Thursday afternoon, July 7, 1983
Schwabstadl Kaserne, Lechfeld Air Base, Bavaria, West Germany
The four of us were in our room, packing for duty at the Q site. Mark, Theo, Keith and I were debating where to go when we returned. We each had a four-day pass. We could couple those passes with the four days we would get off for our two weeks duty at the Q. There was a second, more important debate going on. We were almost finished with our community stockpile of Thorbräu Augsburg Weisse beer and couldn’t decide on a replacement.
I was arguing for Franzikaner Weissen from the Spaten brewery in Munich, but Theo and Keith were voting for something from one of the Rhineland breweries. Mark was a Philistine when it came to beer, and really didn’t care what he drank.
As to the other matter, I wanted to go back to Paris, even though we had missed the annual death day party at Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There were a lot of other great places to go in that historic city. Mark dropped his empty bottle into the recycle box. “We’ve been to Paris. Too many tourists this time of year. Why not go to Vienna or Salzburg? We haven’t been to either place yet.”
There was a rap on the door. We all shouted, “Come in!”
Dennis Gibson opened the door and said to me. “The Captain wants to see us in the classroom.”
“He didn’t say, but it’s probably about Sergeant Maddox.”
Staff Sergeant Maddox had collapsed that morning during formation and had been taken to the German Medical Center on the airbase. He had been Acting Team Sergeant while SFC Murphy was on leave back in the States.
“Okay.” I turned to the others. “This isn’t over, but I am open to Austria. My parents are coming to Europe next month and I know they are going to be in Austria, so I should familiarize myself with some of the sights ahead of time.”
I followed Dennis down the hall to the Team classroom, where Captain Tom Lester was sitting on the front table. Second Lieutenant Stephanie Carter, First Lieutenant Ed Baker, Staff Sergeant Scott Smith, and Sergeant Pete Conley were seated at two of the folding tables in the front of the room. We sat behind Carter and Baker.
The Captain smiled. “Okay, now that we’re all here, let’s get down to it. First, Sergeant Maddox has an acute appendicitis. He’s been transferred to the Army hospital on Sheridan Kaserne in Augsburg. Sergeant Smith is now Acting Team Sergeant. This leaves us with only two B-Men, since Scott’s divorce isn’t finalized yet, so he’s temporarily disqualified from the program.” He waved his hand to indicate Sergeant Smith. “Also, Sergeant Miller’s Background Investigation isn’t finished yet.”
Dennis asked, “What about Sergeant Conley here? He’s finished with his training.”
Lester got off the table and took the seat behind it. “Well, Sergeant Conley has completed his training and has been certified; you are correct. But he’s never had B-Man duty, and this will be his first time down at the QRA Site.”
I had been thinking while he spoke, remembering my own training. “Sir, it wasn’t that long ago that Dennis and I were new to this also. I got qualified in December and Dennis in January. Sergeant Murphy worked our first duty shifts with us, but after that, we were on our own. We can do the same with Sergeant Conley.”
“Are you two willing to spend the time with him down at the Q? You know that it’s got to be one of you guys, because A-Men can’t train B-Men, or the other way around. It’s going to mean extra duty for the first few days.”
Dennis cleared his throat. “Captain, we can do twelves for a few days. That should be long enough to show him everything. He can spend four hours with me and four with Jim, then take sixteen off and do it again. Sixteen hours should be enough to get him comfortable.” Twelves meant twelve hours on and twelve hours off. It was the most desirable shift rotation we could have, because between duty and sleep, the days flew by.
The Captain laced his fingers together and rested his chin on them for a few seconds. Then, putting his hands down, he nodded. “Okay, this is what we’ll do. For the first two days, you two will work twelves and we three will work eight on and sixteen off. Sergeant Conley, when you’re ready, I will pull duty with you and we’ll go to an eight-hour rotation. Ed, you and Jim as usual. Stephanie; you and Dennis. How does that sound?”
We all nodded in agreement, but it was perfunctory. He was the Captain and it was his decision whether we liked it or not. “Okay, everybody out so you can finish packing. I’m going home and I’ll see you all tomorrow morning.”
