ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) in Washington State

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld
  • Posted 7/31/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10158
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During the Cold War Washington state served an important role in defending the United States and in deterring attacks. Eighteen intercontinental ballistic missiles installed near Moses Lake and Spokane were a significant deterrence element. The intercontinental ballistic missiles served as a warning to the Soviet Union that any attack on the United States would bring about its destruction. The Atlas E and Titan I missiles were installed, and during 1961-1962, the ICBM bases became operational. By 1965 these missiles were outmoded and the bases closed. All but one of the missile complexes were sold to private individuals and today they remain in private ownership.  

The Cold War and the ICBMs

During the Cold War, Washington state became an important military defensive and deterrence location. Military basing included radars, fighter-interceptors, long-range bombers, submarines, Nike missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The intercontinental ballistic missiles were located in the central and eastern areas of the state. This basing was close to the Soviet Union while also being inland of the more vulnerable coast. Available for the missile sites were large open areas in the vicinity of existing air force bases.

Two types of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles were installed in Washington state. The Atlas E, named for the Atlas of Greek mythology, was placed at nine sites around Fairchild Air Force Base, located near Spokane. Each site had one missile. The Titan I, named for its power (in Greek mythology Titan was the father of Zeus), was placed at three bases in the vicinity of Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake. Both the Atlas and the Titan I missiles had been rushed into development in 1959. The Titan was developed in case the Atlas encountered developmental problems and it also created competition between the programs.   

Missiles and their Technical Challenges

The Atlas E was the first intercontinental ballistic missile developed and then deployed in the United States.  It was first deployed in 1961. The 82-foot-tall missile had a speed reaching nearly 16,000 miles per hour. A self-contained, automatic inertial guidance system was accurate to within one-and-one-half miles. It was a liquid-fueled missile that delivered a nuclear warhead more than 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped at Nagasaki in 1945.

The liquid fuel, a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene, which propelled both the Atlas E and Titan missiles, was a major problem. It required that the missile be stored empty and fueled for flight. This required 15-minutes for the Titan I, delaying reaction time. For the Atlas the fueling was done with the missile on the surface, which exposed it and made it vulnerable.  Also, the liquid fuel volatility made the fueling procedure very dangerous.  A Fairchild site experienced a fueling accident during a launch test. The Titan I had fueling advantages over the Atlas with its stiffer shell that reduced the explosion risks. By the mid-1960s solid-fuel Minuteman missiles replaced the liquid-fueled missiles. Solid fuel could be stored in the missile, so prelaunch fueling was not required, saving 15 minutes.   

Missile site construction was dangerous work. The Washington sites had a high incidence of accidents, but no deaths. Nationally, there were more than 50 deaths. The worst missile-construction accident killed 53 workers in an August 1965 explosion at an Arkansas Titan II base.  Accidents caused some construction delays at the Washington sites. Also, worker strikes at the sites added additional delays.

In four years the Titan I and Atlas E became obsolete. In February 1964 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009) announced the closing of the Titan I and Atlas E sites. This was a national reduction in intercontinental ballistic missiles that inactivated 140 intercontinental ballistic missile sites in June 1965.

Despite a short life, the Atlas and Titan programs were proving grounds for future intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the closings all the equipment and salvageable material was removed and the sites were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Of the 12 Washington sites, 11 became private property and one remained in government use. The 11 sold to private parties remain today private property and are not open to public visit.  

For those interested in visiting an intercontinental ballistic missile base, there is the Titan Missile Museum 15 miles south of Tucson, Arizona. This intact base is open to the public. Visitors can see an inert Titan II missile in the silo and the launch control consoles and equipment.  Guided tours relate how the system worked. A Minuteman site at Ellsworth Air Force Base South Dakota includes the silo with missile. Visitors to this site can see the more advanced Minuteman system.

Fairchild Air Force Base Atlas E Sites, Vicinity Spokane 

The Fairchild missile construction program was initiated in May 1959. Nine Atlas E missile sites became operational in September 1961 under the control of the 567th Strategic Missile Squadron. They were located at Deer Park (Site 1), Newman Lake (Site 2), Rockford (Site 3), Sprague (Site 4), Lamona (Site 5), Davenport (Site 6), Wilbur (Site 7), Egypt (Site 8), and Reardan (Site 9). The site near Rockford, Washington, was actually in Idaho. Each of the nine sites was a 20-acre facility with a five-acre inner launch and control area.  Originally a fence surrounded the five acre inner area, but it was later replaced with a fence enclosing the entire 20-acres. Air Force security police patrolled the sites and maintained security. 

