Dakota Datebook

Missile Silos

Sunday, October 12, 2003

On this day in 1960, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on his desk and declared to U.S. citizens, “We will bury you!”

One year later, on October 6th, 1961, President Kennedy urged Americans to build bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout. It was feared that a possible strike could come from over the Arctic and down into North Dakota, so the Air Force quickly chose sites across the state and within the year, missile sites were sprouting up in our wheat fields.

The Cold War was in full swing, and everywhere people prepared for the worst – nuclear holocaust. School children were taught to hide under their desks in case of Russian attack, and families were putting stores of purified water and non-perishable food in the bunkers they built beneath their lawns.

Field construction began in January of 1962 to house the new Minuteman I Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) complex. At Minot Air Force Base, Strategic Air Command (SAC) activated the 455th Strategic Missile Wing in November, and in less than a year, the first Minuteman arrived from Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Soon, the North Dakota prairie was spattered with hundreds of missile sites boasting America’s latest technology.

While during this period of time, Russian visitors weren’t allowed to visit the state, the missile sites were far from secret; in fact, school kids went on field trips to tour their nearest missile silos.

By the next year, 300 Minutemen missiles were fully armed with nuclear warheads. Interestingly, if the state had decided to split away from the rest of the country, North Dakota would have been the 3rd most powerful nation in the world.

Several years later, the 321st Missile Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base was the very first to deploy the more powerful Minuteman II(s). Considered by many to be the best ICBM wing in the Air Force, the Grand Forks 321st won a string of awards and commendations.

The Air Force then selected Minot’s 91st Strategic Missile Wing to become the first to convert to the Minuteman III in the early 1970s. The Minuteman III tripled the Air Force’s striking power and was more convincing as a war deterrent for the Strategic Air Command. In late 1973, Short Range Attack Missiles were added to arsenals, and shortly after, bombers were equipped with improved avionics for more accurate bombing.

With the Cold War at an end in the mid-1990s, the Minuteman missiles were taken off alert. In accordance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I, the 150 missiles assigned to Grand Forks were to be destroyed and the silos imploded, but the 150 missile sites assigned to Minot were to remain in service.

The first missile site to be destroyed was near Langdon, on Oct. 6th, 1999, where more than 100 spectators watched a piece of military history reduced to a pile of rubble. It was 38 years – to the day – after Kennedy called on families to build bomb shelters.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from North Dakota Public Radio.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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