They’re not much to look at. Pads of cracked concrete and rusted steel. Squat cinder block buildings that could pass for some 50s-era strip mall. Aged and rusty chain-link fences are usually involved, too. It takes a broad stretch of the imagination to believe that these forlorn compounds once guarded the U.S.’s major cities.
The Cold War hit home in the early 1950s when the U.S. government learned that the Soviet Union had the capability of using long-range bombers to unload nuclear weapons on major metropolitan areas. This was a jarring realization–there was a real and present threat to the American mainland after nearly a century of relative security.
Uncle Sam’s solution was to build defensive fortresses, a ring of anti-aircraft batteries around cities that the Soviets would likely target. That included, of course, the Washington-Baltimore corridor as well as Hampton Roads, home to the country’s largest navy base.
Map of Nike Missile Batteries from Google Maps
Nike missiles were the ordnance of choice, capable of being guided from the ground and eliminating aircraft that threatened to deliver their payload. The first generation–Nike-Ajax–wielded conventional warheads. The second–Nike-Hercules–often contained a nuke to ensure the destruction of an entire squadron of enemy airplanes in one fell swoop.
Each Nike battery had three sites: a command complex containing barracks and administrative offices, a radar installation, and a separate magazine and launchpad where the missiles themselves were stored in underground chambers, to be fired above ground in the event of a crisis.
Left: Launchpad in Hampton, VA Right: Command support building in Tolchester Beach, MD
There was a Nike-Ajax battery at Carrollton, Virginia from 1954 to 1961. Ralph Wilkerson, who lives in nearby Rescue, served as a Spec-4 there for three years in the late 1950s. Wilkerson recalls a couple false alarms. “There were sometimes airplanes coming into the area that wouldn’t identify themselves, or were slow to identify themselves. We’d get a call from Norfolk and spring into action,” he remembers.
Of course, neither Wilkerson nor any of the other veterans who served at Nike missile batteries were ever called to deploy their weapons. There was one accidental firing near Washington D.C. in 1955. Although the blast scared a few people and probably caused for a lot of finger-pointing in the chain of command, there weren’t any injuries reported.
Top: Skate park and buses on the launchpad in Carrollton, VA
Bottom: Underground magazine access and command center in Carrollton, VA
Nevertheless, Nike batteries became obsolete for a number of reasons, among them that Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles became the preferred long-range delivery system for nuclear weapons, and the Nike missiles weren’t effective against that threat. Nearly all Nike sites were shuttered by 1974.
There are many veterans and other enthusiasts who keep the memory of Nike missile batteries alive. Several websites recount reminiscences and technical information on the Nike program. Easily accessible online is a map of every Nike missile location in the country.
Sadly, the sites themselves haven’t fared as well as the interest in them. There are only a couple preserved Nike missile batteries (at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and in the Everglades) where visitors can get a firsthand look at these sentinels of American cities.
Most others have fallen victim to neglect. Weeds quickly moved into cracks in the concrete. Magazines that once held the missiles themselves long ago filled with water. Put your ear to any of the locked portals and you’ll likely hear the steady drip-drip-drip that keeps those underground passages inundated.
Scenes from the launchpad and nearby command center at Tolchester Beach, MD
Tolchester Beach’s Nike battery is a good example of what many of these sites have become after forty years of neglect, including many of the nineteen that encircled the nation’s capital. The small village opposite Baltimore held the only battery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Now the launchpad is used as an outdoor storage facility by road maintenance crews and the command complex is a 4-H center that’s seen better days.
In Carrollton, where Wilkerson served, the battery has given its name to the county-run Carrollton Nike District Park (there’s another, similar site in Fairfax, Virginia called Great Falls Nike Park that’s been repurposed). Although families enjoy the sports and recreation on the grounds of the park, there’s little signage or interpretation of the site’s original purpose. There’s a skate park on the old launchpad. School buses park there, too.
That bothers Wilkerson, to see his old post treated as an afterthought. He’d prefer that this battery be preserved and wishes there was some sort of large-scale effort to protect Nike sites nationwide. “The Cold War is our history. There’s plenty of room to use this for educational purposes, too. We can do better than this.”
Bottom: Nike-Ajax outside an American Legion post in Cascade, MD