Unseen Nike missiles once protected S.F., other U.S. cities

Just north and west of the Golden Gate Bridge is the only restored Nike missile site in the United States. It is open to the public for visits and a somber reminder of the Cold War.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Nike missile sites like this one, which was in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco, were designed to fire as many as eight nuclear-tipped missiles at one time. The sites ringed American cities during the height of the Cold War in an attempt to protect them from incoming threats such as long-range bombers. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

MARIN HEADLANDS, Calif.--It is sometimes amazing to discover what is right in your backyard.

I grew up in San Francisco, yet it was only recently that I discovered that just a few miles north of the City by the Bay, the United States' only fully restored Nike missile site is nestled into these gorgeous green hills, in plain view of the Pacific Ocean and one of my all-time favorite beaches.

As I was planning my departure to the U.S. South on Road Trip 2008, this year's version of Road Trip 2007, the 25-day journey I took last year through the American Southwest and Road Trip 2006, during which I drove for 16 days around the Pacific Northwest, I decided that it would first be good to try to do one or two packages of a story and a photo gallery of the type that I'll be doing when I get started in Orlando, Fla., on June 10.

So, it was only then, when I was thinking about what might be a good place to visit for such a preview package, that I came across SF-88L, the Nike missile site here.

Click for gallery

The site, which today is run by the National Park Service, is open to the public each Wednesday through Friday, and for a special day of talks by former Nike missile crewmembers on the first Saturday of each month.

So on Wednesday, I drove out into the Marin Headlands, a truly magnificent range of lush green hills, hiking trails, a lagoon, a Pacific Ocean beach, and a series of World War II-era batteries, to visit the missile site, not at all sure what I would be encountering.

Of course, the site was long ago decommissioned. Nike missiles, which included the Nike Ajax, a fully convention missile system, and the Nike Hercules, which could carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, were in operation from 1954 to 1975. So since then, the site here hasn't been a true military installation.

Yet, upon arrival, one of the first things you see is a signpost on the gate into the facility that says, helpfully, "U.S. Army Restricted Area. Warning," and then goes on to elaborate by adding that, "This reservation has been declared a restricted area by authority of the Commanding General....Photographing, making notes, drawings, maps or graphic representations of this area or its activities, is prohibited....Any such material found in the possession of unauthorized persons will be confiscated."

Not exactly the kind of message a reporter wants to see when coming to write a story and produce a related photo gallery.

However, the mannequin in the guard shack was the first clue that, perhaps, the warning was a relic that was preserved here only for a sense of what things were like when the site was operational.

Though the guard shacks are now staffed by mannequins, they once had live Army personnel, as the Nike missile sites were high-security installations. The books on the desks held the top-secret launch codes needed to fire the missiles. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Indeed, as you can see from the photos attached to this story, and the fact that I clearly took notes at the site, and am not in prison, the site these days is very much a museum and no longer a military facility.

Nike missiles, I found upon entering the site and beginning my tour, were deployed all around the United States as a measure of defense against incoming threats such as long-range bombers that Cold War-era military planners thought might attack one day from Russia or China.

In the beginning of the program, the weapons used were Nike Ajax missiles, weapons that carried conventional high-explosive warheads with a range of 25 to 30 miles, a top altitude of 70,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 2.3--1,679 miles an hour. The Ajax was first deployed in 1954.

But by 1958, the Nike sites got an additional, more lethal tool: the Nike Hercules, a missile that could carry either a conventional, or, more ominously, a nuclear warhead.

I had no idea, then, that until 1974, when the Nike site here was decommissioned, there were nuclear missiles ready to fire just a few miles from my childhood bed.

The Hercules, which could carry a warhead of up to 40 kilotons, had a range of more than 75 miles, a maximum altitude of 100,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 3.65, or 2,707 miles per hour. And this site was capable of launching as many as eight Nike Hercules missiles at any given time.

And in an attempt to protect San Francisco, the city was ringed with Nike sites. All told, there were 12 sites like this one, though only six after the Ajax was retired here in 1958.

The same was true in cities all over the United States.

I asked my tour guide, National Park Service intern Laura Abbott, what the theory was about launching nukes so close to a city like San Francisco.

