The Okinawa missiles of October

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Though the story is not confirmed, it appears that in 1962 the Air Force base at Okinawa came mere seconds from launching its nuclear missiles during the Cuban missile crisis.

The most frightening part of the story is this:

According to Bordne’s account—which, recall, is based on hearing just one side of a phone call—the situation of one launch crew was particularly stark: All its targets were in Russia. Its launch officer, a lieutenant, did not acknowledge the authority of the senior field officer—i.e. Capt. Bassett—to override the now-repeated order of the major. The second launch officer at that site reported to Bassett that the lieutenant had ordered his crew to proceed with the launch of its missiles! Bassett immediately ordered the other launch officer, as Bordne remembers it, “to send two airmen over with weapons and shoot the [lieutenant] if he tries to launch without [either] verbal authorization from the ‘senior officer in the field’ or the upgrade to DEFCON 1 by Missile Operations Center.”

Read it all. Quite fascinating, and chilling. A hat tip to Shane Rollin, my web guy, for sending this to me.


  • Garry

    Yes, a fascinating story, and I like that the author has been very careful to point out that this is all based on one vet’s recollection, with partial verification from another, anonymous vet.

    I certainly see this story as plausible; it reminds me of my favorite quote from literature (from The Caine Mutiny): “The military is designed by geniuses to be run by idiots” Thank God some of the “idiots” ended up having common sense.

    I’ll have to (diplomatically) ask my Japanese friends if this story is being talked about there, and if so, what do people think? Are they upset? Japan has long had a policy of not allowing nuclear weapons anywhere in their territory, and if this story is true, this was a clearly violation of that policy (I have heard of other alleged violations). If the story is true, did the Japanese government know that the US had nuke weapons on Okinawa? If not, was it the case that they didn’t want to know and never sought to find out?

    Fascinating on many levels.

  • S Cooper

    The US controlled Okinawa until 1972, so Japan did not have a lot to say about it.

  • Garry

    Good catch, I forgot about that.

    I sure that some Japanese will take offense nonetheless.

  • Garry

    Good catch; I forgot about that.

  • PeterF

    I was assigned to the Missile Warning Center (MWC) in Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC) from ’99 t0 ’03
    (It looks nothing like the cool set they had in “War Games”)

    The Department of Defense will neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear warheads at any location at any time.

    My knowledge of early 1960s strategic weapons command and control is limited, but I find it unlikely that any individual, whether a Major or even a General at any overseas base would have access to a complete launch authorization code. I also find it hard to believe that the Major would have been court-martialed unless he willfully disregarded procedures and accessed valid launch codes for routine transmission. Perhaps this was one of the incidents that that ultimately resulted in two keys, two safes, dual phenomenology, and no-lone zones.

    DEFCON upgrade is not always required for launch authorization. DEFCON 1 means an attack is either imminent or in progress and upgrade may be given concurrently with weapons release authorization because of time limitations.

    Interesting trivia fact: During the Cuban Missile crisis, we only had one operational ICBM. It was known as “The Ace in the Hole”.

    The Soviets had far less training and never had the sophisticated controls that we have. They relied mostly on Missile forces controlling the delivery devices and the KGB controlling the warheads. The idea that the Soviets were ready to fight a nuclear war was only ever a myth, The leadership was not stupid and absolutely did not want to turn the heat up and turn the cold war into a shooting war. They knew the U.S. would survive an exchange, and that the politburo would ultimately not survive.
    It was also likely that a large percentage of their equipment would have malfunctioned as well. But the useful idiots refused to see that.

    After the Soviet breakup, The Russians were given a tour of CMOC. They were SHOCKED that we were still ready, willing, and able to go at any time.

    “We can destroy the Earth seventeen times over” was a particularly stupid piece of propaganda used to get us to disarm.

  • D.K. Williams

    My recollection is that SAC “might” have had nukes at Kadena, AFB, on Okinawa, but they would have been delivered via B-52’s, not missiles.

  • Edward

    PeterF wrote: “The idea that the Soviets were ready to fight a nuclear war was only ever a myth, The leadership was not stupid and absolutely did not want to turn the heat up and turn the cold war into a shooting war.”

    This may be true, but after the Soviet Union fell, we learned that the local commanders on Cuba were pre-authorized to launch their missiles at the US in the case of invasion from the US. Kennedy and his advisers never considered that as a possibility, because the Soviets were always centrally controlled, and Kennedy’s advisers could not imagine that the Soviets would give up control over such an important function, especially when the consequences were so extreme.

    Invasion of Cuba was one option that the US considered, but declined to authorize, as there was no guarantee that the already-operational missiles could be captured or destroyed before orders to fire could be received from the Soviet Union. As it turned out, the US had less time to disable the missiles than they had estimated, due to the pre-authorization.

    As I understand it, the US had many short-range nuclear-tipped missiles (non-ICBM) stationed in places near the Soviet Union, such as Turkey. I also understand that it was the failure to carry out Kennedy’s orders to remove the missiles in Turkey that led directly to the Cuban missile crisis.

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