Air Force personnel worked for decades maintaining and operating a system which they hoped would never be used. Local citizens in western South Dakota grew up in the shadows of the missile field. People organized to protest the deployment of nuclear weapons. Click on any of the names listed below to read oral history interviews with those who helped make history.
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David Blackhurst was born in West Virginia and grew up in central South Dakota. Mr. Blackhurst began his Air Force career as a pilot where he flew missions over North Vietnam. In the early 70s Mr. Blackhurst came to Ellsworth Air Force Base to fly B-52 bombers. In 1974 he joined missile operations as a Missile Crew Commander. In 1979 Mr. Blackhurst went to topside operations as a facility manager. His main duty station as both a missileer and facility manger was at Launch Control Facility India-01. Mr. Blackhurst is one of only a few missile field personnel to ever work in both topside and underground operations in 44th Missile Wing.
Dennis Cabrera was career Air Force and "involuntarily" transferred into the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in 1974. After graduation from college as a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in 1967, Cabrera entered the U.S. Air Force in the Accounting and Finance field. Once in South Dakota, Cabrera was assigned to the 67th Strategic Missile Squadron for the first two years as a Missile Combat Crew Commander, then transferring to the wing staff as an Emergency War Order (EWO) instructor for his final two years. He remained with the U.S. Air Force until his retirement in 1991.
Kerry Davis was born in Missouri and grew up near St. Louis. He was a Missile Combat Crew Commander at Whiteman Air Force Base. He then went on to become an Emergency War Order instructor. He was eventually stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, as a member of the 4th Air Command Control Squadron. Following this duty he held positions with the 28th Bomb Wing and headquarters squadron section. His final duty was in the directorate of Bomber Operations for the START Treaty.
Andy Knight was born in Hilo, Hawaii and grew up in several different states predominantly in the Midwestern and Western United States. Mr. Knight served in a variety of positions with the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base. He started as a missileer in the 68th Strategic Missile Squadron in 1968. He was then chosen as the Senior Missile Combat Crew Instructor with the responsibility for leading the instructors who trained missile crews at Ellsworth. In 1972, Mr. Knight was transferred to the 4th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, as part of a missile launch crew on an Airborne Launch Command System, known as the Looking Glass. In 1976 he was promoted to major and reassigned to Offutt Air Force Base, Strategic Air Command Headquarters as an officer, again on the Looking Glass. His last position, as the Assistant Deputy Commander for Resource Management for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base, ended with his retirement in 1985.
Craig Manson graduated from the Air Force Academy in the mid-1970s. From 1976 until 1978 he was assigned to the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base. His initial assignment was as a missileer in the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron. After a year, he became an instructor in the training division of the Operations Directorate. As the Assistant Chief of Unit Proficiency Training he worked with a team of officers that was responsible for training missileers in various aspects of the weapon system. In 1978, Mr. Manson left missile operations to attend law school. He then helped found the Air and Space Law Program at the Air Force Academy. At the time of this interview, Mr. Manson was the Assistant Secretary of Fish and Wildlife and Parks for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wendy McNiel grew up in Wyoming and attended the University of Wyoming where she joined the ROTC program. After completing college, she joined the Air Force. She was assigned to the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base from February 1991 to December 1992. She worked in the 67th Strategic Missile Squadron as a missileer. She eventually became an instructor training missileers. In late 1992 she was reassigned to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At the time of this interview Ms. McNiel lived in Waco, Texas.
Ken Bush is originally from Lexington, Kentucky. He was first assigned to the 44th Missile Wing from the fall of 1975 until the winter of 1976. He came back to Ellsworth Air Force Base in December 1979 and remained there until June, 1990. During these time periods Mr. Bush worked as a security policeman and flight security controller. In the interview, Mr. Bush relates that his duty stations were in the 66th and 68th Strategic Missile Squadrons.
Maintenance Team Members
David Burris is originally from Marshalltown, Iowa. In 1976 he was transferred to Ellsworth Air Force Base where he worked in electrical maintenance of Quail missile drone systems for B-52 bombers. In 1977 he joined missile operations as a facility manager, working in this until 1983. During this time he worked at Launch Control facilities in the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron. From 1983 to 1985 he continued to work in missile operations, but his duty station was at Ellsworth Air Force Base. After retirement from the Air Force, Mr. Burris continued to live in the Rapid City area.
Michael Ewart was assigned to the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base from June 1969 to September 1990 (with the exception of a one year tour in South Korea). From 1969 to 1975 he was assigned to the 28th Communications Squadron with duties in cryptographic maintenance. This specifically meant maintaining the 465L, which was a strategic alert command control system. In 1975 Mr. Ewart was retrained, than began work in missile maintenance on power distribution, air conditioning and electrical systems.
Alonzo Hall was assigned to the 44th Missile Maintenance Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base in September, 1975 and worked in missile field operations up through the deactivation in the early 1990s. His first duty was as part of the Site Security Maintenance which maintained security systems on the missile sites. As a maintenance technician, Mr. Hall helped ensure that radar antennas and motion sensors at the sites worked properly. He was then assigned to the Team Training Branch which helped airmen gain practical knowledge to perform maintenance at the missile sites. Mr. Hall was then upgraded to a team which assisted technical engineers in learning field operations.
