The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

During the Cold War, D.C. was ringed by Nike missile sites. One had an accident.

In the 1950s, Nike anti-aircraft sites — such as this one in Lorton, Va. — protected U.S. cities from Soviet bombers.  (Library of Congress)
In the 1950s, Nike anti-aircraft sites — such as this one in Lorton, Va. — protected U.S. cities from Soviet bombers. (Library of Congress)
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April 14, 1955, was a good day to not be driving on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. It was also a good day to not be manning the U.S. Army’s Nike missile site at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, Md.

At around 12:35 p.m. on that Thursday, one of the 22-foot-tall antiaircraft missiles was accidentally launched from Fort Meade. It traveled three miles before exploding above the parkway, showering the pavement with debris.

“Luckily, no cars were moving along the section of the parkway a half-mile south of the Laurel-Fort Meade overpass when the fragments of the guided missile splattered down,” wrote The Post.

The only injury was to Sgt. Stanley C. Kozak, who was standing near the missile when it took off. He suffered minor burns.

The Fort Meade Nike site was just one spiky bead in a necklace built around Washington in 1954 to protect the capital from Soviet bombers.

In 1948, one demonstration of a ‘hands-off’ B-17 landing almost went very wrong

There’s an adage that generals fight the last war. For the United States, World War II had started and ended with bombs dropped from aircraft.

“So defense planners in the late 1940s and early 1950s assumed that the next war would similarly involve large masses of enemy bombers — in this case Soviet bombers — attacking American cities and defense sites and population centers,” said Christopher J. Bright, a Cold War historian and author.

Named for the Greek goddess of victory, the missiles were deployed at 13 sites ringing Washington, from Laytonsville, Md., to Pomonkey, Md., Annapolis to Great Falls, Va. Other U.S. cities were similarly protected.

Each installation featured two components: a missile battery, where the weapons were stored in underground magazines, from which they could be lifted and fired, and a control center about a mile away, where the radar equipment that guided the missiles was located.

“In the ’50s, this was in the really rural outreaches of the Washington area,” Bright said.

Some sites were built on government land — such as at Fort Meade and Lorton, Va., at the prison farm whose Nike site became a showcase for the technology. Other land was taken by eminent domain. G.H. Anderson had to sell part of his tobacco farm near Waldorf, Md. (He complained to the Washington Evening Star that the government took the best part “and left me the corners.”)

Though the specifics of the Nike technology may have been secret, there was no effort to hide the sites themselves from the public.

Said Bright: “In most instances, they were welcomed to the community. People were happy to have them.”

There was even an episode of “Lassie” where Timmy and his collie visit a Nike missile base.

But every weapon is inherently dangerous. On May 22, 1958, a crew was servicing Nike missiles at a site in Middletown, N.J. One missile exploded, starting a chain reaction that set off seven others, causing what the Associated Press called “a furious mushroom of fire and death.”

Six soldiers and four civilian contractors were killed.

The missiles that exploded were of the Nike Ajax variety. They held conventional explosives. But the Army was in the process of introducing a new and improved weapon: the Nike Hercules, each equipped with a nuclear warhead.

“If it were to target an incoming aircraft or group of aircraft, a relatively small nuclear detonation would assuredly destroy the attackers,” Bright said.

In the wake of the New Jersey tragedy, the Army assured the public that elaborate precautions were taken in the design and handling of the Nike Hercules and that an accidental nuclear explosion was unlikely.

Did the missiles work? Well, the Soviets never launched a wave of bombers at the United States. But on the very day the Star wrote about the Fort Meade mishap, a prescient article ran on the same page. The headline: “Russia Will Build Cruising Missile, Chidlaw Predicts.”

Gen. Benjamin W. Chidlaw was the head of the Continental Air Defense Command. The Soviets, he said, were developing missiles with speeds of between 8,000 and 16,000 mph, capable of reaching American soil. The future threat would not be bombers, but intercontinental ballistic missiles or missiles launched from submarines.

By 1974 — a little later in Florida, what with Cuba across the water — the Nike program was over.

In the 20 years the Nike sites were active, the suburbs had grown to reach them. Some of the sites remained in federal hands, used for storage or by other government agencies. Others were turned over to local agencies, often becoming parkland, as at Nike Missile Park in Gaithersburg and Popes Head Park in Fairfax. Some were sold to the private sector for development.

In fact, if you fancy your own Nike missile site, the GSA has one on the market right now: 14 acres off Muddy Branch Road in Gaithersburg. The bidding is currently at $9.2 million — missiles not included.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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