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Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications Co., Published August 07 2011

Missilemen return to North Dakota’s Oscar-Zero

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – Oscar-Zero was more “spiffed up” Saturday than remembered by Mike Jennings and Bill Burnet from the early 1970s when they served there as fresh-faced missile launch control officers.

Forty years ago, the launch site’s lounge didn’t have flowers, and its furniture was “prison gray,” the former Air Force captains said. But much of it had the same feel, such as the glacier-slow freight elevator that took them 60 feet underground to where they worked.

Their job was to insert – and turn – a key in a control panel that would launch nuclear weapons during the Cold War. They both did the former, but not the latter, during their four years on the job.

For Jennings in 1971, the reason was a radar software glitch that erroneously showed the Russians had launched missiles. He sweated about an hour before it was determined to be a false alarm and he wouldn’t have to do a world-changing turn of the key.

For Burnet in 1973, the Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab states triggered the key’s insertion.

“The only way to describe it is ‘scary,’ ” Burnet said. “But you did what you were supposed to do. I had no qualms about it.”

Jennings said that if the order came to turn the key, it meant “there was incoming” missiles. So his thoughts during those tense 60 minutes turned to family members. “They were living on the base, and that base would have been one of the first places to go,” he said.

Most of the memories recounted Saturday by the 85 visitors to Oscar-Zero were more pleasant. They were there for a reunion of the original “Warriors of the North,” the members of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing. The North Dakota Historical Society and Friends of Oscar-Zero, a local group that has preserved the missile site as a tourism attraction, organized the reunion of missileers.

The 321st maintained 150 land-based Minuteman missiles in eastern North Dakota between 1964 and 1998. When deactivated, missiles were pulled from their silos, and control facilities were shuttered.

The group also toured the November-33 missile launch site, one of 10 missiles controlled by Oscar-Zero, and the local historical society before a dinner with retired Gen. Lance Lord as the speaker. Lord was commander of the 321st SMW at Grand Forks Air Force Base for 15 months, ending in May 1990.

“Coming to Grand Forks meant learning what it’s like to be part of a team with an important job,” Lord said. “Nothing was more important than the job that we did.”

The missileers, who came from across the country, said they were there to renew friendships rather than refresh memories of the facilities.

“This was a (crappy) job,” said Dick Wilson of Russell, Kan. “This is a sanitized version down here now. It was noisy, smelled of the sewage sump pump and sometimes had excessive cold and heat. There was no radio and no TV. You never wanted a drink (of alcohol) so bad because you knew you couldn’t have one. And you often had adverse weather getting here or getting back to the base.

“But they’re the most lasting friendships you’ll ever have. You get to know people’s inner soul when you live with them so long and so closely.”

While most of the 85 visitors came from afar, Tim Sprague and 17-year-old son Taylor came from Grand Forks. Taylor said he gained a greater appreciation of his father’s job as a site facility manager in the mid-1980s.

He also gained two other bits of knowledge. One, the Air Force has a lot of procedures. Secondly, “in the movies, you’ll see a missile launched and then shot down in flight. Well, you can’t do that. Once it goes, you can’t stop it.”

Crews never had to launch a missile. But as stories retold Saturday revealed, they came close.


Ryan Bakken writes for the Grand Forks Herald