Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The World That Made Me: Nike Missiles


Guarding a Nike Hercules Missile, Fort Barry, CA; c. 1970-71

Nike was the Greek goddess of victory. Today it is a shoe company. Between those two uses, it was the name of an early missile defense system for the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, most Americans believed an attack by the Soviet Union was likely to come from high-flying Soviet aircraft armed with atomic weapons. By the time I came along (born in 1951) and became aware of such things, we worried more about intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Rockets, not planes. This was especially true after the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), which I remember vividly. I was eleven.

Designed in that earlier period, the Nike Missile Program was imagined as the last line of defense for American citizens, so the missiles were placed in and around major metropolitan centers. 

My younger neighbors here in Chicago are surprised to learn that Montrose Point, a short and very pleasant walk from my apartment, used to house a Nike missile battery. At its peak there were 23 launch sites in the Chicago area. Two have been preserved for their historic significance, but not Montrose Point. It is now a bird sanctuary. 

All of the Chicago sites were decommissioned long before I moved here. The only active Nike base I personally remember was just outside of Oxford, Ohio, where I lived from 1969 to 1974. I only became aware of it during campus antiwar demonstrations at Miami University when we heard that the National Guard had placed some troops there in case of trouble. 

Subsequently, I drove out to see what I could see. Not much. I recall an imposing fence and gate and some kind of guard house and other structures. I couldn't see any missiles. The location of these installations was never a secret, although some were more public-facing than others. They wanted us to know about them because they were supposed to make us feel safe.  

Around the country, some of the missiles were on military bases but most were on farms, in parks, and in residential neighborhoods. By 1953, the U.S. Army had begun building Nike air defense systems around 40 U.S. cities and military/industrial installations. At its peak ten years later, the Nike defense system included approximately 300 batteries in the United States. The nation's first operational, guided, surface-to-air missile, Nike was an important technological breakthrough in air defense. The Nike system brought together an array of antiaircraft, missile, computer, and radar elements. Nike could detect, identify as friend or foe, track, and destroy enemy aircraft. 

Nike was just one part of continental air defenses during the Cold War. At the same time the U.S. Army was developing and deploying Nike, the U.S. Air Force produced its own surface-to-air missile systems. They were similar and a rivalry over them developed between the services. The U.S. Navy and the Canadian Air Force, as part of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), also shared the continental air defense mission.

Decommissioning of the Chicago-area batteries began in 1963. The end for the whole Nike system came in 1974.


Richard Turner said...

I remember (not fondly) the 'cold war' and the fear of instant annihilation from above, as well as those Nike bases. We read about those installations in our "Weekly Readers" at school. I even saw a few 'bases'. One was where a friend and I used to hunt pheasants on farm of a relative one county over. The other was on Grosse Isle, and island in the lower Detroit River, where there was also (not coincidentally) a Naval Air Station. Some of the fences around the air base/Nike installation only recently were removed. I believe much of the former Nike land is now part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The flat, square tops of the launch locations once were camo painted, I assume to make 'em harder to detect from above. I walked over several on that farm. Good hunting waaaay back in the day.

Cary Dice said...

My uncle was base commander at Hancock AFB (Syracuse) in early 60s and I visited my cousins there one summer. There was a large 4-story blockhouse that housed the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE, command and control center for the Eastern US and Canada. He took me on a tour and it was literally like being in a 50s space movie: rows of radar screens under black light with light guns to ID aircraft on the screen, two huge computers (vacuum tube) with blinking square light control panels, and a 3- story "battle room" with a huge map of North America with two balconies facing. The balconies had desks and nameplates such as General this and Colonel that. And a red phone. The facility gathered and reviewed all air activity on the Eastern Seaboard and would be used to direct Bomarc and Nike missle interceptions of Soviet bombers. Coolest experience a kid could ever have.

Tom Howie said...

Chuck: I was stationed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska in 1964-66. We had missile sites way out in the boonies that were manned year round by service men that had up to six month shifts. I was in a transport Co. and we used to go out and resupply them off and on because they could not leave their posts. This was back when Russia was our main cause for concern. I have no doubt that there are still active duty guys manning the sites today. Tom Howie.