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Nike Missile Bases: Washington State Cold War Defenses
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During the Cold War Washington state received substantial defenses against enemy bombing attacks. These included the supersonic Nike missile system emplaced around Seattle, Spokane / Fairchild Air Force Base, and the Hanford nuclear facility. The first generation Nike Ajax became operational in 1956. With the introduction of the advanced Nike Hercules missiles with nuclear warheads and longer-range, Nike Ajax missile installations closed. The Nike Hercules was designed to operate from existing Ajax launch facilities. A reevaluation of the threat in the 1970s led to closing the Nike installations. After sitting empty for a number of years, the former Washington missiles bases have been converted into parks, military camps, and to private ownership.
Cold War Defense of Washington
During the Cold War Washington State had a number of significant military and industrial facilities to be defended. The facilities were located in the Seattle-Puget Sound area, Spokane, and the nuclear facility at Hanford. Seattle and the Puget Sound had Boeing plants, the Puget Sound Navy Yard, other naval bases, Fort Lewis, and McChord Air Force Base. Spokane was home to Fairchild Air Force Base and additional bases. These military and industrial facilities were protected by antiaircraft guns, interceptor fighter aircraft, and, starting in 1954, Nike supersonic missiles. Long-range radars supported these defenses. A BOMARC (Boeing and Michigan Aerospace Research Center) missile installation at Paine Field, Everett, was planned but not completed. The Nike missile system would serve as a powerful defense from 1954 to 1974.
In June 1945, the military initiated development of a missile system, first called Nike Project (named for the Greek goddess of victory), and then Nike Ajax. This would be the first supersonic missile. Bell Labs and its manufacturing arm, Western Electric, received a contract to develop a guided missile system. Also, Douglas Aircraft was selected to design the missile, the booster, and launch equipment. In 1947, with the realization that Soviet bombers could reach targets in the United States, the missile program took on more importance. However, budget cuts slowed the research. Then the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb and the Korean War started in June 1950. The perceived threat rose dramatically, encouraging development of effective missile defenses. Existing antiaircraft defenses could not bring down large numbers of attacking bombers.
Testing and Deploying the Nike Missile
The first successful Nike missile test took place on November 15, 1951. Five months later a Nike system of radars and missiles shot down a drone. These tests determined the system effective and ready for fielding. The first operational Nike facility went up at Fort George G. Mead, Maryland. This site defended the nation’s capitol starting on May 30, 1954. With its establishment plans went forward to install Nike missile defenses at important target areas. The army at this time sent surveyors to the Seattle area to select sites. Where possible, federal lands were used, but private lands were also acquired. To prepare the public, the army had Nike missile exhibits at Fort Lawton and Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot (adjacent to Fort Lewis) open houses in May 1954.
The radar-guided Nike Ajax missiles had a range of 30 miles and an effective altitude capable to known enemy aircraft. They had a solid rocket booster and liquid fuel sustainer. Each missile had three high explosive warheads. The missiles were stored in underground magazines and brought to the surface by an elevator and placed on launchers. Each site had 20 to 30 Nike Ajax missiles.
In 1953, even before Nike Ajax became operational, a second improved model B was under development. This missile would be solid fuel therefore avoiding fueling hazards that plagued the Ajax model. The improved model would be named the Nike Hercules. It had a nuclear warhead so could destroy entire formations. A more powerful missile, it had a range of 50 miles and altitude of 100,000-feet. Test firing in 1955 proved it a dramatic improvement over the Nike Ajax.
The first Nike Hercules sites became operation in June 1958. The Hercules would be installed at six Washington locations, employing existing Ajax facilities. Because it was a more effective weapon its installation made it possible to reduce the number of missile sites. Most Nike Ajax sites not converted closed. For example, of 11 Ajax locations in the Seattle area eight, were abandoned with the installation of Nike Hercules. The Hercules sites had 12 to 18 missiles.
The Nike Control System
The Nike missile control system had three radars working together to guide the missiles. Acquisition Radar identified the target at long range. Then the Target Tracking Radar locked onto the target and kept tracking it despite possible evasive action. Finally the Missile Tracking Radar guided the missile to its target.
A Missile Master facility assigned targets among the fire positions. For the Seattle defenses this function was conducted in a heavily fortified building at Fort Lawton. When the number of batteries was reduced, a smaller personnel center, a BIRDIE (Battery Integrated Radar Display Equipment) center accomplished the target monitoring and assignment of targets.
