That drive through central Montana in September wasn’t our only exposure to Cold War history last year. As you’ll recall, we visited the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota, which preserves a piece of the 150-missile field under control of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base. That unit was active from 1963 until its last Minuteman silo was imploded in 1996.
Most of the 44th’s now-deactivated Launch Control Centers and Launch Facilities were well north of where we traveled, but a number were clustered around Interstate 90. From Belvidere to Wasta at the southeast corner of the field, and from Sturgis to the Wyoming border in the west, we came within a stone’s throw of 16 former LF sites and four MAF/LCC locations. We also glimpsed Ellsworth AFB, east of Rapid City, while driving westbound on I-90.
It’s a common perception, I think, that our ICBM arsenal always has been confined to places like that — the Northern Plains and the prairies of the American West, that is. Until the 1990s, however, the Heartland hosted one of the nation’s six (now reduced to three) missile fields.
Headquartered at Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson County, Missouri, the 351st Strategic Missile Wing controlled 150 Minuteman II nuclear ICBMs in silos dotting the central and southwest parts of the state. The unit was deactivated with the destruction of the last of its missile facilities in 1997.
We drove the Ernie-Mercy rig into the area twice — on August 1st and again on October 12th, the first and last days of our trek to Glacier and back. State Route 13 and Interstate 70 took us right through the center of the 351st, from Collins near the southern edge of the dormant field to Higginsville and Odessa in the north, passing close to 14 scrapped LFs and three former MAF/LCC sites.
It’s not unlike the path we took in Montana, though these missiles were long-gone.
I’m told that one of the Missouri sites, Oscar Zero-One near the town of Knob Noster, has been preserved and (like the National Historic Site we saw in South Dakota) is open for visits. It’s a four-hour drive from The Mountain, so maybe we’ll get up there one of these days and check it out.
History is everywhere.
One more thing — even though those Minuteman missiles left Middle America more than 25 years ago, there still are nukes in Missouri. Whiteman AFB today is home to the 509th Bomb Wing, the only unit fielding the B-2 Spirit (aka the “Stealth Bomber”). With 20 aircraft in service, each capable of carrying 16 nuclear bombs, Whiteman traded one role in “America’s Nuclear Triad” for another.
One year ago today: A friend who lives locally rescued us from a cold and rainy day at the campground, scooping us up and taking us out to breakfast.
Afterward she drove us into Springfield to visit the Bass Pro Shops national headquarters and flagship store (aka “The Mother Ship”) — a massive operation and a unique experience.
On two levels above the retail floor is the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum, which showcases a dizzying collection of guns and ephemera. Patriots that we are, the museum was the highlight of our visit.
It’s safe to say that Deb and I had ourselves a very American day.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.