Rhinelander Air Force veteran recalls service working with nuclear missiles
“My first car was a ’55 Ford convertible. My sister had had it, and she was in an accident—got hit on the left side. So my mom helped me find a way to prop it up and I got to fixing it up.” Rhinelander resident Tom Vaughan says he has always tinkered around with vehicles. He had his first motorcycle, an Omega, before he entered high school, and in the few years after that he acquired a pair of other bikes. Vaughan’s longtime interest in the mechanical was a hobby that he hoped to leverage into a career. It would ultimately give him a unique military experience serving during the Vietnam War.
Vaughan’s garage is big enough for four cars, a bike, a bench, and a refrigerator filled with craft brews. Despite the snow visibly accumulating outside the window the garage is comfortably warm, heated through the concrete floor—a feature which Vaughan says Kip, an American cocker spaniel, especially enjoys. He sips a beer and recounts leaving college. He had gone to DeVry University in Chicago where, “[he] was going to be a TV repairman. But it didn’t work out.” Soon after leaving college, Vaughan joined the Air Force. After spending Christmas and New Year’s in San Antonio, Texas, for basic training, he was informed that his results on a test required among all recruits guaranteed that he would be working with electronics in some capacity.
Used to send messages between bases during the war, teletype machines were more modern telegraphs. They use similar mechanism for sending communications, but rather than Morse code they send typewritten messages. Vaughan’s initial training was in the maintenance and repair of these machines. Soon, however, he and with five classmates were handpicked from these classes and sent to Wichita Falls, Texas, for training in the maintenance of Minuteman Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Vaughan laughs as he says that these, “six elite technicians” were guaranteed to be stateside for their part in the war. Upon completing this training he was sent to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he would be stationed for the remainder of his service.
At that time the Minuteman was the height of land-based nuclear weaponry, and to this day remains the only land-based ICBM in service in the United States. The Grand Forks Air Force Base was equipped with 150 of these missiles, loaded into rapid launch underground silos. Vaughan arrived when the base housed Minuteman-II missiles, but through the early 1970s these were replaced by the newer Minuteman-III missiles. A base near Minot, North Dakota, was home to 150 Minuteman missiles as well, which Vaughan says made North Dakota the most-nuclear powered state in the country. The base was also home to B-52s and other bombers. “It made it hard to sleep sometimes,” says Vaughan.
The base included, among other recreational facilities, a garage where personnel could do their own vehicle maintenance, a place where Vaughan said he liked to go to change the oil and other upkeep. The easy-going nature of personal mechanical work contrasted with the stress of maintaining the silos and the massive network of underground cables which connected fifteen concrete launch-support control buildings. Vaughan and other maintenance personnel required a high security-clearance to reach the stations located twenty meters underground. Protocol required a two-man concept for security purposes, as well as to make sure that the guidebook was properly followed when repairing machines with potentially disastrous consequences. There was also the added stress of intense scrutiny. “Quality Control could show up at any time to observe anyone and check up on very specific procedure.” Procedure which Vaughan said could be as explicit as, “…now place screwdriver in right hand…”
His affinity for cars went with him to the service. Even his commute to the base was not lacking for style. During his first few years on base Vaughan lived just across the Minnesota border from Grand Forks and would car-pool to nearby Emerado with a few other missile maintenance workers, one of whom had a Camaro, and another drove a Mustang. The drive took them about fifteen miles west of Grand Forks to the massive base, over which there was always a lookout plane. Along with missile and cable maintenance, these technicians were trained to pick up the pieces—literally. If a plane carrying hazardous materials were to go down, the Disaster Preparedness Support Team was trained to put on hazmat suits and clean up the wreckage.
Vaughan’s service lasted seven years, nine months, and nine days. After leaving he found a technical job that moved him to Rhinelander, where he worked for many years as a central office technician at Rhinelander Telephone Company (now Frontier Communications).
The Grand Forks Air Force Base existed into the 1990s, when it was decided that the Grand Forks missiles would be retired. The last missile was removed in 1998, and in accordance with peace treaties the last silo was destroyed in the fall of 2001.
The story of Vaughan’s military service is fairly unique. Popular culture depicts the war in Vietnam in a specific light, one that tends to overshadow the fact that it was still one in a series of conflicts serving as proxies in the much longer Cold War. Nuclear war was a constant threat, and the war effort on the home front after World War II is often glossed over. Now retired, Vaughan can often be found in his garage, listening to classic rock and tinkering with cars like he has done since high school.