Remember the Titan II: Cold War memories under the Arizona sun.
The moment Yvonne Morris stepped through the Titan II missile launch complex access portal, a scent from the past assaulted her senses. Some people associate air raid sirens and Emergency Broadcast System messages with their memories from the Cold War era. For Morris, it's the aroma of sausage and eggs mingled with hydraulic fluid and stale cigarette smoke.
Fourteen years passed between the deactivation of the missile sites and Morris' return to the Launch Complex 571-7 control room, now a part of the Titan Missile Museum 25 miles south of Tucson in Sahuarita, Ariz. The bunker looked, and smelled, like Morris remembered. The big difference now is the noise level. It is considerably quieter than when the constant humming of equipment surrounded her when she served as a missile crew commander at sites near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
When the 390th Strategic Missile Wing deactivated its 18 Titan II missiles between 1982 and 1984, Morris had ho plans to visit another missile site. Then she visited the museum with her uncle in 1998. She soon began giving tours as a docent and became the museum's executive director six years later. Looking back, Morris is amazed at the responsibility she faced right out of college.
"When you're young, you're thinking, 'I can do anything. I'm bulletproof. I can do this,'" Morris said. "Then you get so busy doing it, you really don't have time to think you're in charge of a $40 million nuclear weapon system.
"This was a job with the highest potential consequences for a mistake," she said." You either had to step up and perform as required, or get moved out of the program.
"It never occurred to me that I might not have what I needed to do the job," she continued. "Twenty-five years later, I'm now thinking, when I was 23, I had the most important job I'll ever have in my entire life."
In an era of "peace by deterrence" and "mutually assured destruction," the Titan II held the largest warhead on an American ICBM. The 103-foot intercontinental ballistic missile could be launched in less than a minute from its hardened silo 150 feet beneath the southern Arizona desert and reach its target 6,000 miles away in 30 minutes.
But it was more than a formidable weapon in the arms race against the Soviet Union; Titan II boosted all 10 manned Gemini space capsules into orbit in 1965 and 1966 and lifted astronaut Edward H. White II when he became the first American to complete a spacewalk.
Beginning in 1963, the Air Force deployed 54 Titan II missiles in groups of 18 at three bases in Arizona, Arkansas and Kansas. All 54 Titans were on alert by the end of the year. Each site consisted of a missile silo, launch control facility and access portal, manned at all times by a four-person missile combat crew.
The Arizona Aerospace Foundation operates the Titan Missile Museum which opened in 1986. On display in the museum's silo is N-10, which was the missile used to train everyone who worked on the Titan II program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. The museum's missile site is one of two ICBM sites worldwide open to the general public and the only remaining Titan II launch control complex. The site retained all ground command and control facilities above and below ground, including the seven-story missile and silo. Titan II's 760-ton silo closure door, which protected the missile from a nuclear hit nearby, remains permanently half-open.
Like Morris, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dwight Mears finds his surroundings inside the museum's launch control facility familiar. Colonel Mears was also a missile combat crew commander, although his duty was at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and took place a decade before Morris' missile duty in the 1970s. McConnell's missiles became operational on Dec. 12, 1963, 20 days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Mears became a docent at the museum in 2003 after he retired from the military and a second career in computer security. He leads tours through the museum four or five times a month.
"When I retired, I always thought about what I needed to do to give back," Mears said. "There are a lot of different things people are suited for. I think I'm best suited to help to tell the story of the Cold War."
In Mears' day, missile crews pulled six to nine alerts a month. Crews at the Kansas sites also had to deal with harsh weather, which sometimes stretched 24-hour alerts into 30 hours, and in a few cases, several days. The crewmembers were conscious of the grave responsibility of their job, but tried not to dwell on the possibilities of nuclear war.
"We knew what we were dealing with," Mears said. "We felt a conflict would never occur, but we trained for that eventuality, thinking that if it did, it would be very quick.
"One side or the other would have to be extremely desperate to launch into something that they would lose everything in, as they would in the conduct of a nuclear war," he said. "So, I think most of us were confident that it would never happen. The only thing we thought that could've happened was somebody on one side making an error. While I believed we'd never go to war, there was always the possibility."
