recalling the titan II missile 50 years later

Former Air Force officer held millions of lives in her hands

2013-12-29T00:00:00Z Former Air Force officer held millions of lives in her handsBy Doug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You might think your job is stressful, but here’s something to put it in perspective: You don’t face the prospect of killing millions of people on any given day at work.

Yvonne Morris did.

She was a missile combat crew commander at Titan II missile sites around Tucson — including the one remaining site, which is now the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita.

“I had to be ready at any time to launch a missile with a 9-megaton (nuclear) warhead,” said Morris, who served on launch crews from 1980 to 1984. “That’s equivalent to 9 million tons of TNT. The missile could reach its target in 25 minutes and decimate an area of 900 square kilometers.

“It could kill millions of people.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the deployment of Titan II missiles at 54 sites around the United States, including 18 sites ringing the Tucson area. It’s a time of deep reflection for Morris and others who literally held the keys to unleash devastation so horrific as to be almost unimaginable.

Today, with Morris as a guide, we look back at the Cold War era, the deadly missiles that defined it, and the mind-set of those who stood ready for a launch that thankfully never came.

COLD WAR

An era of profound, prolonged tension between powers led by the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cold War spanned decades from the late 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Defining events included the Berlin blockade, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the space race — and, most ominously, the buildup of massive nuclear arsenals on both sides of the conflict.

Americans built backyard bomb shelters and made plans for trying to survive a feared nuclear holocaust.

Responding to ever-more-threatening Soviet missile capabilities, the U.S. deployed Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, beginning in 1963 at sites in Southern Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas.

Tension and readiness remained high for the next two decades, but eventually, as the Cold War wound down, the Sahuarita site was deactivated in 1982, and the last Titan sites were closed in 1987.

The museum, which is designated as a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1986 and is now operated by the nonprofit Arizona Aerospace Foundation. Morris is executive director of the Foundation, which also operates the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson.

A CUTTING-EDGE CAREER

Air Force Lt. Yvonne Morris was a mere 22 years old when she began duty at Titan missile launch sites. She served first as a deputy crew commander and later as missile combat crew commander.

After those years of enormous responsibility and rigid devotion to duty, Morris left the Air Force in 1985 and worked as a legal researcher. She began volunteering as a docent and instructor at the Titan Missile Museum in 1998 and held several posts there before taking her current position as director of the Aerospace Foundation.

“Most people start out in their working life at a certain level and gradually work up to a career high point,” said Morris, 55, during an interview in the highly fortified launch-control center 135 feet below the ground in Sahuarita. “I started my adult working life with the most important job I would ever have.”

Her path to the subterranean bunker and the profound responsibilities she had there began when she was a student at the University of Virginia. After learning about an Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps program on campus, she checked it out, joined up and soon became a high achiever in the program.

“I finished No. 1 in my flight,” she said. “Later, a recruiter came to see me. They had just opened the Titan II career field to women. I was one of the first selected, and I took to it like a duck to water.”

She qualified for a top-secret clearance, passed psychological-fitness screenings, completed 18 weeks of ground school and seven weeks of training on classified aspects of the work, and then was assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base for so-called upgrade training required for Titan launch officers.

“We didn’t have to be brilliant to do this work, but you needed to be committed,” Morris said. “You had to be able to think outside the box — but not be a cowboy.”

LAUNCH-SITE MEMORIES

Morris, sitting at the commander’s desk in the launch-control center that was her home during those 24-hour shifts in the 1980s, described the high security, launch procedures and crucial mind-set of launch officers.

As she spoke, she pointed out what was once absolutely cutting-edge technology in the center and elsewhere on the site — including computers and other equipment that appear almost comically outdated by today’s standards.

“This was my duty station,” she said, settling in behind a control panel. “Three other people were with me on the crew — another officer (the deputy commander) and two enlisted people. One was an electronics expert, and the other was a facilities expert.”

Just to get into the center, she and other crew members had to work through a maze of security procedures including multiple phone calls, an entry code issued earlier in the day at Davis-Monthan, and confinement in an “entrapment area” where entrants were observed by the outgoing crew on a closed-circuit TV monitor.

Launch procedures were designed to prevent a launch by any one person — and to reduce the likelihood of an accidental launch.

“It took two keys that must be turned simultaneously to launch the missile,” Morris said. “The keys were too far apart for one person to reach both keys — so it took both the crew commander and deputy crew commander to launch.”

The keys needed to be held in the “on” position for five seconds.

Among other safeguards: An emergency war-order safe, which held the keys needed to launch a nuclear missile, could only be opened with two combination locks — with the crew commander and deputy commander each having one combination.

“Another fail-safe device,” Morris said, “was the butterfly valve lock, which needed to be activated with a top-secret code before inserting the keys and launching. The code was embedded in launch orders from Strategic Air Command.”

It all took some time, but not much.

“From key turn to liftoff was 58 seconds,” Morris said.

What were the targets?

“I don’t think the targets of Titan II missiles will ever be declassified,” she said.

All the technology in the world would be for naught if a crew commander or deputy lacked the will — or courage — to launch such a weapon.

“There is,” she said, “a difference between believing you could kill millions of people and actually being able to do it.”

She had her own personal ways of getting into the nuclear-war mind-set.

“We were trained to do this, but I had an added incentive,” Morris said. “My parents lived in central Virginia, about 100 miles due south of Washington” — a likely target of an enemy missile strike that would spark a Titan missile retaliation.

“If I got a launch order, life as I knew it would be over,” she said. “The warrior part of me would want to execute my mission, to avenge my family, to avenge our way of life. I think I could have done it, but I never had to.”

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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