551st Strategic Missile Squadron

Assigned to maintain and operate part of America's first generation Intercontinental Ballistic Missile family, the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron stood on constant guard and readiness in Eastern Nebraska against the Soviet threat.


Before the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in October 1957, America's ICBM development had been slow for several years. In 1955 the Atlas (and later Titan) missile systems were given the go ahead for rapid development. During 1957, an early Atlas missile was successfully test launched in California. Refinements continued until 1959 when the first pair of Atlas missiles were designated alert-ready on pads at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. From then on, American ICBM forces would stand on alert.

The first actively deployed Atlas missiles were the Atlas-D and Atlas-E variants. Atlas-D was placed in an above ground concrete building in a three-missile complex. The "D" version was also radio-guided meaning a constant communication between itself and its launch site was essential to successfully strike its distant target. "D" missiles were deployed among other bases at Offutt in Bellevue, Nebraska. Three complexes at Missouri Valley, Iowa, Arlington, Nebraska and Mead, Nebraska were constructed.

Atlas-D quickly became obsolete as the system was susceptible to radio jamming and the launch sites were poorly armored against nuclear attack. Atlas-E improved guidance with an internal system, meaning once launched it could locate its own target within a mile. Atlas-E sites were individual instead of in complexes and better protected. Placed in semi-buried launchers, the sites could sustain 25 p.s.i. blast pressures from a bomb burst and survive.

The last missile in the series was the Atlas-F. The "F" was essentially an "E" as it also had internal guidance. What set it apart was its placement in hardened underground silo launchers. From that point after, all American ICBMs were sunk into underground silos to maximize survivability in the nuclear environment. An Atlas-F silo could survive 100 p.s.i. of blast pressure which made it much better protected than its predecessors.


In 1959 the Air Force designated that Lincoln would become a missile base yet it was unknown if these would be Atlas or the newer and longer-ranged Titan missiles. An initial construction contract called for 9 silos to be constructed (Atlas-E missiles were grouped in 9 per squadron). Later three more silos were added for a grand total of 12 (the Palmyra, Elmwood and Avoca sites), which would become the standard of the Atlas-F system

Throughout 1959 to 1962, silo construction at sites near Eagle, Elmwood, Avoca, Nebraska City, Palmyra, Tecumseh, Beatrice, Cortland, Wilber, Seward, York and Brainard. At peak work, 1900 workers built the silos at a 24/7 pace due to the international tension at the time. In June 1962 construction finally ended and Atlas-F missiles were shipped from their construction plants and quickly sunk into the ground. By the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, most of Lincoln's Atlas-F missiles were operational. In order to keep up with the crisis, members of the 551st pulled long two-day shifts due to the limited number of crews trained on the system.

The 551st began operations out of a small building on the west edge of the base until moving to building #310, better known as the Missile Assembly and Maintenance Shop. Here a large bay for missile maintenance was constructed and crews were trained in operating the system. In addition, the 551st's administrative assets operated from this building and crews stopped here to be briefed before going to their sites.

The silos themselves were and are intricate complexes. Due to the large size of the Atlas missile, the silo itself stretched 10 stories down into the earth. The crew itself consisted of 5 individuals, a missile combat crew commander, a deputy missile combat crew commander, a ballistic missile analysis technician, a missile facility technician and an electric power production technician. These 5 men ran 24 hour shifts and performed a variety of duties while on site. In addition, two guards remained on the surface to protect the site against sabotage or trespassers.

The crew regularly had to work "up close and personal" with the missile itself in its silo. As it was a first-generation missile and also liquid-fueled, the missile was extremely volatile. With its kerosene fuel and extremely dangerous liquid oxygen load, crews had to be extremely careful around the missile while working. In addition the missile had a thickness of only a dime in some places in order to save on weight (to extend range).

In a combat situation or a training exercise. The missile was fueled with liquid oxygen and rocket fuel and raised to the surface. Within 15 to 20 minutes the missile could be fired and on its way to a target in the Soviet Union or China.

By 1964, with the advent of second generation missiles such as the Minuteman, the early and somewhat dangerous Atlas missile was obsolete. Minuteman was a solid-fueled missile requiring less care than Atlas and could be launched in a matter of a few minutes. By the end, 72 Atlas-F missiles were deployed across the country. Eventually 1,000 Minuteman missiles were to be deployed across the upper plains and Missouri.

In 1964, Atlas-D missiles were being deactivated (including those at Offutt). By 1965 all first generation missiles were being taken out of service. The last Atlas-F missile on alert stood at a site near Lincoln Air Force Base in April 1965. By June the missiles were but a memory and the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron was deactivated.


The concrete husks of the silos still exist in Eastern Nebraska, stripped of equipment and scrap metal, they are but monuments to the Cold War. Most are inaccessible and many are flooded as well as containing other dangerous hazards such as "dead air" or chemical contamination. In fact, only one site has been cleared by the EPA as not being contaminated.

Many members of the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron are still around yet their numbers decline each year. They will be remembered for the task that they thankfully never had to perform and the years of service underground.