She said the ideal situation would have been to shoot down anything coming very close to the city with a conventional missile. But in theory, the nuclear missiles could have been used, if necessary.

"There would have been nuclear fallout," Abbott said. "That's better than" letting the bombers attack.

At the height of the Nike program, a site like this one would have had about 135 crew members. The Nike missile itself was a computer-guided and computer-controlled system, which meant that the crew would have needed to use their computer equipment to precisely measure and track the incoming threat so that they could fire their missiles and detonate them exactly at the point that the missile would have impacted the target.

When I visited the site Wednesday, my tour group was taken out onto the missile range. Abbott told us to hold on and she disappeared into an enclosure and went underground. A minute later, two large bay doors opened up and we could see down into the ground.

Then Abbott, along with a Nike Hercules missile, appeared out of the ground, rising up on an elevator system. She instructed us to climb onto the elevator, hold onto the missile with one hand, and prepare to be taken down into the missile bay.

Once a missile was raised above ground from its bay below, it could be moved along these tracks in order to be properly positioned. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Soon enough, that's exactly where we were, in a cool, dark chamber, with the Hercules we'd ridden down with and several others.

Abbott pointed out that the missiles had one of three color stripes on them, or no stripe at all. If there was no stripe, it was carrying a conventional warhead. If the stripe was yellow, it was sporting a 2 kiloton warhead; green meant 20 kilotons; and red designated 40 kilotons, nearly three times the strength of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.

The Hercules, were it to be fired, would have been raised from its flat orientation to 87 degrees. To do so, it would have taken not just authorization from military brass, but also four separate crew members, each with their own key, who would have had to simultaneously insert and turn them.

The nuclear-tipped Hercules missiles actually had red noses, part of a complex system that were designed to ensure that they couldn't detonate below 10,000 feet. It was a fail-safe system, Abbott explained, designed to provide some measure of safety to whatever city a particular missile was tasked with protecting.

Though today the Nike site here has both the missiles and the acquisition and target radars that work in tandem with the launch systems, as well as the battery control vans that processed data from the radar, when the site was operational, the radar and the vans were installed atop a hillside perhaps a kilometer north. In addition, there was an entirely separate Nike site in between this one and the radar's location.

The vans were designed to hold five people, an officer, a radio acquisition radar operator, a computer operator, a switchboard operator, and a plotting board operator. These crew members worked 24-hour shifts inside these tiny vans, running ancient computer systems that were built to locate any incoming low-altitude threats, such as bombers, and to launch and track the Nike missiles.

These crew had to track any incoming target they found and would try to get whatever they saw to tell them whether they were friend or foe. If they determined that something was a foe, they would follow it on their tracking board.

This battery control van was placed near the radar site for the Nike missiles. The van held five crew members who worked 24 hours shifts and who were responsible for tracking incoming threats and ensuring that if the missiles were fired they would detonate right when they intersected with their targets. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

The crew at one Nike site near Oakland, Calif., would actually track any planes on approach for landing at San Francisco International airport as if they were attacking threats, Abbott said. That means that these planes, though they never knew it, could have easily been shot down with the Nike missiles.

Of course, it would have taken 15 minutes to get the missiles "hot-ready," so if a real enemy managed to sneak a bomber in close to the coast, it was theoretically possible that their attack could have long since happened before the missiles were ready to protect San Francisco.

By 1974, the great military minds of their day had determined that the Nike missiles were no longer useful, since by then the most likely threat wasn't bombers but rather intercontinental ballistic missiles. And for something like that, a simple Nike Hercules with a range of 75 miles wouldn't do the trick.

So the program was shut down, and the little site just north of San Francisco closed, removing the nuclear missiles from the location and becoming no more than a footnote in our history.

But if you find yourself in San Francisco on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday any time soon, consider driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and heading out to that footnote. It is a somber reminder of the way things once were and a welcome lesson that the Cold War was a very, very scary moment in time.

On June 10, Geek Gestalt hits the highways for Road Trip 2008. I'll start in Orlando, Fla., and visit many of the South's most interesting destinations. Stay tuned, and be sure to keep up, both now and during the trip, with what I'm doing on Twitter.