One of the newest units added to the National Park Service is a unique site. Normally thoughts of the National Park Service bring to mind images of vast natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite—or even some of the famous historical battlefields from the revolutionary or civil wars. Minuteman is a throwback to a more recent war, the Cold War.

The Minuteman Missile sites were famous for never having to fire a shot yet played a vital role in our nation’s defense. They served as a deterrent to global nuclear attack. Hidden away beneath the ground, these sites were scattered across various areas of the United States and were provided with a level of security heretofore never seen.

About 500 of the 1,500 sites were located in South Dakota. It was a location that was safe from Soviet submarine-launched missiles and not in major populated areas, such as the east and west coasts. After the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty many of these sites were deactivated, rendered unserviceable, and sealed up. However, this particular unit was allowed to remain as a non-serviceable unit for public display.

The site is accessed via a small office facility just south of Exit 131 on South Dakota’s portion of Interstate Highway 90, which is about 75 miles east of Rapid City. Inside the office you will see a 12-minute interpretive film that brings you up to speed on the sites. The Delta-09 missile silo is located about 15 miles west at Exit 116, just to the south of the highway. You can drive there and view the site at your convenience, because it is a self-guided tour. You may also make a reservation for an underground guided tour into the command and control center, which is located four miles west of the headquarters. We made sure to do both.

Down Under

We were fortunate in that our command center tour was led by a former missileer, a retired Air Force major who once was in command of a similar control center. His personal anecdotes contributed greatly to our understanding of life below the surface. The tours are limited in size due to the tiny elevator that takes you down underground, as well as by the confined quarters of the launch control center.

We began by meeting our guide topside. We were let in through a chain link gate that enclosed a secure area, bristling with antenna arrays, a helicopter pad, an armored vehicle, and underground access hatch covers. A small barracks building, which looked much like a ranch house from a distance, housed the eight-man support crew for the facility. Inside the barracks was a communications area, as well as living quarters for the guards and tech-support team. After a tour of the above ground facilities we headed for the elevator that would take us down into the hardened control center bunker.

The elevator doors opened up into a small room flanked by mechanical areas and a 3-1/2-foot thick blast door weighing 5 tons. The entire underground facility had been placed in a hardened concrete tube that is capable of withstanding a nuclear blast. Topside personnel had been allowed into the underground area, but only the launch control officer and his assistant were allowed inside the command center. The 5-ton blast door would be locked from the inside for the duration of their 24-hour shift. Each control center had controlled 10 Minuteman Missiles, which were located at dispersed sites within a 20-mile radius of the command center.

The shifts were described as long periods of intense boredom, punctuated by brief periods of extreme panic. Training drills had been implemented unannounced and with total surprise to keep the missileers on their toes. Air Force flight service personnel typically paint nose art on their planes, but missileers didn’t have planes so their artwork adorned the basement walls and on the huge blast doors. In fact, the blast door at Delta-01 showed a pizza-delivery box reminiscent of a popular national brand with the slogan “Worldwide Delivery in 30 Minutes or less or the Next One is Free.”