Sitting on The Bomb in North Dakota

July 09, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

VOLTAIRE, N.D. -- The wheat field outside Henry Frantsen's front door remains armed and dangerous.

There is a silo burrowed 90 feet underground, hardened by concrete and steel, topped by a 110-ton hatch, a 20-foot antenna, and 10 yards of railroad track. And there is the missile, the one beneath the wheat, the one with the three nuclear warheads that each could wipe out a major city.

For nearly a third of his 92 years, Mr. Frantsen, a second-generation North Dakota farmer, has lived side by side with the missile, a witness to a nuclear holocaust that never was.

"I never thought they'd shoot one," he said. "They say, though, you've never lived unless you've heard one fired off."

The Cold War may be over, but the nuclear missiles remain buried on the prairie, an unharvested crop that for most Americans remains out of sight, out of mind. On farms and cattle ranches fewer than a hundred miles south of the Canadian border, and 30 minutes by rocket power from downtown Moscow, a chunk of America's land-based nuclear arsenal is on alert, 24 hours a day.

Those who have lived and worked with the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since their installation in 1962 have grown accustomed to their presence, the silos becoming as much a part of the Great Plains' landscape as the grain bins and barns.

"We never worried about the missiles," Mr. Frantsen said. "Having them is better than shooting, better than a real hot war. TheCommunists, they might have tried something if we didn't have these missiles. But me, I always felt secure out here."

The security blanket starts at Minot Air Force Base, where the silos that hold 150 of America's arsenal of 500 Minuteman IIIs are spread in the shape of the letter C across 8,500 square miles in the surrounding countryside.

It is flat here. Quiet, too. Winters are harsh, but there is a beauty to the summer, especially when the wheat is waving in the breeze.

But do not be deceived by the gentle landscape. From here, you could end the world and catch the last few seconds on CNN.

Air Force Capt. Scott Rothweiler's office lies 60 feet beneath the soil, 11 miles outside a town named Kenmare.

He sits in a heavily padded red chair inside a rectangular room suspended by shock absorbers roughly the size of a one-story house. A radio crackles. A Teletype spews out messages. There are a bed and a toilet at one end of the compartment, and a foot-tall computer about as powerful as your average wristwatch at the other end.

The telephones have rotary dials, the Air Force following a policy of not fixing things not broken. However, the system is due for an upgrade of electronic equipment soon.

It could be 1962

If not for the microwave oven and the cassette player stashed above a console, this could be 1962, with Kennedy in the White House and Khrushchev in the Kremlin.

But this is 1994, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and for the first time in more than 30 years, the nuclear weapons are no longer targeted on specific cities. Yet officers like Captain Rothweiler and his partner, Capt. Bert Braza, continue to man one of the area's 15 missile alert facilities in 24-hour shifts, up to 10 times a month.

"We feel like we're in a big eggshell down here," said Captain Rothweiler, 27, of Memphis, Tenn. "We're here to launch a missile. And we've never launched one."

America's missileers have time to kill and plenty of time to study when submerged beneath the ground. The 200 missileers at Minot may be dressed in blue jumpsuits that make them look like a bunch of car mechanics, but they are all officers, all brandishing college degrees, and nearly all enrolled in master's degree programs.

"You have to find your own reason for doing the job," said Captain Braza, 27, from Newport News, Va. "You find your own gains. You realize, 'Yes, what I'm doing is valuable.' The system has worked."

In the daily routine that rules life along the missile range, it is often hard to believe that this is the front line of a war that has never been fought. It isn't just peaceful out here -- it's downright dull.

A security breach at the missile site is when a jack rabbit happens to skip into the range of sensors, or when the wind blows too hard, or when the snow melts and sets off an alarm.

Above ground at the missile alert facilities, the personnel can play basketball, lift weights, shoot pool, watch satellite television or videos, or simply read books.

The guards who work four-day shifts carry loaded M-16s, but outsiders rarely venture near the fenced compounds.

Why we're out here'

"In the back of my mind, I know why we're out here," said Staff Sgt. Tambra Shafer, 28, of DuBois, Pa.

Sergeant Shafer, who runs a security detail, harbors few illusions about her future in the event of a nuclear confrontation.

"We'd be toast," she said.

But few inside or outside the military dwell on the possibility of being at the center of a nuclear war. Live with something long enough, even nuclear weapons, and, well, you get used to them.

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