Writing Type: Prose
By Dan Yates
In 1973, I was stationed at a small American base in Herborn-Seelbach, Germany. The entire installation had eight buildings, and there were approximately 100 GIs assigned to the base. There were no American military vehicles; we were supported by a neighboring German base. Most of the local German residents knew of our presence but not our reason for being there. I was assigned to the 96th Ordnance Company, and our purpose was to maintain, monitor and perform modifications to nuclear warheads stored in that part of the country but under the control of the United States.
One week in the summer of 1973, my team received orders to go TDY to Waldbroel, site of a small artillery detachment, to perform modifications on some nuclear warheads stored there in underground silos. The artillery detachment consisted of fewer than 50 American troops, who were assigned to oversee the stored nuclear weapons. They would periodically perform tests and inspections on the missiles, and if the weapons failed any of them, we were summoned to conduct more detailed tests and take appropriate action. A secondary purpose was to tear the missile down to the warhead should modifications or scheduled maintenance be needed. That was the reason for our TDY assignment that week.
We traveled to the detachment, and upon our arrival we saw that the artillery troops had disassembled one of the missiles, leaving the section containing the warhead in a maintenance building for us. Their training ceased at that point, and that is where ours began.
Officers were the only artillery personnel who had proper clearance to see the warhead outside of the missile. We finished the disassembly and performed the assigned modification to the warhead. To document the modification, two steps were required: first, complete a paper log that accompanied the warhead, and second, stamp codes onto the exterior of the warhead. This was a safeguard in the event that the paper log was misplaced. To do this, we would straddle the warhead as if we were riding a horse and then use a beryllium hammer to pound the warhead with individual number stamps.
While doing this, a young second lieutenant from the artillery detachment came into the maintenance building. He saw me hammering on a nuclear warhead and immediately left the building, not sure what to make of what I was doing.
I looked at one of my team members and said, “He must think 100 feet will make a difference.”
We both laughed.