Posted By POSCA
“There is no amount of mayonnaise sufficiently large to transform chicken shit into chicken salad.” This is quite possibly the most intelligent thing a public affairs officer has ever said. Put it another way: if things go bad, admit it; don’t lie, don’t play games, and don’t pretend nothing happened. “The truth will out” as a man in leotards once said—and if you are responsible for the foul-up, you are responsible for breaking the bad news.
Apparently, the folks at the 308th Strategic Missile Wing had not gotten the memo by September 1980. It was in that month that a Titan II missile based outside of Damascus, Arkansas, got very pissed off and blew itself up, and the 308SMW did not particularly distinguish itself in the aftermath. The Titan II missile is an earlier generation weapon of mass destruction. Unlike the Minuteman missile—which has a stable, solid propellant system—the Titan II is/was a liquid-fueled missile. This means that the Titan II requires a lot of extra hoses, storage tanks, and more maintenance procedures than the Minuteman. It also means that the chance for an accident with the Titan II goes up in direct proportion to the number of extra maintenance procedures it requires. Essentially, the Titan II is a fuel-air bomb delivering a bomb.
At about 1830 hours on the night of 18 September 1980, a maintenance crewman dropped a heavy socket, which traveled about 80 feet straight down and punctured the thin first stage of the Titan II, allowing whatever was inside to begin leaking out. After about 90 minutes in which the damage was assessed, the decision was made to get everyone in launch complex 374-7 the hell out of there. Rocket fuel is, of course, extremely explosive, but it is also (when properly mixed) extremely poisonous and corrosive. It just so happens Posca knows more about this stuff, but it is of no use to furthering the storyline.
At around 0300 in the morning of 19 September 1980, two intrepid young men entered the “launch duct” (silo) to take further measurements. Discovering that their properly calibrated O-shit-ometer was pegged out by all the gas filling the silo, they climbed out of there just in time for the whole shebang to go up like a volcanic eruption. The 740 TON doors that covered the top of the silo were completely blown off (200 feet into the air and 600 feet away). One of the young men flew 150 feet through the air, but survived with nothing more than a broken leg (take it from Posca, the broken leg was worth it; the rush from being blown up is not to be missed). Unfortunately, the second young man was not as lucky, and he was crushed by falling rubble. SRA David Livingston later died of his injuries.
Now, the 308SMW screwed this up from the beginning. They were not forthcoming that an accident had occurred, and when the (obvious) explosion took place, they played a cat-and-mouse game concerning whether or not a warhead was atop the missile and, if there was, where it was and what condition it might be in. Of course there was a warhead atop the missile—the missile was on nuclear alert, and the warhead happened to be the W-53. Posca cannot confirm the yield of this warhead (he hates jail), but it is safe to say that a SINGLE warhead atop a missile as powerful as the Titan II would be a large, non-trivial thing indeed.
But because of the cat-and-mouse/I’ve got a secret game of the 308SMW, what was a tragic accident became the biggest nukie hunt in the history of the country. The silliness of the games played by the 308SMW was matched only by the gross incompetence of the members of the media with whom those games were being played.
The upshot was a non-story of major proportions: Where’s the W-53? Is it unstable? Is it leaking? Did it detonate when the missile exploded? (This last question is utterly absurd, I can assure you). Those of us who remember 1980 almost certainly remember the W-53 being transported out of the area on a flatbed truck (covered with a cloak of invisibility) and the young governor Bill Clinton taking the obligatory tour of the rubble field, looking very serious.
The W-53 only flew about a hundred feet and was found intact in a ditch. It was very banged up but not “leaking.” The truth of the matter is that the W-53 was very carefully engineered to withstand these environmental conditions and it did. Sometimes, the good guys—the hideous government—get it right. Of course, you would not have known this at the time from the uninformed press (who were busy whipping up a pseudo-crisis in the hopes of winning a Pulitzer). As someone who has seen the evolution of stories from the inside, Posca can tell you the members of the media are neither about the truth nor about serving the people. They are about self-advancement, and they will do and say whatever it takes to serve their selfish ends.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a secret Posca will share with you. Please don’t tell anyone else. Within two weeks of the spectacular Titan II nukie hunt, there was another accident involving nuclear weapons. It too made the papers, but not the front page (no big explosions, you see), but it was orders of magnitude worse than the Damascus incident. The incident was over in comparatively short order (hence no chance for film at 11), but it was a very close thing. If the wind had been blowing in a slightly different direction, tens of thousands would have died.
Don’t you think those in the danger zone would have been interested in just how close they came? And don’t you think they would have demanded answers about the safety of the nuclear arsenal?
Not one member of the press understood or cared about this—not one. The story had no legs and it would have required a media cadre who actually knew something beyond how to write a great lead paragraph.
Posca knows. Sometimes late at night, he chuckles to himself.