Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2011

The Nuke Next Door

When I was eight, I joined the Cub Scouts. Mostly, belonging to the Cub Scouts meant going to our den mother’s house and, well, I don’t know; doing crafts, singing songs, whatever. They lived in a big farmhouse, and we ran around outside a lot, I know.

Sometimes we took field trips.

On one memorable day, we toured both a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a potato chip factory. Everything I know about the manufacture of potato chips, I learned on that day, more than 50 years ago. (Now you can take a virtual tour of the same company’s factory! CLICK HERE.)

So, kids … Coke, chips … that was fun. Where ELSE should we go? Hey! I’ve got it … how about a Nike nuclear missile installation? Hop in the car. Let’s go!

And so we did. Since I was about nine at the time, and didn’t have a map with me, I can’t tell you from memory exactly where we were. Thanks to the energetic glaciation program Mom Nature carried out during the Late Pleistocene, most of Ohio is uniformly flat, at least until you get down to the eastern and southern edges where the glacier gave up and the drainage of the Ohio River gives things more relief. Once European settlers moved in and cleared all the trees, well, there’s not much to distinguish a field up by Toledo from one somewhere out north of Zanesville. Or, for that matter, from another field in Indiana or Illinois, especially on a chilly, overcast day, which is how I recall that day. However, the fact that we drove there without hours of elapsed time, THIS USEFUL LIST of Nike sites tells me that we were almost certainly at site CD-27 outside of Wilmington. That feels right. Wilmington is only 20 miles or so from the ol’ hometown. If you visit that Wikipedia page, you can get the GPS coordinates (although I went there on Google Earth and can’t make out any discernible details).

Why was there a nuclear missile site in the middle of a soybean field in Ohio? Easy. It was right next to Clinton County Air Force Base, and not far (as the missile flies) from the massive Wright-Patterson AFB, home to B-52s and — my personal favorite — the supersonic B-58 Hustler, and all kinds of extremely important defense stuff including laboratories and advanced research. (You can see the former Clinton AFB just east of the Nike site, on the opposite side of Wilmington.)

What a useful, informative field trip for a bunch of 8- and 9 year-olds. Visiting the leading edge of our country’s surface-to-air defense system! (There was, of course, a certain resonance between the mission of Project Nike and the motto of the Boy Scouts: “Be Prepared.”) Wikipedia says this site became operational in 1960, and we probably visited it that year or the next. I do remember that the missile/missiles (I don’t know if there was more than one) was a Hercules, which was the longer-range successor to the original Nike-Ajax, and which had nuclear warhead capability. We did not see a missile. They were underground. I assume we may have been able to see one or more launch assemblies, but my memory isn’t clear. I suspect that we were not allowed out to where the missiles would have been, which Wikipedia says would have been a minimum of 1,000 yards away from the command center. I do remember being told that there was some massive amount of concrete and steel encasing and shielding the missile(s). What there was to see was either a small building or — as I remember it — more like a mobile trailer of some sort, packed full of what then must have been the ne plus ultra of electronic sensing and scanning gear: radar scopes and that sort of stuff. It was extremely small. I remember that I wasn’t completely bowled over, since it didn’t exactly exceed the imagination of a 9 year-old raised on old science fiction B-movies, but it was the best the Army had to offer, you can be sure of that. Given what was then the commonly available communications capability out in the civilian world, it would be interesting to know what they could do there in terms of long-distance communications with the command structure. After all, at home we still had a party line and making a long-distance call was a big deal. I had never seen a computer, naturally. Certainly the Nike Project used whatever was the leading edge of applied technology then available. I know, I know: I should have taken notes.

You can read better-informed authors on the technology of the Nike system if you CLICK HERE, as well as at a Wikipedia article HERE. Some good photos, too.

In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising that a bunch of kids and their scoutmasters could tour a nuclear warhead launch facility in 1960. The whole point of nuclear strategy in those days was deterrence. They weren’t secret. It wouldn’t be easy to keep secret the location of such highly engineered facilities. The point was to make certain that countries antagonistic to the United States back then (who now, technically no longer exist) knew that force would be met by force.  So, sure, show the Cub Scouts and the Rotarians and the Jaycees the missile sites. It says a lot about the difference in mindset in a world in which it’s now conceivable that there would be malevolent plotters within the U.S.

