How One Air Force Captain Saved the World From Accidental Nuclear War 53 Years Ago Today

Fifty-three years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. Air Force Captain William Bassett may have saved humanity from accidental nuclear obliteration.

July 1946:  A mushroom cloud forms after the initial Atomic Bomb test explosion off the coast of Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Photo: Keystone Images/Getty Images

AN EVENT WEDNESDAY at the United Nations made a powerful case that William Bassett, an unknown U.S. Air Force Captain, saved humanity from accidental nuclear obliteration 53 years ago today, on October 28, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis.

The key figure in the U.N. presentation was John Bordne, who as the crisis began was an Air Force airman with the 498th Tactical Missile Group stationed at a U.S. base in Okinawa, Japan. According to Bordne, whose story is recounted in detail in an extraordinarily unsettling new article by Aaron Tovish in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bassett was the senior field officer on Bordne’s shift for facilities capable of launching 32 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Altogether the missiles had 35.2 megatons of destructive capacity — the equivalent of over 35 million tons of TNT, or about 1,000 times the combined yield of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Photo shows John Bordne, a former member of the 873rd Tactical Missile Squadron of the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, Japan. Bordne is one of the veterans who testified that at the final moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the U.S. nuclear missile men in Okinawa received a launch order that was later found to have been mistakenly issued. (Kyodo)==Kyodo

John Bordne, a former member of the 498th Tactical Missile Group of the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, Japan.

Photo: Kyodo/AP
Bordne, now 74, appeared in an introductory video, and then answered questions via Skype from his home in Pennsylvania. Recounting the atmosphere on the base that week, Bordne described all his fellow airmen crowding around a television to watch President John F. Kennedy discuss the standoff with the Soviet Union: “There was standing room only. There was dead silence during … and there was dead silence after. It was then that we really got the impression we would have to do what we were paid to do.”

During Bordne’s shifts, the missile crew would receive a daily, standard radio message, including the time, weather, and a string of code, from the commanding major at Okinawa’s Missile Operations Center nearby. Under normal circumstances, the first part of the code did not match that possessed by the crew. On October 28, it did.

This signaled that the rest of the code would contain special instructions. The second part also matched the code possessed by the crew, thereby instructing the officers with launch authority, including Bassett, to open their pouches to retrieve the third part of the code. If it too matched, this meant the crew should launch its missiles. It did match.

Bassett, however, realized that something must be wrong: Under military regulations nuclear missiles would only be launched when U.S. forces were at DEFCON 1, the highest state of readiness for war, but they were then at DEFCON 2.

According to Bordne, as Bassett attempted to determine whether the orders were legitimate, a lieutenant decided that Bassett did not have the authority to stop the launch, and ordered his section of the overall crew to proceed to fire its four missiles. Bassett, says Bordne, threatened to have the lieutenant shot.

Bassett reached the major who had originated the radio transmission on the phone. Once he was made aware of his mistake, he gave orders to stand the missile crew down. Bordne says the crew later participated in court martial proceedings against the major.

Borden said in an interview after the event that he spoke recently to two other members of the crew, and found all three of them could still perfectly remember the morning as the shift ended and they walked outside: “It was such a beautiful day, just the perfect temperature, a slight breeze blowing … and the sun was to our back, just a beautiful clear blue sky. We could smell the land and the sea. … It was awe-inspiring.” They felt, Bordne believes, that they were “preserving God’s creation.”

As of today there’s no way to know for certain whether events transpired 53 years ago as Bordne describes them. Bassett died in 2011, and Bordne remains the only participant willing to describe them on the record. However, a Japanese news outlet spoke last year to another U.S. veteran who was willing to anonymously confirm Bordne’s account. There was general agreement among the other participants in the U.N. discussion, including Princeton nuclear security expert Bruce Blair, that Bordne’s account was credible.

What could settle the story, of course, is whatever military documentation still exists from the incident. The National Security Archives at George Washington University has filed a mandatory review request for the official history of this time period for the 498th Tactical Missile Group, and a Freedom of Information Act request for records of any court martial proceedings for a major with the 498th. Without public pressure, requests such as these generally require years before the government responds.

If the story is true, Bassett is a hero on par with Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, both mid-ranking Soviet military officers who prevented the accidental use of Russian nuclear weapons during moments of excruciating U.S.-Soviet tension.

Top photo: July 1946: A mushroom cloud forms after the initial Atomic Bomb test explosion off the coast of Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands.

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