by Joel Brender
I arrived at Minot Air Force Base in Minot, North Dakota, in December of 1962, fresh out of basic training and a newly minted Air Policeman, with responsibilities far beyond my tender years and maturity. I was almost gullible enough to believe what we had been told: “We stay awake so America can sleep.” Some of my friends from basic had been stationed in Florida, Colorado and Germany. Here I was in Minot, purgatory on the prairie. It was thirty minutes away from any type of civilian civilization. Oh how we came to yearn for wherever we had come from.
By February of 1964 our base was transitioning from not only having a wing of B-52 Stratofortress bombers to also having the latest Intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Minuteman missiles were operational all over North Dakota as well as several other northern states. Each “flight” of missiles were made up of a launch control facility (LCF) that controlled ten launch facilities within a specific radius.
The previous summer, those of us selected to transfer to the new Missile Wing had undergone specialized training at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota. We learned how the alarm systems worked, and how to “authenticate” ourselves on to the sites using alphanumeric codes. We received Secret Crypto clearances so we could use, handle, and dispose of the code books. We also had intensive training by the Mosler Lock Company on how to set and reset combination locks. You see, every time you entered a site and accessed the topside maintenance area you had to retrieve a set of keys that were placed in an in-ground safe covered with a bank grade Mosler combination lock. Communicating with the LCF in code, you would authenticate your presence on site and receive the latest combination to the key storage safe. Once you pulled the locking mechanism out of the ground, retrieved the keys and did what you had to do, you’d return the keys to the safe and re-set a new combination so that you and others could repeat the process the next time you made a site visit. I’ve always thought that the best safecrackers throughout the 1970s were probably trained by the Air Force. Sort of an un-intentional government benefit. At the time it was hush-hush, super-secret, and actually very exciting to a nineteen-year-old airman.
Ultimately, my job as an access control supervisor at the LCF would curtail my having to patrol and check on the sites. Initially, though, I found myself driving around the North Dakota countryside (almost sounds idyllic!) with a partner checking on the LF’s for security breaches and issues. The sites were not normally manned so keeping an eye on them was necessary. The missile was in the ground and “buttoned up” pretty good, but mischief and damage could and sometimes did occur topside. All of this was under the aegis of SAC, Strategic Air Command to the uninitiated. We were allowed to wear the SAC patches on our uniforms that read “Peace Is Our Profession.” We had enough “nukes” on this one base alone to send the earth back to the Stone Age, but it was nice to know we could do it peacefully.
Eventually I found myself attached to “Mike” flight. Remembering your alphabet will give you some idea of the number of missiles in North Dakota alone that old Nikita Khrushchev probably lost some sleep over. And yes, the Russians did keep an eye on them. We were notified when their people were driving around the area taking pictures of the sites.
Our people were following them around taking their pictures. If I only had a camera I could have taken pictures of the picture takers.
“What did you do in the Cold War daddy?”
“Well son, I got this photo album full of spies right here to show you.”
“Mike” flight covered an area in the north central part of the State, from Mohall to Bowbells and over to Sherwood and Antler. And the entire wonderful empty spaces in between. We could drive for hours and not see another car on the road. The snow was so high in the ditches alongside the roads that we couldn’t see the snow fences either. So when we’d find ourselves leaving the road and plowing down somebody’s fence we had a certain fatalistic view of it. “Screw them, they chose to live here!” Every so often we’d pass a lone farm house and that was it. Passing one of these farm houses around three o’clock in the morning always inspired us to turn on our flashers and vehicle sirens. We usually made a friendly bet on how many lights would turn on in the house. The excitement never stopped!
We checked the launch facilities on twelve-hour shifts. Every time we received an actual alarm from one of the sites we raced out there hoping to catch some Russian breaking in, but we never had such luck. It was usually a deer grazing up to the fence or a bird flying through and blocking one of the electronic stanchions. Also we found out that ice buildup on the inside of the stanchion faceplate would generate a breach alarm. So the first thing we would do is check this out by giving the stanchion a swift kick to break up the ice inside. We called it “Brogan maintenance.” After finding boot marks on their million-dollar equipment, the Air Force called it something else and it had to stop.
Boredom and more boredom. But this February night, history would be made!
