Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So where did you say those warheads were?

Sandy Hook's Cold War-era Nike radar base is one of the many fascinating parts of Fort Hancock, and I've taken a few of the biweekly tours held during the spring and summer months. The big mystery for me has always been the launch site several thousand feet away, which is rarely, if ever, open for tours. Why two separate sites? Well, logistics and safety played a big role in separating the firing of these radar-guided surface-to-air missiles from the actual launch. The control center tracked potential targets and any missiles that were aimed at them, and the launch site was where the missiles were stored and would be set up and fired if needed. Given the speed of the supersonic missiles, on-site radar could only acquire and track a launched Nike from more than a mile away, and, of course, there was always the danger of portions of the rockets falling on the base or exploding during ignition.

The Nike program was decommissioned in 1974 after the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles made them obsolete, and Sandy Hook's Fort Hancock was relinquished to the National Park Service not long afterward. Now part of Gateway National Recreational Area, the launch site is used primarily for maintenance vehicles, its barracks used for storage. The gate's usually open, but a sign warns visitors that the site is for staff only. Stand at the entry, and you can see a cracked macadam road reaching toward the beach beyond, obscured by shrubbery. The only real signs that this was a secure area are the guard shack at the entry and the Nike Hercules missile that's parked up front.

Well, and the barbed wire. Curious after finding the area on some aerial shots of the Hook, I once tried to get to the launch site from the beach side. All I could see above the dunes was barbed wire fencing and some old, busted flood lamps. The ground above was level and I noticed a hole in the fencing, but I wasn't taking my chances.

My curiosity was settled a few weeks ago when the Sandy Hook launch site was opened for rare guided tours with Nike base veterans. Ivan was on a major birding quest out of state, leaving me to explore my own obsessions, and what's more interesting than getting into restricted space? I hopped on down for a quick jaunt through the radar site, and after what seemed to be an endless wait for the first launch tour to return, I was on my way with a large group of visitors. The veteran on site was joined by the park historian, who gave an exhaustive explanation of the cold war as we stood looking at the business end of the nuclear-capable Hercules. Let's go, folks -- I wanna see the secret area!

Noticing that some of us were getting restless, the veteran took a group of us up the hill to the launch site. Along the way, he pointed out two more guard shacks and explained that each launch site had been ringed by three separate barbed wire fences, with a shack at the entrance to each. Sentries and dogs patrolled the perimeter, and the vet said that the dogs were trained to attack with force. Had he been given the choice of being shot or having the dogs let loose on him, he said, he'd go for the bullet wound. Much less painful, much less harmful.

Fort Hancock had four underground missile storage areas arranged in a square atop the hill, with elevators that lifted the missiles in a horizontal position. Once at ground level, soldiers would push a missile into place on the blast pad, all four of which are still visible. No missiles were ever fired at the base, but practice was a regular occurrence, and when they were called, the troops there never knew if they were going to a drill or experiencing the real thing.

We only saw the surface area because the underground portion of the base is flooded and accessible only through four manholes and of decaying metal ladders beneath. All of the elevators that lifted missiles to launch have been moved to their highest positions and are now apparently stuck at surface level, with any hope of restoration being many years in the future. However, the vet told us about a restored base in the Marin Headlands above San Francisco and some footage of its workings that give you a good idea of how it all looked in its prime. I'll wager that since the Park Service has already spent the time and money on restoring SF-88, it's unlikely they'll do the same at Sandy Hook, but I'm sure if the local vets want to make the effort, they'll be more than happy to support it.

No comments:

Post a Comment