COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- While President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were negotiating a preliminary agreement this past week to further cut the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, Mark Sunlov was putting the final touches on a monument to North Dakota's contribution to the Cold War.
Sunlov is site manager of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historical Site, a remote outpost known as Oscar-Zero on the edge of the scenic Sheyenne River Valley, surrounded by miles and miles of fields of wheat, corn and soybeans.
The site will open to the public for the first time at 10 a.m. Monday.
Oscar-Zero and November-33, a missile silo two miles east of Cooperstown, are the last remnants of the 321st Missile Wing, a cluster of intercontinental ballistic launch sites that were spread over a 6,500-square-mile area around the Grand Forks Air Force Base that stretched from near the U.S.-Canadian border to Interstate 94.
This missile launch control facility is one of 15 in eastern North Dakota that closed in 1997 as a condition of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Each facility controlled 10 Minuteman III missiles armed with as many as three nuclear warheads aimed at the former Soviet Union,
"From a history standpoint, it's a gem," Sunlov said, as he straightened stacks of magazines -- Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Sports Afield, all dated 1997 -- in a recreation room setting of chairs, couches and a television.
"It's almost like a time capsule," Sunlov said. "The feeling was that they just picked up their personal bags and just left. Everything is here, and most of it is usable. The only trouble is the mice moved in when the Air Force moved out."
The process of preserving a nuclear missile launch facility has been in the works since before they closed, according to Al Berger, a military history professor at UND and current president of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
"It's much the same as preserving a site like Fort Totten," he said.
Fort Totten State Historic Site is one of four preserved military posts built in the 1860s in what is now North Dakota to protect overland and river routes used by immigrants settling the West.
In the Cold War period, the nuclear missiles served as fortification -- modern-day forts -- against the constant threat of war from the Soviet Union. Because of the missile fields, North Dakota commonly was called the world's third largest nuclear power.
"It represented a powerful deterrent against a power from attacking us with nuclear weapons," Berger said. "Ultimately, it was mutually assured destruction -- the idea that whoever started throwing missiles first might destroy the target, but they most assuredly would be destroyed in the end. If you attack us, you will die. So, why commit suicide?"
The United States' nuclear weapon system was part of a complex formula to make that work, he said.
"In as sense, it's an ironic coincidence that we're opening it in the same month that Robert McNamara died," Berger said.
McNamara served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Besides being considered the chief architect of the Vietnam War, he was a key player in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba and the world teetered on the threshold of nuclear war for 13 days.
"The peace workers are part of the story of that missile center, too," Berger said. "There were critics of the nuclear weapon program, including here."
The Red River Valley Peace Workers was an organization formed after the 1982 UND Peace Conference for the purpose of informing and involving the public "in the quest for peace."
Over the years, small groups of nuclear war protesters conducted demonstrations at nuclear missile silos around the region.
In 1988, Nukewatch, a peace activist group based in Wisconsin published a book called "Nuclear Heartland: A guide to the 1,000 missile silos in the United States." The 96-page book featured roadmaps to the missile sites, which also were given nicknames such as "Peaceless", "Friendly Facism" and "We'll Help You Leave" missiles.
Sunlov knows, as much as anybody, just how fresh history is here.
The U.S. Air Force Academy graduate spent five years of his military career as a missileer, from 1998 to 2003, the last four years at Minot Air Force Base, which still has 150 nuclear missiles on alert for any potential nuclear threat.
Like other missileers, he spent shifts that lasted as long as four days living in a capsule 80 feet underground, just like Oscar-Zero, as a deputy commander and as a commander, the ones who might, at any time, be given the order to launch a nuclear warhead.
It actually takes four people at a minimum to launch a missile, two at the missile site and two at another one.
"The idea that one person could launch a nuclear missile is pretty far-fetched," Sunlov said. "It's even impossible for one crew to do it."
When he left the Air Force, Sunlov went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he earned a history and museum studies degree.
