Nike Missile Batteries; Forgotten Sentinels of American Cities

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.

Nike Batteries Google Maps

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.

Nike Missile 8      Nike Missile 3

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.

Nike Missile 9      Nike MIssile 11

Nike Missile 10      Nike Missile 12

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.

Nike Missile 7    Nike Missile 6

Nike Missile 4

Nike Missile 5

Nike Missile 2    Nike Missile 1

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.”

Nike Missile 13

Nike Missile

Bottom: Nike-Ajax outside an American Legion post in Cascade, MD

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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29 Responses to Nike Missile Batteries; Forgotten Sentinels of American Cities

  1. Pingback: Nike Missile Batteries; Forgotten Sentinels of ...

  2. Robert Arance says:

    Interesting to see some of the remnants of East Coast sites. I have visited all of the Los Angeles area sites, even though several have been built over or demolished by new construction. Most still retain the launch areas and a few of the sites in the mountains became forest ranger and fire fighting camps. When we fist moved to LA in the mid-60s, all of the Hercules sites in the area where still active and some that were located in close proximity to urban areas (Sepulveda Basin, White Point, Torrance Airport) would announce in advance when they would be holding drills. This was not only to keep the locals from being frightened, but also seen as good community relations. We attended a couple of these and it was pretty impressive watching the missiles come up from the magazine, be slid out on the launch rails, and erected into firing position.

    A fact most folks are not aware of, Hercules were armed with nuclear warheads and they were stored on-site . So on any given day, there were more than 100 nuclear weapons stored within 50 miles of downtown LA (or any other major city protected by a Ring Of Steel).

    AFAIK, San Francisco hosts the only Nike site that is open to the public as a museum, SF-88.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks very much for the recollections, Robert. I never got to see a drill, but would have liked to. It sounds like it was a sight to behold. And I’m definitely planning on hitting SF-88 next time I’m in San Francisco.

      Ben

  3. Paul Lewis says:

    As I surf thr internet it is amazeing to see the interest in the Nike Air Defense System. I spent 4 years at sites in California,Minnesota and Germany. I was in Fire Control ( IFC) and only made it down to launcher a few times. Us radar guys did our job and the guys in the pits did there’s. I recall In December 1967 the spy ship U.S.S. Pueblo was captured off North Korea, many of the guys were home on Christmas leave and we were called to assume alert status. I spent most of the next three days not knowing what was happening looking at a radar counsole. We finialy got a break as they the guys on leave were recalled. Air Defense….It was exciting at times.

    Paul

  4. Jim Battaglia says:

    This discussion intrigued me, because it brought back memories of my Navy days at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Oddly enough, I live within a mile of the old Battery W-44 Nike site in Waldorf, MD. The site, today, is leased by the Maryland Indian Heritage Society. Native American culture is highlighted here, with regular Pow Wows. I can remember seeing the missiles, as I drove past the site, in the ’69-’71 time frame. Not thinking anything of it, and what it represented, its function is long forgotten. Most around here don’t even know what was once there!

  5. Ja says:

    I grew up a few miles from a Nike site in Rockland County, NY; there’s one in Gaithersburg, MD, that now has a park on it. I think it’s called Missile Park or some such, and my local national guard post is sitting on another one in Laytonsville. I always thought it was very cool that these were still around.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks, Janet, for reading and for the comment. Yes, I grew up near some, too, but I never knew they existed until I began this odd quest to find disappearing history.

      Ben

  6. Mike Dacosta says:

    As an electrician, i restored power to a site in Livingston NJ that was a Nike/Bomarc base now being used as an artists community. Launch hangers and pads still there along with command bunkers now displaying art work.

  7. Jon Lyons says:

    Ben,

    You forgot to mention N85! It is located pretty close to you, and it is one of the few sites that still has the towers that elevated the radar domes over the tree line.

    – Jon

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks for mentioning that Jon. Yes, that one’s right there by PHF. Haven’t seen it myself but explored it on Google Maps. Stay tuned for Monday, I have a bunch mmore up close pictures coming of a well-preserved site in New Jersey.

      Ben

  8. Pingback: Fort Hancock; Coastal Defense Through the Nuclear Age | Abandoned Country

  9. I was stationed at Tolchester Beach md.in 1969-1970 as a Military Police.I have been back several times to the site .I would love to get in touch with some of my fellow comrades.James Shine,Gunter,Lott,Butler.I loved going down to the little town below the site.I cant fine any records f anyone but William Zelazney.Any help would be appreciated.

  10. I was stationed at the tolchester Beach Maryland Nike in 1965 and most 1966. Left in August of 1966 and was transferred to Germany to an Honest John rocket system. I was a computer operator in the IFC area of the Tolchester site.