As we walked down the hall, I started, “I’ll start and show him the inventory procedures for all the classified documents. Then we can go through the alert stages and what is required at each one. That should basically be a review of what he learned to get qualified.”
Dennis added, “I’ll go through the radio procedures and decoding EAM’s (Emergency Action Messages). Then we can open the safes and show him the arming and launch procedures.”
“Sounds like a plan. Want to go to the canteen for dinner?” The German canteen on the airbase served an excellent veal cordon bleu as well as outstanding schnitzel and spaetzles. But the real attraction was their signature drink; the Mossweiss. It came in a liter mug and was about half coke, half dark beer, and four shots of Asbach: the German version of cognac. Two of those and life was good.
“Sure. About five o’clock?”
“Okay. I’ve got a beer issue to settle with my roommates first.”
The next morning found us on the bus to the QRA. It always seemed like it took forever to get there, but it was only about an hour drive. It was located about fifteen miles from the Schloss Neuschwanstein; the Mad King Ludwig’s castle that Disney re-created in Florida.
Dennis and I had discussed the schedule with Sergeant Conley, and we decided that he would spend the last four hours of my shift with me and the first four hours of Dennis’s shift with him. Then he would take off for sixteen hours and do it all over again.
As usual, I was on the first shift when we arrived. When Pete started his training, we went through the inventory procedures, then started on code words. There were a bunch of them, each to signify one category of nuclear weapon incidents. There was ‘Pinnacle’, ‘Empty Quiver’, ‘Bent Spear’, ‘Broken Arrow’, ‘Faded Giant’, ‘Dull Sword’, and ‘Nucflash’. Then we went through the DEFCON levels. One through five; each having their code words like ‘Cocked Pistol’ and ‘Double Take’. The Pentagon probably had an entire section whose function it was to come up with code words. Every code word signified a specific action, or series of actions, that we were supposed to perform. It was all explained in detail in a set of
binders; one for each code word.
Pete had learned this during his qualification training, but now we went through it in detail. It was tedious but necessary. After four hours of that, we took a break, leaving the control room to Dennis and Captain Lester. In the small cafeteria, we sat down with sandwiches and coffee.
“I know it’s a lot to learn, but some of it is a review of what you learned during your qualification training.”
“I know, but there’s a lot to remember.”
“Well, if you have questions, you can always ask me or Dennis. And, Murphy will be back soon. There’s nothing about this stuff that he doesn’t know. He’s been in Pershing for quite a few years.”
After the second round of training, Dennis and I sat down with Captain Lester in the control room and gave him our report of the training sessions.
“So, in summation, you two think he has enough knowledge at this time to act as a B-Man on his own? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Dennis nodded and said, “Yes, sir. That’s what we think.”
I added, “There’s not that much more we can teach him. Now, it’s just a matter of him getting the experience. He has to do it by himself to get his confidence built up, sir.”
He thought for a few seconds, then, “Okay. Then he will start his first shift with me tonight. We’ll go to the eight-hour rotation. Jim, I’ll see you at midnight.”
The shift change that night went off without a hitch. The next morning, I was sitting in the cafeteria when Conley came in after being relieved by Dennis. He got a mug of coffee and sat down across from me.
“Well, how was your first shift?”
“Everything went smooth. No problems. It was a quiet night.”
“They usually are, thank God.”
“They seem to like to stage exercise alerts in the middle of the night. That can be, . . . unsettling.”
“Captain Lester said that we can go down to the pads this afternoon so I can see the missiles up close. He said you might want to come along and that you used to be a pad guard.”
“Only for a few months. My Background Investigation was finished at the beginning of November and I got qualified right away. As you know, they are always short of B-Men.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, we’re in the Personnel Reliability Program. It’s not just drug testing, you know. Everything matters. Say you are going through a divorce, like Sergeant Smith. That automatically disqualifies you. Or, if you get arrested for something. Hell, there’s a whole list of things that can get you disqualified; either permanently or temporarily. Anything that could compromise your ability to perform the mission is a disqualifying factor.”
