Published: 6 December 2022
By John Stibravy, Ph.D.
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
From 1975-1979, I served America in an ICBM nuclear missile silo. The missile was liquid-fueled, 103 ft. tall, 6,000+ mile range, carrying a 9 megaton thermonuclear warhead. Weight: 340,000 lbs. Launch time: 58 seconds after initialization.
I led a wing instructor crew for 250+ alert tours. With me were two experienced NCOs and a 1Lt. We taught new arrivals, including the first women, who had completed 21 weeks of en route training. Teaching included four-hour simulator rides, classrooms, and silo overnights. One of the basic concepts was “don’t go pushing buttons unless a checklist says to do so.”
USAF Missileers train in the Missile Procedures Trainer (left) in 2008 while two 341st Operations Group evaluators look on. The Titan II missiles (center) are long retired, as are the American field artillery pieces from World War I (right). Author John Stibravy served on a missile crew like the one training at left.
Newspapers are currently reporting the emotional pleas that “America should do something” about Ukraine, Russia, nuclear weapons, no-fly zones, and convoys. People say, “Do not wave a piece of paper as Chamberlain did in 1938.” Rather, Americans favor the Machiavellian approach of “Choose a Side.” “Die with our boots on.” “Let’s enforce a no-fly zone.” Remember the 1958 slogan: “Better Dead than Red.”
Go watch the blockbuster 1959 movie, On the Beach. People cried at the end scene of Peter and Mary. On their tea tray was a box of Australian government- issued pills. Their baby was silent. Peter and Mary had met on the beach, and now, post WW 3, everything has ended.
Down in our silo, with an NCO crew member, I could pass through 7-ton doors, open a maintenance door and look at the warhead. The missile was just down the hallway. Or we could look up at the two rocket engines which could produce 430,000 pounds of thrust. The size of those rocket engine exhaust cones made us feel no more potent than gnats.
Have you noticed strong similarities between now and pre-WW 1? Nationalism, treaties, secret agreements, trade goals, mutual defense, militarism, increased armament production, and new war-fighting technologies such as the machine gun led the world’s countries, including America, to haphazardly back into a non-nuclear world war that slaughtered (correct word) 20,000,000 and wounded another 21,000,000. The alliances produced an unfortunate cascade effect which drew everyone into the cataclysm. In the trenches, boys went “over the top” towards machine guns that shot an infantry company of 250 men and 6 officers in minutes. Artillery turned towns into trash.
According to my grandfather’s letters from France, sometimes the only indication that a town ever existed was a sign stuck into the mud. A generation of young men was erased. One machine gun could do the same damage to human tissue as 80 rifles. At the Battle of the Somme, British forces lost 19,000 killed on the first day.
Our 54 Titan II missiles (18 per wing) were obsolete by 1987. One, defanged, was saved near Tucson as a museum. The Huey helicopters that we flew in to reach the distant silos are gone too. The last American WW1 veteran, Corporal Frank Buckles of WV, died in 2011. Armistice Day has vanished along with the veterans who celebrated it. The day has been renamed Veterans Day. Few Americans know why November 11 was celebrated, or how thousands celebrated the armistice in streets and trenches at 11 am. The mantra was, “The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” But the industrialist Henry Ford said, “History is bunk.” He believed in solving present problems without historical distractions.
Henry Ford died in 1947. He never sat where I have at 3 am, 1977, underground, my combat crew patches sewn onto my blue work uniform, ceiling lights off for artificial night, equipment lights glowing white, the missile ready. Americans slept securely because we, along with other system crews, were willing to do the unthinkable. Flight time for our one warhead to a designated target was 30 minutes at 16,000 mph.
See On the Beach, 1959. Agree with Henry Ford. Ignore the causes of WW 1. Party as Americans did before October 1929. Be optimistic. Dance all night on the head of a pin. But before you start pressing buttons without the proper checklist, pay close attention to the lesson of Humpty Dumpty.
John Stibravy is retired from the USAF. He served 48 months with the 381 Strategic Missile Wing, KS. (He died in 2017 of cardiac arrest in Atlantic City, then returned to be a writer.) All tech specs and historical facts in this article are available on the Web or public knowledge. He is the author of World War I (56th Engineers) and Great Depression Letters of Ralph W. Green.