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Claim: At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Air Force crews on Okinawa were ordered to launch 32 nuclear missiles

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tags: Cuban Missile Crisis



John Bordne, a resident of Blakeslee, Penn., had to keep a personal history to himself for more than five decades. Only recently has the US Air Force given him permission to tell the tale, which, if borne out as true, would constitute a terrifying addition to the lengthy and already frightening list of mistakes and malfunctions that have nearly plunged the world into nuclear war.

The story begins just after midnight, in the wee hours of October 28, 1962, at the very height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then-Air Force airman John Bordne says he began his shift full of apprehension. At the time, in response to the developing crisis over secret Soviet missile deployments in Cuba, all US strategic forces had been raised to Defense Readiness Condition 2, or DEFCON2; that is, they were prepared to move to DEFCON1 status within a matter of minutes. Once at DEFCON1, a missile could be launched within a minute of a crew being instructed to do so.  

Bordne was serving at one of four secret missile launch sites on the US-occupied Japanese island of Okinawa. There were two launch control centers at each site; each was manned by seven-member crews. With the support of his crew, each launch officer was responsible for four Mace B cruise missiles mounted with Mark 28 nuclear warheads. The Mark 28 had a yield equivalent to 1.1 megatons of TNT—i.e., each of them was roughly 70 times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bomb. All together, that’s 35.2 megatons of destructive power. With a range of 1,400 miles, the Mace B's on Okinawa could reach the communist capital cities of Hanoi, Beijing, and Pyongyang, as well as the Soviet military facilities at Vladivostok. 

Several hours after Bordne's shift began, he says, the commanding major at the Missile Operations Center on Okinawa began a customary, mid-shift radio transmission to the four sites. After the usual time-check and weather update came the usual string of code. Normally the first portion of the string did not match the numbers the crew had. But on this occasion, the alphanumeric code matched, signaling that a special instruction was to follow. Occasionally a match was transmitted for training purposes, but on those occasions the second part of the code would not match. When the missiles' readiness was raised to DEFCON 2, the crews had been informed that there would be no further such tests. So this time, when the first portion of the code matched, Bordne’s crew was instantly alarmed and, indeed, the second part, for the first time ever, also matched.

At this point, the launch officer of Bordne's crew, Capt. William Bassett, had clearance, to open his pouch. If the code in the pouch matched the third part of the code that had been radioed, the captain was instructed to open an envelope in the pouch that contained targeting information and launch keys. Bordne says all the codes matched, authenticating the instruction to launch all the crew’s missiles. Since the mid-shift broadcast was transmitted by radio to all eight crews, Capt. Bassett, as the senior field officer on that shift, began exercising leadership, on the presumption that the other seven crews on Okinawa had received the order as well, Bordne proudly told me during a three-hour interview conducted in May 2015. He also allowed me to read the chapter on this incident in his unpublished memoir, and I have exchanged more than 50 emails with him to make sure I understood his account of the incident.

By Bordne's account, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Air Force crews on Okinawa were ordered to launch 32 missiles, each carrying a large nuclear warhead. Only caution and the common sense and decisive action of the line personnel receiving those orders prevented the launches—and averted the nuclear war that most likely would have ensued.

Read entire article at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


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