When was the Nike missile base in Fairfax County on Popes Head Road demolished? Does anything from the Nike site remain there today?
-- Chris Barbuschak, Burke
Oh, for the days of the Cold War. Things were so much simpler then. We knew exactly who our enemies were: the godless Communists. We knew what they wanted to do: kill us. And we knew exactly how they wanted to do it: by dropping nuclear bombs on us from jets flying at 30,000 feet.
But we weren't going to let them! While civilians were taught to duck and cover, the Army ringed major cities with batteries of missiles named for Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.
Nike sites started becoming operational across the country in 1954. There were three sites in Fairfax County -- in Lorton, Fairfax and Great Falls -- and more than 20 in Maryland. The missiles were about 20 feet long and were kept underground, beneath metal doors that would swing open, allowing the missiles to rise up and be fired.
In 1958, some first-generation sites -- which had Nike-Ajax missiles -- were converted to the nuclear-tipped Ajax-Hercules model.
Nike sites consisted of two parts: an integrated fire control base, where the plane-tracking and missile-directing radar units were situated, and, about a mile away, the missiles themselves.
The Lorton site was a Nike showcase, frequently visited by politicians and foreign dignitaries. The Pentagon made no secret of where the missile battalions were, said Christopher Bright, a historian who grew up not far from the Lorton site.
"A great effort was made to acclimate the public [to the missiles] and to encourage soldiers to become involved in the community," Christopher said. They even held regular open houses.
The missiles were never launched, at least not on purpose. In 1955, a Nike at Fort Meade was accidentally fired during a practice session. The warhead didn't explode, but the missile did tear itself apart about a mile up, showering the Baltimore-Washington Parkway with debris. No civilians were injured, though a crewman who had been standing near the errant missile when it took off suffered minor burns.
As the nature of the Soviet threat changed -- intercontinental ballistic missiles became the concern -- the Nike sites were decommissioned, and the land was sold to local governments, most of whom bulldozed the buildings and built playgrounds: swords into soccer fields, so to speak.
There's a Nike Missile Park in Gaithersburg. The old fire control site in Davidsonville is now a family recreation center; its launch site is home to the Anne Arundel County police academy. Part of the Great Falls site is now used by a local astronomy group to explore the night sky. The Army left the Popes Head site in 1961. Fairfax County paid $108,700 for the land in 1984 and demolished the buildings soon after. Today, part of the site is a public works storage yard and part is a park. No traces remain of its former purpose.
Last month, the Fairfax County Park Authority started demolishing some of the buildings at the Lorton site. There are plans to leave one of the firing bays intact and display a missile there, part of a Cold War museum planned for the site by Francis Gary Powers Jr., son of the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
The problem is, park officials can't find the stairs that lead to the subterranean bays. Everything was welded shut and covered with concrete.
Our threats come in different forms these days.