Silent sentinels: 44th Missile Wing

  • Published
  • By Airman Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"The inactivation of the 44th Missile Wing is bittersweet because it means closing the book on a grand organization, but also signifies unprecedented progress in world affairs. The 44th Missile Wing is proud of what it has done to further world peace. It is with these accomplishments in mind that we celebrate victory and look to the future with confidence."

Retired Col. Roscoe Moulthrop, former commander of the 44th MW provided those words on July 4, 1994, during an inactivation ceremony recognizing the 44th MW for its accomplishments and contributions throughout the course of history.

After 32 years of service, the men and women assigned to the 44th MW had met and overcome significant challenges during a time of transition from Cold War strategic nuclear alert to Cold War victory. The inactivation of the 44th MW, at one time whose headquarters was in the Pride Hangar, brought a close to a key chapter in the history of Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., a time of heightened vigilance during the Cold War that began 1962.

It was 1958 and tension with the Soviet Union was running high. President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech before Congress and the entire nation. During his speech, he outlined a plan for the national defense that would eventually exceed that of the Soviet Union. Intercontinental ballistic missile programs experienced budget increases. In just a few years the United States would be ready to deploy the first solid-fuel ICBM, the Minuteman.

The first Minuteman I, under the care and management of the 44th MW, was installed near Wall, S.D. in April 1963. Near the end of 1963, there were 150 silos dispersed across the South Dakota landscape. For every 10 silos, there was a support structure known as a launch control facility. Each LCF had a facility manager, cook and several security police who were stationed on the topside to provide support for two missileers stationed in a launch control center, a capsule located 31 feet below the surface. Topside personnel worked for three straight days followed by three days off. The missileers in the underground launch control center were on duty for 24-hour shifts at a time.

About 80 miles east of Rapid City, S.D., and Ellsworth was a LCF named Delta-01. The Airmen on duty there were key players in America's Cold War defense.

Although there were a variety of important duties performed by Airmen at Delta-01, missile combat crews occupying the LCC had a particularly demanding job.

Missile combat crews underwent intense training, at the on-base training launch facility for several months before they were allowed to serve in an active missile field. Missileers were expected to learn vast amounts of technical data about the Minuteman systems, and when they were properly trained, they were expected to be nothing less than excellent at their duty.

"As a member of a three-man team, we were responsible for reporting missile status to the Strategic Air Command near Omaha (at Offutt AFB, Neb.)," said retired Chief Master Sgt. Glen Baldwin, a former 44th MW weapon system controller. "We were required to determine the cause of any malfunctions, documenting the malfunctions and dispatching the first available qualified maintenance team to repair the LCF."

Baldwin said that a "normal" day for a maintenance team could start as early as 4 a.m., adding that they would report to their duty section to find out what type of maintenance they were scheduled to perform. Then, they would obtain all necessary parts to complete the documented maintenance from the wing supply section, load their trucks for dispatch and drive to their assigned LF or LCF.

"Maintenance teams could drive as far as 150 miles some days," Baldwin said.

After arriving at their assigned site, teams would report to the controlling LCF to be cleared on site. This was accomplished through what was referred to as an authorization code, a six digit code, which only the LCF crew would be able to confirm.

Baldwin added that maintenance teams were restricted to working a maximum of a 16-hour day, including driving time. If they were not able to return to EAFB by their 15th hour, they would be required to report to the nearest LCF where they would be required to remain in crew rest for eight hours. A normal maintenance team would work one day on, two days off, 365-days-a-year, with no holidays off.

"The men and women I worked side-by-side with took their jobs very seriously," said Baldwin. "It was a tough job and the stress we dealt with put a lot of stress on our families."

Elizabeth Adams, now the Air Force District of Washington deputy director of ceremonies and protocol, was one of the many Airmen assigned to the 44th MW. Then a flight security officer with the 44th Missile Security Squadron, Adams took on a vital role, which proved to be essential to the security of our nation.

"I was an officer in charge of a 44-person flight that provided 24/7 security to intercontinental ballistic missiles," said Adams.

Adams said there were strict protocol and procedures outlining all duties performed by security personnel.

"We had two huge binders with nuclear security requirements and checklists. Those binders were our bible," Adams said. "If we followed our checklists, we were guaranteed to do our job well and there were checklists for almost every situation."

Adams added that security police worked four days on and three days off. She said they were "technically" working 12-hour shifts, but out in the field it was more like 18-hour shifts.

"We would show up in the squadron at least an hour before guard mount, draw our weapon and prepare for the tour in the field," said Adams. "After we double checked post assignments, we would ensure everyone is present and accounted for, conduct guard mount, pass on any important information, provide missile security control and pick up security authorization codes for the day."

"During the Cold War, our mission was viewed as a vital deterrent," Adams said. "We understood the importance of our job and the role it played in defending our nuclear resources."

In 1991, the cost of keeping up with advanced American military weapons systems such as the Minuteman had led the Soviet economy to crumble. In a remarkable series of events which included street protests, rallies, and the attempted overthrow of leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union finally dissolved. The arms race was finally in the favor of the U.S. and the Minuteman missiles in South Dakota were slated for closure.

On Sept. 27, 1991, President George Bush announced a series of dramatic initiatives to lower Cold War tensions. This "plan of peace" required the withdrawal of Minuteman missiles from alert within 72 hours. Maintenance, security police and operations personnel worked around the clock to dissipate launch codes in 15 LCCs and install safety control switches in 150 launch facilities, completing this phase of deactivation in just 47 hours.

The minuteman missile procedures trainer and on-base training launch facility were transferred to the South Dakota Air and Space Museum to preserve symbols of the Cold War victory.

The 44th MW has a long and distinguished history, complementing the many accomplishments of the 44th Bomb Group and other organizations that flew their colors.

Baldwin added that missile wings today have greatly evolved and still prove to be vital in our nation's defense.

"The current operational missile wings are still playing a major role in keeping peace around the world," said Baldwin. "Remember, as it states on the LCF blast door at Delta-01, 'We guarantee the first one in 30 minutes or less, or the next one is free.'"