One of my favorite travel days while we were on the road last year had to be the run from Great Falls to Billings on September 19th. None of it was on Interstate highways. The scenery was varied and breathtaking, from vast prairies to the snow-capped Crazies, from the Musselshell to the banks of the Yellowstone River.
Looking back on the route months later I discovered that we’d also traveled through the heart of America’s active land-based nuclear arsenal. I’ve written about that here a couple of times — “We just weren’t looking” and “On closer examination.”
The 150 Minuteman II missiles that once lived in this part of the American Heartland — east and south of Kansas City, Missouri — are gone. (See “Nukes, one more time.”) I didn’t realize until yesterday, however, that 18 Titan II missiles were based here in Arkansas, from the early 1960s until the 308th Strategic Missile Wing’s last Titan II silo was deactivated in 1987.
Like that Sunday in Montana when we rolled right by launch-control facilities and silos hidden in plain sight, recently Deb and I drove within spittin’ range of three decommissioned Titan II ICBM sites.
It happened on our day trip to Pickles Gap Weapons Shack. We passed one former silo near Damascus (60 miles due south of The Mountain), another north of Greenbrier and the third just a few miles short of our destination. We had no idea.
Though the LGM-25C Titan II was an improvement over the original Titan (which had to be lifted from its silo to be fueled prior to launch), it had a nasty record of taking American lives on the ground. In Arkansas alone there were three mishaps — an explosion, a fire and an incident in which an airman fell into a silo, resulting in a total of five dozen military and civilian deaths.
The 1980 explosion at launch complex 374-7 near Damascus scattered debris over 400 acres (including hurling the live nuclear warhead a hundred feet outside the launch complex). That, finally, was enough to convince President Ronald Reagan to put an end to the Titan II program.
Those three defunct silos along US Route 65 are on the National Register of Historic Places, although none is set up for visitors. I don’t know what access is like — just for a look-see, I mean — but we’ve marked them on our map anyway and may go exploring next time we’re down that way.
I smoke the occasional cigar, most often accompanied by bourbon, neat. I can trace my appreciation of fine (not necessarily expensive) cigars to June of 1997 and a friend gracious enough to introduce me to that indulgence.
I found out last night that my old friend had died on Sunday.
He was a remarkable man, maybe the most talented guy I’ve ever known. His 75 years on Earth were jammed with joy and adventure. He lived the kind of life that’d make any American male envious.
I have fond memories. I also have a cigar suitable for the occasion.
This one’s for you, my friend. Godspeed.
One year ago today, we hiked away from the crowds and had lunch where Avalanche Creek meets McDonald Creek — not another living soul in sight.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.