MINOT AIR FORCE BASE - Retired Air Force Col. Jack Broughton remembers that day 50 years ago when he got a hotline message at Minot Air Force Base ordering him to send four jet fighters with hot nukes to Fargo. There the pilots and planes would be on alert to intercept if any Russian planes should decide to come at the United States over the North Pole.
It was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For nearly two weeks, there was much anxiety and tension between the United States and Russia, nearly provoking a nuclear war.
Eloise Ogden/MDN • This front page from The Minot Daily News 50 years ago on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 1962, reports President John F. Kennedy confirmed to the nation the day before the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and gave a seven-point program of U.S. action. Those days of high anxiety and tension between the U.S. and Russia are known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, it was considered probably the greatest crisis since World War II.
Broughton was commander of the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron known by the nickname Spittin' Kittens. He got the message to send the four fighters to Fargo in October 1962 after President John F. Kennedy informed the world that Russia was building secret missile bases in Cuba.
Broughton relates those days below. The information is from an interview with The Minot Daily News when Broughton and his wife, Alice "A.J.", who live in California, visited Minot and Minot AFB in August 2004 and also from his 2007 book. When contacted a few days ago about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Broughton referred to information he wrote about it in his book "Rupert Red Two. A Fighter Pilot's Life (from Thunderbolts to Thunderchiefs).
"We watched the speech all the guys in the squadron," Broughton said.
He said the squadron already was on increased alert status when squadron members watched President Kennedy's speech, warning the Russians to back off or face U.S. military force.
"Of course, we always had four airplanes (F-106s) on the flightline on alert the whole squadron was on alert then," he said.
A few minutes after the president talked, Broughton got the message to send planes to Fargo to pull alert there.
He said the call on the Air Defense Command hotline did not come as a surprise, but the details of it certainly were.
Broughton said he read the message, watched the authentication procedure performed as the message came through and then asked his ops chief to authenticate it again for retransmission of his instructions.
"I was to send my four alert birds, which, of course, had all weapons on board, including the nukes. And those nukes were hot they were armed," he said.
Broughton dispatched those four planes to the Fargo airport immediately.
Twenty ground crew specialists and support equipment would be flown to Fargo and arrive there within three hours, he said.
He said no flight clearances were required. The flights were designated Priority One the president's priority, Broughton said.
After getting the message, Broughton went to the alert barn and briefed his senior captain, Buzz Sawyer, and three others who were on five-minute alert. He told them they were part of history in the making.
Fargo is just across North Dakota but Broughton said none of them ever had any reason to land there, let alone land there with hot nuke weapons. He said the weather was acceptable, but there was ice reported on the runway in Fargo.
"I looked at each of them in the eyes and asked them individually, 'Any questions?' " Broughton said.
He said he got four replies: "No sir."
He told them, "OK, go. And do good work."
Broughton said he wonders how many people knew that four Spittin' Kittens with four hot nukes flew into the Fargo airport that night, landed on an icy runway they had never seen before and set up to intercept the Russians if the Russians decided to pay a visit over the North Pole.
Broughton retired from the Air Force in 1968 after 26 years of service. He served four combat tours in Korea and Vietnam, flying 216 combat missions. He was combat ready in every fighter from the P-47 to the F-106 and his numerous commands included the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Minot AFB and the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force demonstration team. He was awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and the presidentially awarded Air Force Cross.
A Minot man also remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was stationed at the Minot base with the bombardment unit, a B-52 unit, at the Minot base.
Paul Bergren was a 19-year-old airman when the Cuban Missile Crisis took place.
"We were flightline," Bergren said. He worked in a shop that was part of field maintenance.
"We were the power units for the flightline support. We delivered the power equipment that kept the maintenance people working heaters, generators, lights..."
When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, he said:
"I tell you everything was dead silence. It was plain eerie just nothing was going on. Everybody was just waiting.
"We weren't really informed what was going on. We knew that something big was going on but we didn't know what. We were airmen, we weren't in the know."
During that time, he recalls they didn't do any work.
"Nothing," he said. "Everybody was just on hold. No work was going on, you couldn't hear anything running."
Eventually the crisis passed.
"I don't think anybody really knew how serious it was. At least we didn't, of course, we're a long way from Cuba," Bergren said.
He said he didn't recall specifically how the airmen were told that the crisis was over but when it was they went right back to work again.
"You know DEFCON 4 is war, and I think we were at DEFCON 3. I mean, it was that close," he said.
DEFCON is Defense Readiness Condition, an alert posture.
Bergren, who went into the Air Force in 1961, was in his second year in the Air Force when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. Minot AFB was his first assignment and only assignment for the Sioux Falls, S.D., native. He remained at Minot after he left the military.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jesse Griffin, also of Minot, was stationed at Minot Air Force Base.
The young airman from Savannah, Ga., worked on the Quail missile at that time, a missile that was carried on the B-52 bomber. He worked on the airframe of the Quail.
During the crisis he recalls at his work they "just went about business as usual."
"I don't remember what information we had (about the crisis) at that time. It's been so long ago," he said.
Griffin left Minot AFB for other assignments during his military career but returned in 1971. He retired here in 1977.
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred before missiles were installed in the Minot missile field. Construction started on the Minuteman I Intercontinental Ballistic Missile complex Jan. 12, 1962. The first missile was placed in a silo Sept. 9, 1963.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was close, Bergren said. "It was closer than I want to be," he said.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia eased when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the Russian missile installations from Cuba in exchange for a promise from the United States not to invade Cuba.