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Nukes in the Heartland: Remnants of Cold War Missile Sites Remain

Kansas-based artist catalogues decommissioned Minuteman II sites

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Above image credit: Three of the sites photographed in Nate Hofer's "One and A Half Acres" photo series. The images represent the remains of Minuteman II sites that housed nuclear missiles during The Cold War. (Contributed | Nate Hofer)

On a farm near Boonville, Missouri, a dog house sits on the north side of a grassy field. Farm equipment also juts into the plot, taking up nearly a quarter of the perfect rectangle of land fenced off from the rest of the world. 

It’s hard to believe that this remote parcel was once home to a weapon powerful enough to wipe out an entire civilization, buried deep underground. 

This is Charlie-03, one of more than 150 retired Minuteman II sites in Missouri. Each of these sites housed underground nuclear missiles during the Cold War, part of an effort to hide our doomsday arsenal in the middle of the Great Plains. 

Nate Hofer’s father was a Mennonite teacher in Nigeria. He was born in Nigeria, but soon his family would return to the states, and settle in Eudora, Kansas. 

Hofer grew up during the Cold War. He was raised in a part of the country that was home to about 450 missiles during the time. 

“As a kid, you’re thinking about these rockets that are in the ground in the Midwest,” Hofer said. “There are some people who think they’re necessary. There are some people who protest against them. That was probably about as far as my thinking went, honestly, as a kid.”

Nate Hofer
Nate Hofer stands in front of an image from his gallery at Kansas City Public Library in March 2020. Hofer’s photo series “One and a Half Acres” was shown at several gallery shows. (Contributed | Nate Hofer)

Hofer distinctly remembers his parents not allowing him to watch the 1983 TV-movie “The Day After,” which takes place and was shot in Lawrence, Kansas. The movie attracted 100 million viewers in one night, and was so controversial that the New York Post called the director a traitor. 

It was also a lot of Missourians’ introduction to the Minuteman program.

“I saw that in the 8th grade and it gave me shivers,” said David Grisdale, director of historical properties at Whiteman Air Force Base.

The Minuteman missiles replaced Atlas and Titan missiles, some of which were located in Kansas. These new missiles were originally supposed to be further south, in states like Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma. But the military moved them further north to locations in Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota so they could reach their targets in Russia and China, while still staying away from highly populated areas.

These sites stayed active until President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the START Treaty in 1991. The missiles were shipped off to a base in Utah, and the silos were destroyed. The land was sold back to the owners for as little as $600 to as much as $12,000.

What’s left is a collection of land that shows how far the country has come from the brink of nuclear war.

“The reason I’m principally interested in those (missile silos) is because, first there’s so many of them,” Hofer said. “The other reason I find them interesting is because those had to be decommissioned through the START missile treaty. So these were instances in my mind where a nuclear agreement worked.”

Hofer’s photo series “One and a Half Acres” documents what the sites look like nearly three decades after they were decommissioned. The photos were taken from an aerial view via drone, and show the nearly perfect rectangular plots of land where the silos used to be. Some even still have the original fence line put up by the military.

“The older I become as an adult, the more I see that my personal view is that these weapons of mass destruction, as I think of them, are just not needed,” Hofer said. “They’re pretty scary, and it connects back to anxieties I had as a kid growing up during the Cold War in the 80s.”

Minuteman II missile launch key
A close-up shot of the launch key at the Oscar-01 facility at the Whiteman Air Force Base. The key would have been used in the Cold War to launch Minuteman II missiles. (Contributed | Whiteman Air Force Base)

Hofer’s photo series was inspired by arms race tensions between the U.S., Russia, North Korea and China in the 21st century.

“These things were cocked and loaded in the ground ready to go,” Hofer said. “And as the Cold War ended, and this stuff is talked about less, I kind of forgot about it, and then reconnected with those fears as an adult.”

There is a wide variety of uses for the old land.

In Kingsville, Missouri, what once was the location of Mike-09, now is home to a Seventh Day Adventist Church. At the Alpha-11 site in Blackburn, Missouri, there are now the dead bodies of old cars, trucks and vans. Mike-11 in Centerview, Missouri, has overgrown greenery lining a plot of land, rounding out the edges of the fencepost that once cut it off from the rest of the field around it.

One of the launch sites located outside of Holden, Missouri, was actually dug out and put up for sale on Ebay in 2017. 

“You weren’t allowed to re-enter these facilities, but after long they were just like, ‘yeah go ahead’,” Grisdale said. “The DNR and several other people were out there and wanted to see what he was getting into. I think he either wanted to turn it into a real cool man cave or something, but you know they flooded those things up.”

According to the Kansas City Star, in 2017 the hollowed out silo was going for $325,000.

Oscar-01 launch facility at the Whiteman Air Force Base
A look inside the Oscar-01 launch facility at the Whiteman Air Force Base. The retired launch site has been opened to the public for tours. (Contributed | Whiteman Air Force Base)

At Oscar-01, the launch site located at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri, a museum shows people what these facilities would have looked like during their use. Visitors can see the launch facility that would have turned the keys if a nuclear attack had happened, and the Minuteman II missiles were used. 

Due to COVID-19, there are no public tours of the site happening at the moment, but Grisdale expects them to pick back up in October. 

Hofer has also experienced setbacks at the hands of the pandemic. Two of his gallery shows had to be pushed back, and going and visiting the people who live on these sites has become difficult. 

Sometimes the owner has had the land since the site was active. In Nevada, Missouri, Hofer says the owner could remember the surveyors and engineers coming to scout the land that would later become home to Hotel-10.

“His life has kind of paralleled the life of these missile sites,” Hofer said.

Hofer sees the photo series as exploration of these old sites, and a chance to learn about the history of nukes in the heartland. He hopes to one day capture all of the sites in Missouri, and then start on the Dakotas. If funding was available, Hofer would also like to get the other side of the story, and visit sites in Russia and Lithuania. 

The artist says his upbringing in the Mennonite Church, and its teaching of pacifism influenced his view on these sites. They show that peace is attainable, even as the 2020 Doomsday Clock reaches 100 seconds until midnight.

“It’s possible,” he says. “Humans have it within them to take a step back from the brink. We just need the resolve to do it.”

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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