In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war after American spy planes discovered that the Kremlin had stationed medium-range atomic missiles on the communist island of Cuba in the Caribbean, barely over the horizon from Florida.

The weapons placed large swaths of the U.S. — including Washington, D.C. — within range of attack and sparked a two-week showdown between the superpowers that Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

Six months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, a parallel drama had played out on the other side of the world as the U.S. brought near-identical missiles to the ones the Russians stationed on Cuba to another small island — Okinawa.

While the full facts of that deployment have still not officially been disclosed, now for the first time three of the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear pioneers have broken the silence about Okinawa’s secret missiles, life within the bunkers and a military miscalculation of apocalyptic proportions — the targeting of unaligned China.

John Bordne, Larry Havemann and Bill Horn were all born during the early days of World War II, but their motivations in joining the U.S. Air Force were very different. Coming from a family steeped in military tradition, Bordne signed up out of a sense of patriotism. Havemann, a laboratory technician, saw the air force as a means to secure a stable income for his family. For Horn, the military offered an escape route from impoverished West Virginia. “Besides, I liked the color of the uniform,” he says.

Soon after joining the air force, these three men from contrasting backgrounds were assigned to the 498th Tactical Missile Group and sent to Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado. There, they first set eyes on the latest weapon in their nation’s nuclear arsenal — the TM-76 Mace. A progeny of the V-1 “doodlebug” rockets that the Nazis rained down on Britain during World War II, the 13-meter-long Mace missiles weighed 8 tons and cost $500,000 each. Packed into the missile’s guts was a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead that, at over 75 times the ferocity of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, could obliterate everything within a 5-km radius, create a crater 20 stories deep and irradiate the landscape for decades to come.

“For such a horrendous weapon, it was very unimposing,” recalls Horn. “It reminded me of a silver hotdog with wings.”

At Lowry, the new recruits were streamed into seven-man crews and received intensive training in the missiles’ engines, guidance systems and nuclear payload. Six months later, the newly graduated “missileers” were ready for their combat postings — which they assumed would be in Europe, where the East Germans had just started work on the Berlin Wall. But to their surprise, they found themselves on a 36-hour island-hopping flight to the U.S.’s military keystone of the Pacific — Okinawa.

Although the U.S. military had seized Okinawa in the spring of 1945, months before the end of World War II, it wasn’t until China turned communist in 1949 and the Korean War broke out the following year that the U.S. became fully convinced of the island’s strategic importance. The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which ended the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of mainland Japan, granted America continued control of Okinawa — and it rapidly transformed it into the linchpin of its Cold War plans for Asia.

With this in mind, in 1954 the U.S. brought hydrogen-bomb armed F-100 fighter-bombers to its key hub in the Pacific, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa — the first of thousands of nuclear weapons that it would station on the island before their removal in 1972 (see accompanying stories).

When Bordne and Horn arrived in 1961 (Havemann went in 1962), Okinawa still bore the scars of World War II — civilian buildings were cobbled together from military scrap timber and the wrecks of U.S. invasion ships lay rusting off the shores. Bordne and Horn were in for another surprise. “The missile sites still hadn’t been finished,” says Horn. “Site One was a massive hole in the ground. For the first couple of months, we had to help the civilian contractors in the 100-degree heat (37 Celsius) to pull cables from the launch bays to the control centers down below.”

Finally, in early 1962, Bolo Point in Yomitan, the first of Okinawa’s nuclear-missile sites, became operational. Hidden beneath tarpaulins and the cover of darkness, eight Mace missiles were trucked from Kadena Air Base and loaded into launch tubes aimed over the East China Sea.

Still in the same seven-member teams from Lowry, the men began the work for which they’d been trained — “to defend the island, protect the institution of democracy and halt the spread of communism,” explains Horn with an ironic chuckle.

The men’s eight-hour shifts began with a briefing at the missile control center on Kadena Air Base to update them on the day’s weather and the current geopolitical climate. Following this, the crews drove to Bolo Point where, upon their arrival, they’d be met by an escort from the previous shift with the latest password. “It was something simple like ‘Apple’ or ‘1324’ or ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ But sometimes the escort would get distracted and forget it. That’s when they’d send in the guard dogs to see if there was a problem,” says Havemann.

