Vanishing Symbols of Cold War Fear
They were America’s first sentries in the Cold War, built on hilltops and in Southland neighborhoods in an era when “duck and cover” became a classroom drill and children learned to recognize the flash of a nuclear explosion.
Now, one of the last of 16 Nike missile sites dotting Orange and Los Angeles counties is being demolished this month.
The base, built on two hilltops in the Puente Hills near Brea, had three huge magazines, each about 20 feet deep from which the missiles--both Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules--could be brought to the surface and launched.
“We’re destroying a little bit of history,” said Glenn D. Barin, engineer with Montgomery Watson Constructors, a Pasadena company hired by the National Park Service to do the demolition.
When the job is completed this month, the federal government will turn the land over to a local governmental agency, possibly for a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department training facility.
Today, most of the missile sites are gone, their remains hauled away or built over, stripped of the identity that made them symbols of a more frightening time.
For two decades--from 1954 to 1974--they encircled the Los Angeles Basin in a “Ring of Supersonic Steel” to protect the region against Russian bombers.
When the sites were in operation, the launch and command sites combined usually occupied about 60 acres and were staffed by about 120 soldiers. Each post had barracks, a mess hall, a small motor pool and by today’s standards, abysmal security. The outer perimeter was ringed by a single roll of concertina wire in front of a chain-link fence. Veterans who served at the Nike sites said there was a single guard armed with a .45-caliber handgun at the entrance to the command and launch areas. At night, dogs patrolled the inner defensive perimeter.
Neighbors Unaware of Nuclear Arsenal
Unknown to millions of Southern Californians who lived among them, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles fitted with nuclear warheads were poised at nine of the bases to be launched against enemy bomber formations that never appeared.
The United States never fired a conventional Nike Ajax or a nuclear Nike Hercules missile against an enemy. By 1974, the Los Angeles area bases that protected 4,000 square miles were quietly closed and the warheads disassembled, 20 years after the first one went into operation in Malibu.
The once-bustling outposts formed a circle with Newhall to the north, Malibu to the west, San Pedro to the south and Stanton to the east. Except for aging and vandalized concrete buildings that stand at some sites, there is little evidence that these bases--staffed by Army and California National Guard soldiers--ever existed.
The Long Beach site is now a blend of hotel and commercial developments. The Mount Gleason launch site near Palmdale is a Los Angeles County prison camp. The South El Monte site is a work yard at a county park. A temporary site on Fairview Road in Costa Mesa in operation from 1955 to 1957 is now the home of Orange Coast College and the Orange County Fairgrounds.
Officials at the Fort MacArthur Military Museum Assn. in San Pedro are working to preserve some of the sites in Los Angeles County where the Nike bases once stood. The fort was the headquarters for the bases, which were up to 70 miles away. It also included a cemetery for the dogs that helped guard the bases.
Museum volunteer Sam Stokes, a retired Los Angeles County district attorney’s investigator, said the sites deserve to be placed on the U.S. and California registers of historic places.
“Los Angeles doesn’t have a sense of history,” Stokes said. “Historic preservation in Los Angeles is a suicide mission. Military historic preservation is even more futile.”
But he credited officials in Rancho Palos Verdes and Malibu for preserving some buildings from the local Nike bases. The Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall complex on Hawthorne Boulevard and Palos Verdes Drive used to be the base’s launch site. The command site at Crenshaw Boulevard and Sea Crest Drive is now Del Cerro Park. The launch site in Malibu, located on Rambla Pacifica, is now used by the Los Angeles County Fire Department as a maintenance yard.
Stokes, a museum volunteer for 14 years and local Nike base historian, said Los Angeles area residents were remarkably and blissfully ignorant about the nuclear weapons that were stored near their homes, schools, churches and businesses.
When Stokes made a presentation several years ago to the Rancho Palos Verdes Land Conservancy about the old Nike base, he described what had long been a closely guarded secret.
“They were shocked and appalled to learn that until 1974 there were nuclear warheads in their neighborhoods,” Stokes said.
Conservancy president Bill Ailor said he never gave the Nike base “a second thought.”
“We all knew it was there. It had guard dogs inside. At the time, I figured it was a good defensive system and necessary,” Ailor said. “The feeling at the time was that those things were there for a reason. But most of us only knew it as a missile site. Nobody talked about nuclear weapons being there.”
Retired National Guard Col. Carlos Ramirez was commander in charge of the battery in Stanton in central Orange County.
“If anybody asked, we were instructed to say only that the Hercules had nuclear capability,” said Ramirez, who served at the base from 1964 to 1974. “We had houses north of us on Katella, south on Chapman, east on Western and west across Knott, where there was also a school.”
The Stanton base’s control center was in Garden Grove at Knott Avenue and Patterson Drive, which is now a light industrial area. The launch site was east of there on Western Avenue, now an Army Reserve Center.
Missile System Built to Meet Russian Threat
The bases operated at a time when the Russians appeared unbeatable. They launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1957. In 1961, a Russian cosmonaut became the first man in space. On May Day 1960, they shot down an American U-2 spy plane with a surface-to-air missile, capturing the pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
It was a time when many American schoolboys assumed they would grow up and fight the Russians, who were already in Cuba--90 miles from Florida--positioning their nuclear missiles to strike the U.S.
“The times were a lot different and a little scary. People didn’t ask a lot of questions in those days, and everyone expected the military to defend against the communists,” said Frank Evans, a biomedical engineer in Sun Valley who commanded a battery near Pittsburgh, Pa.
Americans’ view of the military was more accommodating then too.
Evans recalled a time when a Hercules missile, all 11,000 pounds of it, fell off his battery’s launcher, prompting fears that the nuclear warhead had ruptured. Fortunately, it had not, but Evans said that as a precaution “many, many people” living nearby in the Pittsburgh suburb were evacuated while troops checked for radiation.
The Army offered little or no information about the sudden evacuation but “nobody really complained,” Evans said.
There were close calls in Los Angeles too. In 1966, a brush fire in Los Pinetos, near Newhall, claimed 11 lives and came dangerously close to destroying the Nike site where nuclear missiles were based. The soldiers doubled as firefighters and repelled the flames just yards from the base’s perimeter.
A 1959 Army report about the 211 Nike sites throughout the country recounted the difficulty military authorities had in acquiring land from cities and private landowners for the missile bases. The report said that “the Los Angeles area was in a class all its own” in refusing to give up private land for the nation’s defense.
The Army wanted a combined 25 acres at the northwest and southwest ends of LAX. The report noted then-Mayor Norris Poulson’s intransigence in giving up the parcels. According to the report, Poulson “carried the fight to Washington after calling local Army representatives bull-headed.”
Among their many objections, Poulson and other opponents feared that the Nike’s booster rockets, which fell to earth, “would be a hazard to the area.” An Army general responded that “if we are attacked, there’ll be more deadly things than booster cases falling through the sky unless the attackers are stopped.”
But Poulson prevailed. The report said that top military officials “decided the city was right and the installation was relocated” to Playa del Rey instead.
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Nike missile sites in the Los Angeles region were part of an air defense system designed to protect such key industries as aerospace, ship building, transportation and communications, aswell as military installations in the Los Angeles area. Ten of those sites, including two in Orange County, had nuclear warheads.
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