“I’m beat. I’m going to get some sleep. I’ll see you around two?”
“Okay.” I got up to get another cup of coffee.
At two o’clock, I met up with Conley and the Captain in the cafeteria.
“Ready to take a stroll, Corporal?”
“Yes sir. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been out there.”
The three of us had on our 45’s; it was a rule that everyone going into the inner site had to be armed.
We were passed through the main gates and as we walked along the road leading to Pad A, Conley gaped at the fences with the concertina wire, roving German Shepherds with their handlers, and the towers with guards behind machine guns.
He couldn’t see the landmines. Nor could he see the fifty thousand volts of electricity running through the outer fence, but one could sense its presence.
When we walked onto Pad A, Captain Lester spoke up. “Well, there they are. The Pershing 1A Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles with W-50 warheads.”
“Captain, what’s the W-50 mean?”
“Jim let’s see if you’ve learned anything in the past few weeks working in the Weapons Shop. Answer Sergeant Conley’s question.”
“Yes sir. The W-50 design mod 1 and mod 2 warheads. A two-stage thermonuclear device with a uranium-plutonium fission trigger primary stage. The secondary stage is created by encasing the core with Lithium-6 deuteride. The fission event forces the Lithium compound to change into tritium gas and deuterium, which then begins the fusion process. This is commonly known as a hydrogen bomb. Mod 1’s have set yields of either 60, 200, or 400 kilotons. The mod 2’s are the adjustable dial-a-yield warheads with yields of 60, 220, or 440 kilotons, depending on target requirements. In comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was only 13 kilotons.”
“Jim, tell us the taskings.”
“Yes sir. Pad A, Missile 1, 220 kilotons. Air Operations Center, Veszprém, Hungary, population 135,000. Missile 2, 60 kilotons. 21st Tactical Airbase, Świdwin, Poland, population 16,000. Missile 3, 220 kilotons, 59th Air Base, Kecskmét, Hungary, population 110,000.”
We walked down the road to the next pad. I saw Mark and Keith at their posts, and they came up to us as we walked out onto Pad B.
“Pad B, Missile 1, 440 kilotons. 31st Tactical Airbase, Poznań, Poland, population 1.4 million. Missile 2, 440 kilotons. 12th Air Wing, Győr, Hungary, population 250,000. Missile 3, 60 kilotons. 22nd Tactical Airbase, Malbork, Poland, population 40,000.”
Mark and Keith saluted Captain Lester and Keith asked, “Is he showing off that big brain of his again, Captain?”
“I’m just showing the Captain that the Sergeant-Major didn’t make a mistake by assigning me to the Weapons shop part-time. Maybe if you’d stop drinking that nasty Rhineland beer and listen to me, you might learn something.”
Lester laughed, “Hatch, DiMarco wouldn’t know good beer if it hit him in the face. I personally like Rhineland beer. Talk to me after your shift and I’ll give you some good brands to try.”
We headed down to Pad C and I continued my litany.
“Pad C, Missile 1, 440 kilotons. Air Operations Center and Northern Region Military Command Center, Warsaw, Poland, population 3.1 million. Missile 2, 60 kilotons. 32nd Tactical Airbase, Łask, Poland, population 18,000. Missile 3, 220 kilotons. Tactical Wing 1, Prešov, Czechoslovakia, population 90,000.”
We stood on the cement pad, gazing at missile 1, all of thirty-five feet long.
“Total yield for all nine missiles?”
Conley asked, “I thought that H-bombs were huge, like ten megatons.”
I replied, “Well, some are, but not for what our mission requires. That’s the difference between tactical and strategic targets. We have only two current strategic targets; the Polish Command Center in Warsaw and the Air Ops Center in Veszprém. The bombs you’re thinking of are the ones carried by the B-52’s and they are primarily targeted for population centers.”
