BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. -- The warheads were long gone. The doomsday keys had been removed to the safety of an Air Force vault. Racks of classified electronic communications panels that once spewed out coded messages from hidden war rooms had been carted off as salvage.
At Mike 10, an underground nuclear missile silo that has stood poised north of the Black Hills for three decades, all that was left to do was pull the plug and turn out the lights.
On a crisp November morning, a disarmed 1.5-megaton nuclear missile was hoisted up from its darkened cocoon 70 feet beneath the barren prairie. Erect for a few moments under a cloudless sky, the 36-ton Minuteman II gingerly was laid down onto a truck bed bound for a dismantling plant in Utah.
Several miles away at Mike 1, a room tucked at the bottom of an elevator shaft 60 feet underground, Lt. William Murphy was preparing for his own departure. The launch chamber where missile crews once safeguarded doomsday keys designed to ignite the annihilation of Soviet cities was now as innocuous and spare as a broom closet.
Lieutenant Murphy paused by a reinforced concrete wall where previous missile crews scrawled mushroom clouds and left messages for the ages: "No one leaves unaffected." "I never saw a real key." "R.I.P." Lieutenant Murphy added his own: "The REAL last alert." Minutes later, he took the final shuddering elevator ride to daylight.
One by one, a lethal crop of Minuteman IIs buried a generation ago in the farm fields of America's heartland are being plucked from the earth, their silos left sealed and abandoned. Under terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START II, ratified this year, the Air Force must remove and disarm more than 300 missiles based in South Dakota and Missouri, remnants of a line of defense that once stretched from Odessa, Mo., through Kansas and Nebraska, to the hinterlands of western South Dakota.
American soil is not yet rid of ballistic weaponry. More than 500 newer ICBMs, Peacekeepers and Minuteman IIIs, will be kept underground in several Western states. But the removal of the aged Minuteman IIs has begun liberating the Midwest from its most enduring and omnipresent symbol of the nuclear age: lonely one-acre squares of earth lined with barbed wire that made targets out of scores of U.S. farming communities.
"They were both part of our landscape and something alien," says David Miller, a regional historian at Black Hills State University. "It wasn't benign like a haystack or a barn. We always knew what they could do -- and what they could do to us. But there's still a lot of mixed emotions as we watch them go."
The missile pullout signals a bittersweet end of an era for many young Air Force "missileers" -- struggling to adapt to post-Cold War realities -- and for the growers and ranchers who lived uneasily in the missiles' flight paths for 30 years. The farmland will remain scarred long after the Minutemen are gone.
Lt. Col. Jim Davis never believed the day would come. A 17-year veteran of missile alerts, he commands the 68th Missile Squadron, one of several silo crews assigned to the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, near Rapid City.
Twice, in 1979 and in 1980, Colonel Davis, 39, descended into missile launch chambers just hours after early warning systems erroneously indicated the United States had been fired upon by Soviet missiles. As Colonel Davis carefully reset launch panels and coded high-frequency communication equipment, he recalls, he mused about how close the missiles had come to ignition.
"It made you realize how possible it was," he says. "That's not something you forget too soon."
In July, Colonel Davis' squadron, the Red Eagles, will cease to exist. Without missiles to monitor and keys to wield, Colonel Davis' young crews -- most in their 20s -- will be scattered to posts across the country. Colonel Davis will seek work in another missile command, while older officers look toward retirement.
"We're no longer needed because we succeeded so well," Colonel Davis says. "We protected the country. We're going out on top. But I have to admit, it doesn't make it any easier to take."
The deactivation of Ellsworth's remaining 600 crew members, who staff 29 missile sites -- shrunken from a force of 1,500 -- has tangible fallout on surrounding communities.
Stores and service stations in towns like Sturgis and Spearfish can no longer rely on business from traveling Air Force crews seeking everything from coffee to snow tires. Remote country roads and bridges that were paved and repaired for years by the Air Force because of their proximity to missile sites will become the burden of local governments.
Rural electric power cooperatives that were paid handsomely to supply steady current to missiles and communication systems will have to pass on rising costs to consumers.
"There are buried cables and phone lines all over this part of the state," Mr. Miller, the historian, says. "They're all going dead. That's one hell of a blackout to absorb."
The pullout began in September 1991, when then-President Bush took the Minuteman IIs off alert. A year later, the Air Force began disarming and removing the 1.5-megaton warheads.
The missiles will all be gone by spring, leaving gaping shafts in the earth to mark their memory. Next July, under the terms of START II, the Air Force will separate the 71-ton blast doors that top the empty silos. Explosives will be detonated inside. The rubble will be bulldozed into the exposed hole, then capped with concrete.
The launch chambers also will be rendered useless, their massive steel doors welded shut and elevator shafts filled with sand and 7 feet of topsoil. Above ground, the shacks that housed military police, maintenance crews and cooks will be offered for resale to the landowners who sold the properties to the Air Force 30 years ago.