During the Cuban Missile Crisis, an Okinawa Screw-Up Almost Nuked the World
One airman's incredible story of military miscommunication
It’s a miracle the planet survived the Cold War. Nuclear accidents, harebrained intelligence schemes and military miscommunication brought the world to brink of nuclear annihilation more than once during the long, slow years after World War II.
Back in October 1962 as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the Soviets and Americans close to war, airman John Bordne was just starting his shift at a secret missile base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Aaron Tovish at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists tells Bordne’s harrowing story.
By Bordne’s account … Air Force crews on Okinawa were ordered to launch 32 missiles, each carrying a large nuclear warhead. Only caution and the common sense and decisive action of the line personnel receiving those orders prevented the launches — and averted the nuclear war that most likely would have ensued.
Each launch officer was responsible for four Mace B cruise missiles mounted with Mark 28 nuclear warheads. The Mark 28 had a yield equivalent to 1.1 megatons of TNT … roughly 70 times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bomb … With a range of 1,400 miles, the Mace B’s on Okinawa could reach the communist capital cities of Hanoi, Beijing and Pyongyang, as well as the Soviet military facilities at Vladivostok.
On Oct. 28, the launch crews in the Japanese islands sat at DEFCON 2 — going to DEFCON 1 would mean nuclear war — but received confirmed commands telling them to launch their missiles. Bordne’s commander, Capt. William Bassett, didn’t think the orders made any sense.
“We have not received the upgrade to DEFCON 1, which is highly irregular, and we need to proceed with caution,” Borde recalls his captain saying at the time. “This may be the real thing, or it is the biggest screw up we will ever experience in our lifetime.”
Even crazier, the target list had three unknown, non-Russian targets. Bassett started calling around for confirmation and the situation escalated.
The second launch officer … reported to Bassett that the lieutenant had ordered his crew to proceed with the launch of its missiles! Bassett immediately ordered the other launch officer, as Bordne remembers it, “to send two airmen over with weapons and shoot the [lieutenant] if he tries to launch without [either] verbal authorization from the ‘senior officer in the field’ or the upgrade to DEFCON 1 by Missile Operations Center.”
Bassett called his major and demanded he either raise to DEFCON 1 or issue a launch stand-down. According to Badne, Bassett’s request ended the crisis. The major realized a mistake had been made and issued a stand-down order. Bassett ordered his men to never speak of the incident.
For more on this story, including Tovish’s efforts to track down more men who served Bordne and his ongoing pursuit of government documents related to the incident, head over to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.