Saving Site Summit - Cold War veterans attempt to preserve their Nike missile installation
By Scott Christiansen
Published/Last Modified on Wednesday, August 12, 2009 5:09 PM AKDT
In the 1970s, Gilman was a U.S. Army staff sergeant, stationed in Anchorage at a command post where aircraft were tracked and information was passed on to nearby missile stations. He would write the cryptic script on one side of transparent map the size of a small billboard called a “plotting board.” It was penned in mirror image, so men and women on the other side of the plotting board could read it, and see where aircraft—friend, foe or unknown—were coming and going in the skies over Alaska. Those soldiers were the next link in a chain of personnel with the motto “If It Flies, It Dies”—the men and women of the Nike Hercules air defense system. They operated to protect Elmendorf Air Force Base, U.S. Army Fort Richardson and Anchorage. They were trained to knock Soviet bombers out of the sky with missiles carrying atomic warheads.
Gilman is among the people who want to save that sentinel. It’s currently fenced, and all but abandoned except for visits by birds, marmots and occasional adventurous trespassers. Out of eight former Nike missile sites in Alaska, Site Summit is the last one standing.
“There’s tradition up there,” says S.E. “Tom” Thomas, a Nike veteran who was once in charge at the command post Gilman worked at. “It tells us a story. It’s a story that hopefully would prevent us from going back to a time when there was Cold War, and when [the U.S. and its enemies] were not talking to each other.”
Gilman demonstrated his curious penmanship skills on a notebook while having a sandwich at an Anchorage restaurant. He apologized for being a little rusty. He then jotted down a code and it’s mirrored counterpart, and showed how it signified altitude and speed of an aircraft. The hard part, he says, was turning the skill on and off. “You have to figure out for yourself that this is what you do when you’re behind the plotting board, and this…”—Gilman makes a circle over the standard script—“This is what you do when you’re writing a letter,” he says.
The plotting board Gilman worked at between 1971 and 1975 was in a mini-fortress called an Army Air Defense Command Post (AADCP) at Site Point, the west Anchorage real estate that is now home to Kincaid Park. There were two fences surrounding the complex, with armed guards and dogs patrolling between the fences and at the gates. Inside there was the command post and a battery of Nike Hercules missiles—capable of carrying warheads with conventional explosives and shrapnel, or a small atomic bomb meant to wipe out multiple Soviet bombers in one blast.
“Early warning was passed to us and we would pass that on,” Gilman says. Anytime the Cold War heated up overseas—or overhead, if a Tupolev TU-95 “Bear” bomber was spotted over Alaska—the command post would buzz with activity and at the Nike batteries 40-foot long missiles would roll out of bunkers and be pointed toward the sky.
Soldiers like Gilman were sworn to secrecy. His duty inside the fences usually lasted 24 hours, unless the command post’s exercises ran longer or a ramp-up in Cold War activity changed his orders. “Our wives would save the newspapers for us. On about the third or fourth day there would be an item in the newspaper saying, ‘There’s something happening at the Nike sites, but no one will say what,’” he says. “Our jobs required security clearance. What we told our wives was sketchy, let alone what we would tell the newspaper reporters.”
Three Nike missile batteries operated near Anchorage from 1959 to 1979, but their remains have been disappearing over the years. Concrete bunkers and foundations are all that remain of Site Bay, across Knik Arm from Fort Richardson. The city parks department built Kincaid Chalet using one of the concrete structures at Site Point.
Site Summit is an anomaly among the 280 former Nike Hercules batteries around the U.S. because many of its buildings remain intact. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a surviving example of the Cold War defense project that had installations near practically every coastal city and major military base in the country. The site also appears on the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation’s annual list of most endangered properties in the state.
“It’s the only one remaining in the U.S. that fired missiles and it’s one of the most complete sites in the United States,” says Thomas.
The missile firings Thomas referred to were tests, conducted annually from 1960 to 1963. All Nike batteries ran frequent internal exercises—so-called “war games” involving multiple arms of the U.S. military were also frequent—but the program served the country for decades without firing a single shot on hostile aircraft.
Preservationists have worked for nearly two decades to keep the buildings at Site Summit from being destroyed. They’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with the military during that effort. Workers at the state office of History and Archeology have been involved, as has the cultural preservation arm of the military. Some of the paperwork efforts have been funded by the Department of Defense, in the form of two grants called “Legacy Grants” to Fort Richardson.
The first grant came in 1994 and funded the study of Site Summit’s eligibility for the historic registry. The next was in 1996 and studied management options. There’s a long trail of paperwork—cataloguing structures, listing safety and environmental hazards, even marketing analysis of tourism—that followed those initial grants.
