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ND veteran recalls maintaining nuclear missile sites in state

This photo shows Capt. Warren Tobin of the U.S. Air Force in the dress uniform of the 1980s. Tobin served for 14 years with the 321st Strategic Missile Wing at Grand Forks during the height of the Cold War. Submitted photo1 / 3
This file photo shows a missile operator at the controls of Oscar-Zero possibly in the 1980s. The missile control center has been maintained as the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown, N.D., as a tribute to the Cold War and the men and women who served at that time. Photo courtesy / Library of Congress2 / 3
Warren Tobin3 / 3

JAMESTOWN, N.D.—Maintaining the stalemate of the Cold War put a lot of pressure on the young men who manned the Minuteman Missile installations during the height of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union in the years after World War II.

"It was a situation where both sides of the Cold War had mutually assured destruction," said Warren Tobin, a former captain of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing. "You can't really win a nuclear war. You need to be ready so that the other guy knows you're ready. It works both ways."

Tobin spent 14 years with the unit in a variety of capacities. He did one tour of duty, three years, as a missile operator working in the missile control centers that dot northeast North Dakota.

"The three-year tour of duty was because of the stress," Tobin said. "The optimal performance for a missile operator was just three or four years."

Officers who excelled as missile operators stayed in the unit in support and command positions. Others moved to other duties within the Air Force.

Standards were high for the young officers who wanted to man the missile silos.

Missile operators had to qualify physically and mentally. Officers who were color blind, for example, were not allowed into the program because of the color-coded controls.

And officers had to have a top secret clearance because they were the last link in the chain of command that could launch a nuclear attack.

"If the conditions required it, and the national command authority wanted it, we could put bombs on a target halfway around the world in 30 minutes," Tobin said.

The daily tasks of the missile operator were routine. Training, maintenance and security took up most of the time on a shift.

"There was always a routine," Tobin said. "That was not influenced by what was going on in the world, but there were times when there were heightened tensions in the world when we were more aware of what we were doing."

Standards were high for the officers who served as missile operators. The top priority was to make sure the missile was ready to launch if needed. The daily tasks included communications with headquarters, routine maintenance like changing light bulbs and training to be prepared in case a launch was ordered.

"We had very high standards of perfection in the performance of our task," Tobin said. "You didn't want any bad days in the nuclear weapon business."

The first Minuteman missiles were built in 1962 and updated versions of the design are still in use.

"We still have a nuclear deterrent, it just gets smaller all the time," he said. "Previously there were nine missile wings now there are three."

But during the height of the Cold War, the missile system was part of the first line of defense for this country. Tobin characterised it as being at a frontier military outpost in the era of the Old West.

One of the Minuteman missile sites has been preserved for history.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota operates the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown. The site preserves the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility and the November-33 Launch Facility. The two sites are the last remnants of Tobin's old unit, the 321st Missile Wing, remaining. The rest of the facilities of the 321st have been returned to farmland.

Tobin said he donated some of his items from the Cold War era to the displays at the historic site. He said it is one of the few places where people can see military history that is still part of the American national defense.

"It is still important," he said. "As long as we have a world where anyone has nuclear weapons, you have to have a way to discourage them."