Wednesday, April 18, 2007

At missile site, ‘on our toes’ day and night

Cold War missile sites dot county

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Gaithersburg city officials hope to build a park on what used to be a Nike missile site near the NIST campus. Michael Newman, a NIST spokesman, stands on the missile elevator in one of three missile bays at the site, which at one time housed a ballistics testing facility.
At any moment, the frequent drills might have been the real thing: Soviet bombers or missiles penetrating U.S. air space en route to destroy Washington.

Back when Cold War anxiety gripped the nation, Richard Choy’s duty at the Nike missile site in Gaithersburg — then known as the Rockville Launch Area — inevitably came down to one soldier pushing a button.

‘‘We were on our toes the whole time. Not like the outer [Nike] sites where it was laid back, with everyone walking around having fun,” said Choy, who served at Nike site W-92, on Muddy Branch Road, from 1972 to 1974. ‘‘It was a very tense moment. We just had to completely put out of mind what we were doing. We had to just be automated, we couldn’t be emotionally involved.”

All back when the U.S. government pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into what was then the last line of defense. When land was snatched up quickly and quietly, oftentimes without neighbors having the slightest notion other than something secret was going on in the countryside. When Gaithersburg was ‘‘literally the boonies.”

‘‘It was just nothing but fields. To the north and the east, it was nothing but countryside. Muddy Branch was literally a dirt gravel road,” Choy said. ‘‘So nobody paid much attention when they saw a bunch of missiles up in the air.”

Though the roughly 50 troops at W-92 raised those missiles once every day, said Choy, most of the duty — painstaking and sometimes dangerous — consisted of keeping the sensitive equipment immaculately clean.

But military police were nonetheless on constant patrol with their German shepherds. Choy jokes that the dogs were more for the troops than the threat of people trying to hop the fence.

‘‘I think we had more people trying to get out than get in,” said Choy, now 57 and a broadcast engineer with a radio station in Winchester, Va.

Those guard dogs are the hallmark of Nike missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, said Ron Parschall, who parlayed his years of service at Nike sites in New York and California into being the founder and treasurer of the non-profit Nike Historical Society.

‘‘The Army neither denies nor confirms that they ever had the warheads in them,” Parschall said. ‘‘But the purpose of the guard dogs was because of the warheads, I’ll say that.”

Second-generation Nike missiles — dubbed Hercules, following its progenitor the Ajax — were enabled for nuclear warheads to magnify the missiles’ destructive power to wipe out a fleet of bombers or incoming missiles.

Fitted with the warheads, ‘‘It’s just like hand grenades,” said Parschall, ‘‘you just have to hit the area and everything’s gone... The only way to kill an atomic bomb is with another atomic bomb.”

But a Nike missile was never fired at a live target — the training facility in New Mexico and Nike sites in Hawaii and Alaska fired at drones, said Parschall, who lived in Maryland for 30 years and had friends stationed in W-92.

Parschall, who runs the 300-member Nike Historical Society in California, says the group’s main goal is collection and education. Which, in dealing with a now-defunct military program, has its challenges.

‘‘Because it was so secret when it was going on, when it got shut down, a lot of the records got destroyed,” he said. ‘‘I’ve been finding records and top secret information through people who took it home. One site in New Jersey blew up and killed 11 soldiers, it made all the newspapers. There was this one commander, he was walking by the trash can and there were all the pictures of that thing blowing up and they had just thrown them all away. So he saved them, and luckily he gave them to us.”

The Army arrayed some 300 batteries across the country, mostly around major cities and coast lines.

Parschall still hasn’t found an estimate on the Nike program’s total cost, but each of the missiles was worth $100,000, with each site being stocked with several dozen missiles.

In hindsight, it was a question of outspending the Soviets to win the Cold War, Parschall said, and he is convinced it was money well worth it.

Together with the efforts of the Air Force, the Nike program is what kept the Soviet Union from invading, Parschall said. His suspicion was confirmed years after Nike was shut down as he took a group of former Soviet military officials on a tour of a San Francisco Nike site.

‘‘I talked to two of their missile men, doing the same job I was, and they were scared of us as we were scared of them. They said, ‘You know, without your defenses we could have come in easily.’ Because they come over Alaska and boom, they got us.”

Where are they now?

Washington, D.C., was protected by 12 Nike missile sites, including the Rockville launch site that Gaithersburg wants to turn into a park. Here are the others:

Laytonsville⁄Derwood; Gaithersburg; Ft. Meade; Annapolis; Davidsonville; Waldorf; Croom⁄Marlboro; Brandywine⁄Naylor; Accoceek; Pomonkey; and Lorton, Va.

Nike site W-92: Called the Rockville Area Launch, the 13-acre missile base opened in 1954 and closed in 1974.

Nike site W-94: the Gaithersburg Area Launch, near what is now Flower Hill and Montgomery Village, opened in 1955 and closed in 1963. The county turned the radar control area into a park several years ago, while the missile bays are at the National Guard Armory on Snouffer School Road.

Nike site W-93: The Laytonsville Area Launch, off Riggs Road, is now used by FEMA and has ‘‘major underground facilities,” according to county planner Rick D’Arienzo.