Thursday, October 25, 2012

October 25, 1962

The North American black bear (ursus americanus) is the smallest of the continent's 3 bear species, and (comparatively) the most docile. It generally prefers to avoid humans and be left alone.

It was the Cuban missile crisis. The 2 superpowers were locked in a potentially lethal stare-down that affected lives across the globe. Both were on a hair trigger, watching for the other to make the first move.

Volk Field, in Wisconsin, wasn't one of America's larger bases. It was primarily used for pilot training and didn't even have a control tower. Planes were directed from a command center at Duluth.

In the current state of readiness, though, the Air Force had dispersed American warplanes to many such small bases across the north. Tensions were high. There was fear that Soviet agents would try to destroy the planes or runways prior to a first strike. Extra alarms had been hurriedly rigged up everywhere, alongside the dreaded klaxon that meant "launch nuclear bombers." Armed sentries patrolled constantly.

There were no drills. The pilots and planes were ready. The men had been told that, given the world situation, if the alarm sounded it was the real thing.

It was around midnight when a sentry patrolling the Duluth command center noticed a figure just outside the security fence. As he approached, it suddenly began climbing the fence, trying to get into the restricted area. This might be it. A Russian spy, trying to sabotage the bases to let the Soviets get in a first nuclear strike.

The guard fired his gun at the figure and hit the alarm button that warned of a ground intruder. The trespasser jumped off the fence and ran back into the forest on all fours- a large black bear. But the sabotage alarm had now been activated at all the bases under Duluth's command, sending armed guards racing to protect the planes.

Except at Volk Field.

Due to an undetected wiring error when the base was hurriedly readied for bombers, the nuclear war klaxon sounded there.

Fighter crews scrambled to planes. Their mission (likely one-way) was to intercept long-range Soviet bombers coming over the North Pole. Aside from other weapons, each American plane carried a single AIR-2 "Genie" rocket with a 1.5 kiloton nuclear warhead to be used against enemy formations. The Russians, once they detected American planes heading for them, would certainly retaliate in kind.

They taxied down the runway to Armageddon. Once airborne they couldn't be recalled- they were under orders to assume any ground communication telling them to come back was from the enemy. There was no control tower to correct the error before they took off.

A quick-thinking officer in the base's command center called Duluth, and learned of the mistake. There was no war, only an errant bear. He hurriedly jumped into a truck, turned on the flashing lights, and drove onto the runway, blocking the fighters from taking off and alerting them to the mistake. He was able to stop them just in time.

It was another close call.

Those involved didn't even know what had happened for another 25 years, when the incident was officially declassified.

Life on the edge is scary.


cliffintokyo said...

I will NEVER let anyone tell me that technology will best human brains; what we need is a lot more people with them (brains, that is).
One-way to Armageddon. Declassified. OMG, this is scary x terrifying x surreal....and I am outraged by the technical incompetence.

Cameron said...

Wow. Kudos for once again not only knowing the history, but also how to tell it.

Yogi said...

"Hey, there, Boo-Boo! I bet they have some sweet pic-a-nic baskets inside that base!"

DebD said...

Lol....I flew out of Volk Field on my way to Iraq, I can totally see that happening there!

Mari-Ann said...

What a fabulous story. Thanks for sharing. It was time for a lesson, wasn't it? You make learning fun.

Packer said...

I remember those times. Fidel put a 45 caliber revolver to the head of Americans and threatened to pul the trigger, and now people want to cut him some slack. Me, it is the kind of thing that a 12 year old has indelibly impressed in his memory.

Don said...

Your story intrigued me, so I did some further reading, the concern wasn't that the fighters would attack the Soviet Union.

The F-106A only had a 1800 nm combat range. They wouldn't have been able to get close to the Soviet Union from Wisconsin.

The concern was that SAC had B47 formations in the air that Volk Field didn't know about. There was concern that the F106's would shoot down some of our own bombers.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Don - you are correct, as I said above, the fighters (F-106) were NOT going to attack land targets. They were there to shoot down incoming long-range Russian nuclear bombers (which had the range to reach the U.S. on a one way mission).

The Genie was developed as an air-to-air small nuclear warhead, to be used on enemy bomber formations. At the elevation they'd be flying, ground-based defenses of the time weren't effective.

However, the Russians still would have picked up the U.S. plane launches. Also, under the tension of the circumstances, the Genies could also be accidentally fired at passenger jets, too.

Charles said...

So, the old Ronald Reagan presidential ads were correct: "there is a bear in the woods"

Brent said...

That quick thinking officer should have been given the Congressional Medal of Honor for preventing a nuclear war.

flutterby said...

Dr. Strangelove, anyone?

Vicki said...

Charles, for us too young to remember Reagan's ads (I was 3 at his election and 7 at his reelection), would you care to explain?

Anonymous said...

I find this even more creepy knowing that the primary Russian strategic bomber of the time was the Tu-95, NATO codename: Bear

Anonymous said...

Nothing like a little spookiness to accompany someone on a walk in the back alleyways with only the ursa major and minor for protection.

Best leave black bears alone and avoid their unwanted attenton with camping rations. Their claws can rip open a Tupperware container faster than one can say 'green Jell-o salad' (that's a bit of advice for the scouting crowds.)

Charles said...


The bear is a very common symbol for Russia.

Ronald Reagan ran part of his election campaign on being anti-communist. One of his most commonly viewed commercials talks about a bear in the woods and that we must be prepared for the bear, whether it is real or not, whether it is tame or not. (sort of a peace-through-strength metaphor)

Here's a YouTube url to the commercial:

and a wikipedia link as well:

Sorry, my joke didn't cross generations/time very well, did it?

Cal said...

Reading this makes the hairs on the back on my neck stand on end!

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