Nuclear sentries: deterrent or danger?

If you stand in just the right spot, you can look straight past the swings and teeter-totter and see the B-52s loaded with nuclear bombs and missiles. These symbols of America's hopes and fears are just a few yards apart, separated by chain link fence, electronic sensors, and guards with M-16 rifles.

The playground and picnic tables are for visits from the wives and children of the men beyond the fence, the bomber crews who spend a week each month on alert, ready to launch in a matter of moments if the President says ''go.''

Nuclear war and how to prevent it is much on everyone's mind these days. For some, it's an arcane theoretical exercise in ICBM survivability or a noisy political debate about the wisdom of freezing weapons production and deployment.

For the Air Force personnel and families of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the issue is a little more immediate: They wield the stones in this country's nuclear slingshot and are a bullseye on some Soviet warplanner's target map.

A visitor to a bomber and missile base like Ellsworth doesn't find a lot of discussion about war and its likelihood. In fact, there is surprisingly less discussion about it than in some civilian communities. People seem busy enough with their training, maintenance, and alert duties. But the subject, and how to deal with it personally, obviously concerns many.

''Before you take the job, you do a lot of soul searching,'' confides a strategic missile officer who would be one of those to turn the key that launches the 150 Minuteman IIs here.

''Nobody wants to do it,'' adds his partner, also a young lieutenant. ''But we're more or less trained like Pavlov's dog.''

Some of the stress is relieved with black humor.

Expanding on SAC's motto, flyers and missileers here say, ''Peace is our profession . . . war is just a hobby.'' Only a few of the older pilots actually saw combat in Vietnam. The rest are too young.

''Nuke 'em!'' somebody shouts in jest as B-52 alert crews are rousted from their magazines and video games to pose for a visiting photojournalist. ''It's easy to sit around on alert and forget why you're there,'' says one bomber pilot. ''It really just becomes a job.''

People here tell a visiting reporter that they're sure their skills and preparedness can help reduce the chances that a nuclear holocaust will ever occur.

''If we do our job right, we'll never have to go,'' says a young captain who copilots a B-52. ''I don't know of anybody who lives for dropping nuclear weapons on people. That's deranged. That's morbid.''

Senior officers here say they're not too concerned about psychological problems.

''Our people have got to understand that they have committed themselves to - God forbid we should have to do it - give the President the opportunity to apply a lethal solution to a problem that couldn't be solved any other way,'' says Col. Robert Durkin, commander of the B-52 wing here. ''There isn't a lot of time to sit around and wring your hands.''

The Air Force does have what's called a Personal Reliability Program, however , in which everyone is supposed to keep an eye on each other and report any unusual behavior that might affect performance.

''We have to know a little bit about everybody,'' says a senior sergeant. ''If someone comes to the work center and acts strange, everyone is supposed to be aware of this and report it to the superviser.''

Wives of bomber crew members fly in KC-135 tankers (which fuel the B-52s) several times a year to get a better idea of what their husbands do. And when they first arrive at Ellsworth, they're briefed on an evacuation plan. If superpower tensions were to rise to the point where a nuclear exchange seemed imminent, families would travel to towns in eastern South Dakota for shelter.

''If there is an exchange, this base would be wiped out,'' says one Air Force veteran of 17 years' work with strategic weapons. ''My personal feeling is that unless we're given (several) days' warning, the evacuation program just won't work.''

One thinks of the child's swing right next to the B-52 as this father of three muses: ''If it happens, I can't say what would come first, the job or the family. Would I stay to save the family, or would I go to work? I just try not to think about it.''

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