Flint Hills Stories

The Cold War in the Flint Hills

– By Greg Hoots –

Atlas Missle Site #6 - Near Keene, Kansas

Atlas Missile Launcher Site No. 6 at Keene, Kansas was one of nine missile sites operated from Forbes Air Force Base. Photo courtesy Ed Peden.

For four years in the early 1960s the Flint Hills of Wabaunsee County was home to one of America’s weapons of global destruction, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile carrying a thermonuclear warhead.  Located one and a half mile northwest of Keene, Kansas, Missile Launcher No. 6 was one of nine such sites operated by the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron based at Forbes Air Force Base, Topeka, Kansas. The missile at the Keene site was an Atlas E, a pioneer in intercontinental missile development. It represented an accumulation of various efforts by the United States government in the fields of nuclear warhead development, rocketry, and space travel.

The warhead which sat atop the Atlas Missile was a thermonuclear device, one which used fusion, the process of setting off a chain reaction which resulted in atoms being pushed together under intense heat to create an enormous energy release or explosion. These weapons were also known as hydrogen bombs, named after the hydrogen isotopes which were manipulated in an exact fashion to create this release. They differed from the atomic bombs which were dropped on Japan in 1945 which were fission devices which derived their energy release from the splitting of atoms.

The hydrogen bomb was far more powerful in its blast than the atomic bomb, and was also much cleaner in that less radiation was released as a by-product or fall-out. Far more of the fuel in a hydrogen bomb was converted to energy in detonation, leaving far less radioactive waste behind.

The first thermonuclear device was successfully tested in November, 1951; it weighed over 65,000 pounds and was the size of a small house. On March 1, 1954 the first small thermonuclear warhead, small enough to be placed on the nose of a rocket was successfully tested. The U.S. Air Force had been testing several types of rockets which could carry various payloads, such as satellites, men, or nuclear weapons into space. One of these rockets was the Atlas missile, created by Convair, a division of General Dynamics. The mighty Atlas missile was 75 feet long by 10 feet in diameter and would produce 360,000 pounds of thrust. In December of 1957, the first successful test of an Atlas rocket was achieved after two previous failures. In September of 1959, the first successful firing of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (without a nuclear warhead) was achieved at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. For the next five years the Atlas missile would be a mainstay in America’s nuclear arsenal.

On October 4, 1957, a shot was fired that was heard around the world. After that moment, nothing would ever be quite the same. It came in the form of the launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, proving to the world that the Soviet Union could place objects into outer space and was the first to do so. The ramifications were enormous in the political, scientific, and military communities of the late 1950s. American scientists and military leaders knew that if the Soviets were capable of placing a satellite into orbit, it would not be a great step for Russia to place men, scientific and communications equipment, and even nuclear weapons into space.

The United States responded to the Soviet move into space, launching a full scale space program. First, the Mercury program would launch a man out of the earth’s atmosphere, dropping him back into earth safely. Soon after, John Glenn became the first man to orbit the earth.

Simultaneously, the Air Force was conducting tests of rockets to carry nuclear weapons out of the earth’s atmosphere, into space, and then launch them back to earth at specific targets around the globe. Likewise, government physicists and scientists were busy developing a nuclear fusion device, capable of enormous destruction, which would fit on the nose of a rocket. These events came to fruition in 1959 when the Air Force began the construction and deployment of the Atlas nuclear missile. Following the first successful firing of the Atlas rocket that year, the Air Force created a new classification of elite forces, the missile men.

The first ICBMs, the Atlas D missiles, were stored above ground in concrete bunkers, lying horizontally, and were raised upright, hydraulically, for fueling and firing. Soon after the D missiles were being deployed, new Atlas E missiles were being constructed near three U.S. Air Force bases. One of these bases was Forbes Field, Topeka, Kansas, where nine nuclear missile sites were constructed in a halo around the Air Force base. The nuclear missile operations at Forbes Field would be the duty of the newly created 548th Strategic Missile Squadron.

Atlas Missle Delivery

An Atlas Missile is photographed in transport across the Kansas Flint Hills. Photo courtesy Ed Peden.

For Bob Hood, a 24-year-old North Carolina native with six years of Navy service, including three years in Korea, enlistment in the Air Force provided a great career opportunity in the elite new field of nuclear missile operations.

Hood became a member of the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron at its creation and was assigned to the Mobile Automated Checkout and Maintenance (MOCAM) Team, providing maintenance and technical support for the nine missile launcher sites. There were four such teams, three of which maintained three sites each, and a fourth roving team to which Hood belonged, which operated at all nine sites. The roving team was often sent to a site where the regular team could not solve particular problems without abandoning scheduled repairs at their sites. Thus, Bob Hood came to spend a lot of time in the Flint Hills of Wabaunsee County, because site number six at Keene was plagued with problems.

Hood had been part of the lead team which observed the civilian contractors while the nine sites were under construction. In addition to the Keene site, there were identical launchers constructed at Worden, Burlington, Bushong, Valley Falls, Holton, Wamego, Delia and Waverly. Each site contained a single Atlas E missile which lay in a long coffin silo, underground, beneath a 400-ton steel door which would pop open and slide aside, allowing the missile, nuclear warhead atop, to be cranked to a vertical position, filled with liquid oxygen and liquid RF-1 jet fuel and fired into space.

The Atlas E was designed to be ready to launch within 30 minutes of an order from the Pentagon. Life at the missile base was one of continual readiness and pressure. The 400-ton door which was raised hydraulically to allow it to slide open was a source of continual mechanical woe for the MOCAM team. Often, the door, which was designed to open fully in 30 seconds, would take 30 minutes to open. The problem was in the hydraulics which popped the door up vertically; often the huge steel slab was tilted to one side or corner, rendering it incapable of sliding open.

