A chance meeting in a Bismarck, North Dakota, restaurant brought together two veterans who, as they soon would discover, had a story to share about the Mandan refinery.
“I got to talking to a veteran,” recalls retired United States Air Force Capt. Stan Zalumskis, “and found out that we had a relationship, him on the ground, and me in the air.” The “veteran” was retired United States Air Force Master Sgt. Bob Dilley, and the story they share involves Target Oscar.
“Center tank, center row of the tank farm at the refinery,” recalls Dilley. “Target Oscar. This tank was special.”
Tank 733 at the Mandan refinery, just outside Bismarck, seems innocent enough. Built in the mid-1950s with a working maximum inventory of 94,000 barrels of finished product, tank 733 is like any other tank in the Marathon Petroleum universe.
With the exception, of course, that tank 733 helped end the Cold War.
Around the same time the Mandan tank farm was being constructed, the United States Air Force (USAF) was building a Radar Bomb Scoring site (RBS) in North Bismarck.
Developed during World War II, RBSs were used by the military to improve accuracy through training and practicing simulated bomb drops. They scored the accuracy for B-52 bombers, FB-111s, and even the occasional Royal Air Force (RAF) Avro Vulcan bomber. These sites became more essential during the Cold War, a post-World War II rivalry, which spanned from the mid-1940s until the early 1990s, between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
“The crews had to make sure they had sharp skills if they were ever needed in an actual battle,” says Dilley.
Having served two tours of deployment at the Bismarck RBS in several positions, including scoring operations, Dilley was familiar with the runs, requirements and targets for these missions. That’s where tank 733 comes in. Or as Dilley knew it: Target Oscar.
“Storage tank 733 lived out a secret life serving the United States of America honorably and humbly as a target for electronic bombing attacks against a ’hostile’ target environment in an industrial complex. I am not sure anyone could really say for sure how many times that Target Oscar was attacked electronically or used as a termination point for navigation runs,” says Dilley. “But it is up there in numbers.”
“Many, many, many of us hit tank 733 at various times in our careers,” adds Zalumskis. “Bismarck was a very active bomb scoring site.”
Zalumskis would know. He served as a bombardier on a B-52.
While he never saw any combat action, Zalumskis shares that “I was a member of the Cold War force for many years, deterring the Russians from striking us, if you want to call it that. I was serving during the Cuban crisis. Some tense times.”
One of more than a handful of practice targets in North America, Dilley believes Target Oscar presented a simulation of what it would be like to attack an industrial complex in a foreign country. For Zalumskis, it was just a target some six miles below.
“We bombed mountains, we bombed deserts,” Zalumskis recalls. “We didn’t know we were bombing a refinery, as such. The target had a designation – Target Oscar – and a set of coordinates on a map.”
As the Cold War neared an end, the Bismarck RBS was closed for good in 1986. In their post-military careers, both Dilley and Zalumskis continued to have regular interaction with the Mandan refinery.
Zalumskis went to work in the human services field, helping people that have mental disabilities. “One of the things we did was perform mailing services for various companies, and the refinery was one of our clients,” he fondly recalls. “So, I’ve been on site several times.”
Dilley worked for a contactor at the refinery switch yard in early 2000s.
“I look at the tank farm differently than others, leading a so-to-speak double life that most of the people that worked there at the refinery probably never knew about,” notes Dilley. “Storage Tank 733 played a significant role in helping air crews hone their skills and maintain the pressure of a well-trained fighting force, which eventually brought Russia to her knees and ended the Cold War that went on for so many years.”