The Bear That Almost Started a Nuclear War

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the United States Air Force was on high alert. American spy planes identified Soviet missiles under construction in Cuba, just 100 miles from Florida. Tensions began to mount as both sides watched for signs of an impending strike. With President John F. Kennedy under pressure from his military commanders to strike first, the military had been placed on DEFCON3 (Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes). On the night of Oct. 25, 1962, a guard at the Air Force Command Center in Duluth, Minn., spotted a shadowy figure climbing the fence. Assuming sabotage — which war planners considered a likely scenario — the guard shot at the intruder and immediately set off the sabotage alarm, which was also connected to multiple alarm systems at all nearby bases. Within seconds, the portly saboteur ran off into the woods……..on four legs. It turns out that the intruder was actually a bear. Thankfully, the mistake was immediately reported, but at Volk Air National Guard base in Douglas, Wisc., disaster was unfolding. Alarms at there had been wired quickly and as a result the wrong cable was running into the wrong alarm. Instead of triggering the intruder alarm, it set off the klaxon bell that ordered the fighter pilots to intercept incoming bombers. The Air National Guard understood the alarm to be warning that Soviet bombers were on their way to drop their nuclear bombs and World War III was about to start. Fortunately, an officer at the base contacted Duluth by phone to ask for confirmation of the scramble order and was told that it was a false alarm. Had Soviet air defenses picked up on American planes crossing the border of Canada destined for the USSR, that might have been enough to initiate a nuclear strike. In that critical moment, World War III was averted. It was over 25 years, however, before the truth about what triggered the warning was revealed.