Once safely past the security check, the missileers climbed into the launch site itself. Consisting of three main areas — a crew ready room, a diesel generator chamber and a launch room replete with a red telephone hotline to Kadena — roughly 10 meters away sat the eight missiles around which the men’s duties revolved. They checked the engines and fine-tuned the guidance systems, drilled themselves on safety procedures and practiced countdowns to ensure the missiles were ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

However, considering the apocalyptic power at their fingertips, life within the missile sites was terrifyingly mundane. To pass the time, the men studied correspondence classes, played endless rounds of pinochle and compared notes on the shows they’d seen recently on the bases’ nightclubs — including a (then) little-known band called The Supremes. The missileers had also been tasked by American manufacturers to field test a new gadget — microwave ovens. Bordne remembers, “They only came with one setting, so meat came out like shoe leather and the mashed potatoes had ice cubes in the middle.”

The missiles themselves created few problems for the men and the gigantic springs beneath the bunkers — designed to protect them from nuclear blasts — dampened the earthquakes and typhoons that rattled nerves among their colleagues on the surface.

But the events of October 1962 were about to dash any hopes that Okinawa would be a sun-drenched holiday posting. “At Kadena, we learned about the photographs several days before the American public. From that moment on, things became very serious,” says Horn.

The photos mentioned by Horn were those taken on Oct. 14, 1962, by an American spy plane on a surveillance flight over Western Cuba. The images revealed that, for the first time in its history, the Soviet Union had stationed nuclear weapons outside its borders. The SS-4 medium range missiles — at 22 meters nose-to-tail and carrying a megaton warhead — could reach the White House 15 minutes after launch. JFK took the news as a personal affront — branding Khrushchev “an immoral gangster,” he immediately demanded that his top brass draw up plans to bomb the Cuban sites.

Back on Okinawa, the Air Force missileers’ reactions to the photographs varied. “Some guys were mad, some sad, some were depressed and others closed and quiet,” recalls Bordne in his unpublished memoirs. “Everyone accepted the possible outcome but handled this acceptance differently.”

Over the next few days, tensions escalated in the Caribbean and the Pentagon raised the nation’s Defense Condition (DEFCON) to level two. Bordne remembers, “Our colonel told us that DEFCON 2 meant we were within 15 minutes of a declaration of nuclear war. If DEFCON 1 was reached, then we would be within five minutes of launching our missiles. A look of dread washed across everyone’s faces, and I felt the blood drain out of mine, too.”

Havemann shared Bordne’s fear. “Being trained on the nuclear weapons, I knew that the whole world was in great peril. I thought of my family in America but I could do nothing to help them. I wrote a letter to my mother knowing that if war came it would never get there. But writing it helped me mentally.”

Mingled with the missileers’ fear, though, there was also a sense of professional rivalry as the men compared their own Maces with the grainy spy-plane footage of the Soviet missiles — and concluded that the SS-4’s were technically inferior. Furthermore, they experienced a complex sense of excitement that they might finally be given a chance to put their hard months of training into practice.

According to Bordne, “After we reached DEFCON 2, another mechanic offered me $1,000 to give him my shift. That was a lot of money — a year’s salary — but I flatly turned him down. I wanted to be there for launch as badly as he did.”

For a horrifying few days, it seemed like Bordne would receive his chance as events spiraled out of JFK’s and Khrushchev’s control on the other side of the world — the Cubans shot down a U.S. spy plane and the American Navy dropped explosives on Russian submarines forcing them to surface. Hearing these developments, the Okinawa missileers steeled themselves for the announcement of DEFCON 1. Stationed at the still-incomplete Onna site, Havemann was told that if things became any worse, his crew would have to improvise by loading the warheads onto the missiles and covering the launch doors with tarpaulins.

Meanwhile at Bolo Point, Horn was locked underground for 48 hours. “A sealed canvas bag had been delivered containing our countdown instructions — and we were waiting for the red phone to ring with our launch orders from Kadena. When that time came, our officer would have broken the seal. There would have been three separate commands and then we would have launched. We were seconds away from midnight on the nuclear clock.”

But the telephone stayed silent.

On Oct. 28, Kennedy and Khrushchev finally struck a secret deal whereby the Soviets promised to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba in return for U.S. promises never to invade the island and assurances it would pull its atomic rockets out of NATO-aligned Turkey.

