Travel

The Only National Park Service Site That Played A Role In The Cold War

DURING the Cold War, South Dakota was on the front line in a face-off with the Communist world. The vast pristine prairie was on high alert with intercontinental ballistic missiles entrenched deep under the Great Plains, ready to strike back in any attack on the homeland from the Soviet Empire.

Ranger Chris Wilkinson greets us at Launch Control Center Delta 1

From 1963 to the late 90s there were 1,000 missiles underground across America from Montana to Missouri.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union splintered two years later and is no longer a nuclear threat and China has grown to become an economic adversary rather than a military menace, little thought was been given to the possibility of nuclear intimidation from other quarters, such as Iran. (Iran? Who knew?)

Minuteman II promises “world-wide delivery in 30 minutes or less or your next one is free.”

North Korea, who has often threatened to strike the heart of the United States, in October claimed that its ballistic missiles can now reach the U.S. mainland. In December North Korea tested a long-range rocket capable of delivering a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile. Are we prepared for it?

In the recent past, new realities with a receding Iron Curtain warranted a dismantling of much of America’s intercontinental ballistic missile defense system based in the heartland. In 1991 President George H.W. Bush and Soviet head Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to destroy a number of nuclear weapons worldwide. The world heaved a sigh of relief as we thought the arms race had faded into history.

Commander’s launch console where prompt delivery is guaranteed
Chris Wilkinson in the underground dining area

All 150 Minuteman II missiles and 15 Launch Control Facilities were removed from the plains of South Dakota. However, stockpiles of Minuteman III missiles are still scattered across Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. Just in case.

Launch Facility Delta 9 where the missile is maintained

One deactivated launch pad and control facility were left intact in South Dakota. They are located 75 miles east of Rapid City on Interstate 90 at Exit 131. Since 1999 the National Park Service has preserved thisMinuteman Missile National Historic Site as a valuable Cold War history lesson and unique tourist destination drawing 25,000 visitors every year.

That’s a Minuteman missile buried in the rural landscape

This is the only National Park Service site involved in the Cold War. Park Rangers offer guided tours. Check their schedule at www.nps.gov/mimi.

National Park Service manager Chris Wilkinson took me and my son David on a tour of the once-secret Delta 1 Launch Control Facility. We walked through the above-ground buildings and explored the sleeping quarters, dining facilities, recreational room and medical equipment.

Resources Culture and Customs of the Sioux Indians(University of Nebraska Press, paper, 182 pages, $19.95,Amazon.com Price: $15.56) is an insightful account of the history, culture and life of the South Dakota area. Washington tried several times to comfort the conquered natives with treaties recognizing their historic rights to the land, but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, all bets were off—the natives were driven from their land to make way for the gold diggers and settlers.

Then we descended into the bunker, 31 feet underground, where officers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City were on duty for three decades, poised to push buttons on elaborate ICBM consoles that would launch a massive nuclear counterstrike against any Soviet attack.

After inspecting the mechanical equipment in the control room, we surfaced outdoors. We got into our rented car and drove a straight line for 10.5 miles, cutting through a sea of grass, to the subterranean silo at the Delta 9 Launch Facility. There, embedded in the prairie, a lonely missile was still standing sentry, pointing skyward. This is what kept a MAD peace during the Cold War.

Prairie dogs frolic in the sun

Now that Minuteman has been clipped of its nuclear-tipped warhead, are we ready for the next war, cold or hot?