For as destructive as the world’s combined nuclear arsenals could be, it sure seems like both the United States and Soviet Union were pretty cavalier about using them. The U.S. alone had 32 different nuclear weapons incidents, which includes straight-up losing six of them, none of which was ever found.
The Soviets, of course, had a far-from-perfect nuclear record. The USSR may have lost upward of a hundred weapons. It also would have launched a nuclear attack against the U.S. if it weren’t for one officer who recognized a malfunction in the early warning system.
As highly as we like to think of our military leadership, the launch code for World War III was “00000000” for 15 years. We shouldn’t be surprised that a bear was nearly able to start that war by itself.
On Oct. 25, 1962, America was in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets had begun to construct nuclear launch sites on the island of Cuba, allowing the USSR to target areas deep inside the American mainland. It also sparked alarm that a Soviet attack was soon to follow.
The U.S. government was livid, and for 13 days, it demanded the removal of the missiles. This response seems strange in retrospect, because the United States had been using the same tactic against the Soviets using missiles based in Turkey since 1961. The Navy was blockading Cuba, and Soviet ships were headed straight for the blockade. Things were pretty tense.
With all this going on, much of the U.S. military was at DEFCON 3, which meant the Air Force had to be ready to mobilize within 15 minutes. Strategic Air Command, the bulk of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, was at DEFCON 2, one step below a nuclear war.
At midnight on Oct. 25, a portly saboteur set off the intruder alarms at Duluth Sector Direction Center in Minnesota. A sentry fired shots at the intruder and raised alarms all over the area, believing the Soviets were making a move against the Air Force assets. In a frenzy, Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin sounded the wrong alarm. Pilots were scrambling to get to their aircraft and to take nuclear weapons to World War III.
But almost as fast as the alarm was sounded, cooler heads prevailed as the presumed saboteur walked off into the woods on four legs. The guard realized that his perpetrator was likely a black bear, a creature native to the area. Most of the bases stood down their alert. The only base that didn’t was Volk Field.
It turns out the alarm at Volk Field was a lot more serious than just warning of intruders. The airplanes that were about to head off into the night were armed and ready. The alarm that sounded would be rung only if the United States was going to war with Soviet Union.
To stop the pilots from potentially nuking the USSR, the base commander had to get one of his officers to drive a truck onto the flight line, right in the takeoff path of the jets. He was able to make it to them and abort the mission as they started their engines.
The black bear that almost ended civilization wasn’t the only close call of the Cold War. It wasn’t even the only time nuclear war almost started during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it seems humanity doesn’t want to commit nuclear suicide after all.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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