SUPERIOR, Wisc. — In most of America’s wars, front lines have been far from the home front.
That wasn’t true during the Cold War — the tense, nuclear-armed, 44-year-long glowering match between the Soviet Union, the U.S. and their allies — when a single command could have obliterated cities across the world.
The standoff is the subject of “The Twin Ports in the Cold War,” an exhibit at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center at 305 Harborview Parkway in Superior.
“We have gotten a really good response to it,” said Bob Fuhrman, the Bong Center’s executive director. “People are surprised; they don’t think of the fact that Duluth was on the front line. Many of them are surprised that there were nuclear weapons deployed up at the Air Base.”
To defend against an attack by Soviet bombers coming over the Arctic, Duluth, Minn., and other northern communities across the U.S. and Canada were the home to radars to detect intruders, and fighters and missiles to intercept them.
In 1959, Duluth’s Air National Guard base became the first air guard base qualified to be equipped with the air-to-air Genie missile. The Genie’s nuclear warhead had an explosive force equal to about 1,500 tons of TNT. During the 1960s, the Air National Guard and Air Force each kept two aircraft armed with Genie missiles on 15-minute alert status in Duluth.
“That was classified at the time,” retired Brig. General Raymond T. Klosowski said. “Many people didn’t know that their friends and neighbors would leave home and go to the base and be working on that type of weaponry.”
Klosowski joined Duluth’s 179th Fighter Squadron as a fighter pilot in 1963. He rose to command Duluth’s 148th Fighter Wing from 1989 to 1995 and the Minnesota Air National Guard from 1995 to 1997.
“You did it because that was the assignment you were given,” he said of working with nuclear weapons. “You did not take it lightly.”
The military was strict about who had access to the Genies. Everyone involved with them had to go through the human reliability program, with regular training, testing and psychological and medical evaluations.
“If someone was having marital problems or emotional problems, they would be taken off the human reliability program until they got that situation squared away,” Klosowski said. “Everyone knew the potential of that weapon, the fact that you were carrying that kind of power.”
The unguided Genie had a range of less than 10 miles. If one had ever been fired in combat, it would have been launched toward a formation of enemy bombers, with the fighter immediately turning to run for safety.
“The advantage of the Genie was that it could take out a large formation of bombers,” Klosowski said. “And once launched, it could not be jammed. There was no defense against it once it was on its way.”
The Genie was not the only Cold War air defense weapon in the area.
From 1961 to 1972, the Air Force maintained a Bomarc anti-aircraft missile base near the French River — one of only 14 such bases across the U.S. It included 28 launch facilities with concrete silos for the long-range, supersonic Bomarc, which was capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads.
Fuhrman said the idea for a Cold War exhibit grew out of a presentation by Klosowski, who helped create the Bong Center and is its director emeritus.
“About two or three years ago, Ray came to me and said, ‘I would like to do a program on the Twin Ports during the Cold War,’” Fuhrman said. “Not being a Twin Ports native myself, I really wasn’t aware of how significant the Cold War was for the Twin Ports. Forty minutes later, after he does his program, I walked out and said, ‘Wow, this is an exhibit we have to do.’ It touched so many people’s lives in so many ways.”
The Cold War began soon after World War II, when former allies of convenience found themselves facing off over their vast economic and political differences. It ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The period is called the Cold War because the nations never fought each other directly. But there were tense times — the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis — that could have led to war. The specter of nuclear armageddon influenced world events and shaped the attitudes of generations.
“The Cold War doesn’t get the recognition it deserves,” Klosowski said. “There were a lot of military forces in action all over the world, not so much in a shooting scenario, but in a checkmate position. Although it was a nonshooting war, there were multiple airplanes that were lost conducting reconnaissance missions and that sort of thing.”
The two sides spent untold fortunes in preparing for war, and millions of men and women were deployed in preparation for a conflict that mercifully never happened. Twin Ports natives were part of that deployment.
“They were sent all over the world as part of the Cold War,” Fuhrman said.
The exhibit relates the stories of some of those people, and examines how the Twin Ports fit into America’s Cold War defense strategy and civil defense, with its fallout shelters and instructions to “duck and cover” at the flash of a nuclear explosion.
The Cold War exhibit will run for at least two or three years, Fuhrman said.
“We put an awful lot into this and we had some great support from the community,” he said. “The thing I like to leave people with is this whole sense of discovery I felt.”