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Cuban Missile Crisis: Young officer held key to destruction
By RUSTY DENNEN
The date was Oct. 24, 1962, and then-Air Force Capt. Wayne Colton, a junior officer and three enlisted men were huddled in a hardened missile silo deep beneath a field on an air base in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
That day, for the first time ever—or since—the U.S. military elevated its threat level to an unprecedented Defense Condition Two. The United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war and Colton and his crew were prepared to kill millions of people, if so ordered.
Two days earlier, President John F. Kennedy announced to a stunned nation that spy-plane reconnaissance photos had confirmed the presence of Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, and he ordered a naval blockade.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Colton recalled those two tense weeks in October against the backdrop of now-simmering nuclear tensions in Iran and North Korea.
“At the time, we didn’t think of being a part of history. Our thought was that this is really bad. We were in a state we had never been in before,” said Colton, 75, who retired as a lieutenant colonel and now lives with his wife, Linda, off Catharpin Road in Spotsylvania County.
“We knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we knew that this was many multiple times worse.”
Those Japanese cities were destroyed by the first two nuclear bombs, dropped in August 1945. Colton’s crew was responsible for an Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a 4-megaton warhead nearly a thousand times as powerful as those World War II bombs.
“I don’t think any of us had any doubt about what we would do,” he said, thinking back to that fateful day in October. “You do your job. If you’ve got to fire this thing, fire it.”
He knew that the missile could potentially kill millions of people in Eastern Europe.
The crew, he said, didn’t know what target it would strike. The missile was programmed to accept either of two destinations, labeled “A” and “B.”
“The reason they didn’t want you to know—they realized that somebody might have relatives there. You don’t want to think about your Uncle Peter in Ukraine, who you might be sending this toward.”
INTO THE SILO
Colton, a Spotsylvania native who grew up near the courthouse, graduated from Spotsylvania High and attended the University of Virginia on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. After graduation, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md.
While there, he heard about the formation of 12 Atlas ICBM squadrons around the country. It was a time when Cold War brinksmanship was reaching its crescendo.
“I thought, that looks pretty exciting and I wanted to get involved,” he said.
He volunteered for the nine-month training program and in September 1962, at age 23, was assigned to command a missile crew with the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in upstate New York. Plattsburgh was a component of the Strategic Air Command based in Omaha, Neb.
Colton and his crew worked one day on duty, one off.
The military’s Atlas program was so new at the time, he recalled, that “not all the sites were ready to go,” so the frequent shifts were necessary.
“You could sleep at the silo, but you were dog tired when you left,” he said.
Colton’s first wife, Chris, lived on base.
There were seven Atlas squadrons spread out across the country, each with 12 missiles.
“We were the only one east of the Mississippi,” Colton said, which gave his squadron the ability to strike the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union.
Colton and the crew would arrive at the silo to relieve the previous crew, and change from their uniforms into white coveralls and gray hard hats.The clothing change “was so as not to bring any outside contamination inside” that might affect the consoles and equipment, he said. Colton still has his helmet, Air Force cap and a few other mementos of his days underground.
Day to day, “There was a lot of maintenance [equipment] inspections and monitoring.”
Messages would come in from SAC headquarters, an airborne command center known as Looking Glass, the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The crews, Colton said, were always on standby.
Through that September and into early October, the crew responded to routine drills.
“Occasionally we went to a higher readiness condition,” he said, which meant running through launch-verification procedures and loading liquid oxygen needed for the rocket’s fuel mix.“These were enormously complex systems, and they were constantly working on things. There was never a slow day at the silo,” Colton said.
‘READY TO FIRE’
Each incoming message had to be authenticated and validated by both launch officers. Colton and his lieutenant carried launch-commit keys and “go codes” in sealed envelopes to be confirmed if a launch order was received.
Target information was sent from an early computer to the missile guidance system, the warhead armed and fuel preparation completed. Giant counterweights hoisted the missile up the silo lift, and massive steel blast doors would open.
A positive launch enable signal was required to complete the sequence.
“Now, you were ready to fire,” Colton said.
The crew, on occasion, discussed the implications of the drills.
“We did talk about the unthinkable. We were keenly aware of that. We didn’t want to do it; statistically, we didn’t think we’d ever have to do it,” he said.
Each man (there were no women then in the missile program) knew that, if the Soviets attacked, they might survive but their families above ground would probably die.
An incoming warhead would take 20 to 30 minutes to arrive; the preparations in the silo—from the time the launch message was received to the actual launch—was about 15 minutes.
“We trained to be ready,” Colton said. “The Cold War was a very dynamic thing. You had the Berlin Wall crisis the year before. It was a very tense time. There was a real possibility of a confrontation that got everyone’s anxiety level up.”
NO ‘DR. STRANGELOVE’
All missile crew members underwent psychological testing.
“You didn’t want some quirky guy with a mental problem around nuclear weapons,” Colton said.
Officers carried .45-caliber pistols in case something went wrong underground.
So many safeguards had been built into the system, he said, that an unauthorized attack was considered all but impossible.
That was the scenario in the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove,” in which a deranged Air Force general provokes a nuclear strike. Colton, who was still in Plattsburgh that year, saw the movie.
He smiled, “Right around the time [it] came out, here I go into the movie, in my Air Force uniform, not knowing all the details.”
The movie ends with Maj. T.J.“King” Kong (Slim Pickens) riding an A–bomb to an apocalyptic finish.
“Then I have to walk out, and people are looking at me, like, ‘You’re a bad guy.’ I’ll never forget that night.”
Nor the six days, he said, following Kennedy’s Oct. 22 speech.
On Oct. 24, Kennedy pulled back the quarantine line around Cuba and raised nuclear forces readiness to DEFCON 2. Three days later, a U–2 spy plane monitoring the situation was shot down over Cuba, further escalating the crisis.
In the silo, Colton said, the crew continued its grim vigil—“another couple days of not knowing what was going to happen.”
On Oct. 28, the stalemate broke, with the Soviets backing down and agreeing to dismantle the missile sites.
After his missile service, Colton went to Vietnam as an Air Force adviser, then to Germany, where he worked for John Hughes, the Defense Intelligence Agency official who briefed the nation on the Cuban missiles during Kennedy’s speech.
Next, he went to Hawaii, retiring from the Air Force in 1981. He worked for several defense contractors before taking a sharp career turn—into ministry. He’s been pastor at several churches and currently serves at Triangle Baptist Church.
Colton still thinks back on his days in Plattsburgh, and reflects on how the nuclear arms dynamic has changed.
“We’ve kind of grown complacent. We’re not testing them anymore. You never hear about them or read about them,” though the major superpowers still stockpile thousands of warheads.
“I don’t think people comprehend the destructive power of these things, and the fact that there’s so many of them, even today.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431