Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
‘Silent sentinel of the prairie’
Standing on a windswept patch of western South Dakota prairie and looking down into a hole at the cone of a missile as motorists zoom past on nearby Interstate 90, you begin to appreciate the frightening absurdity of the Cold War.
Down in that hole, there was once a missile topped with a nuclear warhead containing more destructive firepower than all the bombs used in World War II – including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And for decades, that missile rested peacefully right there in its underground silo, covered by a concrete blast door, marked by a big, above-ground pole, and enclosed with a regular-looking fence.
Anybody who was curious could have pulled off the interstate and drove up to the fence for a look. Tourists sipping their free ice water at Wall Drug – located six miles to the west – could have had their refreshment interrupted at any time by the awesomely terrifying sight and sound of an intercontinental ballistic missile rocketing toward Russia at 15,000 mph. Or, on the other hand, they could have been suddenly and instantly killed by an incoming Russian rocket of a similar kind.
Mutually Assured Destruction
The missile down in that hole east of Wall was known as a Minuteman II – so named because of its ability to reach a target 6,300 miles away in just 30 minutes. Informally, the missiles were known to some as “silent sentinels of the prairie.”
There were once 450 such missile sites in the United States, mostly in the upper Great Plains. The presence of those missiles, along with the presence of a similar fleet in Russia, gave rise to the Cold War-era acronym “MAD”: Mutually Assured Destruction. That’s what was guaranteed if either country had ever fired the first shot.
Today, that hole in the ground contains not an armed nuclear missile, but an unarmed test missile. The concrete blast door has been pulled back a little, and a glass viewing structure has been built over the top. It’s part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which as of 2009 was among the newest additions to the National Park Service.
The missile’s launch control center is also located alongside the interstate, about 11 miles east of the underground silo. The above-ground portion of the control center, where security personnel were stationed around the clock, looks from the interstate like it could be a modest bachelor rancher’s home. There are no visual clues to the roughly 15 feet of concrete beneath it, or the tiny, locked pod below in which two missileers sat, awaiting printed codes instructing them to insert their keys into a control device and begin the process of nuclear annihilation.
Hours of boredom, seconds of panic
Missileers served rotating 24-hour shifts in the underground pod. Above ground, the little ranch-style house was constantly staffed by a cook and security personnel who also worked in rotating shifts. Everybody commuted to the launch control center from Ellsworth Air Force Base, located about 70 miles to the west. The above-ground and underground portions of the site became second homes to the crew members who worked, ate and slept there.
A modern tour guide retells one missileer’s description of what it was like to work in the underground pod, where the hours of waiting were sometimes broken by incoming messages that turned out to be tests.
“It was hours of boredom,” the tour guide recalled the missileer saying, “punctuated by seconds of panic.”
The site and hundreds of others like it were deactivated following the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991 (as of this writing, there were still 150 active nuclear missile sites in the United States, but none in South Dakota). The silo and control center east of Wall were the most easily accessible of the deactivated sites, so Congress designated the two locations as a National Historic Site in 1999. A temporary visitor center consisting of modular trailers was placed at Exit 131, four miles east of the control center and 15 miles east of the missile silo. Construction of a permanent visitor center at Exit 131 was scheduled to begin during the summer of 2009. Also accessible from Exit 131 is Badlands National Park, which is just a short drive to the south.
A quintessential Great Plains object
Visitors to the missile site stop first at the visitor center, and then drive on to the launch control center and the underground silo. The above- and below-ground portions of the launch control center have been preserved exactly as the military crews left them, down to the magazines and VHS tapes that were left in the living quarters. It’s a living museum, and visitors are asked to refrain from touching anything.
There is perhaps no other attraction in South Dakota about which so much can be learned before visiting. In addition to the scores of books and Internet resources detailing the history of the Cold War and the Minuteman program, the National Park Service’s homepage for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site contains links to a resource study, oral histories by missilers and other people involved in the Minuteman program, photo galleries and a multimedia presentation.
The Park Service’s printed literature includes a quote from author Ian Frazier that perhaps best sums up the site and the feeling one gets from visiting it:
“A nuclear-missile silo is one of the quintessential Great Plains objects: to the eye, it is almost nothing, just one or two acres of ground with a concrete slab in the middle and some posts and poles sticking up behind an eight-foot-high Cyclone fence; but to the imagination, it is the end of the world.”