Each Washington Nike installation had three separate sites. The radars and administrative facilities were at the control facility. Located at least 1,000 yards away and in line of sight was the missile launch facility. The control and launch area buildings were a standard design concrete block. A third location had family housing with ranch-style homes.
Seattle Defense Area
The Seattle Defense Area received its first Nike Ajax missiles in October 1954. At that time temporary Nike batteries opened at Fort Lawton and in other locations. Construction was underway at permanent locations. There would be 11 launch locations with supporting radar sites and an area missile control center at Fort Lawton. The Nike missile batteries would form a defense ring around the Puget Sound.
Initially the regular U.S. Army operated the sites. On July 1, 1959, Washington Army National Guard personnel took over four sites (Kent, Kenmore, Cougar Mountain, and Ollala). Major General Edward J. McGaw (1901-1972) commanding general of western Air Defenses, turned over control. Major General George M. Haskett (1914-1995), adjutant general for Washington, received the bases for the National Guard. Governor Albert D. Rosellini (b. 1910) participated in the ceremony. Additional sites would later also convert to the Guard.
Guard personnel operated the sites on a 24-hour basis as had the army. Both regular United States Army and National Guard missilemen earned many awards at the annual Fort Bliss, Texas, firing practices. The regular army units had the highest scores at annual firing practice in 1956, 1957, and 1958, taking home the prestigious Commander’s Trophy. With the National Guard takeover, this success continued. Among their honors was the 1963 honor roll with all the Seattle area National Guard batteries earning top scores and honor roll listing, the only Guard unit in the country to do so. In April 1973 the Redmond Nike Hercules Army National Guard battery was named best in the army.
Seattle Area Nike Sites
S-03 Kenmore/Bothel. Became operational in 1956 and remained in service until March 1964. The control and administrative center was located on 47th Avenue NE. Today it is Horizon Heights Park with its structures removed. A few buildings survive at the launch site at 130 228th SW Street, now a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regional headquarters and Army Reserve Center.
S-13 and S-14 Redmond. A double launch site with twice the missiles of a usual launch facility, was in operation from September 1954 to March 1974. In June 1958 S-13 and 14 became Nike Hercules sites. The control site was at 95th Avenue NE and 172nd and today is a National Guard facility with the former barracks and administrative buildings in use. The launch site near 95th Avenue and 195th Northeast is now private property.
S-20 Cougar Mountain/Issaquah. In operation from 1957 to March 1964. In 1983 the control and launch areas were turned into Cougar Mountain County Park and Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park respectively. All the Nike features have been removed. At most Nike sites the housing became public or was sold to private individuals. However, the Cougar Mountain housing units were sold and moved to Powell Avenue in Renton, renovated for affordable housing.
S-32 Lake Youngs. Operational from 1956 to December 1961. The control area at 184th Street and Petrovitsky Road now houses King County Sheriff’s operations. The Maple Valley Christian School occupies the launch site on 174th Avenue SE. This was a dual launch facility with 24 launchers for S-32 and S-33. Former barracks, headquarters, and mess hall buildings are well maintained and in school use. The launch magazine is abandoned and overgrown.
S-33 Lake Youngs/Renton. Operational from 1956 to December 1961. The control facility is now an Army Reserve center in the Nike buildings.
S-43 and S-45 Kent/Midway. Operational from 1955 to February 1963. The control and headquarters site is located on Military Road S and 38th Avenue S. It now functions as a Washington National Guard training facility with its concrete block buildings intact. The dual launch area is on Military Road S and 240th Street and houses the Mountain View Academy, Kent School District. The launch magazine has been covered with soil and is part of Grandview Park.
S-61 Vashon Island. Operational from 1956 to March 1974. This Nike Ajax battery converted to Nike Hercules in June 1960. The control site now houses a thrift store, Vashon Health clinic, and a radio station, at 210th Street SE. The launch pads have been covered with soil to become Paradise Ridge Park equestrian area. A missile assembly building is now a storage unit.
S-62 Ollala. Operational from 1956 to March 1963. The complex stood vacant until 1969. Then a rehabilitation group leased and then purchased the compound. A rehabilitation center occupies the former control compound on Lala Cove Lane, private property. The launch site is also now private property on Nelson Road.
S-81 Poulsbo. Operational from 1955 to November 1960. The North Kitsap School District employs the former administrative buildings as offices. The Frank Raab Municipal Park occupies the remaining control area site. Today a mall covers the launch area on Finn Hill Road.
