Former Air Force missile mechanic reminisces 60 years after Cuban Missile Crisis

Nov. 11—Jim Widlar remembers exactly where he was during the Cuban Missile Crisis: in lockdown at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo.

From Oct. 18 to Nov. 27, 1962, contact with the outside world was limited as personnel were confined to the site and the base went on heightened alert. Widlar, however, wasn't rattled.

"We were kids — we weren't scared," he said. "You just do what you're told."

From 1960 to 1964, Widlar served in the U.S. Air Force as a missile mechanic for the Atlas D, the nation's first operational intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. He was 20 when he enlisted and got to participate in four launches at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Widlar called it a "super time" to be part of a missile team.

"It was a great learning experience," he said. "It was the beginning of the space industry."

Now, 60 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis made the nation grapple with the reality of nuclear weapons, Widlar lives in Lyons with his wife and does electrical work for the town. He keeps the memory of his military days alive through talks and presentations at institutions from Longs Peak Middle School in Longmont to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Because the Atlas D was brand new, Widlar said he learned most of his skills on the job. As part of a 15-person crew, his mechanic duties involved performing periodic maintenance and modifications on the weapons as well as loading and escorting airlifted missiles.

"It was like working on a fancy car," he said.

Widlar said it was exciting to work on something that would go into space. He was 17 when the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 launched and vividly remembers trying to photograph the satellite on a Polaroid camera.

After being discharged, Widlar went into the electrical construction industry. The Atlas D missiles — once intended for nuclear combat — have since been used to launch satellites into orbit. His old Cheyenne base now houses the Warren ICBM and Heritage Museum, where he occasionally volunteers.

While he might not have felt very threatened by the prospect of nuclear warfare during his service, Widlar said the past few years have made him nervous. He admits it's a scary time, especially with the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Nuclear weapons might pose a looming threat, but Widlar doubts the U.S. will ever fully denuclearize — a decision he believes might be for the best.

"It's not just the U.S. that we're protecting," he said. "There's a lot of people under our umbrella."