His first job out of school was at Fort Buford State Historic Site near Williston, N.D.
Then, the Oscar-Zero job was created.
"It's kind of a strange full circle for me," Sunlov said.
Eight people normally are stationed at a launch control facility at a time -- two 3-person missileer crews, a cook and a facility manager. The topside or ground-level floor consists of living quarters with several bedrooms, a large kitchen, living room and recreation room.
The command post -- capsule, as missileers call it -- is located down a fortified elevator shaft, 60 to 90 feet below ground.
The command post is a concrete building, about 50 feet long and 30 feet wide, suspended in the ground by giant shock absorbers, which measure 2 feet in diameter by 20 feet in length. It is accessible only by elevator and through a 4-foot-thick concrete blast door equipped with steel rods that seal the unit once the door is closed.
One half of underground bunker contains the equipment and facility operations equipment, the other with the missile control center.
Inside the missile control center, the commander and deputy commander sit at seat-belt-equipped airline pilot-like captain's chairs in front of separate control stations filled with what look like ancient electronics boards. The station contains buttons, levers and lights labeled: "enabled," "Lch in process" and "Missile away."
The Cold War was thawing by the time Sunlov became a missileer. But nuclear threats still exist.
Sunlov was just about at the end of a four-day shift in an underground bunker in rural Minot on Sept. 11, 2001, when he and his deputy commander watched on television as the first airplane hit the Twin Towers in New York City.
"Then we watched the second plane hit," he said. "We had some procedures to go through, but it was just readiness. You do start to prepare the capsule for war. If you get the order, you're either ready or you're not."
He didn't leave the capsule until Friday - a full week in the underground bunker.
"You think about nuclear war quite a bit," he said. "Would you survive? What about your family? You don't dwell on it, but you definitely think about it."
He and his deputy also pondered the small round door high on a wall above the commander's station that leads to a last-chance escape hatch, a tunnel, filled with sand.
If they ever were stuck in the capsule during a nuclear attack, after a certain amount of time they were supposed to dig their way through the tunnel to the outdoors above them.
"We always wondered if the door would open," he said, "And if it did, where it would lead. We always joked it was probably paved over and we'd be stuck down there, forever."
These days, Sunlov is more than happy to spend time in that bunker, giving visitors a first-hand look at what it was like not only to live near nuclear missiles in the North Dakota soil, but to eat and sleep just inches from their controls.
Still, while Oscar-Zero and 14 other facilities like it in eastern North Dakota have been silenced, 150 other nuclear missiles barely 100 miles to the west remain on alert.
"It seems like we're halfway through a process that hasn't been completed yet," Berger said. "We've drawn down the tensions enough. We feel we need far fewer warheads than we had before.
"I suppose the most significance that you could contribute to the missile facility is that it's closed," he added, "that we don't need it anymore -- or at least that's what the treaty says."
Ronald reagan minuteman missile state historic site
Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility
A grand opening is planned July 31-Aug. 1, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m., July 31. The State Historical Society expects many former Air Force missileers to be on hand for the event.
Location: Four miles north of Cooperstown, N.D., along N.D. Highway 45.
Hours: Through Sept. 15, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Sept. 16-Oct. 31 and March 1-May 15, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday, Thursday and Saturday, 1-5 p.m., Sunday; Nov. 1-Feb. 28, by appointment only.
Guided Tours. Cost: $10, adult; $3, child; $2 per person, groups of 20 or more; $40 for groups of 20 or less.
Admission free to members of the Friends of Oscar-Zero, or members of the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation.
November-33 Launch Facility
Location: Two miles east of Cooperstown, N.D., along N.D. Highway 200.
What to see: Topside view of launch facility; launch closure door that once protected a missile; security fence and electronic security system and ventilation systems that served the underground buildings. Interpretive signs will be available to tell the history.
For more information, go to: http://www.history.nd.gov/historicsites/minutemanmissile/index.html
Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.