It was after midnight. My partner this shift was Warren “Bo” Bollins, from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. He was short and stocky and I thought he’d make a perfect center on a football team. Very easy going, he greeted everyone with “Hey, how the hell are you?” A good driving-around partner on those long nights. Well, this night seemed to be an unusually warm one. Bo and I swore that it couldn’t have been any colder than zero degrees, so we had thrown our parkas on the back seat and only needed our B-1 jackets to stay comfortable. By this time we had already made a couple of circuits around our designated area and were telling stories and lies to each other to break up the monotony.
But that night our thoughts turned to how close we were to Canada. Even though some of the guys on base would travel to Regina, Canada for a weekend, as it was a real city, I had never ventured outside of the United States for any reason. Thought it would be cool to go to Canada or anywhere, but never had the opportunity to do so. Now, “Bo” was driving but I was the ranking airman (by two weeks I believe!) and de facto Vehicle Commander so I said, “Let’s see where the border is.”
“Yeah, now! You got somewhere else to be?” I was the “ranking” airman after all.
“Well, okay,” he said. “Must be somewhere north of where we are.”
“Can’t be too far,” I said. “We’ll see lights and border crossing signs as we get there. Let’s head over to Bowbells. There’s a road leading north out of town. That should get us there.”
So off we went, north out of Bowbells and on to destiny. We drove along, not seeing anything but the sight of snow being blown off the tops of the drifts that bracketed both sides of the road. No matter what season it was, the Hawk was right there. The Hawk, that omnipresent wind that blew out of northern Canada and straight across the Dakota plains. I guess God thought we weren’t miserable enough with our local weather phenomena.
No signs, no lights, just the road leading north.
“Guess it was farther than I thought Bo,” I said. “I thought we’d see some lights or something. Hey, what’s that up ahead?”
“Looks like a building of some kind but it’s awfully dark. Maybe they only let you through in the daytime.”
“Keep going”, I said. After all, I was still the Vehicle Commander!
All of a sudden the road was gone and we were sitting in the front yard of a farmhouse. Looking around I saw some stone pyramid like markers about a hundred yards behind us.
“Check it out Bo, maybe they’ll say where we are, or where the road turned off.” In a couple of minutes he returned with a concerned look on his face.
“Well, did they tell us anything?” I said.
He just looked at me for a few moments. Actually, stared would be more accurate. “Does ‘International Boundary’ mean anything to you?”
Now it was my turn to stare. “We crossed the border, didn’t we?”
And in a voice that could have come from Lurch, the Addams Family butler, he just said,
“You’re the Vehicle Commander, I’m just following orders.”
And as a light came on in the upstairs window of the farmhouse, a light came on in my head. We were sitting in a blue Dodge Crew Cab vehicle with United States Air Force markings all over it. Wearing uniforms of the United States Air Force. Carrying two M-1 carbines, two .38 caliber Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece side arms, and over a hundred rounds of ammunition. Not only had I succeeded in ordering us to leave our patrol area, but I had succeeded in deserting the United States of America and successfully leading an armed excursion into another sovereign nation. Benedict Arnold never made it to Canada, but I did!
“Bo, someone’s waving to us from the porch of that house.” As visions of a court martial, Leavenworth Penitentiary, and cell mates named Bubba danced through my head, I said, “Do you think you can find reverse and get us out of here?” To this day I don’t believe I have ever gone faster in reverse than I did that night. “Great driving Bo!”
We hightailed it back past the markers and left before the Royal Mounties, immigration authorities, or just someone with a flat tire got our vehicle number and reported us. We drove back into Bowbells (I never thought that place could look so good!) before pulling over and just sitting there. Finally, looking at each other and both realizing how serious the incident was, we burst out laughing. Couldn’t stop for minutes. We had just “visited” Canada. No, no, visiting is not right; we didn’t go through a checkpoint. We attacked Canada. No, we didn’t hurt, harm or destroy anything. We invaded Canada! With men and equipment, we invaded Canada. The Continental Army couldn’t do it. The German Army couldn’t do it. The Chinese Army hadn’t done it. But we had! And with only two years of military leadership and training. Wait till the world hears about this. We’ll be famous! Or we’ll be incarcerated for life!
We both agreed that we couldn’t talk about it or we’d face some serious consequences, and until I decided to write this story it has been a well-kept secret. Well, enough time has passed that I don’t think Uncle Sam cares to do anything to us, so now I can share a moment in time that has always brought a smile to my face whenever I think about it.
If you’re reading this, Bo, “Hey, how the hell are you?”
Hope you remember the night we invaded Canada!