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Underground silo shows Cold War history in the Big Country

LAWN, Texas - There’s a place in Abilene’s own backyard where you can go underground and back in time to a piece of Cold War-era history.

There are a dozen Atlas missile silos around Dyess Air Force Base, once equipped with nuclear weapons that could reach the then-Soviet Union in just about 30 minutes.

We're used to seeing and hearing B-1 Lancers overhead flying around Abilene on training missions. But in the early 60s, at the height of the Cold War, the military was also focused on building underground.

We toured one of 12 Atlas F Intercontinental Ballistic Missile sites surrounding Dyess Air Force Base. All 12 were built in 14 months and cost $18 - 22 million each in 1960s dollars.

They don't look like much at ground level, but there's plenty to see when you start walking down the stairs. They're all exactly the same, and one story underground you'll find a two-story launch control center connected to the missile silo by a 40-foot tunnel.

The one in Lawn will be the first publicly accessible site in the country when it opens. Owner Larry Sanders, who’s also the director of the Atlas Missile Base Cold War Center, showed us around.   

“I was just stunned that such immediate history had been not almost forgotten, but totally forgotten,” Sanders said. “People living across from the farm to markets from these locations were no longer aware that these sites even existed.”

Each site was staffed with five crew members 24/7 ready to launch a 3.75-megaton nuclear weapon if the order came down. Sanders said that missile could travel from Lawn, Texas to the Soviet Union in about 30 minutes and was up to 500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II.

“Within the Cold War, this was such an important system because it was the ultimate deterrent weapon,” Sanders said.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, America's defense level reached DEFCON 2 for 10 tense hours.

“[It’s] unimaginable in terms of the level of stress it represents for the crew members that were here -- literally standing by waiting for an order that would they knew end mankind,” Sanders said.

The actual silo where the missile was housed is a giant cylinder that goes 185 feet underground, that’s more than 18 stories.

Groundwater now fills many of the silos where the missiles were kept. Some are used for scuba diving. Another owner converted the site into his home. Sanders said the others in our area are in various states of preservation or degradation.

Sanders said they're all privately owned except for one in Anson, which is owned by the Anson Independent School District, and they plan to sell it to the highest bidder soon. 

The command to launch never came, and after three years in use, the sites were deactivated in 1965. The missiles were then removed. Sanders is preserving his site with hopes of turning it into a visitor center one day.

“These are stories that are compelling,” Sanders said. “They need to be shared, and most importantly, we need to celebrate the accomplishments of these individuals that were a part of that history, and that's a celebration that's never occurred.”

Missile sites were also built around six other Air Force bases across the country, bringing the total number of Atlas F missile sites to 72.

If you have any stories or memories you'd like to share about the history of these sites, Larry Sanders wants to hear from you. You can email him at atlassilo@yahoo.com


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