It has been written that the threat of nuclear war is exactly what prevented it from ever occurring during the troubled days of the Cold War. People were scared in the 1950's of the destruction brought under a mushroom cloud but as communications technology, particularly television, advanced the world became more and more aware of what a nuclear war would result in to such an extent that in the 1980's there was widespread efforts to begin disarmament. The moral implications of participating in a nuclear conflict worried every aspect of the military especially those who were actually involved in the nuclear deterrent. This caused one question to be repeated over and over again in the halls of US Department of Defense - If we ordered our boys to fire first; would they be loyal enough to do it?
On August 13th 1984, a special committee at the Pentagon was set up to investigate the effect of receiving orders to fire nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union would have on active service personnel. The committee spent several days deliberating with leading psychologists but no definite answer could be given. They nearly all agreed that the military indoctrination and discipline would mean that the missiles would be fired but the effect this would have on the crew was open to debate.
The committee therefore voted ...that an experiment should be conducted in a controlled environment whereby the participants will believe they are engaging in a first strike scenario ordered by the Commander-in-Chief against a hostile nuclear nation.
The decision was therefore taken to conduct the experiment aboard a nuclear ballistic missile submarine as this would allow total control over what the crew believed was happening on the world stage as the only information they would get would be from the Navy. The crew would conduct a normal patrol but would then be given instructions to fire their nuclear missiles as part of a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union. In reality they would be jettisoning dummy rockets that would float harmlessly to the surface. The submarine was also fitted with dummy torpedoes should the submarine try to defend itself against a real Soviet submarine or ship. An additional officer was to be put aboard the submarine posing as a replacement member of one of the crew to observe the experiment for the Pentagon and to reveal the truth should it go too far.
The submarine chosen for the experiment was the USS George C. Marshall, a Benjamin Franklin-class nuclear missile submarine. On April 12th 1985, the submarine was fitted with its dummy weapons while the crew were given shore leave. The next day she set sail for the Atlantic to begin her patrol under the command of Commander W.W. Gould. On April 16th Commander Gould was instructed by the Pentagon to open a set of sealed orders located in his personal safe. The orders gave instructions for Gould's crew to fire their weapons on April 20th as part of a massive preemptive strike by US and allied nations such as Britain and France at the Soviet Union. The orders outlined that the strike had been designed to "keep US casualties to a minimum as a result of retaliatory strikes ensuring US victory."
Gould wrote in his diary; All my training and experience in the submarine service has prepared me to keep the peace and now I am starting a war. I have been forced to query the authenticity of these orders and I have received confirmation from Atlantic Command. They are genuine. I feel like someone has put a gun to my head. In my mind my family are already dead because of something I am going to do to another country. I have considered disobeying these orders but I can't help but think if the Ruskies have discovered our plan then the war is already starting whether I fire or not.
The crew were informed shortly after the second confirmation had been received by Gould and as the Pentagon observer noted the reaction was immediate. In the control room of the submarine a young sailor had to be relieved of duty because he had begun sobbing uncontrollably while in the galley another sailor had become so consumed by fear that he lost control of his bladder. Military discipline was tightened aboard the vessel but with thirty six hours before the time to fire came the observer noted that the crew was rapidly losing its usual cohesion.
Speaking to crew members the observer reported; It seemed that non of them had any reservations about firing in response to an attack but to attack first seemed to upset them deeply. In the bunk rooms of the submarine there always seemed to be at least one crew member silently praying. They continued their duties but on each of their faces there was a sense of resentment as though they were being forced to do it.
Alarmingly, injuries amongst the crew began to happen at a frequent pace. Many of them were relatively minor with only three actually resulting in sailors being relieved of duty on medical grounds. The chief medical officer onboard noted that he believed many of the injuries were self inflicted as part of an effort to be relieved of duty. The most severe case onboard involved a petty officer severing his own index finger with a screwdriver.
As the drills readying the crew to fire increased in frequency the tension became unbearable. In the final eight hours there were three instances of brawls breaking out amongst crew members over minor things. Finally the time came and rather silently the crew fired their "missiles". Reports from various sections of the ship differ as to the mood that followed. Some instances report relief that the wait was over and it was done now. Others however report deep melancholy and a few senior officers took the step of making sure no one was ever alone in case they attempted suicide.
The next several hours were spent engaging in evasive tactics with the crew expecting a Soviet counter attack. At 0134 hrs on April 21st the master-at-arms was called to the enlisted mens' bunk room. There was a great deal of commotion coming from there to the extent that it threatened the detection of the ship by enemy passive SONAR. When the guard detail arrived they were horrified to find three sailors on the floor. Two were cradling deep wounds while a third lay motionless with abdominal wounds that were so extensive that parts of his intestine had actually began to fall out.
A fourth sailor stood against the back wall holding a knife and covered in blood. He was crying bitterly while he cut on his body with the knife. The guards demanded that he put the knife down or they would shoot but he refused and continued cutting until finally he stopped a few moments later when his left arm had become so badly cut that it no longer functioned. He then looked at the guards who seemed too scared by the sight before them to react. His eyes pierced their own and one would report that he was looking at a dead man standing.
"We are damned for what we did," the sailor uttered coughing blood.
With his remaining working arm he ran the knife in to his own throat severing his spinal chord causing his body to go limp. The two remaining sailors were so badly wounded that they died a short while later. It was only then that the undercover officer revealed the truth to the crew. A message was broadcast back to US Naval Atlantic Command at 0312 hrs on April 21st 1985 from the USS George C. Marshall.
This crew acted loyally to the country.