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Deep in the barren Sonoran Desert in the summer of 2008, Drew Reeves drove a back-hoe fourteen feet into the earth. That was as far as he could go before having to hire help and an Excavator — a construction vehicle with a giant mechanical shovel on the end of a huge boom arm (pictured below). After pulling out huge blocks of concrete and piles of dirt from the hole, the Excavator operator got a little overzealous. “He stretched that boom way too far out and down he went,” said Reeves. Twenty-seven hours and one toppled piece of heavy machinery later, Reeves was faced with a 6,000-pound blast door. “That little tiny Excavator we had down in there, we had to tie a rope to the door handle and give it a little jerk. And it opened right up.”
The Titan II missile silo complex was first carved out with dynamite in the early ’60s and manned by a crew whose job it was to ensure our enemy’s mutual destruction should we enter nuclear war. It was later dismantled and sealed up to comply with international treaties. After sitting buried beneath rubble for two decades, the site was ready to be explored.
Constructing nuclear fortresses was not an easy task. Workers reported that Reeves’ site required twice as much dynamite as usual because of all the rock. “We would work 18-hour shifts,” Barthelette said of the beginning of his service, via e-mail, “as there was a deadline assigned to each site. Some of the sites were up to 50 miles from the base so normally I would eat the foil packs they sent out to the site and slept in my parka on the steel-plated decks of the silo. I learned to sleep anywhere and at anytime while in the service.” Barthelette served eight years at various missile sites, including Bitburg, Germany. He began his career overseeing site purchases and construction, and eventually took a position on a missile control crew.
Many abandoned nuclear missile sites are now owned by regular citizens trying to find a function for them. Read on to probe the depths of Reeves’ silo and hear from ex-crew members who had their fingers on the button when Armageddon was just a command away. Reeves’ new property was one of 18 Titan II missile silos attached to the Davis-Montham Air Force base near Tucson, Arizona. Equipped with larger warheads than the Atlas missiles and faster deployment than the original design, second-generation Titans stood at alert from the program’s inception in 1963 to its end in 1987.
Lt. Yvonne Morris supervised a launch crew in the early ’80s (above) in what has become the Titan Missile Museum, where she acts as director. The museum also contains the last surviving Titian II missile.
“I had been trained enough in potential war scenarios,” she said, “to know that if I got an order to launch my missile that my parents’ farm and nice rural Virginia was a big smoking hole. It was over. And life as I know it was over.”
“There’s just no going back from this,” said Morris. “If you’re gonna launch a Titan II, that’s not the missile that you’re going to use to demonstrate your conviction to use nuclear weapons. It’s not the thing that says,’ Hey, I told you I would do this and here’s one to prove it.’ If you launch a Titan II it’s guns blazing — we’re in World War III. “I’d read enough apocalyptic fiction by then, and I didn’t really have much faith in what life was going to look like after that anyway. So did I want some payback for losing my family, losing life as I know it before I die? Yes. And I’m not ashamed to say that.”
America’s nuclear policy was one of deterrence by credible threat, a position held by the Titan II program during its tenure. Armageddon was strategy: mutual assured destruction. To ensure the missiles would fire after being attacked, and thus obliterate a good portion of the human race, missile silos were constructed to withstand bombardment. The center blast lock, separating the launch control from the missile, is a fortress.