5 Things You Won't (Want to) Believe I Saw Guarding US Nukes
Whether you're a child of the '80s, a fan of the Terminator films, or just really bad at Missile Command, you've probably seen some pretty grisly images of nuclear holocaust. We assume that the people who defend against that looming apocalypse are all grim-faced, serious experts with decades of training. We spoke to one such defender -- a former soldier responsible for guarding a nuclear missile site in West Germany during one of the Cold War's most uncomfortably warm chunks -- and here's what he told us about how hilariously wrong all that "grim-faced expert" stuff was.
The People Guarding Your World-Destroying Super-Weapons Are Unqualified Teenagers
I was 18 when I joined the Army to be a Military Police Officer. It seemed like a great deal at the time -- all the fun of protecting and serving, with none of that pesky war stuff. Little did I know (because my recruiter didn't consider it "relevant") that safeguarding nuclear weapons fell under purview of the MPs.
But the world-shattering urgency of keeping my boots shiny? He was all over that.
In December 1985, I awoke in West Germany, detailed out as a custodial agent for a NATO nuclear site. My job was to provide access control and defense to ten nuclear missiles. And not the sexy new nukes of the dazzling 1980s -- these were Nike Hercules missiles, aka the weapons people in the '60s thought would bring about their gloriously retro apocalypse.
Y'know what modern nightmare weapons lack? Sweet-ass fins.
I was a little blindsided by my change of fate. If they'd asked my friends or family "Hey, do you think this guy should guard nuclear missiles?" not one of them would've said that was a good idea. Hell, if they'd asked me, I would've told them it was a worse idea than storing beer in the freezer. The Army had faith, though. Sweet, misplaced faith.
I guess I somehow proved that I could blow things up better than my peers, so I was appointed the Emergency Destruction NCO. In the event that our site needed to be evacuated, I was responsible for destroying the ten nuclear warheads. My job was to make sure my guys got out all of their shaped charges, strapped them to the missiles, ran detonation cords across everything else useful, and then set a time fuse. Detonating missiles like that doesn't lead to a nuclear yield -- the actual mushroom cloud explosion needs to be specially triggered.
In the space of six months, I had gone from an anarchist skater punk to an Official Destroyer of Nuclear Missiles on the front lines of the Cold War. Even repeated viewings of Red Dawn had not prepared me for this.
Or how boot camp wasn't neatly contained in a four-minute montage.
The People Guarding Your World-Destroying Super-Weapons Are Stoned, Idiots, Or Both
One night, our Chief Warrant Officer showed up at the barracks rooms and dropped off three crates of C-4 so we could practice the aforementioned Emergency Destruction at the range. He told me and another guy to roll the C-4 like modeling clay, making snakes approximately one inch in diameter and 18 inches long. So we watched movies and played with C-4 late into the night. We figured no one would know if some of the C-4 didn't make it to the range, so we stashed some to bring back to the States as mementos. Why? We were teenagers who'd been handed a crate of C-4. You don't hand an idiot explosives and expect him to suddenly stop being idiotic.
"Fourth of July is going to be awesome this year."
After practicing at the range, the Sergeant came over and said, "Hey guys, just wanted to make sure you knew that they check your belongings with dogs when they ship your stuff back to the States."
"Yeah, to make sure we don't have drugs, right?"
"Nope! They look for ammo and explosives, too. And I'm guessing by the pale looks on your faces that you didn't know that."
It was better than going pale from extreme blood loss later on.
So we brought our secret stash of C-4 down range and burned it. It turns out C-4 burns like Sterno. As that story clearly illustrated, the people in charge of guarding nuclear strongholds are as wildly inept as anybody else (perhaps more so).
But hey, it could've been worse. We could've been on drugs, like the guys we were replacing. The MPs were specifically there to take over from a bunch of infantry guys who'd gotten kicked out for doing drugs on duty. Remember that their duty was "guarding the most terrifying destructive devices in human history." That wasn't an isolated incident, either. An Air Force probe implicated multiple missile workers, and even convicted one launch officer, for the use of "synthetic drugs, ecstasy and amphetamines."
"The fins feel soooo good on my skin."
Yeah, it's probably about time you bought one of those thick old-timey school desks and start seeing how quickly you can hide under it.
The People Guarding Your World-Destroying Super-Weapons Have Terrible, Sometimes Broken Equipment
The first time I saw a nuclear missile was awe-inspiring. The first time I saw the equipment and security framework designed to keep it safe was ... is "awe-despiring" a word?
The alarm was nothing but a push-button door contact. You could've bypassed the mechanical security measures guarding our nuclear missile base with a single power drill. But that's why we need those super complex launch codes, right? Turns out that the codes during my whole deployment may have been "A0000 B0000."
That's the kind of code an idiot would have on their luggage.
My first shift was during an inspection to get our nuclear license, which was performed every two years. My job was basically to stand guard by one of those missiles with a radio. So I'm hanging out next to the possible Doom of Man when, suddenly, they call me on the radio and ask me to read my IM93 -- the Individual Use Radiation Meter.
