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Young officer held key to destruction
Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Spotsylvania reflects on his role as an Atlas missile crew commander on 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

 Wayne Colton (right) during his time as an Air Force adviser in Vietnam, several years after after commanding an Atlas missile crew in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Colton was later stationed in Germany, and then Hawaii, where he retired in 1981.
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Date published: 10/14/2012


The date was Oct. 24, 1962, and then-Air Force Capt. Wayne Colton, a junior officer and three enlisted men were huddled in a hardened missile silo deep beneath a field on an air base in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

That day, for the first time ever--or since--the U.S. military elevated its threat level to an unprecedented Defense Condition Two. The United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war and Colton and his crew were prepared to kill millions of people, if so ordered.

Two days earlier, President John F. Kennedy announced to a stunned nation that spy-plane reconnaissance photos had confirmed the presence of Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, and he ordered a naval blockade.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Colton recalled those two tense weeks in October against the backdrop of now-simmering nuclear tensions in Iran and North Korea.

"At the time, we didn't think of being a part of history. Our thought was that this is really bad. We were in a state we had never been in before," said Colton, 75, who retired as a lieutenant colonel and now lives with his wife, Linda, off Catharpin Road in Spotsylvania County.

"We knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we knew that this was many multiple times worse."

Those Japanese cities were destroyed by the first two nuclear bombs, dropped in August 1945. Colton's crew was responsible for an Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a 4-megaton warhead nearly a thousand times as powerful as those World War II bombs.

"I don't think any of us had any doubt about what we would do," he said, thinking back to that fateful day in October. "You do your job. If you've got to fire this thing, fire it."

He knew that the missile could potentially kill millions of people in Eastern Europe.

The crew, he said, didn't know what target it would strike. The missile was programmed to accept either of two destinations, labeled "A" and "B."

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Oct. 14, 1962--Spy planes capture images of Soviet missiles and launchers under construction in Cuba. Oct. 22--President Kennedy announces the findings on national TV, orders naval blockade. Oct. 24--Nuclear forces threat level heightened to Defense Condition 2--one step short of war. Oct. 27--A U-2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba and Soviets demand that United States remove its missiles from Turkey in exchange for USSR removing missiles from Cuba. Oct. 28--Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev announces he will dismantle the missile launchers and return the missiles to the Soviet Union.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wayne Colton wrote down some of his memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here's an excerpt from one tense day:

"As I sat in the launch control center I thought back to the then-popular film 'On the Beach,' based on Nevil Shute's novel. In the book and film, an all-out nuclear war had polluted the atmosphere, killing all human life in the Northern Hemisphere. I knew the weapons had gotten progressively 'cleaner' over the years, but radiation fallout would still be extensive in any nuclear exchange. By looking over our pre-launch imaging monitor, I could observe the nuclear warhead resting comfortable on top of the missile, awaiting its potential call to duty. It was with mixed emotions that I viewed this extraordinary advanced technological weapon, awaiting the 'Go Order.'"