By Landry Brewer
This October marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And as the world approached the brink of nuclear war during those 13 days in October 1962, Oklahoma played a prominent role in the nation’s nuclear deterrent.
In January 1960, Oklahoma’s U.S. Senators Robert S. Kerr and Mike Monroney, along with Oklahoma Congressman Toby Morris, announced that Altus Air Force Base in Jackson County would serve as the hub of 12 Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missiles that would be housed at separate communities within 40 miles of the base.
The Cold War was raging, and what ultimately became a 45-year ideological conflict between the United States and the Democratic West on one side and the Soviet Union and the Communist East on the other had not reached its midpoint in 1960. When the Soviets got the atomic bomb in 1949, the Cold War intensified. When the Soviets tested their first thermonuclear device in 1955, it intensified again.
Then, in rapid succession in late 1957, the Soviets launched the world’s first ICBM, then Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Tremendous pressure was placed on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration to complete development of the first American ICBM.
And the Atlas missile was born.
Three operational Atlas models were created—the D, E and F. The 577th Strategic Missile Squadron at Altus Air Force Base operated 12 Atlas F ICBMs.
A symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for the Altus-area Atlas missile sites was held May 20, 1960, at Altus AFB. The mayors representing Altus and the 12 nearby communities where the missile sites would be located participated.
The sites chosen for the Atlas sites were Lone Wolf; Snyder; Cache; Frederick; Fargo, Texas; Creta; Hollis; Russell; Willow; Hobart; Manitou; and Granite.
The sites cost approximately $21 million to build. Adjusted for inflation, the price tag would be about $180 million today.
The Atlas missile was 82.5 feet long and 10 feet wide. It weighed 18,000 pounds empty and 267,000 pounds when filled with its liquid fuel. The missile could fly 9,000 miles. If fired from their Altus-area sites, the missiles would have arrived in the Soviet Union in less than 45 minutes, inflicting massive destruction.
Each Atlas F missile carried an approximately 4-megaton (equivalent to about 4 million tons of TNT) nuclear warhead that was more than 250 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on the Japanese city Hiroshima at the end of World War II in 1945.
The Army Corps of Engineers oversaw construction of the massive missile sites, an enormous undertaking. Each missile was stored vertically in an underground silo that was 174 feet deep, 52 feet wide and built of heavily reinforced concrete that was poured over rebar to withstand a Soviet nuclear blast at the surface. Silo walls were nine feet thick at the top down to 30 feet below ground surface where they began tapering downward and were 2½ feet thick at the bottom.
Within each silo, a huge metal structure the equivalent of a 15-story building called “the crib” was installed to support the missile and allow for maintenance.
Each vertical silo included 65-ton hydraulic doors at the top which were flush with the ground surface when closed.
A 50-foot tunnel connected each silo to the Launch Control Center (LCC) where a five-person U.S. Air Force crew lived around the clock. Outfitted with kitchens, showers and beds on one level and the technology to fire the missile on another level, five-person crews would live in the LCC working a 24-hour shift, then return to Altus AFB for 48 hours.
Building missile sites was dangerous. Oklahoma was one of six states — along with Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and New York — to house Atlas F missiles. Other ICBMs, such as the Titan, were also housed in several states. Nationwide, more than 50 men died building ICBM sites.
Three men died building the Altus-area sites. Two men fell to their death at the Cache and Fargo, Texas, sites, and a man was electrocuted at the Hobart site on his first day of work there.
The sites were built with great speed to hasten the American nuclear deterrent in a dangerous time. In a 1961 speech to the United Nations, President Kennedy said, “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”
That thread was nearly cut in October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest that the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war. When the Kennedy administration learned that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba that could reach most of the continental United States, all 12 Altus-area Atlas F ICBMs were placed on alert for the first time.
Oklahoma and the world were spared a nuclear conflagration, though Oklahomans near Frederick received a scare when the missile there exploded May 14, 1964. Fortunately, the warhead was unaffected, and there were no injuries or fatalities. But the force of the explosion destroyed the site, and it permanently closed.
The following November, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that the Atlas program would be phased out by June 1965.
That quickly Oklahoma’s part in the nation’s Cold War nuclear arsenal ended.
The Atlas sites were decommissioned and sold to private owners. School districts at Snyder, Hollis, Granite and Fargo, Texas, own the site properties at those locations today.
When President Kennedy went on national television the evening of October 22, 1962, to tell the nation of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, he issued a warning to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy looked into the camera and told Khrushchev that the United States would “regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
That “full retaliatory response” would have included firing the nuclear-armed missiles near Altus Air Force Base.
During the crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pleaded with President Kennedy by letter that they must avoid nuclear war between their countries, because “only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die,” could allow such a war to happen. He knew the extent of the American nuclear arsenal, which included missiles nearby.
Western Oklahoma’s ICBMs played an important role within the nation’s nuclear deterrent during those 13 fraught days in October 1962 as we approached the brink and the sword of Damocles came perilously close to falling.
Landry Brewer is Bernhardt Assistant Professor of History for Southwestern Oklahoma State University at the Sayre campus, and he is the author of Cold War Oklahoma.