It doubles as a pen that doesn't work.
I checked mine and noticed it was reading really high. Like, Ninja-Turtle-origin-story high. I radioed this back to the Sergeant, certain I could feel my organs a'tumoring, and he said ... nothing. Eventually, he told me they were busy and I'd have to wait. An hour passed, all the while I was presumably getting dosed with mega-cancer, and no one did anything. Then the Sergeant came out in full rad-gear, read my meter, yelled "FUCK," and then took off running with my radiation detector. No other words. No explanation.
Another hour went by and still nothing. Finally, the missile went back in the bunker and some technicians came over. I told one what happened. He started laughing through his mask. "No, you've got one of the broke ones!" It turns out they were just trying to stay one step ahead of the inspectors, so none of them would see that we were using broken equipment.
Be all your busted, rusted, outdated, cheaply-made tools will let you be.
This was a long time ago, sure, but if you think the attitude is a problem of the past, here's a recent article about how the crews for 450 of our ICBMs had one fucking wrench between them with which to attach warheads to their missiles. They simply shipped that lone wrench from base to base via FedEx. Hope they sprung for lost package insurance. What's the estimated value of "an un-nuked world," by the way?
The People Guarding Your World-Destroying Super-Weapons May Get Attacked
There was a five-mile drive from Up Range HQ and the barracks at Down Range (the missile site). It was one long farm road, and we took it every day for 24 months without issue. Then one day there was a stereotypical, totally-not-a-spy black Mercedes backed into a driveway that had never held anything but tractors before. It pulled out and followed us. We arrived at the missile site. It drove down the road a bit. We saw brake lights. We ran inside to grab ammo and triple the guard to the perimeter.
"You misunderstand -- I'm a simple barn man getting her done with a red neck. Y'all cow howdy y'all."
Luckily, we had a reaction force designated to handle such emergencies, so we called them ... and then waited a full half hour for them to gear up and reach us. By that time, the Mercedes was gone. The Reaction Force combed the area and left. Half an hour later, the sedan came back -- one guy got out, walked off into the woods, then the car pulled away. So now there's a guy wearing a suit out there in the woods, and we're all starting to feel uncomfortably like the expendable extras in the high-octane cold open of a Bond film.
The only thing saving us was our lack of red shirts.
The RF was dispatched again, but they didn't find anything. About an hour after they left, the sedan came back and the local police sent their helicopter out. They also found nothing. That night, we were doing our interior patrol and we heard three gunshots. Everything went quiet, then we heard somebody moving in the corn field surrounding our base. The next day, we patrolled outside the wire. At the wood line, we found a newly set-up deer stand facing the missile site. Anyone in that stand had a clear shot of our emergency response doors.
"Operation Enduring Bambi"
To this day, I don't know what that was all about. It could've been a test by our own guys. It might have been a Soviet probe. Or it may have been a really confused but persistent deer hunter with impeccable fashion sense.
The People Guarding Your World-Destroying Super-Weapons Are Expendable
This was the Cold War, so we had plans for an imminent Russian invasion. And they were crazier than a basement full of badgers on mescaline. If our base was compromised, our "rescue" would consist of four A-10 Warthogs. They would run grid-square strafing runs over our entire site, placing a 20mm depleted uranium round every 12 inches until every living thing in the area was "liberated."
Then nuke it from orbit. Just to be safe.
In the event of a tank invasion from Russia, our strategic mission was to turn a sizable amount of Europe into a solid strip of nuclear death that the tanks couldn't cross. The Nike Hercules were also equipped for surface-to-air firing, in case the Russians went that route. Here's the thing: If we launched all ten of our missiles, even at max distance, we'd all be killed by radiation in a matter of days. At one point during a briefing, the question came up to command:
"Where do we go after we launch?"
"We fall back to Dusseldorf Airport and provide security to all the people we're evacuating."
"But if we launch those nukes, not a single plane will be flying, because of the EMP."
He allowed that this was correct.
"So you're saying we don't have a single viable 'B' mission ... we're just expected to die?"
It got reeeeeeal quiet then.
"On the plus side, your Mom will have the nicest, cleanest flag in the neighborhood."
That kind of stress has long-term effects, especially on a stupid, unprepared, unqualified teenager. I had nightmares regularly, from the time I left the service until about eight years ago, when I sought out counseling. Now I only have them maybe once a year. The nightmares are always about the same thing: me launching missiles at my Mom and Dad's house during a birthday party, and watching them burn.
Postscript: The Nike Hercules Missile system was decommissioned in the early 1990s. They were never fired in war, as evidenced by the lack of sledgehammer-wielding super mutants surrounding you.
Robert Evans is the Editorial Manager at Cracked, and he runs the Personal Experience article team. His twitter is here.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Bizarre Realities of Life at the Edge of Gaza and 6 Insane Things You Learn Overthrowing Your Own Government.
Are you on reddit? Check it: We are too! Click on over to our best of Cracked subreddit.
Have a story to share with Cracked? Message us here.