From the time that the Air Force accepted the nine launch sites from the civilian contractors on July 28, 1961, Site No. 6 at Keene was a maintenance problem for Hood’s team. Work at Keen was a mixed blessing for Hood, however, for in 1957 while at Forbes Field he had met and married Ella Ginter from Dover, Kansas, a small town located between Forbes Field and the Keene site. By the time the E missiles were operational, the Hoods had purchased a home in Dover, less than 10 miles east of the missile site. Some days his team would drop Hood off at home on their return to Forbes and pick him up the following morning as they returned to the site.

Bob Hood

Bob Hood

The nine missile sites each were manned on 24-hour shifts by a five-member launch crew, including three enlisted men and two officers. One armed guard was also stationed at each site. Virtually all activity was sealed underground, deep in tunnels and caverns of concrete and steel. A high wire mesh fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the complex, while a remote controlled electric gate allowed the only entry to the facility.

Every member of the launch crew as well as the MOCAM team had a series of routine checks, repairs, and tests that they performed daily as well as at other periodical intervals. On August 9, 1963, disaster struck Site No. 6 at Keene. Hood’s MOCAM team was on duty that day working in a chamber adjoining the missile bay. A launch team member was performing a daily check of the electrical systems, checking the conductivity of the wiring which activated the explosive charges which fired, starting the booster rockets. The technician placed a meter on wires running to one of the booster rockets, but failed, however, to attach a ground wire to the device. This sent a small charge of electricity, just a spark, to the pyrotechnics of the booster rocket, causing a tremendous explosion, which sent the jet engine spinning with massive velocity. Since there was no fuel aboard the missile, the dry rocket engine exploded, disintegrating, ripping a gaping hole in the shroud of the missile. Hundreds of chunks of concrete were strewn across the missile bay; damage was enormous.

The explosion at Keene as classified as a “nuclear incident”, the first in the 548th Missile Squadron’s history. The event was top secret and was never revealed by the Air Force. A damage assessment team was formed to which Hood was assigned, and the damaged missile was removed to Forbes, the launch bay cleaned, and a new missile quickly put into place. Work soon returned to normal at the Keene site.

On January 8, 1964 Bob Hood became a MOCAM Team Supervisor, continuing his work at the nine Forbes sites. The Atlas E, at this time, was less than three years old, but was already obsolete. The Atlas F missiles, the first Atlas silos to store the rocket in a vertical position, were already in place as well as the Titan and early Minuteman missiles. There was considerable dispute between the Air Force and Convair as to the reliability of the Atlas missile. The Air Force found fault in the missile’s design, and Convair contended that the problem was with the Air Force’s deployment of the rocket. To settle the dispute, in August of 1963 orders were received from Washington to remove one of the Atlas missiles from a Forbes AFB launcher and transport it to Vandenberg AFB in California for a test launch. That launch was held in late August; one of the Kansas Atlas E missiles with a dummy warhead was fired at Kwajalein, an uninhabited island near Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean. As the missile jettisoned the booster rockets, just above the earth’s atmosphere, the resulting fire burnt the hydraulic hoses which directed the main sustainer rocket, providing guidance in flight. At 600 miles down range the rocket was tumbling so wildly out of control that the Telemetry Officer gave the order to destroy the missile in flight. This unsuccessful attempt to launch the Atlas effectively sealed the fate of the E missile. On January 13, 1965, orders came from Washington to remove all of the Atlas E missiles and transport them to Norton Air Force Base in California. Within days, one team was dispatched to remove the warheads from the missiles while a second team loaded the rockets on trailers. By February 1, 1965 the only nuclear weapon in Wabaunsee County history had left the Flint Hills forever, having been the front line of America’s nuclear defense during the most critical four years of the cold war.

Hood moved on to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, becoming a Missile Facilities Superintendent, managing 50 minutemen missiles at a base containing 150 such weapons. In 1968 Hood transferred to McConnell AFB at Wichita, managing the nine Titan II missiles at that base. On July 1, 1970 Bob Hood retired after 20 years, seven months and one day of military service. Hood and his family returned to Dover, Kansas moving to a home only a couple miles from where they lived while Hood was serving in the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron.

Hood’s years at the Atlas bases saw the most critical events of the cold war unfold. The downing of the U.S. U-2 spy plane, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the U.S. military buildup in Viet Nam were all events which occurred during the life of the Atlas missile project. When asked if the missile bases went on special alerts when these particularly tense events occurred, Hood replied that security was always at its highest level at the launch sites, saying, “We were always at the highest level of readiness and security every minute of the every day. We were always ready to fire on orders from the Pentagon.”

When asked if he believed during his service in the missile program that one day they would one day, indeed, be ordered to fire the missiles, Hood replied, “Absolutely. That’s what we were there for. You just knew that something was going to happen somewhere, and we would have to send them off. We just hoped to get them off in time.”

Asked if anyone at the site knew where the missile was targeted to hit, Hood replied, “No, that was one thing you never discussed or knew. Your people, the launch operators, could never start thinking about the targets.”

The Cold War memories of civil defense shelters, residential bomb shelters, air raid drills, and visions of Nikita Khrushchev pounding a podium, promising to bury the United States, are distant and fading memories today. But, for a time, when tensions were the highest, Site No. 6 at Keene, Kansas was America’s standard bearer in a global doomsday drama.