How One Black Bear Almost Set Off World War III During the Cold War

It’s one of those stories that sounds too far-fetched to be true. A bear outside the fence at the Duluth Air Force Base in Minnesota nearly triggered World War III and a possible nuclear holocaust. In October 1962, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, American spy planes spotted Soviet nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba. Tensions mounted as both sides inched closer to war. On Oct. 22, 1962 all U.S. armed forces were placed on DEFCON 3 — halfway to actual war — with President John F. Kennedy under pressure from his military commanders to strike first. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun. Meanwhile, on the night of Oct. 25, a sentry walking guard duty at Duluth Air Force Base spotted a shadowy figure climbing the fence. The sentry, assuming it could be a Soviet saboteur, shot at the intruder and immediately set off the sabotage alarm, which was connected to multiple alarm systems at bases in neighboring states. It turned out that the “intruder” was actually a black bear, which quickly ran back into the woods unscathed. The sentry immediately reported the misidentification in time so that none of the aircraft at the base scrambled on alert. However, at Volk Field Air National Guard Base near Tomah, Wisconsin, something went wrong. Instead of setting off the alarm that would let the base know intruders were present at another base, Volk Field’s alarm triggered a scramble alert to the pilots. The F-106s were intended to find and destroy Soviet bombers approaching the U.S. by firing a nuclear-tipped air-to-air missile that could knock out an entire squadron of bombers. The planes were literally sitting on the field, ready to go. Fortunately, Volk Field decided to call Duluth Air Force Base to get confirmation before scrambling. They were told it was a false alarm and the pilots were told to stand down. That last-minute phone call may have prevented a black bear from starting World War III and possible global nuclear annihilation.