sci-fi novel," he said. "Everything was remotely controlled, there were TV cameras watching us, and everything was designed to survive anything short of a nuclear blast. The tunnels had flexible junctions to withstand shock. The toilets were mounted on shock-absorbing pads 4 inches thick."

Kimbrell helped mount the first nuclear warheads installed on Idaho's Titan I missiles and maintain the missiles throughout their short life. They went on line in 1961 and were deactivated in 1965, after more advanced models made them obsolete. I asked him whether working with warheads capable of eradicating cities made him nervous.

"Not really," he said. "The main thing other than making sure they went off when they were supposed to was making sure they didn't go off when they weren't. They were incredibly safe, and the work was mostly routine, repetitive procedures using checkoff lists.

"Every one once in a while, though, there were incidents that made you realize what you were working with. One was reaching into a missile to change a part and realizing that I was up to my shoulder in a nuclear weapon. Another was driving into the Bruneau Canyon on a slick road with a nuclear warhead on the trailer behind us. It made you think about how careful you had to be."

Kimbrell was stationed at Mountain Home when word came of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. "We were at lunch when a siren went off and we dropped everything and went back to work. When we got there, our old sergeant was so pale that it was the only time I saw anyone who qualified as being as white as a sheet. He said, ‘boys, this ain't no game.' "

For the next week, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war and Kimbrell worked 12-hour shifts. When the Titan sites were deactivated, their equipment was returned to the Air Force or sold as scrap or surplus. One of the guidance computers ended up in Nampa at Northwest Nazarene College, now Northwest Nazarene University. Knight was among the student beneficiaries.

"It was 20 feet long and got so hot it had its own air-conditioning system," Knight said. "It wasn't real practical as far as doing anything, but it was a great learning tool. I programmed it to play tic-tac-toe. It was the most useless but used program on the computer. Read More