The Cold War continued into the 1980s, when Morris served as missile combat crew commander after she was selected to be among the first group of women recruited for Titan II command duty. Morris, an ROTC cadet at the University of Virginia, was selected in 1978. She graduated from missile launch officer training in 1981.
She said she relied on her humor and the fast pace to keep her mind from dwelling on the grim possibilities of the job, along with the weight of responsibility placed on her young shoulders.
"You had to walk a fine line by allowing the sense of responsibility to motivate you without getting so mired in it that it paralyzed you," Morris said. "I think the Air Force was really clever in the way they handled it. There was as much human engineering that went into the design of the missile sites as there was physical engineering.
"They kept you so busy and focused on what was in front of you that there wasn't time to dwell on the repercussions in case you had to do the one thing you were ultimately responsible for--launching a missile," she said. "The only down time was a long stretch between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. The rest of the time, you're training and drilling. If you're focused on that, you're not thinking about Armageddon."
The quarters, which Morris and her crew called "Motel 2," consisted of barracks-style bunk beds and a bathroom that offered a sink, shower and toilet. Motel 2 also had a small kitchen with a refrigerator, microwave, stove and toaster. In addition to her duties as the museum's executive director, Morris is working on a book about the Titan II and Cold War that she has given the working title, "Missiles in the Backyard, Bomb Shelters in the Basement."
For years after leaving that part of her life behind, Morris thought, like many crewmembers: "If I never see another missile site, it will be too soon." Now, one Tuesday a month, Morris takes museum visitors through the site and tries to get them to see, hear and even smell some of what missile crews experienced while they were on alert during the height of the Cold War.
"After I moved back to Tucson in 1985, I knew the museum was there, but I felt no desire to visit," she said. "It held no nostalgia for me. It wasn't because I didn't believe in the mission or the need for the missiles. But that was a very stressful time in my life.
"The demands placed on missile crews were very intense and the performance standards and consequences for even small mistakes were so high, we were constantly under unbelievable stress to perform," she explained.
Part of the stress crewmembers faced was the acceptance that if there was an attack, they didn't expect to survive. Each missile site was stocked with 30 days of food and water and a diesel generator for emergency power. But crews knew that a missile strike from either side would likely result in attacks on all missile sites.
"Realistically speaking, 30 minutes after an incoming missile launch is detected, every missile site is going to be a smoking hole," Morris said. "That didn't bother me very much because I'd read too much apocalyptic fiction, so I didn't have a lot of hope about what a post-apocalyptic world would be like. Our expectation, or what we hoped for, was we'd live long enough to launch our missiles."
Now, her mission, along with the museum, is to give visitors what she calls "a snapshot" of what it was like for a crew on alert.
Former missile combat crew commanders are available as tour guides each Tuesday. The museum also offers tours by night with its "Moonlight MADness (Mutual Assurance Destruction)" tours, Children can learn how to build and fly balloon rockets on Science Saturdays. And for $1,000, you can spend a night in crew quarters and turn the key in the control room. All of it is designed, not to advocate for either side in the nuclear weapons debate, but to make the museum more accessible to a wider audience and allow visitors to see and touch history.
"Interpreting the role of nuclear weapons in our nation's history is probably one of the most sensitive and polarizing issues from the Cold War," Morris said. "Everyone has very strong feelings about the development and potential use of nuclear weapons, but not everyone has a frame of reference.
"What we hope people take away from their visit to the museum is a frame of reference they can use in the future to make their own decision of where they think the United States should go with its nuclear policy," he said. "The museum doesn't take a position pro or con on the development of nuclear weapons. We try to show people the genie's out of the bottle regarding nuclear weapons, and here's what happened because of it: crews had to be on alert at these sites."
Years have passed since Colonel Mears or Morris were on 24-hour alerts in a missile launch control facility. The memories remain, much like the scent of breakfast and hydraulic fluid. During each tour they give, Mears and Morris take on their newest responsibility in the launch control center, to share some of the memories of their days on alert and teach the role the Titan II played in a peaceful conclusion to the Cold War.
"Former crewmembers here are treated like rock stars," Morris said. "If I'm ever having a bad day, all I have to do is go to the museum and let it slip that I was a crewmember."
STORY BY RANDY ROUGHTON
PHOTOS BY STAFF SGT. BENNE J. DAVIS III