“Be quite sure to follow all instructions,” ‘Missileer’ Thomas Papineau reminded us, “to the letter.” Our white Dodge Durango turned off Interstate 80 just short of Sidney, Nebraska, heading north across the featureless Great Plains.
There was just myself, journalist Katy Rutter, and my cameraman, Johnny ‘Jonno’ Moses. I longed to open the window and feel the dry, dusty, warm air on my face but I knew the guys preferred the air conditioning. After a few miles Papineau turned off and headed along a track to some buildings, somewhat reminiscent of chicken barns. A brown sign stated ‘U.S. Air Force, Global Strike Command, 92nd Missile Wing.’ They weren’t producing eggs here, they were prepared to blow up the world.
“Good afternoon!” A young, fresh faced man appeared. His name badge said Lieutenant Brad Rosner. Dressed in camouflage gear, he carried a clipboard. Papineau, Jonno and myself stood expectantly. Strangely, Rosner had oriental features, maybe Korean? He read us the usual riot act and we proceeded through a gate. “Follow me please.”
We went into one of the buildings where a man and a woman, likewise dressed in camos, played table tennis. “Down time,” explained Rosner.
Another officer came over with some camera gear for Jonno. We weren’t allowed to use our own in case it interfered with their electrical systems. All four of us got into a cage lift, Rosner stabbed a red button and we started to descend.
“Good God!” I exclaimed as I realised we were passing down the side of a huge missile, perhaps seventy feet high. The men laughed.
“We control ten of these Minuteman III missiles from here,” said Rosner.
“Wow!” Jonno exclaimed.
It’s OK, you can film,” he said to Jonno, who held his camera uncertainly.
“How many of these are there?” I asked.
“Two on the base, but nearly five hundred spread around the country.”
I didn’t bother to ask if they were more powerful than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. I could guess the answer.
The lift stopped and we walked along a tunnel into a network of small control rooms, protected by an enormous steel door several feet thick. The equipment looked strangely old-fashioned.
“Hey, what’s with the retro look?” asked Jonno.
Papineau smiled. “This facility was constructed in the sixties. They’ve kept the old panels. We kinda like it.”
Papineau introduced us to the ‘missileers’ on duty, both in their early 20s, judging by their young faces, Lindsey Ferriell and Robert Halterman.
“Have a good time!” said Rosner, as he and Papineau turned to leave.
“Would you like some tea?” Ferriell asked.
We might have been in a kindergarten, rather than a nuclear command bunker.
After some small talk, Jonno set up the camera and I started the interview. “How do you feel working here?” I asked Ferriell. I noticed that even sans make up, she was quite pretty.
She smiled brightly, showing even, porcelain-white teeth. “Well, we’ve got a job to do, keeping our country safe, you just get used to it.”
Halterman indicated a red LED display, probably state-of-the-art in the 1960s. “If the president decides on a launch we’ll get the code here. We can launch up to ten missiles in minutes.”
‘Great,’ I thought. Jonno smiled at me and pulled a mock worried face.
“How do you launch a missile?” I asked finally, and predictably, after recording several minutes of boring technical information.
“We turn these switches.” Ferriell turned a knob that looked like an on-off switch from a wartime radio.
I gasped and my heart pounded. Halterman, a few feet away laughed and pointed to a similar one in front of him. “They have to be turned at the same time.”
Just then a buzzer sounded.
I jumped. “What’s that?”
Ferriell smiled. “Oh, we have to run a test routine. We do them throughout the day. You’ll have to leave soon I’m afraid.”
Suddenly a different buzzer sounded, higher pitched and louder, and the red LEDs lit up. Ferriell’s smile evaporated and Halterman leapt up. “That’s the president’s code!” The LEDs displayed ‘November 9.’
He feverishly grabbed a file from a shelf, opened it and ran his finger down a list. “JesusChrist, that’s the launch code. It’s kosher!”
Ferriell’s face was covered in sweat. She gestured towards us. “What about them?”
“There isn’t time. Come on. On my mark.” Halterman’s voice was hoarse. “Three … two … one ….” There was a crushing silence. The missileers exchanged shell-shocked glances. Time seemed to stop. Then, “Launch!” They both turned their knobs simultaneously.
Ferriell sat back. She covered her face with her hands. “Oh God, oh God.”
“What happens now?” I managed a whisper.
Halterman looked like a waxwork dummy starting to melt. He spoke in a dull monotone. “Orders are to wait.”
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