Mushroom clouds never figured into the nightmares of Alexander Michael. He was 4 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and, as a kid in Sydney, Australia, he says, "all the action in the U.S. was far enough away from us … to be amused by the goings-on, not afraid, as we didn’t really understand the scale and consequences.”
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Meanwhile, halfway across the globe, Richard Somerset, a 21-year-old U.S. Air Force airman training to become a ballistic missile analyst technician, was well aware of the threat of nuclear war. Within a few weeks of the end of the crisis, he was stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in northeastern New York and assigned to an Atlas F missile silo in the sparsely populated Adirondack town of Lewis.
Forty-five years later, long after the Cold War had ended, the Lewis missile silo brought these two unlikely men together.
The silo was one of a dozen within 100 miles of Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Completed in 1962, the 12 sites cost the U.S. government well over $200 million and two-and–a-half years of round-the-clock construction to erect—if erect is the right word for structures bored 180 feet into the earth. Somerset was on a crew of five that worked 24-hour shifts—one day on, two off—inspecting and maintaining the systems and waiting for the signal they hoped would never come.
One day in late 1964, Somerset was at the missile control console when the hair stood up on the back of his neck—a war code had come through on the radio. “Uh oh,” he recalls thinking, “Here we go.” To his relief, he quickly learned it had been a false alarm—the code format had changed and Somerset hadn’t been briefed—but those few moments were the closest he came to a test of his willingness to launch a weapon that could wipe out an entire city.
“I don’t think anyone on the crew ever felt we wouldn’t be able to do it if the time came,” he says. He points out that for people of his generation, Nazi atrocities were fresh history and they feared the Soviets had equally sinister intentions. To alleviate any feelings of guilt, the crewmen were never told the programmed destination of their missile. But they had been told that the weapon was only to be launched in retaliation for a Soviet strike, so if they were called upon to deploy it, they believed they were doing so to prevent large-scale American casualties. “I am extremely proud to have been part of it,” Somerset says.
In 1965, less than three years after they were installed, the Atlas F missiles were already deemed obsolete and were decommissioned. Somerset and the rest of the crew were reassigned and the Lewis silo, like the others nearby, sat unused and deteriorating for decades. Some were sold cheaply to local municipalities or bought by private owners who used the aboveground storage facilities or salvaged scrap metal from the silos. Most people saw the sites as Cold War relics of little value, but not Alexander Michael.
As an adult in Sydney, Michael became an architect/designer with a fascination for industrial structures. In 1996, he read a magazine article about a man named Ed Peden who lived under the Kansas prairie in a decommissioned Atlas E missile silo Peden called Subterra. Michael had grown up on American books and movies of the nuclear age, and he was enchanted by the idea of having his very own piece of military-industrial history. “I rang [Peden] up and told him how cool he was,” Michael says. “A couple weeks later he called and told me about this silo [that] was available.”
Michael’s friends thought he was crazy when he flew halfway around the world to buy a dank, decrepit 18-story hole in the ground in the Adirondack Mountains. When he got to the site in Lewis on a frigid December day in 1996 and saw the condition of the place, he was inclined to agree with them. “The wind was howling, it must have been a hundred below. It was hideous,” he recalls. The enormous steel and concrete doors to the silo had been left open for years, and the hole had filled partway with water, now turned to ice and snow. Everything was filthy and covered in rust and peeling paint.