Top secret nuclear missile facility opens to public

Oscar Zero
Oscar Zero was completed in 1965 and controlled ten Minuteman missiles housed in underground silos within five miles of the launch site. The site was taken off of alert status in 1997 and the missiles were removed to comply with the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement. The missile launch tubes have been destroyed.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A once top-secret North Dakota nuclear missile launch facility opens to the public on Monday, offering a look inside what was once one of the nation's most fiercely-protected military operations.

North Dakota's central and northern location made it a good place to locate hundreds of missiles aimed at the Soviet Union. Many of those missiles are gone, but the state is preserving a piece of cold war history.

The non-descript beige building sits in the middle of a farm field just off the highway, surrounded by a security fence topped with barbed wire.

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Click here to take a multimedia tour of the Oscar Zero missile facility.

Military police once patrolled this site 24 hours a day. Now a visitor can simply push the security gate aside and drive in to check out the site the military called Oscar Zero.

Everything is pretty much as it was when the site shut down in 1997. Crew responsibilities are still posted on a bulletin board.

On the wall two clocks keep time. One is for local time, the other is Zulu time, the military reference to Greenwich Mean Time.

"At its peak the U.S. nuclear force was all across the United States, in many time zones, so Zulu made sure the crews were working on exactly the same time," explained site manager Mark Sundlov, a former missileer.

Oscar the Grouch
As a way to fight the tedium of the job, and to show squadron pride, missileers often added artwork to the bare concrete walls of the missile launch facilities.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Sundlov was in charge of launch facilities like this one. He understands what it's like to control ten missiles, each powerful enough to level a major city.

"That initial shock of being in command of ten nuclear missiles, it fades a little bit," he said. "You never lose sight of that responsibility, but at the same time it's not always at the forefront of your mind either."

A large, noisy freight elevator slowly descends nearly 60 feet into a concrete bunker.

Everything down below was designed with the knowledge that Soviet missiles were aimed at this spot on the North Dakota prairie.

The top of the bunker is about four feet of concrete. The floor floats on huge shock absorbers to help the equipment and crew survive a nuclear attack.

Lone Zone
Regulations required two officers to be in the launch control center at all times. They were typically confined to the LCC for 24-hour shifts.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Everything is bolted down, even the microwave oven in the launch control center. There are backup systems for everything.

"The hope was these control centers would survive a near miss," Sundlov said. "It's highly questionable if they would actually survive a direct hit."

The two-person crews were sealed in the launch capsule by a heavy steel and concrete door during their 24-hour shift, known as an "alert."

During North Dakota winters, a blizzard might extend those alerts to two or three days if the next crew was unable to make the drive from the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Control Console
Two control consoles allowed the missile crew to arm and launch missiles on a moments notice. As a security measure, each member of the two person crew needed to simultaneously enter launch commands.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Most of the space inside the launch control center is taken up by electronic equipment. There are phone lines connecting all of the missile launch sites and a direct line to the President. There's a tiny bathroom and a bunk in the corner where crew members took turns sleeping.

It's likely many missileers earned a master's degree here. Crews were encouraged to break the boredom by studying for an advanced degree, according to Sundlov.

Much of the time on alert was spent running through checklists, working with maintenance crews at the missile silos to test equipment, and maintaining detailed records.

"It's a pretty meticulous field, very exacting, which is a good thing because we're talking about nuclear missiles," Sundlov said. "There's very little room for error."

The launch crew members were officers who headed back to their base in Grand Forks after their shift. They typically pulled two alerts a week. When they weren't on alert, they were often being tested back at the base.

Joe Conzo and Mark Sundlov
Joe Conzo (left) is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant who once supervised topside operations at Oscar Zero and other nuclear missile launch facilities. Mark Sundlov (right) is site manager of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Historical Site. He's also a former missile launch control officer.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"Those testing days were some of the most pressure-filled days of the entire month," recalled Sundlov, "because really anything other than a [score of] 100 was unacceptable. And a lot of that determined what your career was going to be in the missile field."

The topside crew, the support staff, was made up of enlisted personnel. They typically stayed at the site for three days and then had three days off.

There were also military police, a cook and a facility manager. Retired Master Sgt. Joe Conzo managed several sites including Oscar Zero.

His duties included mowing grass, plowing snow and making sure everything topside was clean and operational.

Most of the time, he said, it was just a mundane, routine job. But there were occasional reminders of the real purpose, like the morning he brought breakfast downstairs to the missile crew.

"And the crew looked like they'd seen a ghost. They were not right," Conzo recalled. "They said, 'We came within five minutes of launching the missiles.'

"There was an incident with Russia, and they had the word downstairs to launch. So after an incident like that you start thinking about it for a few days," Conzo said.

"But then you go back to the mode, 'nothing is going to happen, it's just a job.' I mean, it's just too much to even think about."

Conzo can't exactly remember when the incident happened.

He also recalls occasional protests against nuclear weapons, one at a nearby missile silo.

"They came and they were throwing blood on the site and they were climbing the fence," Conzo said. "The security police can't do anything with the local people so they call the sheriff and the sheriff comes and takes care of it. Even though the sign said deadly force will be used, they don't do it."

Much more often the security alarms were triggered by rabbits tripping motion sensors in the middle of a North Dakota farm field.

Spending long days away from family combined with an often tedious assignment sometimes prompted tempers to flare.

"I've seen people get nervous," Conzo said. "We had one cop supposedly threaten a female cook with a butter knife. But normally it was fun and games. We liked to play a lot of tricks on each other."

The topside crew could watch television, shoot pool or read. There were occasional touch football games on the expansive grassy perimeter.

Conzo recalled with a chuckle the summer day a sunbathing female crew member distracted a military police truck driver and the vehicle ended up in the ditch.

Missileers on alert here often left something behind. Some signed their names on the drab concrete walls, while others added artwork. The site's name, Oscar Zero, was simply taken from the military alphabet, but the Oscar missileers claimed a famous mascot.

"You can see on the back wall one of the great pieces of the Oscar site is the picture of Oscar the Grouch there heading out on alert," said Mark Sundlov.

There will be no more alerts at Oscar Zero, but it will remain, preserved as a reminder of a time when the North Dakota prairie concealed the threat of nuclear annihilation.