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Sitting on The Bomb in North Dakota


VOLTAIRE, N.D. -- The wheat field outside Henry Frantsen's front door remains armed and dangerous.

There is a silo burrowed 90 feet underground, hardened by concrete and steel, topped by a 110-ton hatch, a 20-foot antenna, and 10 yards of railroad track. And there is the missile, the one beneath the wheat, the one with the three nuclear warheads that each could wipe out a major city.

For nearly a third of his 92 years, Mr. Frantsen, a second-generation North Dakota farmer, has lived side by side with the missile, a witness to a nuclear holocaust that never was.

"I never thought they'd shoot one," he said. "They say, though, you've never lived unless you've heard one fired off."

The Cold War may be over, but the nuclear missiles remain buried on the prairie, an unharvested crop that for most Americans remains out of sight, out of mind. On farms and cattle ranches fewer than a hundred miles south of the Canadian border, and 30 minutes by rocket power from downtown Moscow, a chunk of America's land-based nuclear arsenal is on alert, 24 hours a day.

Those who have lived and worked with the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since their installation in 1962 have grown accustomed to their presence, the silos becoming as much a part of the Great Plains' landscape as the grain bins and barns.

"We never worried about the missiles," Mr. Frantsen said. "Having them is better than shooting, better than a real hot war. TheCommunists, they might have tried something if we didn't have these missiles. But me, I always felt secure out here."

The security blanket starts at Minot Air Force Base, where the silos that hold 150 of America's arsenal of 500 Minuteman IIIs are spread in the shape of the letter C across 8,500 square miles in the surrounding countryside.

It is flat here. Quiet, too. Winters are harsh, but there is a beauty to the summer, especially when the wheat is waving in the breeze.

But do not be deceived by the gentle landscape. From here, you could end the world and catch the last few seconds on CNN.

Air Force Capt. Scott Rothweiler's office lies 60 feet beneath the soil, 11 miles outside a town named Kenmare.

He sits in a heavily padded red chair inside a rectangular room suspended by shock absorbers roughly the size of a one-story house. A radio crackles. A Teletype spews out messages. There are a bed and a toilet at one end of the compartment, and a foot-tall computer about as powerful as your average wristwatch at the other end.

The telephones have rotary dials, the Air Force following a policy of not fixing things not broken. However, the system is due for an upgrade of electronic equipment soon.

It could be 1962

If not for the microwave oven and the cassette player stashed above a console, this could be 1962, with Kennedy in the White House and Khrushchev in the Kremlin.

But this is 1994, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and for the first time in more than 30 years, the nuclear weapons are no longer targeted on specific cities. Yet officers like Captain Rothweiler and his partner, Capt. Bert Braza, continue to man one of the area's 15 missile alert facilities in 24-hour shifts, up to 10 times a month.

"We feel like we're in a big eggshell down here," said Captain Rothweiler, 27, of Memphis, Tenn. "We're here to launch a missile. And we've never launched one."

America's missileers have time to kill and plenty of time to study when submerged beneath the ground. The 200 missileers at Minot may be dressed in blue jumpsuits that make them look like a bunch of car mechanics, but they are all officers, all brandishing college degrees, and nearly all enrolled in master's degree programs.

"You have to find your own reason for doing the job," said Captain Braza, 27, from Newport News, Va. "You find your own gains. You realize, 'Yes, what I'm doing is valuable.' The system has worked."

In the daily routine that rules life along the missile range, it is often hard to believe that this is the front line of a war that has never been fought. It isn't just peaceful out here -- it's downright dull.

A security breach at the missile site is when a jack rabbit happens to skip into the range of sensors, or when the wind blows too hard, or when the snow melts and sets off an alarm.

Above ground at the missile alert facilities, the personnel can play basketball, lift weights, shoot pool, watch satellite television or videos, or simply read books.

The guards who work four-day shifts carry loaded M-16s, but outsiders rarely venture near the fenced compounds.

Why we're out here'

"In the back of my mind, I know why we're out here," said Staff Sgt. Tambra Shafer, 28, of DuBois, Pa.

Sergeant Shafer, who runs a security detail, harbors few illusions about her future in the event of a nuclear confrontation.

"We'd be toast," she said.

But few inside or outside the military dwell on the possibility of being at the center of a nuclear war. Live with something long enough, even nuclear weapons, and, well, you get used to them.

Listen to Glenn Wunderlich, farmer, the man who actually grows the wheat out front of Mr. Frantsen's home in Voltaire.

"There's just a different feeling out here," he said, taking a visitor on an impromptu tour of the wheat field and the missile silo.

"Maybe we're more patriotic. But you realize the nation has to have defense. We're in a unique spot out here. You can go over the North Pole from here, and get where you need, real fast. We don't know when we would need those missiles. Maybe everything is fine now. But maybe, we could end up like Pearl Harbor in 1941, not having any defense."

Listen to Bud Olsen, who ran Minot's Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee for 31 years before his retirement in 1990, and who can recall the city raising $50,000 in one day to buy land for the base.

"We want to keep our missiles," he said.

And listen to Mr. Frantsen, who -- legend has it -- was born under a wagon.

"The missiles? We don't pay much attention to them anymore," he said. "They're just here."

Right now, the main issues in the area are keeping the missiles, keeping a wing of 22 B-52 bombers, and keeping the base off the congressional hit list.

They don't do peace demonstrations in Minot.

In this city of 35,000, the missiles mean money, jobs and security. The Air Force base, with its population of 10,000, is the region's chief employer, pumping some $178 million annually into the economy.

Around here, folks still say that North Dakota is the world's third-largest nuclear power, behind the rest of the United States and the old Soviet Union. But this is a new era. America has cut its ICBM missile force by nearly half. Those ICBMs that remain are also due to be converted to single warheads, pending the ratification of a START II treaty.

Minot has survived the first two rounds on the base closure merry-go-round, but may face another test when the next round comes along mid-decade.

But when will America fill in the last of the silos? The Department of Defense plans to keep the Minuteman system viable through the turn of the century. So the missileers still have a tough, tedious job to perform.

"You peel back three layers, and they're all still the same, modest American kid," said Col. Hugh E. Smith, vice commander of the 5th Bomber Wing, who was born in Baltimore.

'Only The Best Come North'

Even in this era when America's enemies are no longer easily identifiable, the men and women who operate the missile silos are confident of their ability to carry out the unthinkable -- orders to attack.

Life as a missileer is a four-year hitch in a lonely place performing a lonely job summed up by the sign that greets visitors to the base: "Only The Best Come North."

There is a myth that the missileers are all poised with their hands on buttons, ready at a moment's notice to start World War III. The fact is the two officers in two different missile alert facilities each have to turn keys to complete a successful launch. Moreover, the launch locks are located 15 feet apart in each of the capsules and have to be turned within two seconds, ensuring that one person could not do the job of two. They used to carry side arms into the silos. But no more.

"You can't come out here and not have some sort of vision of what you can do one day," Captain Rothweiler said. "I don't think it's ever going to happen. If it does, you do what you do."

Turn the key. Watch the television.

From here, the end of the world lies just beyond the horizon.

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