The Strategic Launch

A true story about the cold war by Greg Pancerev

The time: somewhere around 1985, just after lunch on the afternoon watch. The place: somewhere in the North Atlantic at patrol depth. I had just laid down in my rack in Ops lower level berthing to get some sleep before it was time to go on watch again for the evening shift. I was just dozing off when I heard the General Alarm and the announcement over the 1MC:

 Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong … “Man battlestations missile for strategic launch.”

Did I hear what I think I just heard? Strategic launch? No, that can’t be right. This must be a drill. But then again, the proper announcement for a drill should be something like “Man battlestations missile for WSRT.” (A WSRT is a weapons system readiness test.) Hmmm, this must be a mistake, I thought to myself as I quickly swung out of my top rack and jumped into my poopie suit. In those days, when we were on alert, the underway uniform was coveralls and patrol shoes. This enabled us to get dressed in about 30 seconds. And then I heard it again. The sound of the general alarm followed by the OOD’s announcement over the 1MC one more time:

Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong … “Man battlestations missile for strategic launch.”

The lights quickly came on in berthing as I scrambled to put my sneakers on. My other shipmates in berthing were also doing the same and some wondered aloud “just what did he say?” “He said strategic launch.” “Yeah that’s what I thought.”  “They never say that… must be a mistake… yeah maybe… a mistake.”

In the mean time, nobody slowed down or hesitated one moment to do what they had to do to man their battlestation function. We had run this drill many times and we all knew exactly what to do. My battlestation was way back aft in Maneuvering where I was the battlestations reactor operator and so, I quickly headed in that direction, still fastening my belt buckle as I proceeded.

As I moved up the ladder into OPS middle level and then aft to the missile compartment, the thoughts were racing through my mind. Why did he say strategic launch?… is this for real?… Is this the big one? What is the current political climate? Reagan was in the White House and Gorbachev was in charge of the Soviet Union. Is there something going on in the world that I missed? This is probably just a mistake isn’t it?…  isn’t it? Or is this the end of the world as we know it?  Is this how it ends? Naw, it couldn’t be. I was 22 years old.

Meanwhile, however, I never hesitated doing what I was trained to do and I kept proceeding aft. And all around me, my shipmates each scrambled to their assigned battlestation as well. And then…as I was about half way through the missile compartment, another announcement boomed over the 1MC. This time it was the CO’s voice:

“Belay the last announcement”… (slight pause)... “Man battlestations missile for WSRT… Spin up all missiles… This is the Captain. This is a drill”


Okay. I was pretty sure it was just a drill that somebody screwed up. 99.9 percent sure. I would estimate that the whole ordeal lasted less than one minute from start to finish. But it is funny what thoughts can go through your mind in such a short time. It’s also funny how quickly those thoughts can be pushed out of your mind. Within minutes we were back to business as usual.

It turns out that one of the drill monitors was not in his position when the OOD received the message. He basically did what he was supposed to do in the absence of proper instructions. All in all, it was just a screw up, but one that made you stop and think for a minute.

Anyway. I was there and that’s what happened from my best recollection. If anyone remembers it differently, please set me straight.  

For what it’s worth, if anyone reading this is not a boomer sailor, there is one thing I should make perfectly clear. At no time during the events described, were we ever in danger of actually launching a missile by mistake. The process of launching a missile involves many steps and requires the authentication, verification, and coordination of many members of the crew before anything bad can happen. We were nowhere close to that point.

Greg Pancerev - Blue Crew 1983-1986

Return to 1980's Photos