From Ron Chiste in 2005:
6th Bn, 40th Field Artillery, 3AD
I frequently laugh to myself when I hear people talk about
the Cold War as if it was some benign label in which threats
to our country were nonexistent. Little do most people realize
the level of threat that actually was inherent to the Cold War.
Take, for example, the true events below of May, 1972, starting
with some technical background.
In the early 70s those division units that were nuclear capable
(8"SP Artillery, 155mm Artillery, Honest John, and Engineers)
had their war reserve (the real stuff) stored in various Nato
Sites around western Europe. If a situation arose whereby nuclear
weapons were authorized to be used, those weapons had to be released
to the appropriate units. Control of those weapons came to the
respective units via an elaborate security and authentication
system from higher headquarters. Everything about the nuclear
weapons environment had at least a two-man control. No one person
alone ever had all the information necessary to obtain and fire
a nuclear round. And so the battalions were set up in a series
of two-man teams, usually consisting of a junior grade officer
and an enlisted man through the rank of Master Sergeant. There
were exceptions to that general rule, but usually the team consisted
of a LT and a SP/4 or E5. The members of the team were designated
NRAS "A" member and NRAS "B" member, with
NRAS meaning Nuclear Release Authentication System.
6/40 FA BN HQ in Hanau was staffed 24 hours a day by a staff
duty officer who was trained to receive and break the secret
nuclear release codes from higher HQ should a nuclear release
be ordered. Every night after the regular duty day, the designated
BN SDO for the day could count on getting a message from higher
HQ which required that the safe holding nuclear release codes
be opened, then the specific punch card codes had to be broken,
then the subordinate units informed of the specific order of
how many weapons were to be released, what combination was to
be used to remove the permissive action links (PAL) from the
rounds so they could be fired, and what yields were to be configured.
In the safe, which was kept in the battalion headquarters,
were two sets of three-ringed binders. One was blue in color
and contained all the nuclear codes for practice. The other was
red and contained all the nuclear codes which were real. The
first message that would come from higher headquarters would
indicate which set of binders were to be used. I had been in
the 6/40 FA BN for two years and had never known of any case
during my time there or even before when the Blue practice binders
were not used.
I was due to leave the battalion and be discharged on 12 May
1972, and was pulling my last staff duty assignment on the evening
of 7 or 8 May. As expected in the wee hours of the morning the
encoded message came from Divarty. I immediately contacted my
B team member and we decoded the encrypted message together.
To our shock and amazement we were being directed to proceed
using the RED books. Thinking the message had been sent in error
I requested the Divarty Duty Officer to resend the message. It
was for real. The RED books were to be used. It was no practice.
I was a couple days from going home and we were being ordered
to release our nuclear weapons! Talk about pucker factor. We
broke the codes, extracted the information and passed it down
to the batteries. Apparently something in the world had happened
and we were about to make sure it ended quickly. After a couple
hours which actually seemed interminable, a message was received
that downgraded the original message, then downgraded it further,
then finally rescinded it completely.
It was not until the next day that we found out what had happened.
Nixon had ordered that Haiphong Harbor in Viet Nam was now cleared
as a target for American bombing. The White House was unsure
as to what the Soviet response to the bombing would be. Should
their response be to roll across Western Europe with their ten
to one armor advantage, our tactical nuclear weapons would surely
end their attack. Fortunately for the world that scenario was
not played out, but the possibility certainly resulted in some
anxious moments for all of us who were close to it.