National Parks Series Minuteman
Dakota Digest - 09/30/2009
When you think of the National Park Service, images of majestic mountains, lush forests or distinctive wildlife may come to mind. But with 391 units in the system, locations run the gamut of descriptions: from national parks, to national seashores, landmarks and even battlefields.
On today's Dakota Digest, SDPB's Jim Kent visits one of the newest National Park units. It's also one of the most popular National Park sites - if you can find it.
It's pretty desolate along Interstate 90 going East between Rapid City and Murdo. There's nothing for miles except herds of cattle, the occasional ranch house and missile silos. Wait a minute. Missle silos? Well, not anymore.
"Here in South Dakota there were a hundred and fifty missile silos, Nationwide there used to be a thousand," says Pam Griswold, Chief Ranger for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The site is located at Exit 131 on I-90. But if you didn't know it was here, you wouldn't know it was here. And that's not surprising, considering its history.
"It's a site that was designated in 1999. And it was designated, basically, to tell a story about the Cold War,” Griswold says. “So, here, we have our headquarters. Four miles west of here we have the launch control facility and launch control center, which is where the Air Force, who controlled that site, would have actually launched nuclear missiles. And then 15 miles west of here is where the Missile Silo site is, Delta 9, and that was also preserved as part of this historic site. And there's a training missile out at that site."
The temporary site headquarters is located next to the Conaco station at Exit 131. A new visitor facility is planned for the north side of the Exit with construction starting in 2010. Griswald says they’ll place an official sign on the highway when that building is complete. For now, space is limited and officials don't want too many visitors.
There certainly is a missile here at the silo site, just below this large bubble window and clearly visible. Surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, it's in a remote area, but still easily accessible from the highway. Kerry Davis is the guide. Looking at the silo from above is as close as tourists can get. But he promises a trip underground 11 miles away at the Control Facility.
A short elevator ride takes us thirty-one feet below the ground to the control center. This is where, upon orders from the president of the United States, Air Force personnel could launch nuclear missiles.
The two-man crew was locked in its station by an eight-ton door painted to resemble a massive Domino's Pizza box. The door bears the dark humor of those who worked here: worldwide delivery in 30 minutes or less, or your next one is free. But we're talking nuclear missiles here, not pizza.
With lots of big black handles and knobs and panels with what looks like rows of electrical breaker switches, the control center is a far cry from today's technology of computer keyboards and monitors. If anyone is qualified to explain just what it was like to sit "at the ready" for a possible nuclear missile launch, it's Kerry Davis. The park ranger actually spent part of his Air Force career working at a similar site in Missouri. And some might wonder why anyone would revisit those stressful times on a daily basis by giving tours of the missile site.
"I think there is a motivation of, a release of years of frustration, perhaps,” Davis says. “All the years that I could only answer simple questions to my kids growing up. My daughter, for example, would say, well, Sally's father talks about what he does. Well, he works in finance. And there's a lot of unclassified things I could say, but the things that they really want to know, you can't talk about. So, for years it's been all bottled up."
Kerry Davis adds that there's also a psychological benefit in finally being able to let the public know about the missiles.
"And realizing that the public really don't know how dangerous these weapons are. And what commitment the military had to having a retaliatory strike capability against your enemies. And now I can talk about all that," Davis says.
Bringing detailed information about the history and the capability of the Minuteman Missiles to everyone from schoolchildren to politicians is one of the major perks of working for the National Park Service, says Davis.
"Parks are a neat job. They really are. You can make a career out of it. And I'm not too sure if I'd know all this back before then, if I would have chose the National Parks or the military," says Davis.
But Kerry's first choice of the military allows him to offer a hands-on knowledge of the missile system.
After all, it really has nothing to do with pizza.
For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I'm Jim Kent
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