Minuteman missile site newest historical site

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- The days of the Minuteman missile system are over and the 150 silos sunk deep into the earth in northeastern North Dakota holding ICBM nuclear warhead missiles are now just a memory of the Cold War.

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- The days of the Minuteman missile system are over and the 150 silos sunk deep into the earth in northeastern North Dakota holding ICBM nuclear warhead missiles are now just a memory of the Cold War.

And it's the memory inherent in the missile system the State Historical Society of North Dakota wants to preserve.

Ten years ago, the last of the 321st Missile Wing "missileers" left their names and the dates of their departure on the walls of the pods in the 15 launch control centers. That's when the State Historical Society began lobbying to save one launch center and a missile silo as an historic site. The sites are designated as Oscar 0 (Oscar Zero) and November-33 and are located near Cooperstown.

"We officially acquired the two sites Dec. 31," said Merlan Paaverud, Historical Society director. "We're going to operate them as a state historic site."

At a meeting of Historical Society personnel, retired missileers, legislators, media and Cooperstown's Friends of Oscar 0 Tuesday, Paaverud said he grew up in the middle of the missile field and believes this piece of history should be preserved. Although all the other below-ground facilities have been filled in and concreted, originally the missile field in North Dakota equaled the size of New Jersey in square miles.


The construction of the silos and launch control centers from Interstate 94 to the Canadian border began in 1964. By the end of 1965 crews began manning the control centers until 1998 when the Cold War was over and the need for the Minuteman system as a deterrent to nuclear war ended.

"People do want to come and see these places," said Al Berger, University of North Dakota professor and president of the State Historical Society Board. "It's a scary part of our recent history that's over."

The launch control centers were located 50 feet below the building that housed the crew. A freight elevator took crew and equipment to the pods, which were the heart of the missile launching system. The Air Force crews were on alert when working on site. In the pod, which was constructed to withstand the shocks of a nuclear attack, two men watched the equipment 24 hours a day, with one sleeping and one on duty, waiting for the command to launch. Although there were some near misses, the command never came.

"Being on alert was mind-bogglingly boring mixed with moments of sheer panic," said Philip Parnell, a retired facilities commander. "You could get orders from anywhere in the world. The missiles could be fired from here, a sister site or from the airborne command post."

But most of the time, it was just a constant battle to stay vigilant. Parnell said he used to run laps through the pod. Others did artwork on the walls, some of which can be seen in the Oscar 0 pod.

Joe Conzo, who now lives in Grand Forks, served at Oscar 0. Buried deep in the earth and locked in behind a series of blast doors, he said, the long hours in the pods, the loneliness and the boredom held another kind of danger for the armed missileers.

"There was always the chance that crew members would go nuts," Conzo said.

Two crew members worked as a team to maintain security at the site and protection of the system.


"There were always two on duty together," Conzo said.

Topside the facility was home to crews not working in the pods. Oscar 0 has original furnishings taken from other launch control centers in the missile field. Television, books, ping-pong, pool and exercise equipment helped keep the crew busy.

As an historic site, the Oscar 0 control center and November-33 silo are expected to be ready for visitors in July 2009. Some restoration is needed, said Fern Swenson, deputy state historic preservation officer, as well as development and interpretation of the site. Oral interviews with former missileers are also in the works.

"We're working with the community on a master plan for the site," Swenson said.

The State Historical Society has $500,000 to use for restoration and interpretation of the site. Half the funding is from a federal grant. The rest was allocated by the State Legislature. The Friends of Oscar 0 have begun fundraising efforts to establish and maintain the operation of the site, but don't yet know how much will be needed.

Although an unexpected choice for the State Historical Society, the site is important historically. Not only do the former missileers believe the missile system prevented nuclear war, they believe their service helped bring down the Berlin Wall, the destruction of which officially ended the Cold War.

"These sites are important. They help us remember the past so hopefully we won't have to repeat it," said Fred Parks, an ex-missileer and now a colonel in the National Guard.

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