The nukes next door Missile: Only now, as the launch sites are turned into parks, is America learning just how dangerous the Nikes were.


Four decades ago, when Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev promised to bury the West and thousands of Americans stocked backyard bomb shelters with canned goods, soldiers dug a formidable missile defense system in the fields outside America's cities.

In the Baltimore-Washington area, the mostly underground forts, silos for powerful Nike missiles, were built in a ragged circle or "ring of steel" in places such as Towson, Davidsonville, Rockville, Waldorf and Chestertown.

Now, the era when schoolchildren practiced duck-and-cover drills is a distant memory, and Nike bases around the nation are being transformed into community centers, parks, homeless shelters and prisons. In Anne Arundel County, residents have proposed building a hockey rink on a former base near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

It's a sign of changed times that at a Nike site-turned-museum in the Marin headlands of Northern California, the most frequently asked question by children is: "Why was a missile named after a tennis shoe?"

The Nike missiles, named for the Greek goddess of victory, were such a secret in the Cold War days of the 1950s and 1960s that details about them and the nuclear warheads they carried are only now beginning to emerge.

The secret of the nuclear warheads was declassified by the late 1970s. But the Pentagon's official position is that they never existed.

"I'm just not going to say that," Cmdr. Tom Buckingham said recently when asked whether the missiles carried nuclear warheads. "I will acknowledge they carried the potential."

Buckingham has been assigned by the Defense Department to handle the transfer to civilian hands of the 24-acre former Nike site near the Bay Bridge.

Those left of the hundred or so men who staffed the Maryland sites 24 hours a day, poised to launch a missile less than five seconds after word of an enemy attack, remain intensely proud of their work. They kept the secret, even from their wives, they say, that these missiles were the nuclear terror the country feared so.

Designed in extreme secrecy in 1953, the Nike missile was quietly turned into a defensive nuclear weapon in 1958 to intercept enemy aircraft loaded with nuclear bombs before they reached the United States. It was renamed the Nike Hercules.

But most who worked at the sites say it would have saved few lives. Any nuclear explosion in the hemisphere would have resulted in the agonizingly slow death of masses from radiation.

But in the late '50s, when a nation rattled by Soviet power was holding air raid drills, generals thought that if they could intercept enemy aircraft far enough out over the Atlantic, Baltimore and Washington might survive.

In 1972, the Soviet Union and the United States signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), the first agreement between the countries to limit nuclear weapons, and publicly eliminated the need for Nikes.

Servicemen who maintained the Nikes say they would have become obsolete soon -- even without SALT -- because of new weapons launched from enemy nations that could not be shot down.

But in their heyday, the Nike sites got lots of attention.

"We were the elite, the most important," says James Degatina, who worked at several Nike sites in the region and is now a colonel in the National Guard. "Everything we did had the highest priority. There was no tolerance for mediocrity. And there was a great deal of pride in knowing that."

In addition to the dome-covered silos, the sites had a control center, barracks, administrative offices and a ball field or two for off-hours entertainment in the middle of nowhere.

Within a few years, the postwar march to the suburbs brought new housing developments within yards of their perimeter fences.

Even then, most neighbors were only dimly aware of what was behind the three layers of barbed wire fences, German shepherds trained to kill and armed guards pacing the lots. Residents remember hearing a daily siren and seeing the missile poke through the top of a cement dome.

"I never knew they had nuclear things," said 84-year-old Cecilia Miller, who has lived between her bean fields and the old Bay Bridge Nike site since the early 1950s.

"If they tried to do that today, all the neighbors would have put a stop to it. They put up a fuss about everything today."

At several of the sites in the late 1960s, Army and National Guard personnel held mini-open houses to try to answer neighbors' questions about those late-night sirens and sudden bursts of activity.

"We used to call the warheads 'mailboxes,' because that's what the casing looked like," remembers Dan Poole, who worked at the Davidsonville site.

"When the residents came, we took them off because we didn't want people to ask, 'What's that red thing?' You told no one about their nuclear capability. People asked anyway. You just made up something. But they were very real, and they worked."

Degatina agreed. "Can you imagine people knowing that there was that magnitude of nuclear weapons in their neighborhoods? We had more power [in the Baltimore-Washington area] than could ever be used in wartime, even today."

Now, federal law requires that surplus property turned over to local governments free must be put to community use.

The military wasn't always so generous. The Defense Department held onto many of the sites nationwide until the 1980s, when officials tried unsuccessfully to sell them. Developers and local governments across the nation were discouraged by the cost of demolishing the old buildings to make way for new uses.

Since the Pentagon began unloading the sites, a New York county turned one into a homeless shelter. A Massachusetts county uses one for maximum-security data storage that private companies rent. Anne Arundel County turned the Davidsonville site into its police academy, and the District of Columbia built a prison on part of a Nike site in Lorton in Northern Virginia. Most others have become parks.

Some of the most frequent visitors to the Marin Nike museum are filmmakers and composers, said site manager Milton Halsey.

"They like our sounds of gears grinding, whistles blowing and computers full of glass vacuum tubes that wheeze," he said. "They come out and tape the sounds of old machinery working TC for their films."

There is only one missile left from the Baltimore-Washington ring of steel: on the lawn outside the Fort Meade Museum.

It has never attracted much attention, even from the weapons enthusiasts traditionally drawn to the museum. Some military historians speculate that people don't want to remember the Cold War; others say the missiles were outdated before they were built and not worthy of attention.

Harrison Sandrock, one of seven men who serviced and repaired the nuclear warheads, sees it differently. He is the only one left; the other six have died of various forms of cancer. Standing in the missile's shadow one recent afternoon, he paid little attention to the peeling rust dropping in chunks onto the grass.

He didn't comment about the two bird nests inside the 20-foot barrel or the discarded plaque recently run over by a lawn mower.

"To this day, it's awe inspiring," he said, touching the old missile for the first time in more than a decade. "I guess I don't visit it because it's something that's antiquated and it makes me realize I'm getting old."

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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