There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, mix yourself a glass of something good, and take notes as we look at an incident that had the U.S. on the brink of nuclear war.
International tensions were running high on October 25, 1962.
The United States and the Soviet Union had been locked in the Cold War for nearly two decades, and it looked like things were about to turn hot: Soviet ships were steaming towards an American blockade of Cuba, and it wasn’t clear whether the two superpowers would resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis without launching a nuclear war.
Americans glued to their television screens didn’t know it at the time, but a black bear in Minnesota nearly launched that war all by itself—sort of.
President John F. Kennedy had placed the U.S. Armed Forces in DefCon3 on October 22, and a few days later on October 24, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was ordered to DefCon2.
In DefCon3, the Air Force is prepared to mobilize in 15 minutes (it was this state of readiness following the 9/11 terrorist attacks). The U.S. had never been in DefCon2 before. In that state of readiness, SAC had 1,436 bombers, 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and about 2,900 nuclear weapons aimed at the Soviet Union, according to the National Security Archive. It’s fair to say that everyone was pretty tense.
Under those circumstances, you can see why a sentry at the Duluth Sector Direction Center in Minnesota fired his service weapon at a shadowy figure climbing the fence of the Air Force installation just after midnight. The Soviets, apparently, had launched a ground attack to take out air defenses in preparation for a nuclear assault.
The sentry sounded a sabotage alarm that alerted other bases in the area about the intruder, but he soon realized he’d made a mistake: the Soviet agent was fat, furry, and walking on four legs. It was, in fact, a curious Minnesota black bear, according to the original retelling of the incident outlined in Scott Sagan’s “The Limits of Safety.”
Most surrounding bases received a sabotage alarm, but due to some faulty wiring, the wrong alarm sounded at Volk Field in Wisconsin. That alarm signaled that an attack was imminent, and pilots rushed to nuclear-armed aircraft and started their engines.
“That was serious business,” Dan Barry, a pilot who waited on the tarmac at Volk Field that night, told the La Crosse Tribune in 2009. “We’d never flown with a nuke on board. It was really serious. I can remember almost expecting to see inbound nuclear missiles.”
The pilots had been told that there would be no practice alert drills after the DefCon3 status, so they readied their F-106A Interceptors in the belief that a nuclear war had begun. If the Soviets had noticed American planes in the sky armed with nuclear warheads, it’s anyone’s guess what would have happened next.
Fortunately, someone at Volk Field regained communication with Duluth, and a truck was dispatched to the runway, headlights flashing, to stop the planes from taking off. As you already know, that crisis was averted and the U.S. never went to nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
A Tall Tale? Sagan sourced this story from personal interviews with pilots like Barry and declassified Air Force documents. There’s little doubt that some version of this incident occurred, but the details are still foggy.
First of all, how did the sentry mistake a black bear for a person? How did he eventually realize his mistake, and of the most interest to us, how likely is it that a black bear would try to climb the fence of an Air Force base in northern Minnesota?
To help us answer that last question, we reached out to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“Bears are excellent climbers and aren’t much bothered by fences,” said Andrew Tri, acting Bear Project leader for the Minnesota DNR.
Bears have a great sense of smell and can follow their noses for miles to find food. Tri told MeatEater about several bears that swam 4 miles across Lake Kabetogama in northern Minnesota to eat the plums on the south shore of the lake. “If there was something tasty to be had, they’d find a way to get in that fence,” he said.
What kind of food would a bear find on an Air Force base? Tri thinks unprotected dumpsters were the most likely culprit.
“There were no bear-resistant dumpsters back then,” he said. “All the dumps back then were just open pits. Going to see the bears in the dumps was a common thing to do on a Friday night for family entertainment.”
A dumpster, or even a pickup truck loaded with trash to haul to the dumpster, would have given a black bear plenty of incentive.
It’s hard to say whether the bear was a male or a female. A large portion of both sexes would have been denned by that time of year, but Tri said either could have been hoping to add extra fat before the weather turned truly cold.
“The winter of 1962-1963 was one of the top 15 coldest winters on record, so perhaps the bear knew it needed a last-minute meal before settling in for the long winter,” he said.
Ultimately, while Tri approaches any story like this with a “healthy dose of skepticism,” he said it’s “perfectly probable” that a bear would have tried to climb the fence in search of food.
Not the First—Or Last—Close Call If this near-miss gives you anxiety, you don’t want to know about the other Cold War incidents that nearly launched a global nuclear winter.
There was the time an early-warning radar system in Greenland mistook the rising moon for dozens of Soviet missiles flying towards the U.S. Then there was the time radar operators in New Jersey mistook a satellite for a missile attack, and the time a technician at NORAD Headquarters accidentally inserted a training tape into a computer that alerted military commanders of a 1,000-missile strike.
And don’t forget about the time a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber crashed in North Carolina. The plane lost both thermonuclear bombs prior to crashing, and one of them slammed into a swamp. It didn’t detonate, but the federal government still hasn’t found all of it. (Keep your eyes out if you’re ever hunting or fishing in North Carolina.)
There’s more to all these stories if you’re curious how close the world has come to annihilation. For a start, check out Sagan’s book, “The Limits of Safety,” along with Taylor Downing’s “1983: The World at the Brink.” You'll find lots of scary war stories, but only one involving bears.