South Dakota is mostly flat and empty and it is these features which make it possible to go and see a nuclear missile base out in the middle of nowhere.
On our way to see it, we dropped in at the Wall Drug Store – anyone who has driven the I90 will have noticed
hundreds of adverts for this store which was founded in the 1930s specifically to bring people to the town of Wall which then was famous for nothing.
It started as one store and gradually expanded to be numerous shops on both sides of the street.
It plays a lot on being an (now commercially driven) “Old Time Folksy and Friendly” place with free iced water for anyone and a free donut and cup of coffee for couples on
their honeymoon (I am not sure if it is one each or one to share).
but does sell the essential thing we wanted to purchase
for our Christmas tree – namely a Christmas Elk with bouncing legs labelled “A gift from South Dakota”. It also sells thousands of less useful items such as books, toys, gold nuggets and more.
Because we were here, we decided to divert through the Badlands. We had heard of the the name and they had featured in a number of westerns we had seen over the years but we had no idea what they were – what a surprise they turned out to be.
Called Badlands both by the Lakota Indians and also early French Trappers, they are 250,000 acres of sedimentary volcanic landscape which are hot and dry during the summer and cold, windy and snowy in the winter.
They also have a few other hazards.
Although there are some flat prairies in the Badlands,
there are numerous buttes, gullies and gulches
and as we drove around, we were astonished at the harsh beauty
of a landscape shaped by erosion. We could see numerous cracks and crumbling edifices and it was obvious that it is continuing to change.
As a native of South Dakota said to me, “there ain’t much out here to hit with a nuke so this is the best place to put a missile base”.
Back in the 1960’s at the height of the Cold War, America placed over 1000 nuclear tipped missiles in its most isolated heartland areas for use in a retaliatory strike. It was said that all of them could be launched within 5 minutes of the command being given and since they were 30 minutes missile flight time from Russia, at least they would have their retaliation in the air before the USA was destroyed. By then of course the United Kingdom would have been destroyed because we were only a few minutes missile time from Russia but we would have been happy to know that the Americans would have been retaliating for us.
Now there are only 500 (!) armed and ready to be fired missiles scattered across the plains and a couple of the old missile bases have been turned into visitor attractions run by the National Parks Service and anyone can turn up and have a look around. On the map above, the black bases have been decommissioned and the red ones are still active.
In the Minuteman Missile National Parks Office is a spoof advert for the Missile Wing which has a certain macabre feel about it. Visiting an old Missile Site is not easy, you first have to go to the office at a Gas Station (near 131 on I90) to get a ticket if there any left, then drive to the old Missile Base which is a few miles away at the appointed time.
The way our defence was organised was that there were
a number of Launch Control Facilities scattered around the prairies.
If your broke (or tried to break) in to one of these bases, you risked being shot dead as this warning notice tells you.
The bases were manned by around 10 people at any one time (two to fire the missiles, a cook and a number of guards).
They were connected to the outside world by underground cables and radio aerials contained within the above structure – if communication ceased via cables then they would assume that the worst may have already started and raise the aerials which were in this silo and attempt to contact their superiors.
Underground at all times were two missilers whose job was to fire the missiles on receipt of the appropriate command from the President or from an aircraft circling the US manned by a General (for use in case the President was dead). There were no missiles at the base, these were scattered around the prairie at unmanned underground missile silos.
The base is preserved exactly as it was when it closed – the games on the tables are those which the missilers (and other staff) played, the videos which they watched, the beds they slept in, all of the furniture is original – everything has been preserved.
It is possible to go down to the actual control room where the missilers were on duty and see the keys which were to be turned to fire the missiles. Unfortunately our tickets did not cover that because by the time we had got to the office, that day’s allocation had already been distributed and only 6 people are taken down each hour.
Elsewhere off the I90 near Exit 116 is missile silo D9
which we also visited – this was one of 10 controlled from the Launch Centre we had visited earlier.
A protective window has been placed over the missile silo so that not only can we see into it but also passing Russian satellites can see into the silo. When we arrived, the window over the silo was being cleaned by a Park Ranger.
Inside the silo is what used to be a missile – now it is a training missile. Had it been launched and exploded on a target, its explosive power would have been more than half of all of the bombs used in WWII.
The silo door has been moved back so we can see down the silo – originally this would only have happened when they were loading the silo and also if the missile is to be fired..
The irony of this photograph is that the Ranger cleaning the window over the missile has recently come to the USA and become a US citizen. She had been living in the Ukraine before she came here and had been a Ukrainian citizen and therefore part of the population block protected by the missiles which this one was supposed to deter the Russians from firing!
A most unusual National Park.