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N.D. missileers recall tense times

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - There was a night sometime in the late 1970s when a young Capt. Richard Fuller came within an inch of launching the nuclear missiles under his command, somewhere out in the farmlands of eastern North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - There was a night sometime in the late 1970s when a young Capt. Richard Fuller came within an inch of launching the nuclear missiles under his command, somewhere out in the farmlands of eastern North Dakota.

The time and the place now seem vague, but that moment of terror still stands out for Fuller, a member of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing once at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"It's like me walking into your office, and I have a loaded gun to your head and I say, 'Am I gonna pull the trigger or not?' " he said. "I hold for five minutes and then I walk out."

The moment passed. It was a false alarm. The Soviet Union had launched a test missile that only looked like it was headed for the U.S. Until Strategic Air Command, which commanded the 321st, figured out the difference, Fuller waited for the order to retaliate.

Former "missileers" remember tense times such as those, when their mission was to let the Soviets know that, if they ever launched a missile attack, it would mean Armageddon. They knew they were expendable because the Soviets had many missiles aimed at them in the hopes of destroying some U.S. missiles before they launched.


"You knew upfront you were committed to giving your life to protect the assets that protected the country," said Rick Duquette, who was a member of the security forces protecting the missiles.

If there were an attack, he and his colleagues wouldn't head for a bomb shelter. They'd be topside, guarding the 321st's missiles until their inevitable conversion to radioactive dust.

At the height of the Cold War, eastern North Dakota was home to 150 Minuteman III missiles, each capable of delivering as many as three nuclear warheads to the Soviet Union in about 30 minutes. It was said at one time that, were North Dakota to secede from the union, it would be the world's third strongest nuclear power, which includes the missiles and bombs belonging to the bases in Grand Forks and Minot.

But the missiles also brought with them economic benefits. The Grand Forks region hosted some 4,000 missile-wing personnel and their families.

Ten years ago this month, that chapter in the region's history closed with the departure of the 321st and the removal of the last missiles. Two years later, nearly all the missile silos were destroyed, leaving the land where they had been for the weeds.

The life of the missileers and their support personnel was one of the routines punctuated by moments of terror.

Nearly all the time was spent either learning the launch procedures or finding creative ways to alleviate the boredom, former missileer Mike Brown recalled.

"It was 95 percent boredom and 5 percent could be panic," he said.


Brown, now the mayor of Grand Forks, was a launch officer in the in the 447th squadron, a component of the 321st from 1975 to 1979.

Depending on Strategic Air Command's policy, he and other missileers spent from 24 to 72 hours in a capsule underground waiting for the order to launch - should it ever come.

While Brown studied for his master's in business administration, others might take electronic courses by mail, building TVs for classes. Fuller remembered reading a lot of The Economist and The New York Times.

A launch control capsule was a steel capsule buried under ground. In it was a smaller capsule the size of a recreational vehicle that sat on springs to absorb the shock of a nuclear detonation above ground. Even with that, the shockwaves were expected to be so powerful that their seats had seat belts to keep them from tumbling out. They and each of the missiles they controlled would be ground zero.

To these old-time missileers, the recent mishap at Minot Air Force Base, when crews wrongly sent six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, indicate how far their former profession has fallen in importance.

Defense Department officials have spoken of a decade-long decline in the way the service handles the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Fuller, who served from 1976 to 1980 in the same squadron as Brown, said it's hard to imagine the mentality of that time anymore.

"We were playing for keeps," he said. "If we screwed up, we were done for."


The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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