One Night in Damascus: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

On January 10 at 8 p.m., AETN will air “American Experience: Command and Control,” a two-hour chilling documentary about the accident that occurred at the Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas on September 18, 1980. The documentary, which has won numerous awards since its debut in April 2016, is based on a best-selling book, Command and Control (2013) by Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation.

When the Soviets detonated their first atomic weapon after World War II, the United States had to develop ways to protecting Americans from nuclear attack. While much effort was spent building backyard bomb shelters and conducting civil defense drills, Americans didn’t just want to “duck and cover.” The U.S. also wanted to be ready with its own weapons to use if necessary.

Most Arkansans are familiar with the Pine Bluff Arsenal, where weapons are stored, but in the early 1960s, the military also installed 54 missiles with nuclear warheads around Little Rock, AR, Tucson, AZ and Wichita, KS. Five of the 18 missiles installed around Little Rock were located in Faulkner County.

Construction of the Faulkner County Titan II missile sites began in 1960 and was completed in 1963. They were located at Mt. Vernon, Hamlet, Springhill, Republican and Guy. Each missile complex was located underground and covered with a 490-ton steel and concrete door. The missile silo’s walls, also made of concrete and steel, were from four to eight feet thick. The complex had three chambers—a launch tube, an access unit and a control center.

The launch tube was about 155 feet into the ground because the missile was 108 feet long and about 10 feet in diameter at its widest point. The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weighed 150 tons when loaded with fuel and could travel 6,000 miles at 18,000 miles per hour. It had a nuclear warhead in its nose. The missiles were programmed to a specific
target and only the President of the United States could issue a launch order.

Each complex had a crew of four men—two officers and two airmen—who manned the control center. All of the sites were linked to the Strategic Arms Command Center near Omaha, Nebraska which was linked to Washington, D.C. There was great secrecy and security at the silo sites. Most sites had a fence surrounded the site and about two acres. The sites in Arkansas were maintained by the Little Rock Air Force Base.

There were two major incidents that occurred at Arkansas silo installations during the time the Titan II’s were operational. In August, 1965, 53 men, including 15 from Faulkner County, were killed in the silo located about 12 miles outside of Searcy. They were construction workers updating the missile complex. Some reported an explosion before the fire poured into the launch tube. The missile was unarmed and did not burn.

In September, 1980, my family was awakened early one morning by knocks on the door. My grandparents, who lived in Pleasant Valley, were part of an evacuation of northern Faulkner County. There had been an explosion at the missile silo installation north of Damascus. The missile silo housed a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead. The power of this nuclear weapon was said to be three times greater than any nuclear weapon used in World War II.

Workers had been trying to eliminate a propellant leak that had developed on the first level when a three-pound wrench socket fell 70 feet from the silo’s second level. The rocket propellant was somehow ignited. The explosion shot flames, sparks and debris at least 500 feet high.

At first there was concern about a nuclear explosion because eyewitnesses had seen an orange and black cloud pour out of the silo. Some described it as mushroomed shaped. It was quickly determined that there was no evidence of radiation. At least 21 Air Force personnel were injured with one fatality. The missile and the entire complex were destroyed.

By the mid-1980s, the Titan II missiles had become old and obsolete. All of the missiles would be deactivated as part of the nation’s strategic modernization program. The missile silo at Guy would be the second missile in Arkansas to be deactivated. All would be deactivated by October 1, 1987. The Cold War ended a few years later with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

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