By JON MITCHELL
Special to The Japan Times, July 8, 2012
In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war after American spy planes discovered that the Kremlin had stationed medium-range atomic missiles on the communist island of Cuba in the Caribbean, barely over the horizon from Florida.
One of the Okinawa Mace missiles is now displayed at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio COURTESY OF LARRY JOHNSTON
The weapons placed large swaths of the U.S. — including Washington, D.C. — within range of attack and sparked a two-week showdown between the superpowers that Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the most dangerous moment in human history.”
Six months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, a parallel drama had played out on the other side of the world as the U.S. brought near-identical missiles to the ones the Russians stationed on Cuba to another small island — Okinawa.
While the full facts of that deployment have still not officially been disclosed, now for the first time three of the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear pioneers have broken the silence about Okinawa’s secret missiles, life within the bunkers and a military miscalculation of apocalyptic proportions — the targeting of unaligned China.
John Bordne, Larry Havemann and Bill Horn were all born during the early days of World War II, but their motivations in joining the U.S. Air Force were very different. Coming from a family steeped in military tradition, Bordne signed up out of a sense of patriotism. Havemann, a laboratory technician, saw the air force as a means to secure a stable income for his family. For Horn, the military offered an escape route from impoverished West Virginia. “Besides, I liked the color of the uniform,” he says.
Soon after joining the air force, these three men from contrasting backgrounds were assigned to the 498th Tactical Missile Group and sent to Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado. There, they first set eyes on the latest weapon in their nation’s nuclear arsenal — the TM-76 Mace. A progeny of the V-1 “doodlebug” rockets that the Nazis rained down on Britain during World War II, the 13-meter-long Mace missiles weighed 8 tons and cost $500,000 each. Packed into the missile’s guts was a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead that, at over 75 times the ferocity of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, could obliterate everything within a 5-km radius, create a crater 20 stories deep and irradiate the landscape for decades to come.
“For such a horrendous weapon, it was very unimposing,” recalls Horn. “It reminded me of a silver hotdog with wings.”
At Lowry, the new recruits were streamed into seven-man crews and received intensive training in the missiles’ engines, guidance systems and nuclear payload. Six months later, the newly graduated “missileers” were ready for their combat postings — which they assumed would be in Europe, where the East Germans had just started work on the Berlin Wall. But to their surprise, they found themselves on a 36-hour island-hopping flight to the U.S.’s military keystone of the Pacific — Okinawa.
Although the U.S. military had seized Okinawa in the spring of 1945, months before the end of World War II, it wasn’t until China turned communist in 1949 and the Korean War broke out the following year that the U.S. became fully convinced of the island’s strategic importance. The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, which ended the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of mainland Japan, granted America continued control of Okinawa — and it rapidly transformed it into the linchpin of its Cold War plans for Asia.
With this in mind, in 1954 the U.S. brought hydrogen-bomb armed F-100 fighter-bombers to its key hub in the Pacific, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa — the first of thousands of nuclear weapons that it would station on the island before their removal in 1972 (see accompanying stories).
When Bordne and Horn arrived in 1961 (Havemann went in 1962), Okinawa still bore the scars of World War II — civilian buildings were cobbled together from military scrap timber and the wrecks of U.S. invasion ships lay rusting off the shores. Bordne and Horn were in for another surprise. “The missile sites still hadn’t been finished,” says Horn. “Site One was a massive hole in the ground. For the first couple of months, we had to help the civilian contractors in the 100-degree heat (37 Celsius) to pull cables from the launch bays to the control centers down below.”
Finally, in early 1962, Bolo Point in Yomitan, the first of Okinawa’s nuclear-missile sites, became operational. Hidden beneath tarpaulins and the cover of darkness, eight Mace missiles were trucked from Kadena Air Base and loaded into launch tubes aimed over the East China Sea.
Still in the same seven-member teams from Lowry, the men began the work for which they’d been trained — “to defend the island, protect the institution of democracy and halt the spread of communism,” explains Horn with an ironic chuckle.
The men’s eight-hour shifts began with a briefing at the missile control center on Kadena Air Base to update them on the day’s weather and the current geopolitical climate. Following this, the crews drove to Bolo Point where, upon their arrival, they’d be met by an escort from the previous shift with the latest password. “It was something simple like ‘Apple’ or ’1324′ or ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ But sometimes the escort would get distracted and forget it. That’s when they’d send in the guard dogs to see if there was a problem,” says Havemann.
Once safely past the security check, the missileers climbed into the launch site itself. Consisting of three main areas — a crew ready room, a diesel generator chamber and a launch room replete with a red telephone hotline to Kadena — roughly 10 meters away sat the eight missiles around which the men’s duties revolved. They checked the engines and fine-tuned the guidance systems, drilled themselves on safety procedures and practiced countdowns to ensure the missiles were ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
However, considering the apocalyptic power at their fingertips, life within the missile sites was terrifyingly mundane. To pass the time, the men studied correspondence classes, played endless rounds of pinochle and compared notes on the shows they’d seen recently on the bases’ nightclubs — including a (then) little-known band called The Supremes. The missileers had also been tasked by American manufacturers to field test a new gadget — microwave ovens. Bordne remembers, “They only came with one setting, so meat came out like shoe leather and the mashed potatoes had ice cubes in the middle.”
The missiles themselves created few problems for the men and the gigantic springs beneath the bunkers — designed to protect them from nuclear blasts — dampened the earthquakes and typhoons that rattled nerves among their colleagues on the surface.
But the events of October 1962 were about to dash any hopes that Okinawa would be a sun-drenched holiday posting. “At Kadena, we learned about the photographs several days before the American public. From that moment on, things became very serious,” says Horn.
The photos mentioned by Horn were those taken on Oct. 14, 1962, by an American spy plane on a surveillance flight over Western Cuba. The images revealed that, for the first time in its history, the Soviet Union had stationed nuclear weapons outside its borders. The SS-4 medium range missiles — at 22 meters nose-to-tail and carrying a megaton warhead — could reach the White House 15 minutes after launch. JFK took the news as a personal affront — branding Khrushchev “an immoral gangster,” he immediately demanded that his top brass draw up plans to bomb the Cuban sites.