Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety” (Penguin Press, $36) is a well-researched and an incredibly detailed account of the dozens of nuclear accidents in the U.S. over the past 50 years — especially involving the Titan II missiles, whose dirt-covered silos remind us of a more dangerous time.
The book is published to coincide with the 33rd anniversary of the Damascus disaster on Sept. 18-19, 1980. Around 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18, an airman from Little Rock Air Force Base dropped a nine-pound socket down the silo, hitting the Titan’s fuel tank, which caused an enormous explosion early the next morning that could have blown Arkansas off the map.
Schlosser’s cinematic ac-count of the disaster reads like the script for an action movie (Schlosser is Robert Redford’s son-in-law) and holds you in suspense even if you know the outcome. The warhead, amazingly, didn’t go off.
The book is a tribute to the heroic airmen and their commanders who tried to prevent the explosion, evacuated their comrades as thousands of pounds of concrete flew around them and warned nearby residents to flee the area.
Although the accident near Damascus — missile site 374-7 a couple of miles west of Hwy. 65 — is the main focus of Schlosser’s book, a deadlier explosion in August 1965 north of Searcy killed 53 workers, most of them civilians, who were converting the silo from a Titan I to a Titan II complex. Fortunately, there was no warhead in that silo, but there were plenty of nuclear weapons in other explosions.
Nearly a third of the nation’s Titans were installed in Arkansas starting in the mid-1960s and deactivated in the 1980s. The 18 Titan II nuclear silos across north-central Arkansas held the largest intercontinental ballistic-missiles ever built in the U.S.
Young Ray Benton, now The Leader’s sports editor, watched the trucks hauling the missiles on Hwy. 31 North in White County. He waved at the long caravan of trucks and military vehicles, hoping they would honk their horns, which they usually did.
The missiles were 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, or about 10 stories high, and weighed 150 tons.
With their nine-megaton warheads, they packed three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including the two atomic bombs dropped over Japan.
The public had very little idea just how many nuclear weapons were kept in Arkansas or how powerful they were. The silos dotted the countryside in Cleburne, Conway, Craighead, Faulkner, Van Buren and White counties, all within 60 miles of Little Rock Air Force Base, whose 308th Strategic Missile Wing maintained the missiles for 20 years.
The missiles, which could reach Moscow in 30 minutes, were kept underground near Antioch, Bald Knob, Damascus, Heber Springs, Judsonia, Mountain View, Plumerville, Republican, Rose Bud, Springhill, Velvet Ridge and Wonder View. (The book could use a few maps. A map at the Jacksonville Museum of Military Museum shows an arc of missiles spread out from west of Morrilton up to Greers Ferry Lake and down to the Beebe area, with the air base at bottom center. See above.)
The Titans were brought here at the behest of Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), the once powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who made certain his district received most of the 18 missiles.
Many of them were near urban areas like Little Rock, Jacksonville, Conway and Searcy (near Mills’ hometown of Kensett). Other intercontinental missiles, like the Minuteman, were kept in even more rural states than Arkansas, like South Dakota and Wyoming, reducing risks to local residents. Mills is a good example of why politicians shouldn’t meddle in defense policies.
The Titan II exploded after Senior Airman David Powell, doing routine maintenance, dropped a socket between a gap in a platform where he was working with another airman.
The socket fell 70 feet and pierced the fuel tank, which leaked for several hours after the crew was evacuated.
The crew was evacuated, but others went back in, using a crowbar to open the heavy steel door to the silo.
Senior Airman David Livingston and Sgt. Jeff Kennedy were back in the silo just before 3 a.m. They could barely see inside. The fuel-vapors were way too high, and one of the airmen turned on a fan to contain the fumes. They were told to evacuate.
Despite the efforts of the young airmen to stop the leak, an enormous explosion sent the missile and its warhead hundreds of feet into the air. But, thanks to safety features, the warhead didn’t explode. A nuclear detonation would have wiped out much of Arkansas.
Schlosser has interviewed dozens of airmen and officers from Little Rock Air Force Base who did not flee the explosion but tried to control the leak before the silo blew up.
All their names are here: Capt. Michael Mazzaro, the missile crew commander. Lt. Allen D. Childers, the deputy commander.
Col. James L. Morris, the head of maintenance at the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, who carried the wounded on his back.
Col. Jimmie Gray, the only person left at the site, who found the warhead in a ditch 200 yards from the silo after it was blown 1,000 feet into the air through the fireball.
Kennedy was the best missile mechanic at Little Rock Air Force Base. Staff Sgt. Rodney Holder, a ballistic missile systems analyst technician.