Martin Pietz was born and grew up in South Dakota. He did not live outside of the state until he joined the Air Force. From 1972 through 1994 he was assigned to the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base. He first worked as an aircraft mechanic on bombers. In 1978, he was retrained in missiles as part of an electro mechanical team. His duties included working on the electrical and mechanical equipment racks that help operate underground launch control centers and missile silos. He eventually attained the position of Facility Branch Superintendent where he was in charge of the Facility Maintenance Team's shop. This duty entailed scheduling and planning future field maintenance on missile sites and directing on-site maintenance activities.
Tim Pavek is a South Dakota native, who was born in Aberdeen and grew up in the Rapid City area. Mr. Pavek was hired as a civilian employee of the Air Force in 1984 as a missile facilities engineer. His office was responsible for the maintenance of the 15 remotely located Launch Control Facilities and 150 missile silos. His duties included facility engineering, maintenance troubleshooting, improvement projects and repairs on all missile support facilities. In the early 90s, Mr. Pavek oversaw the deactivation and demolition proceedings of the 44th Missile Wing's facilities in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991. He also testified before Congress concerning legislation to create Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Mr. Pavek is at present still employed at Ellsworth, working on civil engineering projects.
Leo Rowen was born March 25, 1958 and raised in Waukegan, Illinois. He joined the U.S. Air Force on April 17, 1977. In the Air Force, Rowen was trained in missile maintenance and then stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Once there, Rowen worked replacing the guidance systems and warheads on the Minuteman missiles in South Dakota. He was a member of the 4401st Organizational Missile Maintenance Squadron (OMMS) while stationed at Ellsworth AFB. He completed his enlistment in the Air Force in April 1981.
John Wallace was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas. He joined the U.S. Air Force in May of 1962. Once in the Air Force, Wallace was trained in electronics and stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Once there, Wallace worked on the closed circuit TV and radio systems on the Titan missile system in South Dakota. He was then transferred to the Minuteman system. Wallace was in the capsule working when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He got out of the Air Force in November of 1965.
Robert Wilson was first assigned to the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base as chief of the codes division in the 1970s. The codes division did all launch, targeting, ground and flight targeting codes for the Wing. After a year and a half, he was reassigned as an Operations Officer for the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron. Mr. Wilson oversaw a crew that prepared training and evaluation materials for the missile crews. A year later he was moved to the 44th Services Squadron in charge of the dormitories and dining facilities. This included distribution and oversight of the food to all Launch Control Facilities.
William Bielmaier is a local landowner and rancher who was born in Wall, SD on May 11, 1931 and eventually operated the family ranch. Mr. Bielmaier had purchased the property where Launch Facility (missile silo) Bravo-07 was placed during the land acquisition period in the 1960s. Mr. Bielmaier recounts his thoughts and experiences with the U.S. Air Force during the time period that these missile silos were active and his feelings about the closing of the missile sites in South Dakota.
Ted Hustead was born on May 11, 1951 in Western South Dakota. He has lived nearly all of his life in the small town of Wall. He is the grandson of Ted and Dorothy Hustead, founders of the world famous Wall Drug. Ted, along with other family members, is a co-owner of the drug store. At the time of this interview, Ted was the president of the company and also managed the retail part of Wall Drug. During Ted's lifetime he saw the construction, operation and deactivation of the Minuteman missile field in the area.
Don Paulsen is a local landowner, born in New Underwood, SD on August 20, 1930. Mr. Paulsen was the office manager of West River Electric Association, Inc. for fourteen years, beginning in 1953. Around 1967, Mr. Paulsen became the general manager of the new company, Golden West Telephone Cooperative, which was spun off from the West River Electric Association. Mr. Paulsen provides his insight and views on the Minuteman missile system in South Dakota as well as working with other companies during this project.
Gene S. Williams is a native of South Dakota. He grew up east of Wall, South Dakota on a ranch. In the early 1960's the federal government procured a section of land on his parent's ranch to place a missile silo. Over thirty years later, when the 44th Missile Wing was slated for deactivation, Mr. Williams re-formed and led the Missile Area Landowner's Association. His lobbying efforts helped ensure that landowner's would have the first option in buying back their former property. At present, Mr. Williams still operates the family ranch.
John LaForge became involved in the nuclear protest movement during the late 1970s while finishing his undergraduate work in Minnesota. At the time of this interview, Mr. LaForge was co-director of Nukewatch, an organization dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. He has worked as the editor of the organization's quarterly newsletter, Nukewatch Pathfinder, as well as assisting with the writing and editing of several books concerning nuclear protests.
Gary Overby was born on November 6, 1952 in Clear Lake, South Dakota, moving to Rapid City in 1959. Overby began his law enforcement career in the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam. He then later worked for Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, Pennington County Sheriff's Office and eventually the U.S. Marshal Service at the Sioux City, Iowa office in 1980, eventually moving to the Rapid City office in 1983 to begin missile escort duty. He recounts the basic duties and experiences he had over the year that he assisted the U.S. Air Force in transporting the missiles through South Dakota. He later moved up through the ranks of the U.S. Marshal Service retiring as the agent in charge of the San Francisco Field Office in 1998.
Did You Know?
Minuteman Missiles are not just part of the past, but also the present and future. Currently there are still 450 Minuteman missiles deployed across the Northern Great Plains.