Titan I missiles put Ellsworth on nuclear map

  • Published
  • By Airman Ashley J. Cass
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
There have been a variety of missions accomplished at Ellsworth, over the past 70 years, each an important part of sustaining our nation's defense.

When the United States enhanced its nuclear arsenal with the creation of the Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile in the early 1960s, Ellsworth played a key role in establishing this new weapon system as a strategic nuclear deterrent.

The Martin Marietta SM-68A/HGM-25A Titan I was the first two-stage ICBM and was engineered with both an immense payload and the ability to fly a long distance. The Titan was designed alongside the Atlas missile, one reason being to sustain operations in the event of an Atlas missile failure.

Six different missile squadrons managed Titan I missiles, including the 850th Strategic Missile Squadron at Ellsworth, which was assigned to the 44th Missile Wing in January 1962.

Roy Savage, now a retired Air Force aircraft mechanic, said Ellsworth Airmen controlled nine missiles divided up between three missile complexes built in South Dakota. One complex was located near Wicksville, one east of Hermosa and one east of Sturgis.

Savage was assigned to Ellsworth in December 1960, and helped build the complexes used to house and launch the missiles. The Titans would become operational in April 1962.

"We were in the mud stage at that time," said Savage. "We would literally dig out holes in the mud to build the complexes in, and then cover them back up."

The complexes were made up of three parts, Savage added. "Each one had a power house, a control center and a guidance system silo."

In addition to being the only senior missile mechanic at Ellsworth when he arrived, Savage also helped schedule the 18 weeks of training in Texas that all Airmen were required to complete prior to working with the Titan.

Raymond Widner, now a retired ballistic missile analyst technician, arrived at Ellsworth in January 1961, while the complexes were still under construction.

"I came here only to find out I was late for school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas," Widner said.

An important part of what was taught at Sheppard was the fuel system for the missile.

"The Titan I was fueled by liquid oxygen that had to boil off continuously," said Savage.

The missile could only be filled with fuel just prior to launching, and it also had to be raised above the ground on an elevator in order to lift off.

"It took about 30 minutes to fire," said Widner.

Once the missiles were launched, they were then controlled by radio command stations.

The 44th MW received its nine operational missiles on June 22, 1962, and Ellsworth had three crews ready to accomplish the Titan mission and all associated tasks, said Widner.

"Everything was ready just in time," said Widner of the crews who conducted the mission at Ellsworth for nearly three years. He said there were a variety of incidents included in the short-lived, vital mission at Ellsworth. "For example, the crews went on alert for 72 hours straight during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962."

Although 101 Titan I missiles were produced, only a handful were ever launched.

The Titan was rendered obsolete with the development of the Titan II that used more stable fuel and the Minuteman that ran on solid fuel. The missile was officially retired in February 1965.

"I think one reason we stopped using the Titan I was because of the fuel system," said Savage. "It was tedious to monitor."

Although little known and only operational for a short time, the Titan I remains an important breakthrough in both missile technology and nuclear deterrence, and one of the many significant milestones in Ellsworth history.