Military leaders by default are the safety managers of their units, although one or more individuals may be formally titled “Safety Officer” as recognition of a specific responsibility within the military organization. The Safety Officer is an unheralded position wherein one may get recognition (and not the best kind) only when something goes wrong. So imagine being tasked with the responsibility of maintaining a safety culture within the Navy’s nuclear weapons community.
The challenges of keeping military personnel safe are legion. Many servicemen and women work in environments where there is not much leeway in terms of operating conditions on board ships, around aircraft, and in the vicinity of large vehicles and moving pieces of equipment. Add to these distractions such environmental conditions such as heat, cold, humidity, wind, snow, and rain. Finally there is the human factor–things that simply happen because humans are involved and their flaws and mistakes can lead to bad situations. Top all of these concerns with what is perhaps the ultimate hazard, working closely with the most destructive devices constructed by man, and one will begin to grasp the tribulations of a nuclear weapons safety officer.
Thanks to NDC staffer Ryan Cooper, the documents we share today were found in a collection of Nuclear Weapons Safety Bulletins published by the Naval Weapons Evaluation Facility (NWEF) in the late 1960’s. The NWEF was a Navy command established in 1948 as the Navy liaison to the newly organized Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP) (an unclassified history of NWEF can be found here: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a265380.pdf). NWEF was co-located with AFSWP at Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As all nuclear weapons of the early atomic era were air-delivered, AFSWP, NWEF, and the Air Force’s Special Weapons Command concentrated on the adaptation, handling, and delivery of nuclear weapons by aircraft. As the application of nuclear weapons to other types of delivery systems expanded during the mid to late 1950’s, NWEF’s mission also expanded to include training on nuclear weapons handling and safety for guided missiles and torpedoes. In 1963, NWEF was formally tasked with the Navy’s nuclear weapons safety program as nuclear weapons appeared aboard ships and submarines, along with their more traditional locations at shore stations and aircraft carriers.
As a means of disseminating information and impressing the Navy nuclear weapons community with the need to keep safety uppermost in mind, NWEF published a quarterly safety bulletin. One means of reminding sailors about nuclear weapons safety took the form of colorful posters. While the quarterly Nuclear Weapons Safety Bulletins were (and remain) classified as SECRET RESTRICTED DATA, the NDC is releasing and can share the unclassified posters enclosed with some of the publications.
This poster from the 2nd quarter of 1967 looks like it could have been lifted from a contemporary MAD magazine:
Our second poster, from the first quarter of 1968, uses the traditionally stern visage of the U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer to remind sailors of the need to maintain two man control in the presence of nuclear weapons. However, how our two sailors will use that wrench and checklist on a RIM-2D Terrier missile already mounted on the Mark 9 launch rail remains to be seen:
The poster from the second quarter of 1968 is a more straightforward pounding of the nuclear weapons safety message into the heads of the community:
Aesop’s timeless fable of the tortoise and the hare is often used in safety messages in both military and civilian life. Here is the Navy nuclear weapons safety version from the first quarter of 1969:
Perhaps in an attempt to connect with the younger generation of the Navy nuclear weapons community, NWEF produced this poster for the second quarter of 1969. The irony of the message and the messengers is a bit obvious: The seriousness with which the Navy approached its nuclear weapons safety culture is best exemplified by this poster for the third quarter of 1969. The acronyms NTPI (Naval Technical Proficiency Inspection), TSI (Technical Standardization Inspection), and NWAI (Nuclear Weapons Acceptance Inspection) were all means by which the Navy certified its nuclear-capable commands for the storage, handling, and delivery of nuclear weapons. The inspections were certainly grueling and exacting (hence the BUG YOU? in the poster), and the failure of these inspections could mean the decertification of the command to handle nuclear weapons, thus the reference to extermination in the poster:
Evidently the October 15, 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam served as the inspiration for the poster from the fourth quarter of 1969. Once again, the artist could not be more ironic:
The seven posters that the NDC shares today serve as a reminder of the constancy of nuclear weapons even during an intense conventional conflict in Southeast Asia as well as during a period of dramatic cultural change and conflict in the United States. Note that the artist for these posters incorporated contemporary cultural events (hippie protests, moratorium) as well as some ageless themes (Aesop fables, authority figures) in his attempts to send the message about nuclear weapons safety and security. It certainly begs the question of how effective were these attention-getting efforts These posters would have been regular fixtures in the work centers for the Gunner’s Mate Technician, (GMTs), chiefs, and officers who actually worked on the weapons, and probably not seen anywhere else outside those spaces.
The Navy nuclear weapons mission continued throughout the Vietnam era only to end (at least for tactical nuclear weapons) with President George H. W. Bush’s announcement of the withdrawal of most tactical nuclear weapons in September 1991. With the massive reduction in the Navy’s fielding of tactical nuclear weapons, NWEF itself closed in 1993.