But it’s been a slow process, with the military approaching various plans cautiously, and occasionally backing off entirely. In 1999 a task force was formed to create a management plan for the site. It was dissolved in 2001, the year the Army announced that the site would remain closed to the public. In 2003 the Army announced full-scale demolition plans, intended to secure the site and make it safer by removing everything but the concrete.
In the meantime, Site Summit remains fenced-off and receives only rare official visits. “We haven’t really been actively managing the site,” says Lisa Graham, the cultural resources manager for U.S. Army Garrison Alaska. “Most of the wooden structures are in very poor condition.”
But the tide seems to be moving in favor preservationists. The Army and the state of Alaska signed an agreement in July that shows which of Site Summit’s 26 buildings and structures ought to be preserved. (Seven other parties are concurring signatories, including the National Park Service and the nonprofit Friends of Nike Site Summit.)
The new plan schedules four structures for demolition. It has another list of five for which the Army has agreed to delay demolition. The Army will delay demolition for up to 18 months to give the consulting parties time to find money and make plans to preserve those five buildings, Graham says.
Bob Mitchell, a retired historical architect for the state and a retired U.S. Navy officer says the new agreement has given preservationists hope, but the 18-month deadline is admittedly a challenge. “The one major loss that we are likely to see is the battery building at the upper site,” Mitchell says. (Site Summit’s command center was at 4,000 feet. Rockets and launchers were installed further down the mountainside.)
The control building with an 18-month reprieve is one of the largest structures on the property and has the most potential for installing interpretive displays for visitors.
“Under the terms of our agreement with the Army, that building can be demolished. If we could miraculously come up with $2 million it could be saved,” Mitchell says. “It’s fairly unique to this site. It was a command center and it was also the barracks and the dining hall. It was where these guys lived when they were up there and none of the other Nike sites that were around the country were like that.”
Three missile batteries surrounded Anchorage, and five more were built to protect military bases near Fairbanks. Nike installations were not secret or uncommon. About 280 Nike batteries were built in the U.S., with more in key countries overseas such as South Korea and West Germany. One U.S. propaganda film from 1960 explained the Nike Hercules system to the American public. The film calls the threat of Soviet bombers “the shadow of dread that hangs over all of us” and the Nike system “a shield that will protect us all.” The film also called the Nike’s warhead “a small atomic device which can safely defend us against fleets of high-flying bombers.”
Nike veterans tend to describe the presence of atomic warheads in oblique terms. Gilman says a decade of keeping your mouth shut about such things can lead to a life-long habit. “I can’t say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’” he says. The Nike vets, Gilman says, “all knew how to keep their mouth shut and they probably still do.”
Thomas was similarly cryptic. When asked about atomic warheads, he first described the conventional warhead’s ability to bring down airplanes with an explosion of aluminum or titanium shrapnel that would rip wings apart. But yes, sometimes, some of the warheads might have been atomic, he says. “We can just say that we did have hot ones, and that there were a couple of batteries—and that one battery just may have been just straight.”
That responsibility meant a Nike battery didn’t just run frequent exercises. It also meant that whenever the Cold War heated up—either because a Soviet military exercise was detected or an unexpected change in geopolitics was underway—Nike stations saw a change in status. Thomas remembers being on guard during the oil embargo in the 1970s. “When something like that would happen, we would go up in status and we would lock down,” he says.
The battery personnel would remain at their station unable to return home. They’d get info via radio and radar, and keep track of airplanes on the transparent map. All the while they’d maintain constant communication with the Nike triggermen.
A real command to move up in status or move to battle stations was uncommon, but not unheard of. Gilman’s job included decoding and double-checking such orders. He says despite constant exercises and drilling at the Nike command post, a genuine order to man the battle stations took on a deadly serious weight. “We had a lieutenant pass out on us once because of it,” Gilman says, adding that the order astounded each person who decoded and double-checked the message. “It stunned him. He was just staring at it—I understand exactly how he felt. I looked at it, and I had to decode it. He just stared at it, and he had to decode it himself before he believed it.”
The order to stand down came eventually, as did a transfer for the lieutenant. “What had happened is that the Soviets were playing some kind of war games that we interpreted as a threat,” Gilman says.
Gilman says he had mixed feelings while the Nike system was being decommissioned around the country. Some people considered it obsolete, and too expensive, because both the Soviets and the U.S. had intercontinental missiles to deliver nuclear bombs. Gilman felt the same relief most Americans felt as relationships between the U.S. and the Soviets improved. He doesn’t miss Cold War idioms like “doomsday clock” and “mutually assured destruction” that were part of the common vernacular for four decades. But he also thought of Nike missiles as a defense against aircraft—not part of some shadow of dread.
“They left us with just one defense, jets, between us and any opposing aircraft and I was a little uneasy about that,” he says. “I think most of the citizens at the time thought of it as a shield.”
Copyright © 2009 Anchorage Press
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