Bad things flying in on us were on our minds then. 1960? It was the depths of the Cold War, not long before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. We had bomb drills at school. (We were in the old Academy Building, built in 1844, and it had a particularly robust basement, so we went down there to our respective boys’ or girls’ restrooms. No hiding under flimsy little desks for us! CLICK HERE for a look at that good ol’ building of my school days.) Of course, those missiles that arrived in Cuba were also the signal that Project Nike was outmoded. It had been designed to shoot down bombers, not ICBMs. More on that later.

No, I didn’t have my digital camera with me, so I don’t have any pix from that trip. Sorry.

All this comes back to me because just about two miles due south from where I sit here in the Under Western Skies World HQ is another of those long-ago relics of the Cold War, site LA-43. (It appears in that same Wikipedia listing. However, the GPS coordinates for this site in Wikipedia are INCORRECT. You should, instead, use 33°42′58.85″N 118°18′49.25″W. If anyone’s familiar with how to notify Wikipedia, please do so.)

Here’s a look at the site earlier this week, on an overcast day. That’s the Pacific Ocean. If it were a clear day, you’d see Catalina Island filling the horizon, 22 miles out (click on photos for larger image).

LA-43 Nike Missile site Brad Nixon 8124 (640x480)

You can see the rusty covers of two underground “magazines,” which, as I understand it, is where the missiles were kept. Missiles were moved from there to a launch platform to be deployed against attacking incoming bad things.

LA-43 Nike missile magazine cover Brad Nixon 8123 (640x480)

There are a number of surviving artifacts on the surface, including this hatch cover.

LA-43 Nike missile site hatch Brad Nixon 8134 (640x480)

One must assume that it leads into some deep underground chamber — now probably poured full of concrete. Note that it has a cylindrical counterweight that would help make it possible for one person to lift it.

Los Angeles was particularly blessed with Nike missile protection. There were 16 sites in all, several of them only a few minutes’ drive from my house, since we’re perched here on the edge of the continent, looking out over the Pacific. In fact, the City Hall for my town is housed in what were once administrative buildings for the local Nike operations.

I don’t know if the Army ever actually fired any missiles from this or any of the LA-area sites. I haven’t researched that. However, the crew who had the endlessly tedious task of waiting for The Call That Never Came at Site LA-43 at least had a picturesque workplace, a hundred yards from the Pacific, looking out westward to Catalina Island.

I don’t actually know if there were nuclear warheads present that day we toured the site in Ohio, or if they were stocked-up with them there in my neighborhood. Given the numbers of nuclear devices that were manufactured in those Arms Race days, it’s probably a safe assumption that there were. Technology, however, advanced. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles took over and, now … well … it’s a different world, altogether. The Army decommissioned all the remaining Nike sites in 1974 — including LA-43 — and that was the end.

Today, no less threatened, no less beleaguered, we no longer have our own local nuke poised down at the foot of Western Avenue. Instead, the Nike site and the surrounding land is a nature preserve. Local preservationists have worked hard to uproot invasive plant species and restore the native vegetation to the area. There’s an area with markers identifying the sagebrush and other local plants. You can walk the dog or take a run up and down the steep hills. Looking out across the 22 miles of water that divide the coast and Catalina, you might see the spout of a blue or gray whale, or spot a pod of porpoises or dolphins. You’ll see pelicans, cormorants, hawks and osprey. Or, you might spot an American Kestrel poised on a power line, scanning the grounds for hapless creatures unwary enough to show themselves.

American Kestrel Brad Nixon 8132 (640x480)

There’s a sublime irony there: the threat from above.

In the next post, we’ll walk a few dozen yards up the hills above the Nike site and see a previous generation of coastal defenses. Until then, keep your eyes on that horizon.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017

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Responses

  1. Very interesting. I spent 1958-59 at El Paso Texas, often visiting White Sands Proving Ground where the Nike missiles were tested. There were small plane like targets, called arcats, that would be sent up, and then shot down by various small missiles. My ex-husband was an Army missile technologist at the base. My daughter was born at Wm. Beaumont Army Hospital. Good research!

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  2. vist illicit ohio . com wilmington nike for a lot of two year old shots of the base

    Thank you. The specific link is: http://illicitohio.illicitohio.com/illicitohio/wilmingtonnike.html
    editor.

    Like


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