  11. Hi Ben. I’m a photographer and found your great blog when doing some research on Nike missile sites. I did a post on my blog documenting a local Nike missile base in NJ before it was torn down. I was surprised at the overwhelming response it got. Anyway, I wanted to thank you and compliment you on this great blog.

  12. Marc says:

    I worked on a program with NIST in the 90’s and we used one of the retired Nike missile silo’s as a ballistic testing range. I remember going into the silo before they had remodeled, only having flashlights for lighting. It was quite spooky. In time, the put a stairway into the bunker. The elevator still worked as did the ventilation system. Haven’t been back in about 10 years so I don’t know if it’s still being used for some other purpose. Also remember seeing the Radar towers on the CPSC grounds behind a golf course on Route 28 and Muddy Branch Road. Didn’t know what they were initially.

    Marc

    M

  13. jeffrey ott says:

    I was stationed in ny80 East Hanover nj in 1972 thru 1973 the closing year. Had the opportunity to go to new Mexico to fire a missile, unit fail safed at about 300 feet sending debris all over as a road guard I dove in a bunker till I could not hear metal zinging in the air.

  14. Where can I find one I can go inside around Cleveland or Pittsburgh. I understand it is dangerous and probably illegal, but I would like to explore one.

  15. Richard E Jewett says:

    Do you have any information on the Palmdale Missile Site on Mt Gleason, part of the LA Defense. I believe the site number was 04. My military unit was Battery D, 1st Missile Battalion, 56th Artillery. It was the highest ADA site in the Army Air Defense Command.
    The IFC (radar) complex was at 6,500 above sea level. As a Captain, I was the Battery Commander from July 1962 until June 1964. I had previously served in the SF area as
    the IFC Platoon Leader, first at Ft Funston (near Olympic CC) which was Battery A, 740th AAA Msl Bn, (Nike Ajax) and then at the Pacifica Site which was Nike Hercules, Battery C, 4th Msl Bn, 61st Arty. Appreciate any info. Dick Jewett, COL (USA RET)
    at the

    • Robert Arance says:

      Richard;

      The site area is pretty much abandoned now, it appears to be used for storage or staging area for forest fire fighters. It was a fire camp/correctional facility for many years, but that aspect closed down in the mid-2000s. http://www.ftmac.org/lanike3.htm
      Type “Nike Missile Site LA-04” into Google Earth and you can see what it currently looks like.

      Regards,

      Robert Arance
      Santa Paula, CA

      • Robert Arance says:

        I just recalled that the correctional facility and the other buildings there burned during the big fire in the area a few years ago.

    • Paul Lewis says:

      I was stationed @ LA 94 66 until it was deactivated in the fall of ’68. We shot KDP’s for the tracking radars off the HIPAR radome of 04.

  16. Ron Warren says:

    Near the top of the post is a photo of a launchpad in Hampton, VA. There are two former Nike sites in Hampton. Do you know which one is pictured?

  17. Frank Branstrom says:

    I was at Tolchester 60-61. Dog handler

    • Nick Tusa says:

      If I remember correctly they had Guard Dogs at the Tolchester site that would accompany one or two of the guards on duty. Not sure the exact year I was in Tolchester as I was a little boy then. My dad worked Radar at the site but the guards used to let him fly a little yellow U-Control Plane in the launcher field when they were all underground. If you were one of the guards, I thank you.

  18. Sam says:

    I grew up in Albany, Ga., and in the early 70s would ride motorcycles at an abandoned Nike base not far from where I lived. Didn’t really know a lot about it then at that age. Interesting history.

  19. Neil says:

    I was in the first group that occupied site C-37, I think, near Cheney, WA. Our group moved in in early 1957. It had just been (nearly) completed. We had to do the lawns ourselves. I was in the IFC area. Went to New Mexico once to fire. I left the Cheney site in mid-1958. Great duty.

  20. Nick Tusa says:

    My dad was a Master Sergent at the Tolchester Beach site. He used to run and repair the radar systems at the edge of the Missile site. I remember the big field that had an underground platform where they kept the missiles. Sometimes they’d run drills and you’d see them raise the launchers with the missiles in them. Never saw them fire them but as stated above they never really had to.

    Tolchester Beach was a really cool place for a young adventurous boy as I was back then.

  21. Tom Materene says:

    Tom Materene, Nike Missile crewman D-50 Dallas Fort Worth AD 1966-67. Site is the last in tact of our Battery, all others have been destroyed. Both Radar and Launch area is exactly like it was left when shut down. Both areas were sold at one time or another and used for several purposes but finally were purchased by two separate real estate developers and the Radar area is now a living compound for one of those people. The launch area is not being lived on and grown over but still as it was the day the last man left.

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