Two days after graduating from college in 1966, Rhode Island native Bruce Rigney received his military draft notice and faced a dilemma confronted by millions of other young American men at the time. He could either accept his fate and ship off to the battle zone of a war he didn’t support in Vietnam, or find an alternative way to honor the law without getting into a life-and-death situation.
He called a friend whose father was a retired four-star Air Force general to see if he could get help being assigned to a safe position. Rigney wound up accepting an Air Force intelligence assignment to the NATO Sector Operations Center for nuclear missiles in Germany, where he spent two years on a team that was perpetually waiting for the unfathomable moment when the call would come to launch them at the Soviet Union.
Fifty years later, the longtime Pasadena resident has blended his memories of that experience with newly declassified documents about his time in the bunker to create the book “Two Years on the Watch: What I Learned in the Secret Cold War Bunker.” Filled with fascinating stories and facts that were unknown for decades to anyone without a top-secret clearance, he shares his experiences in averting hostilities between Soviet and American forces that had stood on the precipice of global warfare.
The book also explores his troubled thoughts and feelings as part of a two-man team that could have started World War III. Rigney shared the stories behind the stories in an email interview with the Pasadena Weekly.
PASADENA WEEKLY: What were some of the best parts of living overseas for a couple of years?
BRUCE RIGNEY: When I was on the Intelligence Watch Officer post, the four Watch Officers worked on a shared 24/7 per week schedule, but we were in the mountains far away from any cities and points of interest in Germany or the rest of Europe. When I had connected up with Chris, a US Army Nurse who would become my wife after a year together, we devised a system of working double shifts, working 16 hours a day for two days or more, and accumulating periods of four days off.
We were able to travel to Amsterdam, Munich, Frankfurt, London, went camping in Luxembourg, and took our honeymoon in Florence, all with four-day trips using the remarkably cost-saving “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” as our guide. That’s right: Five dollars for a clean, comfortable room and three meals.
Were there some tense moments while you were on watch?
Yes, the tensions of the Cold War were being very clearly acted out on a daily basis in the military face-off between the US and the Soviets in the Air Defense Zone between West and East Germany.
The Watch Officer post demanded continuous attention to any deviations from normal activity in the air traffic being monitored by the US radar systems. The continuous display of air traffic on the 40-foot high screen in the bunker, along with constant updates from military communications intercepts, kept us in a high state of alert on a daily basis and we had many alarming incidents that required immediate response. This was not a laid-back activity. It would have been a serious mistake to assume that all was well on any given watch shift.
During my two years on the watch, I encountered numerous apparent incidents or close calls in our zone of responsibility. These were usually threats to civilian aircraft travelling in the restricted air corridors to Berlin, Soviet aircraft crossing the border into West Germany and Soviet aircraft tracking US reconnaissance flights along the border.
The most stunning and intense event in my two years on the watch occurred in the Spring of 1968 when I began to receive data from sources beyond our radar range that indicated that about 40 aircraft from Russia and Poland were heading toward us at a steady speed of about four hundred miles per hour, most likely strategic bombers that could be carrying nuclear weapons. The bombers were soon joined by supersonic fighter aircraft that would provide escort for them.
This was either the first wave of an actual attack against the NATO forces in Western Europe or a massive training exercise to test our resources. It certainly exceeded anything described in my training. I determined from all the data available that it was just an attempt to gather response data, and assured the Operations Center Controller that we should avoid engaging the Soviet fleet with our fighter jets and surface to air missiles. Many of the Soviet aircraft crossed into West German territory, but they all made U-turns back to the east.
What are some of the biggest changes in geopolitics since your days in the service?
The biggest change has been that the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a renaming of one of the opponents in the conflict. It always was the US versus Russia. We knew that at that time and we should not be deceived by a name change. After all, the President Putin of Russia had been a KGB agent for the Soviet Union for nearly two decades! The satellite countries of the former Soviet Union did serve to bring the Russian forces in closer proximity to the US forces in Europe, but they were never a factor in strengthening the Soviet’s military forces in the European theater.
What are some of the largest nuclear threats facing our world today?
Today, there are nine countries that possess a total of 15,000 nuclear weapons. The US and Russia, while each have proclaimed they are no longer engaged in a Cold War, maintain a combined total of about 1,800 nuclear weapons on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes of warning — primarily aimed at each other.
Their combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons comprise more than 90 percent of the total of such weapons on Earth. With 1,800 nuclear weapons on high alert, we have not actually seen the end of the Cold War.
There are still 180 B61 nuclear weapons poised to be launched in Europe under the US Life Extension Program of 2012 that provides a total destructive force nearly 4,000 times greater than the Hiroshima blast of 1945, a far greater force than all the nuclear weapons deployed in West Germany during my period of service. The explanation for continuing to maintain the US nuclear presence in Europe was that these weapons are ‘critical for transatlantic security,’ a euphemism for the continuation of the Cold War that supposedly ‘ended’ in 1991.
We’re still fighting proxy wars in the Middle East and we’re still in an arms race, with the US and Russia racing to modernize their nuclear weapons arsenals. And the beat goes on, with Russian incursions into the Crimea and the Ukraine and the US crying “foul” and submitting formal protests.
How do you feel about President Trump’s somewhat cavalier attitude toward our nuclear arsenal (letting someone at Mar-a-Lago hold the “football,” tweets toward North Korea, etc.)?
Where the football is kept is of no importance. I would be surprised if they still use that same system, since there are so many more effective security technologies available. And there should be a very tight lock on the release system for those weapons.
Trump’s tweets have had the effect of opening a communication line with a hostile would-be adversary. This will probably result in better relations with North Korea. If it also results in the complete termination of North Korea’s nuclear program, Trump might be in line for the Nobel Peace Prize!
Is there a feasible path to nuclear deproliferation in our time?
Efforts on behalf of a nuclear weapons ban treaty by all the countries of Earth are finally starting to make some headway. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been successfully promoting implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty adopted in 2017. Last year, in recognition of these efforts, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Further support of ICAN will enable them to bring pressure on the major powers to recognize their responsibility toward safeguarding the populations of Earth.
The US has long provided a strong message to the world that all people are created equal and that they are entitled to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The US now needs to step forward and take full responsibility for having developed nuclear weapons and assume a leadership position in the removal and elimination of the most powerful weapons ever developed. That will require a strong and compassionate American leadership that is dedicated to the concept of safeguarding life on Earth and ensuring life, liberty and happiness for all mankind.
“Two Years On the Watch: What I Learned in the Secret Cold War Bunker” is available at Amazon.com.