During World War II, Robert “Denny” Wittenberger’s father served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, maintaining iconic aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang. More than two decades later, when Wittenberger received his own draft notice in the summer of 1967, it seemed a natural progression to continue his father’s legacy by enlisting in the Air Force.
“I had completed two years of college at Warrensburg and was working at Schanzmeyer Ford in Jefferson City when my notice came,” recalled the veteran. “They sent me to St. Louis for my physical and even though they found that I was completely deaf in my right ear, I was approved for enlistment.”
In March 1968, he traveled to Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas, becoming one of the last groups of airmen to receive their basic training at the base prior to its deactivation several months later. From there, he was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas, to begin his advanced training. Throughout the next several weeks, Wittenberger received instruction as a corrosion specialist, learning to prevent and repair the deterioration of aircraft and certain metallic components.
“It was under the auspices of civil engineering but we were basically rust scrapers,” he jokingly recalled. “We would sand, prep and treat areas on aircraft that were prone to corrosion such as the wheel wells on the landing gear of the planes,” he said. “This included testing parts of the wings of the massive B-52 bombers for stress fractures.”
In late summer of 1968, he received orders for his duty assignment with the 351st Missile Inspection Maintenance Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster.
“I married my fiancée, Judy, in July 1968, and she had been living with her parents at Prairie Home, but we moved to Warrensburg before I reported to my new assignment at Whiteman,” he said.
During the first week of his new assignment, he learned he would be working around nuclear weapons and had to undergo a thorough background check in order to qualify for a Top-Secret security clearance.
“I was assigned to a maintenance team that worked with the Minuteman II missiles,” said Wittenberger. “There were 150 underground missile silos we were responsible for maintaining and we operated as teams to perform 180-day and 360-day inspections of the sites,” he added.
Missouri was home to 150 Minuteman II missile launch sites during the height of the Cold War—a destructive weapon containing a warhead with a 1.2 megaton yield. Within the state, there were also 15 launch control facilities, each facility controlling 10 missiles. Each missile was sighted for a specific target location, most of which, Wittenberger said, were in the former Soviet Union.
During the inspection cycle for the various missile sites, Wittenberger served as a corrosion specialist on a maintenance team that also included a missile maintenance technician, refrigeration technician, electrician and an electrical power production technician.
“Each one of us had a duty to perform during the inspections,” he said. “The missile maintenance tech checked the operating systems of the missile and the electrician was responsible for checking the storage batteries and correcting any electrical issues.”
The missile sites, noted Wittenberger, were constructed largely from steel and concrete, which was highly susceptible to corrosion. He would inspect the areas both inside and outside the site, touching up and treating problem areas that had fallen victim to weatherization.
“Each silo had a sump pump in the base of the missile silo that had to be checked for corrosion as well,” he said.
In early 1969, several months into his assignment at Whiteman, the airman received orders for Thailand to serve in aircraft maintenance in support of the air war in Vietnam. Prior to his deployment, he underwent another physical examination, during which the issue of his hearing loss created new cause for concern.
“I was sent to Scott Air Force Base for a medical review and then to San Antonio, awaiting the outcome of the review board,” said Wittenberger. “Eventually, they disqualified me for worldwide deployment since I was deaf in my right ear and said that I could either finish my enlistment working in a service club, or some such capacity, or I could take a discharge.”
Choosing the latter of the options offered, Wittenberger was discharged from the Air Force on August 22, 1969. Remaining in the Warrensburg area, he returned to college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness in 1972. In April 1973, he was hired by the Missouri Department of Agriculture and remained there until retiring 30 years later. In the years since leaving the Air Force, Wittenberger and his wife raised one son. In addition to his full-time employment, the veteran remained active in his community and served 45 years with Jamestown Rural Fire Protection District, is a past president and secretary of the Jamestown Lions Club and served four years on his local school board.
Wittenberger acknowledges that although he was not a combat veteran by traditional definition, he and his fellow Cold War veterans who worked in the various missile defense programs recognize the important role they played in deterring a potential nuclear exchange with another country.
“It was just a job and we did our daily routine to help maintain the 150 nuclear missiles here in Missouri that were on continuous alert,” he said. “We had our missiles sighted on the Soviet Union and they had their missiles sighted on us … and had there been an exchange, it would have been nuclear winter here.”
He added,” We all tried not to think about the possibilities of what could happen; we just performed the duties that we were given, but we knew in the back of our minds the potential consequences.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.