S-82 Winslow/Bainbridge Island. Operational from 1956 to November 1960. Bainbridge Island Parks took over the control and launch areas in 1974. The control area became Eagledale Park and the launch became Strawberry Hill Park.
S-92 Kingston. Operational from 1956 to March 1974. In June 1958 the Kingston Nike Ajax battery was replaced with Nike Hercules. The Associated General Contractors use the former control area, 27055 Ohio Avenue, headquarters building as offices and Laborers School. Two buildings survive at the launch area as Spectrum school buildings. The launch pads were covered for use as school bus parking, North Kitsap School District at 8998 Kingston Road.
Fairchild Defense Area, Spokane
Four Nike batteries were installed to defend Spokane military installations. They formed a circle or “steel ring” of defenses around Fairchild Air Force Base. Nike missiles protected this Strategic Air Command (SAC) base, named to honor Bellingham native General Muir S. Fairchild (1894-1950). Additional defenses came with fighters stationed at Geiger Field and Larson Air Force Base. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted land surveys in 1954 to identify the best tactical locations, followed by land acquisition. Construction of the four batteries started in April 1956 and they went into service in January 1957.
F-07 Airway Heights, Spokane. Operational from 1957 to June 1960. The control facility was on Newkirk Road, northwest of Fairchild Air Force Base, and today is a closed federal installation. F-07 Nike Ajax launch pad area now serves as a communications station.
F-37 Cheney. Operational from January 1957 to June 1960. Both the Nike Ajax control and launch were constructed on Needam Hill and are now a Washington National Guard installation.
F-45 Medical Lake. Operational from January 1957 to March 1966. This Nike Ajax battery was converted to Nike Hercules in June 1960. With its conversion sites F-07 and F-37 closed. The F-45 control complex was located on Fancher Road and today is private property. Its launch station was on Graham Road and now within a housing development.
F-87 Deep Creek. Operational from 1957 to March 1966. This Nike Ajax battery upgraded to Nike Hercules in 1961. Located in Deep Creek, both the control and launch sites have become private property. The control portion on Bowie Road was sold to a private party in 1967. Also, the launch area on Sprague Road went into private ownership at that time.
Hanford Defense Area
The Hanford nuclear research and weapons complex received four Nike batteries in defense. Only one of the four would be converted from Nike Ajax to Nike Hercules.
H-06 Saddle Mountain. Operational from 1955 to December 1960. This was the only Hanford battery to upgrade to Nike Hercules. This conversion completed in December 1958, but the battery closed two years later. Both the control and launch facilities have been removed from this location within the Hanford reservation.
H-12 Othello. Operational from 1955 to December 1958. H-12 served as a Nike Ajax defense for its short existence. The control and launch facilities have been demolished.
H-52 Rattlesnake Mountain. Operational from 1955 to December 1958. The Rattlesnake Mountain control and launch sites have been removed.
H-83 Priest Rapids. Operational from 1955 to December 1958. Both control and launch complexes have been removed.
Nike Missile Legacy
Many Washington Nike missile sites lasted only four to five years. The Nike Hercules remained in service longer, until 1974. With closure, the sites stood vacant for years, vandalized and deteriorated. The underground missile magazines filled with rain water. Finally, the sites found new uses.
However, today little remains to recall how these impressive Cold War installations defended the region. No launch facilities are intact. A few buildings at control and launch locations survive. To understand how the system worked, a preserved Nike Missile launch site can be visited in San Francisco within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Mark A. Berhow and Mark L. Morgan, Rings of Supersonic Steel: Air Defenses of the United States Army 1950-1974 (Bodega Bay, California: Fort MacArthur Press, 2002); John C. Lonnquest and David F. Winkler, To Defend and Deter: The Legacy Of The United States Cold War Missile Program (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense Legacy Program, November 1996); “History of Nike Missile Sites Near Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington,” Air Force Base Realignment and Closure website accessed December 10, 2010 (http:airforcebrac2005.org.); “Guided Missiles Can Be Launched in Area,” The Seattle Daily Times, November 16, 1954, p. 13; “Three New Nike Sites Planned In Seattle Area,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 30, 1955, p. 24; “Washington Missilemen Are Deadly,” The Seattle Daily Times, November 2, 1963, p. 11; “Born-again homes are affordable”, The Seattle Daily Times, November 1, 1981.
Note: This essay was corrected on May 26, 2013, to indicate that the North (not South) Kitsap School District uses the former administrative buildings of site S-81 in Poulsbo.
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