The inner area included a reinforced concrete launch-operations building that was underground except for its exposed roof. The operations building had control consoles, crew living facilities, and a power plant.  It was located 150-feet from the missile structure and connected to it by an underground tunnel. The reinforced-concrete missile-launch structure was 105 feet by 100 feet with a central bay to horizontally store the missile. This type of storage was called “coffin” since the missile sat in a horizontal position.  For missile launching, the building's roof was retracted, the missile raised to a vertical position, fueled, and then fired.  Adjacent to the launch structure were storage tanks for the liquid fuel. The inner area also had a metal storage building.

Each site was staffed by three squadron airmen and two officers. A major, the Missile Combat Crew Commander, was in charge. The commander saw to the sites effective operation and had control of the missile launch. There was also a deputy commander. The commander or deputy had to be in the launch control facility at all times. The order to launch would be received as coded Emergency War Orders. They had the answer code to start the countdown. The launch control system was preprogrammed for the missile's target and the exact location kept secret. It was known that the targets were in the Soviet Union. However, in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the target boards were changed to target that Caribbean island.  

Advances in missile technology in the 1960s led to Atlas E and Titan I becoming obsolete. The most important improvement was solid fuel. This reduced launch times and added safety. The nine Atlas E sites went out of service in March 1965 and deactivated in June 1965. Eight of the nine sites were sold to private ownership and remain private today.

Site 9 near Reardan was retained by the federal government and transferred to the United States Bureau of Mines. The bureau added four buildings to the site while retaining the original buildings. Today the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety conducts noise tests at the largely intact site. Site 9 has been identified as historic due to its relationship to the Cold War and its intact integrity.   

Murder at Davenport 

The post-Cold War use of the Davenport site witnessed gruesome violence. On June 12, 2002, Washington State Fuel Tax Auditor Roger Erdman (1946-2002) went to the former missile site to audit Ralph H. Benson (1949-2004), an independent trucker.  Benson was in the midst of a bankruptcy process and the state sought to verify his fuel tax payments. Benson lived in the missile complex.  

When auditor Erdman did not return, a police visit to the missile complex found blood and crime evidence. Body parts of a dismembered Erdman were found in a rural area south of Cheney, Washington. The victim had been shot in the head and dismembered.  Benson was charged with murder, convicted, and received a 32-year sentence. He became a suspect in other murders, but was not charged. In September 2004 he died of natural causes in the Monroe Reformatory. 

Larson Air Force Base Sites, Vicinity Moses Lake 

Groundbreaking for the three Titan I sites near Larson Air Force Base took place on December 1, 1959. The sites were at Odessa, Quincy, and Warden, Washington. They were completed in 1961 and the sites declared operational in 1962. The 568th Strategic Missile Squadron complexes were underground with super-hardened silos. The missile silos were 160-feet deep. Each site had three missile silos. The missile was stored in its silo, fueled, raised to the surface on an elevator, and fired. The launch sequence took 15 minutes. A launch control room was buried about 17-feet below the surface in a hardened structure. Also, the guidance radar antenna was in a silo and was raised during the launch sequence. The flight of a Titan I missile to a Soviet Union target would take 33 minutes.  

On January 1, 1965, the outmoded Titan I missile bases stood down. They were deactivated in March 1965. Salvage teams removed the equipment and high value material. The U.S. General Services Administration auctioned off the complexes and the Larson sites went into private ownership. They are closed to visitors. The Quincy (Royal City) complex is now flooded and has been used by highly skilled divers for dive adventures.

A Titan I missile, serial number 61-4492, from the Warden site, is on display at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) complex at  Moffett Field, California. The Titan I is displayed at Building 596 near the massive hangar.

Sources: John C. Lonnquest and David F. Winkler, To Defend and Deter: The Legacy of the United States Cold War Missile Program (Champaign, Illinois: USACERL Report, 1996); “Spokane Spokes,” Scott's USAF Installation Page website accessed July 24, 2012 (http://www.airforcebase.net); “Chapter 2: U.S. Strategic Missile and Armament Systems (1950-60s)” in Minuteman Missile:Historic Resource Study available at National Park Service history website accessed July 25, 2012 (http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/mimi/hrst.htm);  “Pickets Stop Titan-Site Work”, The Seattle Daily Times, May 3, 1960, p. 52; “Progress on State Missile Sites Told,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 21, 1960, p. 16; “18 Missiles In State To Be Retired,” The Seattle Daily Times, February 1, 1964, p. 22; “Missile-Site Disposal Gains In House,” The Seattle Daily Times, May 29, 1965, p. 14; “53 Workers Die in Missile Silo Blast,” The Seattle Daily Times, August 10, 1965, p. 2.

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