Inside the secret nuclear arsenal


By the end of 1962, the Air Force had constructed four secret nuclear missile sites on Okinawa – at Yomitan, White Beach, Onna Point and Kin Town. Each site housed eight Mace TM-76A nuclear missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The new variant, which took off horizontally like an airplane, had a 1,400-mile range and a newly developed guidance system enabling it to fly long distances over water, putting Vladivostok in the Soviet Union and communist capitals in China, North Korea and Vietnam within range.


An Air Force launch crew uses a password to clear a reinforced security door and enter a top-secret nuclear missile site on Okinawa in the 1960's. (Courtesy of George Mindling)
Read more | Cold War missileers refute Okinawa near-launch

Missileers with the 873rd Tactical Missile Squadron arrived for their shifts in buses from Kadena Air Base. Each missile site was comprised of two separate crews of five enlisted mechanics, a non-commissioned officer and a launch officer. They passed perimeter security before reaching 10-ton security doors with an intercom. An initial password got them into a holding area where they faced another 10-ton door and a second intercom. A final password was required for access. Mistakes would mean repeating the process.

Inside, the bunkers included a launch center, crew break room, launch bay with missiles and power generators. Crews would work to “recycle” the Mace missiles, taking them down in rotations to check the systems and perform maintenance. The launch officer and an enlisted mechanic manned the launch center and fielded communication from the missile operations center at Kadena.

Missileers said there was never a launch between 1961 and 1969, when the sites were decommissioned, but drills were routine. An actual nuclear launch would have required an airman mechanic to turn a crank to create centrifugal momentum while an officer pressed two launch buttons simultaneously. The crank and buttons were spaced apart so no person could launch nuclear missiles alone. Missileers would pantomime the process during drills without ever turning the crank or breaking the seals on the launch buttons.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten



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