Livingston, 22, who was the last person to leave the silo, was badly injured in the blast, but he died from gas poisoning at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock.
There were many more heroes that night, when the sky over Damascus lit up around 3 a.m. Sept. 19 like an early-morning sunrise.
Witnesses who saw the missile silo explosion off Hwy. 65 recalled seeing “a bright flash, the flames shooting upward like a Roman candle,” according to Schlosser.
Witnesses saw “a little sparkly thing fly out of the fire, soar above it briefly and fall to the ground.” It was the warhead, which was blasted into the air and landed near the access road off the highway.
The bombs were programmed to keep from blowing up if they were not properly fired. It’s as if they knew they were not supposed to go off in an accident.
But Schlosser’s theme is that one day our luck will run out and a bomb or missile will explode when we don’t mean to set it off.
Although there were doubts about the Titans’ safety and reliability, the Damascus disaster helped convince defense officials to scrap the missiles, whose dangerous liquid propellants were prone to explode.
The missiles, which often leaked fumes, were considered outdated, dangerous and inaccurate even back in the 1970s, and President Reagan moved to get rid of them as part of our disarmament program with the Soviets.
Henry Kissinger, who appears to be a key source in Schlosser’s book, wanted to dump them when he was Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser.
“Command and Control” should be required reading at the Air Force Academy and wherever service members are taught military history. Every sentence in this well-written book has something new and important to say. Schlosser’s book reminds you of Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage — exhibiting grace under pressure — and should inspire other service members in similar circumstances.
Schlosser was recently at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, discussing the numerous disasters, close calls and screwups involving nuclear weapons he had discovered during his research. Besides the accident at Damascus, bombs fell out of airplanes, almost caught fire, disappeared from an air base for 36 hours and wound up in the wrong hands.
Skip Rutherford, the dean of the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock and former aide to Sen. David Pryor, introduced Schlosser. Rutherford and Pryor knew a lot about the Titan II because airmen had complained to them about leaks in the silos.
Rutherford said the Titan disaster was “the scariest night of my life.”
The night of the explosion, Pryor and Rutherford were attending the state Democratic convention in Hot Springs, along with Vice President Walter Mondale, Gov. Bill Clinton and Rep. Bill Alexander. The Pentagon would not confirm whether a nuclear bomb was involved in the accident. Even Mondale didn’t know the truth until he called Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who reluctantly gave him the bad news.
Much of Arkansas, including its young governor and his family, would have been destroyed if the warhead had exploded with the missile. There would have been no Clinton presidency or presidential library and school of public service.
“The state would have been consumed by a huge fireball,” Schlosser said. “A large part of the state would have been uninhabitable for many years.”
“It’s truly miraculous more people weren’t hurt,” he said.
What’s also miraculous is how he tells the story of scores of heroes at the missile complex that night. Schlosser honors the valor of those who gave their lives at Damascus, Rock, Kan., and elsewhere who tried to protect the nation from accidental nuclear explosions. The many disasters he writes about could have turned into nuclear catastrophes if the warheads had detonated. That they did not is a tribute to American ingenuity that prevented accidental explosions through a complex series of safety mechanisms.
Schlosser wants to remind us “how close we’ve come to nuclear disaster,” when the world’s superpowers aimed 15,000 missiles at each other. The U.S. and the Russians now possess about one-fourth as many missiles thanks to disarmament negotiations that have reduced tensions between the two countries. Missile complexes were expensive and helped bankrupt the Soviet Union.
“We grew up in fear of nuclear war,” Schlosser said, “yet we could have created our own nuclear nightmare with atomic bombs that could have exploded in all too many accidents.
“I can’t imagine our good fortune will last,” he warned.
School children who grew up during the early years of the Cold War were taught to hide under their desks in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. But Schlosser’s book is not about Soviet bombs falling on our nation’s cities: What he’s writing about is the nuclear accidents at home that could turn into infernos.
The bombs never detonated, thanks to American ingenuity, but what worries Schlosser is that one day one will go off because of carelessness. If not here, then in Pakistan or some other developing country.
In 2007, a crew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota mistakenly flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana with six cruise missiles and their nuclear warheads. The crew should have removed the warheads before the missiles were taken from their storage bunker. For 36 hours, nobody knew the missing missiles were mounted to the aircraft with no security precautions to prevent an accidental explosion.
The Damascus accident reminds us of the power of nuclear weapons and how they threaten not only our enemies but also those who live and work around them.
Seven years later, in August 1987, the nation’s last Titan silo was removed from Pangburn and the 308th Strategic Missile Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base was deactivated without incident. If you lived in Arkansas back then, read Schlosser’s majestic book in gratitude that we escaped the apocalypse.