Wednesday, November 14, 2012

TOP STORY >> Missile silo crew looks back

A Titan II missile is transported from Little Rock Air Force Base to a silo north of the base during the mid-1960s. The base was responsible for 18 silos with intercontinental missiles in rural Arkansas.

Leader staff writer

Retired 1st Sgt. Jack Meadows recently reminisced about the “good ol’ days” of helping prevent nuclear war with the other living members of Titan II Missile Combat Crew 119.

The crew, which was assigned to silo 374-7 near Damascus, was formed almost 50 years ago, in June 1963.

Meadows, 76, said he, retired Maj. Gene Secor, 80, of Whidbey Island, Wash., and retired Maj. David Leggett, 73, of Haughton, La., have held their annual reunion in Jacksonville since 2004.

The reunions began when Secor found Meadows’ contact information online.

Meadows, who lives in Jacksonville, said he got a call and couldn’t believe it was his former commander on the other end of the phone. The two decided right away to get together in person with the other members of the crew.

“We were separated all these years. You form a brotherhood with those you serve with. There is such a camaraderie in the military,” Meadows said.

Secor wrote in an e-mail that he “would travel anywhere, anytime to support the old missile crew who has a brotherhood that is without bounds.”

The reunion of his crew is held the same week Secor and his wife, Judith, attend an annual Concerns of Police Survivors four-day retreat in Little Rock for the parents and relatives of law-enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty. Their daughter, Catherine, spent 19 years as a Washington state park ranger until her line-of-duty death.

The Titan II missile program was a Cold War weapons system featuring 54 launch complexes in Arkansas, Arizona and Kansas.

There were 18 Arkansas sites — in Faulkner, Conway, White, Van Buren and Cleburne counties — from which intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nine-megaton nuclear warheads could be launched to strike targets 5,500 miles away. They were built to deter Russia from bombing the United States.

The missiles were 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, Meadows recalled.

“If the Russians had launched first, we would have had to retaliate,” he added.

The 308th Strategic Missile Wing was based at Little Rock Air Force Base and included the 373rd and 374th Strategic Missile Squadrons. Although the silo was in Damascus, Meadows reported to the base in Jacksonville.

All Titan II crews had two officers and two enlisted members.

Meadows enlisted as a missile-facilities technician. His job was to take care of the details. Meadows monitored all the facilities and equipment that supported the underground silo and crew quarters where the members spent some of their 24-hour shifts. A typical tour of duty was that shift every three or four days.

Secor, the senior officer, was the missile combat crew commander.

Leggett, the junior officer, was the deputy missile combat crew commander.

The fourth position on the crew was that of the late Staff Sgt. John Kay. As an enlisted serviceman, he served as the ballistic missile analyst technician. Kay was in charge of guidance and launch equipment.

The crew was one of the first in Arkansas, and in the country, to be declared “On Alert — Ready” the week before Christmas 1963.

Meadows explained that all silos were put on alert after their crews were trained and met standardization requirements.

He said, “We were on the ground floor. The responsibility, the fact that you’re babysitting a nuclear warhead during the Cold War, it was a big accomplishment.”

Leggett wrote in an e-mail about his military career, “It sure was a lot of fun and I would do it all over again — great assignments with great people.”

The crew accessed the silo with single-use codes they received from LRAFB’s Transportation and Code Control department.

A crew member would use the code to enter the entrapment area. The entrapment area was a large four- or five-story-tall room with two doors — the one into the entrapment area and the one into the rest of the silo. They could not be opened at the same time, Meadows explained.

The control center monitored the entrapment area. If a person wasn’t authorized to enter the rest of the silo, he or she would be trapped in that room until police arrived, Meadows said.

His crew was not disbanded because the members left one at a time to pursue other goals.

All Titan II missile silos were deactivated after the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. One silo, the Green Valley complex of the 390th Strategic Missile Wing in Tucson, Ariz., was retained as a museum that is open to the public.

Meadows joined the Air Force in 1954 as a Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker engine mechanic.

He entered the missile field when that aircraft was replaced by another model that he wasn’t qualified to work on.

Meadows was a mechanic on the crew that fueled the first nonstop flight around the world in 1957 from California and back. Refueling was done over the Persian Gulf.

While the KC-97s were being phased out, LRAFB started offering training in missiles.

“I jumped at it,” Meadows said.

He was cross training in the missile field during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. “That was scary, wasn’t it?” Meadows said.

The crisis was a 13-day standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States that was sparked by the Russians deploying missiles in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy quarantined the island.

The crisis ended when Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the installations and return the missiles to the Soviet Union in exchange for the U.S. not invading Cuba. The U.S. also agreed to remove its Titan missiles from Turkey. But that part of the deal was not made public at the time.

In 1980, a few years after all the crew retired, a missile at their silo in Damascus exploded inside the launch duct. One airman was killed.

Meadows was later selected to serve on a different crew after he left crew 119 to become an instructor.

With that other crew, he helped conduct the first test of a silo that had been active for two years. Meadows did not launch the missile. He delivered it from Arkansas to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Meadows watched the launch from about a mile away.

He said, “It was awesome. There’s something so impressive about a Titan II coming out of a silo (traveling) 5,000 miles to what they call a Pacific test range. It took two officers, in separate locations, to turn the keys at the same time to launch it.”

That was the largest missile to be deployed by the U.S. at the time, he added.

Meadows said tragedy struck near home, at a silo in Searcy, while he was away in California. That was in 1965, the same year Meadows left crew 119.

He said, “It was a major modification of the missile silo by the Army Corps of Engineers, a civilian, not a military, project to further harden the silo against nuclear attack. A welder hit a hydraulic line. Fifty-three died from no oxygen.” The subsequent explosion and fire sealed off the victims’ escape route.

Meadows was the first to leave crew 119 to become an instructor at the Air Force Leadership School.

“They didn’t want me to go, naturally,” Meadows said about his old crew.

Meadows returned to another missile crew as a regular member and adviser in 1974. He later became a senior Titan II instructor. He has been honored with the Military Training Award and was named LRAFB Outstanding Airman of Year in 1968.

Retired 1st Sgt. Jack Meadows (far right) of Jacksonville stands in front of a Titan II re-entry vehicle that once housed a nine-megaton nuclear bomb, displayed at the Museum of Military History. Other members of Titan II Missile Crew 119 are retired Maj. Gene Secor of Whidbey Island, Wash., and retired Maj. David Leggett of Haughton, La. They’ve held a reunion in Jacksonville every year since 2004.