When word reached Okinawa, Horn likened the experience to a near-missed car wreck. “At the time, you don’t realize how close things were. It’s only when you pull over to the side of the road that you really start shaking.”

But the missileers’ accounts beg the question: If that telephone had rung, where would their nuclear weapons have struck?

Until now, all three men have willingly answered every question about their time on Okinawa — right down to the “honey buckets” they used as toilets. But this issue makes them more tight-lipped. “For the purpose of your story just say that the missiles were preprogrammed and we weren’t told the destinations for security reasons,” says Bordne. Havemann’s reply: “I don’t know. And if I did — even today — I don’t think it would be wise to say.”

Horn is the only one prepared to put voice to the unspeakable. “Although we didn’t know for sure, we surmised that it was somewhere in China.”

The Maces’ relatively short range of 2,000 km put almost the entire Soviet Union, with the possible exception of Vladivostok, tantalizingly out of the missiles’ reach — and this technical data, combined with Horn’s suspicion, illustrates one of the biggest failings of 20th century U.S. military intelligence. Today the 1959 Sino-Soviet split is well-documented — Khrushchev and Mao had come to blows over Russia’s refusal to help China develop nuclear missiles combined with a fratricidal ideological debate over communism’s future. However at the time, the Pentagon had blindly assumed that the two countries were allies. This misconception laid the basis of America’s infamous blueprint for atomic war — the Single Integrated Operational Plan — dubbed by one government adviser as a “massive, total, comprehensive, obliterating strategic attack on everything Red.” While JFK had made token changes to the plan in early 1962, the amendments apparently hadn’t filtered down to the missile control center on Kadena.

Given the tensions between China and the Soviet Union, it is highly likely that Mao would have sat out the Euro-American armageddon sparked by the Cuban Crisis. But had the Okinawan Maces annihilated Shanghai and Beijing, killing untold millions of neutral Chinese civilians, Mao would undoubtedly have lashed out.

While the three missileers are understandably reluctant to discuss the targeting of China, they all agree that the U.S. missiles on Okinawa made the island a target. Bordne worried about the possible “evaporation of Okinawa in a preemptive or retaliatory strike,” while Horn believes that “The Okinawans were a human shield.”

Havemann raises an even more frightening prospect for the islanders still traumatized by the Battle of Okinawa in which a third of the civilian population had died — a land invasion by Russian or Chinese troops. At the same time he was warned he may need to load the warheads into the Onna Maces, Havemann says, “We were told to get our equipment, helmets and backpacks ready in case we had to head for the jungles. If we were overrun by an attacking force we were to destroy the nuclear weapons, seal the sites and do what we could to survive.”

Ironically, in his Oct. 22 televised speech in which he broke the news about the Soviet missiles in the Caribbean, JFK accused Castro of turning Cuba “into the first Latin American country to become a target for nuclear war.” Now it seems clear that not only the 7 million Cubans but also the 900,000 residents of Okinawa were pawns in a far larger play among distant superpowers who apparently cared little about the civilians whose lives their nuclear weapons were supposed to protect.

Fifty years after their days on Okinawa, all three American missileers are now retired with time to reflect upon their roles in human history’s most dangerous moment.

Of the three, Horn is the most rueful. “We were all just kids doing a man’s job. The American military machine taught us that it was our right to take anything or go anywhere we wanted. But we never realized that people didn’t want us or our weapons on their island.”

Bordne is prouder that he could perpetuate his family’s long military heritage. But the ensuing half century has revealed to him some unexpected similarities with his erstwhile enemies on Cuba. “I used to hate the Russian missileers, but after reading accounts of their experiences, it is clear that they exercised the same restraint and clear judgment as we did. Now, I know that none of us wanted to alter life on this planet for eternity.”

Havemann shares Bordne’s sense of responsibility and he is a firm believer in passing on the lessons of 1962 to future generations. “Nowadays, when I watch the news, it seems some people, like the leaders of Iran, think that a nuclear weapon is little more than a big stick of dynamite — and it’s fine to set one off here and there. It gives me a strange feeling in my stomach and sometimes I come close to tears.”

Jon Mitchell is a Welsh-born writer based in Yokohama. In 2011, his research into the U.S. military’s usage of Agent Orange on Okinawa during the Vietnam War prompted the Japanese government to announce that it would seek disclosure from Washington on the issue and this research was the subject of two TV documentaries in May 2012.

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