Life at the Missile Sites

Different missile missions affected the composition, size, and attitudes of the crews manning the sites. Initially, SAC called on mature aviators to operate the first ICBM silos. However, as more veteran airmen left for combat in Southeast Asia, SAC began recruiting missile crews directly from commissioning sources. As a result, the typical age of a combat crewman in the 1970s was between 22 and 30 years old, with only a minority having any flying experience. During this period SAC had to procure 900 new missile combat crewmen per year to fill all shifts at the 1,054 silos then operational.

To become a "missileer," each candidate underwent extensive medical and psychological evaluation by SAC's Human Reliability Program. After certification, training consisted of a three-step process. First, the candidate attended an Air Training Command school for familiarization with the weapon system. Potential Titan crewmen were sent to train at Sheppard AFB in Texas while Minuteman candidates went to school at Chanute AFB in Illinois. Next, the candidate was assigned to the 1st Strategic Aerospace Division at Vandenberg AFB for operational training. Finally, the prospective crewman arrived at his assigned wing for familiarization with conditions unique to that area.

Once placed on the duty rotation schedule for a Minuteman missile wing, a two-man crew averaged five tours per month of 36 to 40 hours per tour. Travel time to and from the silo could be considerable. For example, some silos at Minot AFB in North Dakota required a trip of 150 miles. During the 36-hour shift, the two-man crew stood two 12-hour shifts in the underground launch control center (LCC), broken up by a 12-hour on-site rest period while another crew stood watch.

While on duty the crew commander and his deputy spent much of their time conducting frequent status checks of the missiles and their support systems. Duty in a missile silo was demanding. The missile crews took pride in their work, and sometimes even expressed a sense of humor about it. The crew of Delta Flight, 66th Missile Squadron, 44th Missile Wing, Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, painted the 8-ton blast door that guarded the entrance to the LCC to resemble a Domino's pizza box. The crew's hand-painted logo promised "World Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less, or Your Next One is Free."

SAC encountered morale problems early in the program. Graduates of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and the Air Force Academy initially assigned to missile crew duty tended to leave after they fulfilled their service obligation. Although they understood the responsibility and the importance of their duties, they often resented what they perceived to be their lesser status compared to their pilot counterparts.

To attract high-quality officers to missile crew duty, SAC offered the inducement of an advanced-degree program. As early as December 1961, SAC had expressed the view that a good educational program would permit missile crews to put the long hours of alert duty to profitable use. However, the demanding maintenance requirements of the first-generation missiles left little extra time for study.

With the introduction of the solid-propellant Minuteman missiles, less maintenance was required so crew sizes could be dramatically reduced. In contrast to a 12-missile Atlas F Squadron, which kept 60 men underground at all times, a 150-missile Minuteman wing could do the same job with 30, as each two-man crew had responsibility for 10 missiles. (In 1978, for the first time, women joined men on missile crew duty.) Even though fewer crew members were responsible for more missiles, these crews still had much more free time than their first-generation predecessors. Although much of the time was spent reviewing procedures in preparation for random Operational Readiness Inspections or running practice drills, the second-generation missileers had time to pursue advanced degrees while on alert duty. Also, to enhance esprit de corps, an annual missile crew competition was established in 1967 at Vandenberg AFB to measure crew competency. This competition eventually became known as "Olympic Arena."

Nike sites were more labor-intensive than the ICBM sites because they operated both radar tracking equipment and the missile launchers. Approximately 225 men worked at the two 20-acre sites. Batteries became tight-knit communities as many missilemen lived in on-site barracks or with their families in nearby military housing. For Nike sites not located near existing military housing, the Army constructed housing for soldiers with spouses and children. Later, transferring many of the sites to the National Guard allowed the Army to reduce housing costs as guardsmen commuted to duty from home.

To keep the crews ready for the attack that never came, drills were frequently run to test readiness. Like their SAC counterparts, the Nike missilemen could also expect an annual test. In the 1950s crews prepared for their Annual Service Practice at Fort Bliss, in which national recognition was bestowed on the best battery crew. In the early 1960s the annual practices occurred on a short-notice basis. In both cases, crews vied for top missileer recognition.

However, once on duty Nike missilemen had to battle boredom, as did their ICBM counterparts in America's prairies. Recreational activities were vigorously pursued, including team competition in many sports. One New York missile battery even built itself a miniature golf course. For entertainment, Alaska's missilemen looked forward to bingo night. Many other batteries hosted beauty contests to select a local woman to compete in the Miss Army Air Defense beauty pageant.