August 26, 2009

Nukes in Marin County

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The Nike-Hercules defensive missile shield program was a product of the Cold War.   The program came to an end in 1977 when we developed even more deadly nuclear warheads and high-tech systems to deliver them.

Prior to 1977 we had eight of these launch sites scattered around the Bay Area -- with missiles packing a nuclear punch of radiation that, had the missiles ever been launched, would have most likely drifted back into the Bay Area to either sicken or kill us all.

Last Friday I visited the Nike-Hercules site near Point Bonita, which is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.   That's Todd, my tour guide -- he did a fine job explaining all the ins-and-outs of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The Nike-Hercules site at Point Bonita is the only restored and visitable site of it's kind in the world.   And yes, we had these deadly missiles in sites all over the world.

Our tour guide gave us a "fun" ride down on the missile elevator to where the missiles were stored before being elevated to the surface for firing.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The launch system seems terribly complicated to me.   The actual Launch Control and radar was located on top of Hill-88 several thousand yards away.   State-of-the-art computers calculated all the speeds and complex trajectories -- in those days a one-kilobite computer was as big as a truck and as slow as a snail.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The men who served at these sites were all too aware of the consequences of launching their missiles against incoming Soviet nuclear-bombers and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that followed at a later date.   Radiation suits and gas masks can only protect a fellow for so long.   Isn't modern science and technology wonderful?

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

While touring the Nike-Hercules site at Point Bonita I had a few memories of my own involvement with missiles and the United States Army.   Back in 1969 I was unlucky enough to be drafted, but lucky enough to avoid Vietnam and end up in the Chaparral missile program.

The Chaparral is the land-based version of the air-to-air Sidewinder missile -- it's non nuclear and doesn't use radar for guidance -- using a sort of "electric eye" in the nose of the missile to seek out and lock on to infared heat sources, such as the tailpipe of a jet plane.   Once locked on to a heat source it almost never misses, and the 22 pounds of high explosive is enough to definitely spoil the day of the enemy.

For practice they had me fire a Chaparral back in 1969 at a test range in White Sands, New Mexico -- it was a lot more scary than it was thrilling.   There was a defect with the first missile they had me attempt to fire -- the guidance system did ignite to generate the necessary electricity for controlling the logic system and directional fins, but the main rocket motor did not ignite.   It wasn't a comfortable situation -- there I was, cooped up in a small turret with a curved plexiglas window -- and outside that window, just about two feet from my head was the warhead that we had been taught would self-destruct after 25 seconds if it hadn't found it's target within that time frame.   Actually there was a fail-safe detent-pin mechanism that prevented the warhead from exploding until the missile had completely slid off the launch rail, but still there was a fair amount of concern on my part about the damn thing blowing up and taking me with it.

After everything cooled off they came out from behind their bunkers and gave me another missile to fire and I got it launched without any further problems, but someone commented that I was white as a ghost when I finally was able to get out of the mobile launcher.

Despite all that training, when I got to my duty assignment in Germany they immediately found out that I knew how to use a typewriter, and being short of typists they put me to work in an office where I spent the remainder of my "military career" typing up duty-rosters, Article 15's, and Court Martials on my buddies.

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Brad said...

That's a great story and set of photos. Thanks for sharing. I took one of the Nike tours there a couple years ago. Was fun going underground on the huge elevator with the missile. Cool place for pix...

photowannabe said...

Great story and a peek into your past. I saw a documentry on the missle site a few years ago. Really fascinating stuff.
Great pictures too.

marc aurel said...

Yet again the pen is mightier etc. The mask reminds of the classic UFO alien.

Louise said...

I hope you got to actually see the White Sands since I know that isn't at the missile.

That typing class paid off, no?

Tomate Farcie said...

Great story! A good thing you could type :)

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