LEWIS — Drops of water, June ice melt, steadily slid down 8-feet-thick concrete walls 35 feet underground in Lewis.
It was 50 years since Jean Schneider navigated these subterranean passages of Lewis Missile Base, Site 5, an Atlas-F Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Silo, one of 12 Strategic Air Command (SAC) sites in northeast New York and northwest Vermont during the Cold War.
Schneider, an electrician maintenance member of the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron, was assigned to Plattsburgh Air Force Base from January 1962 to March 1965. The 556th operated the silos, and Schneider’s tour of duty straddled the Cuban Missile Crisis of Oct. 16-28, 1962.
“This is one of the sites where I would work and come out here and do electrical work and check out and so forth and so on,” said Schneider, a Plattsburgh resident who attended the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron Reunion.
“We would come down here to do maintenance and wiring and do quality control checks and different procedures on various types of equipment. Mostly the electrical and electronic items.”
On Level 2, Schneider surveyed the remnants of what was of the 185-feet-deep silo.
“So I look at this, and it’s absolutely incredible,” he said. “People don’t realize that when they built and designed these, there were no computers. There were no handheld calculators. They did all this work by slide rule. The engineers that designed this stuff had to be incredibly brilliant. And then the people who built it, there were no lasers for measuring and all the things they use today, it was not there. How did they do this? It’s quite an accomplishment.”
The owner of Site 5, Alexander Michael, aka “Missile Boy,” welcomed the Cold War vets to Boquet 556-5, the Air Force’s original designation.
“It’s a decommissioned nuclear missile silo that I purchased 15 years ago from a private owner, from a salvager in fact, who was removing metal from the silo,” said Michael, who lives in Sydney, Australia.
“So when I bought it from him, I stopped the salvaging process and I’m in the process of restoring this place … not as a historic monument but a monument of what was left of the Cold War and the very, very first generation ICBM Silo.”
Michael hosted a cookout attended by 556th personnel and their families as well as members of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base Museum.
“It’s been a fascination of mine for years,” he said. “Being a designer, I love interesting spaces, especially utilitarian spaces. Spaces that are designed specifically for one purpose, one function, only. And, this certainly fits that bill. They (556th) were the very first guys to have the nuclear button at their fingertips. It’s been an incredible exercise both for me and for them to return to the silo and see it after 50 years.”
During the event, various 556th personnel and Michael led tours of the silo.
“It’s been a treat for everyone,” he said. “They all say, you know, it’s very generous of me to have them here, but I get far, far more out of this than they ever do, and I haven’t stopped asking them questions from the moment they stepped through the gate.”
One of the tour guides was Barry Bernstein, a Ballistic Missile Analyst Technician (BMAT).
“There used to be two Quonset huts here,” said Bernstein, who divides his time between North Conway, N.H., and Venice, Fla.
“A group of five to seven air policemen would live in there for three or four days at a time. There job was security on the top here. They never went down into the missile site unless it was by invitation just as a courtesy to show them around. That was one world, the Air Police and Security Force.”
Bernstein guided his group down wet concrete stairs to the Launch Control Center (LCC), a two-story section, where missile personnel lived and performed their operations.
“There was an emergency escape hatch,” he said. “We had a system that would detect a nuclear blast nearby because this site was hardened. It could take anything but a direct hit. If we got trapped down below, who wants to be trapped? There was an overhead door you pulled like this and a ton of sand would fall down, and then you would go up a ladder and escape like a rat out of the hole here. Fortunately, we never had to do that.”
Visitors were authenticated several times and were required to verbally repeat an access code to gain entry to the LCC through a series of blast doors.
Another BMAT, Richard Somerset, led another group through the silo.
“The construction of the Launch Control Center; they poured the base at the bottom,” said Somerset, who lives in Essex Junction, Vt.
“They poured this column to support the ceiling and this Launch Control Center was suspended on four pneumatic cylinders. So, it free floated. That was in case there was a nuclear explosion or anything, it was free to move without crashing or destroying itself. This is now on piles, so it’s sitting and not moving.”
Somerset was on duty downstairs when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.
“Our second commander came by and said that Kennedy was shot,” Somerset said. “We sat at the TV. I sat there waiting for something to change but nothing ever happened.”
Down under, the best meal of the day was breakfast.
“They would give you a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon and some ham, usually, and a loaf of bread,” Bernstein said. “The other food was in foil packs like a TV dinner.”
Cold cuts, corn chips and V-8 comprised box lunches.
“I got to where I just loved that,” Somerset said.
Recreational pursuits included playing bridge.
“We had a couch and a combination record player/radio type of thing,” Bernstein said. “If we were lucky, we would get four or five hours of sleep a night.”
The LCC was once jam packed with equipment and panels.
“Now, it’s just a few pieces of equipment,” Bernstein said. “That is the most important one. This was the console where the commander, captain and major would sit here, and deputy commander, and usually the lieutenant would sit here. The whole trick was to sit there with one light green, ready for countdown.”
Visitor Joy Demarse asked how close anyone ever came to pressing the button.
“Closer than you ever want to imagine,” Bernstein said.
“I was in school during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Demarse, an author and retired Plattsburgh High School English teacher who lives in Peru.
“That’s when we were living in Churubusco, which is not that far away because there is one of these sites in Ellenburg. So that’s why I’m kind of familiar with it.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Defense Readiness Condition, DEFCON, a state of alert used by the U.S. Armed Forces, rose from Level 5 to Level 2.
“This country has been at DEFCON 2 once in its history, to my knowledge, and it was then,” Bernstein said. The next condition is DEFCON 1. We had civilians still working here from General Dynamics. There was a big rush to get 12 lights green. This is the light we wanted green. It says ready for countdown. That’s the light we wanted green. That means we had done our job.”
Bernstein and Somerset never knew the exact targets of the ICBMs but they knew targets included military installations, air bases and missile sites.
Each missile had two targets, A or B.
“I remember at night, I would turn off all the lights in here and put on Miles Davis and a few of my favorite things,” Bernstein said.
“It was surrealistic. And I knew on the other side of the North Pole, there was a guy just like me who spoke Russian doing the same thing … waiting … waiting … to shoot over. One of these days, I might meet him.”
Email Robin Caudell: firstname.lastname@example.org