Among the Titan-2 intercontinental ballistic missiles that once stood on underground alert outside Tucson, Arizona, only one remains to bear witness to an era – the permanent resident of the launch tube nicknamed “Copper Penny.” The Penny, however, was no isolated frontier encampment such as Fort. Apache, Fort Bowie or Fort Defiance.
A quarter-century ago this underground fortress stood on global guard duty, designed for a single retaliatory shot. Now, much the same as Fort Bowie just over the eastern horizon, this underground fortress gives tourists from around the world – even former enemies – a glimpse into the garrison life of U.S. airmen and women during a crucial period of the Cold War.
The guide leads a group of visitors to a metal stairway opening into the desert floor. The launch complex and crew quarters, all perfectly restored, extend nine floors into the copper-rich earth. The complex is designed to withstand the shock of a nuclear blast outside.
From the control room and crew barracks, a 200-foot passageway leads to the missile hangar. A viewing port has been cut through two feet of concrete encircling the launch duct. (This renders the silo incapable of launching.) The missile stands tall and erect behind this window with a mixture of sunlight and greenish artificial light patterning the rivets.
While the visitors are in the command center, a simulated order to fire is played – the command that was never issued when the site was operational. Crisply the electronic voice cuts through the silence: “Red-dash-alpha message in two parts!”
In the most crucial fail-safe maneuver, the site commander and his deputy, several paces apart, would turn separate keys much like the starter switches of an auto.
Just a few years more than a century ago, on Oct. 17, 1894, Troops B and I of the Second U.S. Cavalry lowered a 44-star flag, wheeled into line on Fort Bowie’s parade ground and rode off into history. On Nov. 11, 1982, the 50-star flag was lowered and a caravan of blue trucks carried the crew of the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron back to nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.