State museum director on ‘Silent Silos’ missile exhibit at South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — As museum director for the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, Jay Smith and his staff spent several years collaborating with Eric Leonard and his staff from the National Park Service on the Silent Silos exhibit currently on display at the center.

Smith recently answered questions from Keloland Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Mercer about the exhibit. The display, covering 1,300 square feet in the center, summarizes western South Dakota’s history as a past site for 150 of the Minuteman nuclear missiles that were part of the United States defense system.

Minuteman missiles were removed from South Dakota after nearly 30 years, following the decisions by President George H.W. Bush and then-U.S.S.R. leader Mikhail Gorbachev to sign the START agreement in 1991. About 500 Minuteman III missiles remain ready in other states.

Who came up with the idea for the exhibit and how long did the exhibit take to bring together?

The idea for the exhibit was actually four full years in the making.  I met Eric Leonard, superintendent of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site south of Philip, during our celebration programming for the “Great Sioux Horse Effigy Return.”

He invited me to participate in a strategic planning process for the Minuteman site that took place in the summer of 2015. I enjoyed the experience and established a collegial relationship with Eric. At the 2016 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Eric and I conversed about the idea of doing a collaborative exhibit.

We spoke about it again on several occasions between then and the spring of 2018, when we involved our staffs in the discussion and established some parameters for how to approach the exhibit.  We agreed tentatively on some dates, and began to discuss the exhibit with more intensity.

My staff traveled to the Minuteman site in early June of 2018, and it took a full year to put it all together.  We overcame the tough winter of 2018-19, the government shutdown, and some health issues I experienced in February, but it all came together very well and we opened on time on June 1, 2019. 

The exhibit runs through February 2021. How many people have visited from June through mid-October?

Approximately 5,000.

What was a Minuteman missile? From where were the Minuteman missiles in South Dakota managed and by which agency?

A Minuteman missile was developed as part of the United States defense shield program to counter a potential ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) strike by the Soviet Union.

It was managed by the United States Air Force. The missile itself carried a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead. aimed at strategic sites in Russia as a defense mechanism in case of launch detection emanating from Russian silos.

There were 150 total missiles, at 15 sites, each with 10 missiles. in South Dakota, commanded from Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City.

How many personnel were assigned at any one time to an individual site? How many people worked at the management site?

The 44th Strategic Missile Wing was located exclusively in western South Dakota. Components of the complex encompassed an area over 13,500 square miles.

There were 150 launch facilities — silos — and 15 launch-control facilities with underground launch-control centers. The missile field was headquartered out of Ellsworth Air Force Base, where operations and maintenance squadrons were based. Support facilities at the base included launch-control center trainers and a training silo.

The launch facilities were unmanned except for security alarms or maintenance service. The launch-control facilities were home to a total of 10 personnel at any time. Eight of these were airmen or non-commissioned officers working ‘topside.’ The two officers comprising the missile combat crew spent their 24-hour alert underground.

The individual sites needed maintenance and repair. How many off-site people were employed in those roles?

Maintenance, facilities, security police, and operations squadrons that supported the missile field were headquartered out of Ellsworth Air Force Base. This staff would have been several thousand at any time.

The Field Missile Maintenance Squadrons — known as FMMS — and the Organizational Missile Maintenance Squadrons — known as OMMS — were responsible for the actual maintenance of the Minuteman missiles and support equipment.

The FMMS maintained hydraulic and pneumatic systems, site support equipment and test equipment. Two security police squadrons provided security at the individual launch control facilities and escorted all maintenance teams or convoys.

What caused the U.S. government to close the sites?

After over 50 turbulent years, the Cold War finally came to an end. Several factors led to this outcome, including economic unsustainability in Russia and the growing realization that mutually assured destruction served no one’s interests.

Greater investment in missile defense systems and the American development of the Strategic Defense Initiative led to meetings that resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

These led to reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons and limited the production of new warheads and missile systems. Additionally, political and economic instability in the Soviet Union brought about changes in leadership that led to a greater willingness to end the Cold War.

What replaced them?

Technologically, the Minuteman and Minuteman II missile programs were replaced by the Minuteman III program and limited to other sites in the Midwest. None of the silos in South Dakota were converted to the new technology. 

Did the U.S. government ever use them — or come close to using them?

No. There were heightened alerts, but the system was never deployed.

South Dakota has a national Minuteman missile museum just off Interstate 90 south of Phillip. How does the Cultural Heritage Center exhibit co-exist with the national museum?

We worked closely with the Minuteman Site and its staff. Superintendent Leonard and his staff were very helpful, including loaning dozens of artifacts to the exhibit.

We have cross promoted the sites when we can, calling attention to the site and to the exhibit. Leonard was a speaker at our exhibit opening, and remains in regular contact with our staff.

Anything else our readers should know about the Cultural Heritage Center exhibit in Pierre?

There are some terrific, memorable inter-actives such as building your own bomb shelter in the exhibit. There are some terrific videos from the era including the famous “Bert the Turtle – Duck and Cover” campaign promoted by the Civil Defense Administration.

IF YOU GO: The South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center is at 900 Governors Drive, Pierre. To reach Governors Drive, turn south from Fourth Street at the State Health Laboratory, or turn north from Church Street at the Kneip Building. The center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CT and on Sundays and most holidays from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The center is closed New Year Day, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. Admission is $4 for adults ages 18 through 59 and $3 for seniors age 60 and over. No admission is charged for people younger than 18 and for South Dakota State Historical Society members.

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