Pictured above is a test fire of a Mace B cruise missile. During the Cold War, each of the 32 Mace B cruise missiles on Okinawa island was mounted with a Mark 28 warhead with a 1.1-megaton yield (that means each warhead would have been about 70 times the power of the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki)…and John Bordne was given the order to fire.
This was during the Cold War, an incredibly tense period of world politics where “mutually assured destruction” was a common talking point, and a very real fear. Much of what happened during that period was classified and lost to history, but pieces of some stories made it through, letting us know that nuclear armageddon was no idle threat or paranoid fear – we as a species really have walked on the border of catastrophe, and given everything that was classified during that time, we may not even know all of the times everything almost went apocalyptically wrong.
Find two real stories about nuclear missile crisis below the break.
THE OKINAWA MISSILE INCIDENT – October 28th, 1962
Just this October, Air Force veteran John Bordne revealed for the first time the story of one fateful evening during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bordne was stationed at one of the four secret U.S. missile launch sites located on the island of Okinawa. During his midnight shift on October 28th, 1962, U.S. forces were operating at DEFCON 2, and were ready to be upgraded to DEFCON 1 at any time. Under DEFCON 1, 7 other Air Force crews like Bordne’s could have been ordered to launch nuclear cruise missiles within minutes, as a potential retaliation against Soviet strikes.
Several hours into Bordne’s shift that night, a routine transmission came through. Captain William Bassett, the senior commanding officer of Bordne’s crew, the launch code was radioed to the men, prompting Captain Bassett to open a sealed pouch on his person to confirm the alphanumeric string. It, too, was a match. They had been ordered to launch their missiles immediately.
However, according to Bordne, Captain Bassett read the target list to find that 3 of the 4 (still unnamed) targets were not in Russia. Another launch officer on Okinawa called Bassett, and reported that he, too, was ordered to launch missiles at two non-Russian targets. Not only this, but the official status still remained at DEFCON 2, and not launch-ready DEFCON 1. Captain Bassett sensed something was very wrong, and stalled for time, going as far as to order armed airmen to shoot if a Lieutenant tried to launch missiles without a senior officer’s authorization or the upgrade to DEFCON 1.
After a few extremely tense moments on the phone with the Missile Operations Center, Captain Bassett was finally given confirmation that no missiles should be launched. To this day, we still don’t know how or why this happened, nor what the Missile Operations Center said on the phone to explain these orders. Captain Bassett died in 2011, and never mentioned the incident publicly.
Though there’s little conclusive evidence aside from Bordne’s testimony to confirm the incident at this time, it is believed to be accurate by several prominent Cold War scholars. To learn more about Bordne’s story, refer to this article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
THE SOVIET FALSE ALARM – September 26th, 1983
Much like the Okinawa incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this incident occurred during another particularly tense part of the Cold War period. Only a few weeks earlier, the Soviet military had shot down a South Korean passenger jet that entered their airspace. All 269 people onboard were killed, including many Americans and a U.S. congressman. Understandably, Soviets were worried that the U.S. military would strike in retaliation, and their military forces were on high alert as a result.
Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was stationed inside a command bunker near Moscow. This bunker acted as the control center for Oko, a network of nearly 100 geosynchronous early warning satellites which were intended to detect offensive missile launches. The Oko system was relatively new technology, having only been placed on active combat duty in 1982, and many were skeptical about its reliability. Nevertheless, it had become the Soviets’ first line of defense, since land-based radar could not detect ICBM launches across the globe.
Under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the Soviet policy at the time was to immediately launch a massive counterattack if a single missile was launched by the United States. That’s almost exactly what happened—after midnight on September 26th, the Oko computers reported a single missile launch within the United States. Petrov had no other data to go on, but rejected the report, believing that the U.S. would surely launch more than one missile simultaneously if they attacked. Minutes later, the system detected four more U.S. missile launches directed at the Soviet Union, but Petrov continued to ignore the warnings, contrary to his orders. Petrov later cited two reasons for his decision: his distrust for the reliability of the newly-developed Oko system, and his belief that a U.S. missile attack on the Soviets would contain far more than five ICBMs.
Fortunately for everyone, Petrov was vindicated for his choice. It was later found that a rare high-altitude cloud formation over the U.S. had reflected sunlight into one of the Oko satellites, resembling a missile launch blast and causing a false alarm. If not for Petrov’s disobedience of Soviet counterattack policy, nuclear war may have started that day in 1983. Petrov’s actions were praised by his military superiors. He stated in an interview, “All that happened didn’t matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all.”
For more details about this incident, check this article at BBC.com.
These nearly-disastrous events make us wonder: how many other incidents of this magnitude remain classified to this day? Regardless of the number, this is why we prepare for the worst and learn to survive—you never know what could happen tomorrow.