Captain Lester continued, “You see, each part of the nuclear arsenal has different missions. Trident submarine missiles have fourteen warheads in each missile and each submarine has twenty-four missiles. They are designed to take out Soviet ICBM sites and other targets that are not concentrated in one location. Minuteman ICBM’s have three warheads in each missile. Those warheads are only about three hundred kilotons and they are primarily targeted against naval and air bases, and command and control centers. They also are targeted at military concentrations in the Western Soviet Union and Eastern Warsaw Pact regions. The bombers, with their two and five megaton bombs, are for economic and industrial capabilities which are located in the cities. Jim, total potential casualties from these missiles?”
“Maximum, five point one million. Realistically, from these target packages is only three point eight million.”
Conley was pale. “You mean that these missiles will kill three point eight million people?”
Captain Lester stopped walking. “Sergeant Conley. There are some aspects of this job that you have to accept. Those potential casualties have been put at risk from our weapons by the location of the Soviet targets. No one told them to put their Northern Command Center in Warsaw. But it’s there, so that’s where our target is.
Those people will die anyway from either Minuteman ICBMs, Trident missiles, or Air Force bombs. Just because we have Warsaw as a target doesn’t mean some other unit doesn’t have it targeted as well. It’s called redundancy.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.” But he still looked uneasy. I know how he felt, so I tried to mitigate his disquiet.
“Sergeant Conley, if it makes it any easier to think about it, consider this. If we do our jobs correctly, a large percentage of Soviet Backfire bombers will be destroyed on the ground. That means a lot fewer bombers getting to the States and a lot better odds of our families surviving.”
“Thanks, but I still don’t like it.”
“We don’t have to like it. In fact, if you did, that means there’s something wrong with you. You’re just saying out loud what we all feel, that’s all.”
Three days later, it was almost midnight and Conley and Lester came in to relieve Lieutenant Baker and me. We were just about to start the inventory process when the wall-mounted speaker came to life.
“BREAK. BREAK. BREAK.”
“STANDBY FOR FLASH TRAFFIC. STANDBY FOR FLASH TRAFFIC.”
“THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION MESSAGE IN TWO PARTS. REPEAT, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION MESSAGE IN TWO PARTS.”
I grabbed my notepad and the black marker sitting on the desk and prepared to write. Conley and Lester backed up against the wall, Conley fixated on the speaker. It was the first time he had heard it.
“PART 1. LIMA. ZULU. ZULU. TANGO. BRAVO. INDIA.”
I wrote L Z Z T B I on the top page.
“REPEAT. PART 1. LIMA. ZULU. ZULU. TANGO. BRAVO. INDIA.”
I checked. All were correct.
“PART 2. DELTA. CHARLIE. OSCAR. WHISKEY. ROMEO. FOXTROT.”
I wrote D C O W R F on the second page.
“REPEAT. PART 2. DELTA. CHARLIE. OSCAR. WHISKEY. ROMEO. FOXTROT.”
Again, I checked. All were correct.
I stood up and removed the chain from around my neck. There was a key on the chain which I inserted into the keyhole on the left side of the top safe. Baker had already inserted his key in the right-side keyhole. We both turned the keys and Ed opened the safe and removed a thick red binder. He laid it on the table and opened it to today’s date.
All that was on the page were the date and six huge block letters: L Z Z T B I.
I laid the top sheet of the pad over the bottom of the page so that both could be seen. “I read: Lima. Zulu. Zulu. Tango. Bravo. India.”
Lieutenant Baker replied. “I read: Lima. Zulu. Zulu. Tango. Bravo. India. I have a valid Emergency Action Message.”
“I concur. I have a valid Emergency Action Message.”
Lieutenant Baker stepped back. Shielding the middle safe from view, I entered my combination on the left-hand dial, yanked down the left lever and stepped back. Ed stepped forward and entered his combination on the right-hand dial and yanked down the right lever. Grabbing the main handle, he opened the safe. Reaching in, he pulled out a box containing small plastic cases, each one about two inches by four inches. He stepped back and I pulled out an identical box. There were thirty cases in each box. There were two for each alert stage, six for exercises, ten for nuclear incidents, and four cases to authorize arming the warheads and launching the missiles.
Rifling through the box, I found the one that had D C O W R F stamped on it and pulled it out. I laid it down on the notepad. Ed laid his down next to mine. The codes matched for both. D C O W R F.
