For an intense two weeks during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, a group of airmen working at underground nuclear missile sites near Spokane literally had their fingers on the buttons that could start a nuclear war.
And now their stories are finally being told in “Secret Spokane – Center of the Cold War,” which opens at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture on Wednesday.
The exhibit is co-hosted by the Honor Point Military and Aerospace Museum, the local group formerly known as the Armed Forces and Aerospace Museum, and it features photos, narrative and news reports from the time of the crisis.
“This exhibit shows in a very personal way how we felt when we were on the brink of war,” said Anton DeLateur, president and chairman of Honor Point Military and Aerospace Museum. “Hopefully this will give people a sense of what it felt like 50 years ago when we were staring down the barrel of a gun.”
There were nine underground missile sites within a 50-mile radius of Fairchild Air Force Base. Each site – or “coffin,” as it was referred to by the airmen – held an Atlas-E missile armed with a 4-megaton nuclear warhead. At the time, reports from Cuba indicated that the Soviet Union was building a military base there and arming it with nuclear warheads aimed at the United States. As President John F. Kennedy and his advisers wrestled with how to respond to such a direct threat while avoiding a full-blown nuclear war, pressure built at the Spokane missile sites as they got ready to launch.
“Spokane really was the tip of the spear,” DeLateur said. “People in Spokane did know what was going on. There were actual nuclear fallout drills and the Air Force base was on high alert.”
Writer and historian Jim Kershner, a senior correspondent for The Spokesman-Review, is behind the narrative that accompanies the exhibit.
Kershner interviewed some of the airmen who worked at the missile sites during the crisis and they shared personal stories about what it was like to work underground, and under such nerve-wracking pressure, until the crisis blew over.
“The more we looked into this part of Spokane’s history the more we realized it had been kept hidden,” DeLateur said.
It’s a relatively small exhibit for the MAC.
“This will be a unique effort,” said Forrest Rodgers, the MAC’s executive director. “A short-term exhibit exploring an incredibly important and specific point in our local history is a different approach for us.” Partnering with Honor Point allows the MAC to display material the public has never seen before, including artifacts from the sites, personal photos and mementos.
Honor Point has a sizeable collection of military artifacts, and soon the organization will have a home and display site for its collection at Felts Field.
“We are just now working out the details,” DeLateur said.
He hopes the MAC exhibit will make the Cuban Missile Crisis real to people who weren’t alive then.
“For many younger people who’ve only seen things on a video screen, this exhibit will show what the brink of war is like when it’s right in your face,” DeLateur said.