Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NEAR WALL, SD (KTIV) -- This week marks twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down, the fall of communism and ultimately the end of the Cold War. There is another symbol marking the end of the Cold War in the center of the Rushmore state.

At one point, there were enough nuclear bombs in South Dakota to create what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 150 times over.

It's a modest building in the middle of the South Dakota prairie. And for more than three decades only a select few people had ever been inside. An elite group that held the nation's top military secrets some 30 feet below the ground. This is the Delta-one launch site for the Minuteman Missile program.

"People drove by these facilities for years and didn't realize what was out here," says National Park Service tour guide Jack Hanson. "It's a fascinating part of American history."

And eye-opening. The amount of power and potential destruction capable of the 150 nuclear warheads in South Dakota alone contained power than what was dropped in all of World War II.

"That whole war start to finish including the atomic bombs, was a two megaton war. We had 180 megatons in South Dakota, so roughly 90 times the destructive force of all of World War II, just in South Dakota," Hanson said.

The people who manned these facilities since the early 1960s knew the risks and the realities of their job. The topside crew consisted of enlisted military who spent twelve hours a day here, with the main goal of security. Down below, two people -- the commander and deputy commander -- worked 24-hour shifts in a tiny space inside a protected capsule with the ability to launch a nuclear war.

"They open that up, inside are two keys and the code that the president carries. The president has a military officer with him at all times carrying a briefcase. It's called a football and inside that are the atomic launch codes. Inside here it's called a cookie. They take the cookies out, match that to the codes they've been given, and if they match, they know they're going to have a launch," Hanson said.

An action, with consequence.

"Once they turned the keys, they were committed to nuclear war, because there were no do-overs," Hanson said.

If the decision to launch was made, a missile with a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead sitting in a silo about 15 miles away from the key turn, would have been sent on a journey to a destination in the Soviet Union. It could have reached that target within 30 minutes.

It's estimated that in the first hour of a nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union, 30 million Americans would have died. Forty million Soviets would be killed. Hanson says each site in South Dakota was targeted by the Soviets, so would those at the launch site survive?

"Survivability? Only if the bomb hit more than a mile away."

The crew underground would have enough air to last a few days. Those topside had no protection. A former missileer says everyone was mentally trained for "what could have been."

"There was times when we were down their playing backgammon, watching baseball games and then there were times when you first become a crew member where you may get your first emergency action message. It's real versus an exercise. But you get desensitized to that," said former missileer Kerry Davis.

Some kept their humor, shown by artwork on the eight-ton door to the launch room. Now a national historic site, people can tour this facility and learn a part of American history that few have yet to really study.

Hanson says, "It was such an important part of our history. The absolute destruction that would have been created had these weapons ever been used."

The START treaty signed by the US and the Soviets in 1991 led to the dismantling of all 150 Minuteman Two missiles in South Dakota. The warheads were removed and the silos destroyed, except for the Delta Nine launch facility which is now part of the tour at the Minuteman Missile National Historic site.