I said, “Delta. Charlie. Oscar. Whiskey. Romeo. Foxtrot.”
Baker answered, “Delta. Charlie. Oscar. Whiskey. Romeo. Foxtrot. Confirmed.”
I swallowed and looked at Ed. He nodded, picked his case up, and snapped it in half, the case breaking along a precut line in the center. I did the same and pulled out the slip of cardboard from inside the case.
I exhaled slowly, all the tension draining in that one big sigh and sat back down.
Thank God we didn’t have to open the bottom safe; the one that had the arming and launch codes.
I took the top two pages from my pad and handed them to Baker along with my broken case and card. He took them, put them in a manilla envelope along with his, then sealed it. We both signed and dated the envelope, then Ed locked it in the big safe in the corner of the room. Eventually, that envelope would make its way to the National Security Agency at Fort Belvoir.
I glanced up at Captain Lester. “I wish they wouldn’t do these drills at night. Now I won’t get any sleep.”
“I know. Every time that speaker goes off, I think I’m going to piss in my pants.”
Sergeant Conley bent over and vomited in the trash can.
I looked at him. “I’m not cleaning that up.”
Lieutenant Baker put his hand on Conley’s shoulder. “Don’t be embarrassed or anything. I yorked up my dinner the first time I went through this. A lot of people have puked in that can. You aren’t the first and won’t be the last. Why don’t you go get cleaned up and we’ll do the shift change when you get back. Take the can with you.”
The next morning, I was sitting in the cafeteria after breakfast, enjoying a mug of coffee and reading ‘The Deerslayer’. Sergeant Conley came in, got a mug, and sat down opposite me.
“How did your shift go?”
“It was quiet.” He stared at the mug for a few seconds, then, “How do you do it?”
“Stay so calm. I mean last night, you were like ice when that message came in. If I hadn’t have thrown up, I would have wet myself.”
“I may have looked calm on the outside, but take my word for it; I was anything but on the inside.”
“Doesn’t all this bother you?”
“Sure it does. But that’s the job. That’s what we signed up for. Not necessarily B-Man duty, that kind of just developed for me as well as for Dennis. I try not to think about it too much. If I did, well, I might not be able to do it.”
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Well, you can always put in for a transfer. No one will think any less of you if you do.”
He didn’t reply, just finished his coffee, then stood up. “Well, I’m going to get
The rest of our time at the Q went smoothly. Sergeant Conley seemed to be adjusting, but it was hard to tell, he didn’t talk much except for what was required during shift changes. He ate by himself, but we figured he just wasn’t used to the informality of our unit. I saw him a couple of times upstairs in the Rec Room just gazing out the windows at the site.
By the time we returned to Schwabstadl on Friday afternoon, Keith and Theo had decided they were going to Hamburg, even though there were very few historical sites left in that city after the massive bombing during the war. Mark had a summer cold and didn’t want to go anywhere, so Dennis and I decided to go to Innsbruck for the weekend.
We had a great time. We went to the Imperial Palace, the Ambras Castle Museum, and the Hofkirche; an ornate Gothic church where we saw the tomb of Archduke Ferdinand. Then we took a cable car up the Nordkette mountain and stayed Saturday night at Gasthaus Anich.
We returned late Sunday afternoon. When I went into my room, I could see that Keith and Theo weren’t back yet, but Mark was lying on his bunk, reading. I threw my overnight bag towards my wall locker. “What’s up? How are you feeling?”
I just stared at him.
“Suicide. He hung himself in his room sometime yesterday. He didn’t leave a note or anything, from what I’ve heard.”
I sat down on my bunk. There had been four other suicides here during my ten months, but Conley was the only one that I had really known. Feeling empty inside, almost like someone had punched me in the stomach, I started wondering if there was something I could have done. I went back out and down the hall to Dennis’s room. He was standing in the open doorway.
“I heard. It sucks.”
I asked quietly, “Is this our fault? Did we push him too hard when he wasn’t ready for the job?”
“Absolutely not. You can’t put this on yourself Jim. You know that. I need a drink. A real drink, not beer. Let’s walk down to the Canteen.”
Later, while playing with my glass, not really interested in drinking, I said, “Flip, do you ever think about what we’re doing here? About the job they’re asking us to do?”
He nodded. “I know what you’re saying. Think about it. We’re really just a bunch of kids and we’re in control of all these nukes. Hell, the only people over thirty are the Major, the XO and the senior sergeants. Even Captain Lester is only twenty-six. And you know, they’re going to say there was something wrong with Pete; that he was unstable or something, like they said with all the others. But he wasn’t.”
I took a sip of my Asbach, then replied. “You know, people say we’re at peace, but that’s not true for us. This may be a cold war, but it’s still a war and there are casualties. Peter Conley and the other four are casualties of war, just as if they had been shot by Russian rifles or been blown to bits by Russian bombs.”
We were silent for a few minutes, then Dennis raised his glass. “To Peter.”
Raising mine, I responded, “To Peter.”
Appendix A: Nuclear Code Words
Pinnacle is a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reporting flagword used in the United States National Command Authority structure. The term "Pinnacle" denotes an incident of interest to the Major Commands, Department of Defense and National Command Authority, in that it:
Generates a higher level of military action
Causes a national reaction
Affects international relationships
Causes immediate widespread coverage in news media
Is clearly against the national interest
Affects current national policy
All of the following reporting terms are classified Pinnacle, with the exception of Bent Spear, Faded Giant and Dull Sword. The flagword Pinnacle may be added to Bent Spear or Faded Giant to expedite reporting to the National Military Command Center (NMCC).
Bent Spear refers to incidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads, components or vehicles transporting nuclear material that are of significant interest but are not categorized as Pinnacle - Nucflash or Pinnacle - Broken Arrow. Bent Spear incidents include violations or breaches of handling and security regulations.
Broken Arrow refers to an accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, warheads or components that does not create a risk of nuclear war. These include:
Accidental or unexplained nuclear detonation
Non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon
Loss in transit of nuclear asset with or without its carrying vehicle
Jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component
Public hazard, actual or implied
Nucflash refers to detonation or possible detonation of a nuclear weapon which creates a risk of an outbreak of nuclear war. Events which may be classified Nucflash include:
Accidental, unauthorized, or unexplained nuclear detonation or possible detonation.
Accidental or unauthorized launch of a nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable missile in the direction of, or having the capability to reach, another nuclear-capable country.
Unauthorized flight of, or deviation from an approved flight plan by, a nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable aircraft with the capability to penetrate the airspace of another nuclear-capable country.
Detection of unidentified objects by a missile warning system or interference (experienced by such a system or related communications) that appears threatening and could create a risk of nuclear war.
This term is a report that has the highest precedence in the OPREP-3 reporting structure. All other reporting terms such as Broken Arrow, Empty Quiver, etc., while very important, are secondary to this report.
Emergency Disablement refers to operations involving the emergency destruction of nuclear weapons.
Emergency Evacuation refers to operations involving the emergency evacuation of nuclear weapons.
Empty Quiver refers to the seizure, theft, or loss of a functioning nuclear weapon.
Faded Giant refers to an event involving a military nuclear reactor or other radiological accident not involving nuclear weapons.
Dull Sword refers to reports of minor incidents involving nuclear weapons, components or systems, or which could impair their deployments. This could include actions involving vehicles capable of carrying nuclear weapons but with no nuclear weapons on board at the time of the accident. This also is used in reports of damage or deficiencies with equipment, tools, or diagnostic testers that are designed for use on nuclear weapons or the nuclear weapon release systems of nuclear-capable aircraft.
Appendix B: Alert Levels
DEFCON 1. COCKED PISTOL. Nuclear war is imminent or has already started. Maximum readiness. Immediate response.
DEFCON 2. FAST PACE. Next step to nuclear war. Armed forces ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours.
DEFCON 3. ROUND HOUSE. Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness. Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.
DEFCON 4. DOUBLE TAKE. Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures. Above normal readiness.
DEFCON 5. FADE OUT. Lowest state of readiness. Normal readiness.