By Steve Winston
Today the Nike missile base stands silent and abandoned, a breeze blowing the surrounding sawgrass as far as you can see. But you can still hear the echoes of history.
Once, in the days of the Cold War, this was America’s first line of defense against the Russians and Cubans, and the Nike missile base was bristling with troops and machines and missiles. And, once, the fate of the world hung partially on this isolated outpost in the Everglades.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, this was still swamp and grasslands. But that traumatic time in history – when the U.S. and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear holocaust over Russian missiles in Cuba – changed things forever.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis
The crisis was finally resolved, of course, with the removal of the Russian missiles. As a result of the crisis, however, the U.S. realized it was vulnerable. The government commissioned the building of 240 Nike Missile bases around the country. One of them was here - Missile Base HM-69. And now, between mid-December and mid-April, you can tour the base.
You’ll see the old barracks that once housed 150 soldiers, painted in its original pink because it was thought that color might make it appear as a civilian building to Russian pilots. You’ll see communications equipment. You’ll see the bunkers in which Americans prepared for the possibility of World War III. You’ll see the “missile barns” in which the Nike “Hercules” missiles were housed and the large berms constructed around them for protection. You’ll see the launching pads. And you’ll even see a real Nike missile.
The missile is the latest addition to the Nike missile base outside of Homestead, having arrived last year after a long truck-and-rail trip from Alabama. It’s the last thing you’ll see on the tour of the old base – and one of the highlights.
“We first realized what we had here back in 2001,” said Ryan Meyer, Park Ranger at the site in Everglades National Park. “A veteran who had served at the base in the early 60s came to us and said, ‘Do you know what you have here? You have an important piece of American history.”
“So, after researching the history, we began working on the area,” Meyer said. “In 2004, the facility was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. And we opened it for tours in 2009.”
HM-69: Ready for War
By the time original construction was finished in 1965, HM-69 had 22 buildings and 18 surface-to-air Nike missiles to shoot down enemy bombers – some of which would presumably be armed with nuclear warheads.
“Space launches can take up to a minute to finally lift off the launch pad, and another several minutes to get up to speed,” Meyer said. “But these missiles were different. They took off in a split-second, and they were already at the speed of sound. And within a minute or two, they were traveling toward their target at 3.6 times the speed of sound – 2,700 miles per hour.”
If the “Battle Stations” alarm was issued, Meyer said, the six soldiers responsible for launching the missiles went into a small, confining room in a bunker… and waited. Sitting in the silence, they had no idea what was going on in the outside world except through radio communication. And on their radar screens, they regularly saw Russian and Cuban MIG planes testing American air defenses.
“They waited for the order that might decide the fate of the world,” Meyer said. “With the knowledge that the missile they were about to launch might be the one that started World War III.”
Charles Carter was there.
In October 1962, when President Kennedy told the nation that Russia had installed rockets in Cuba, Carter immediately joined the Army and requested duty on a missile site. Shortly after basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga., he ended up at HM-69.
“We lived in squalid tents in the swampland of the Everglades,” Carter said, “and in the surrounding tomato fields and cow pastures. We were young kids. But we were old enough to know that our missile and radar sites would be the first target in a Soviet or Cuban attack.”
They knew, as well, that they were in the front lines of a world in which a nuclear holocaust could explode any minute.
“It wasn’t uncommon,” he said, “to hear someone say, ‘We’re all going to die today.’”
An Air Defense Network with Integrated Missile Systems
Some launch pads around the country were hidden below ground, others were camouflaged in tents. Because South Florida is only six feet above sea level, however, with the water table very close to the surface, the missiles at HM-69 had to be hidden in above-ground “missile barns.”
“It was the first time that America had an air-defense network with integrated missile systems,” Carter said.
When the missiles first arrived at HM-69, they were prepared only for carrying conventional warheads. By 1965, however, they were certified to carry nuclear warheads.
“We knew that in any Russian attack they would have to destroy us first in order to reach targets farther north,” Carter said. “And we lived with that knowledge every day.”
In July of 1963, the men of Carter’s unit were awarded the Army Meritorious Unit Commendation, for exceptional achievement.
“Our job was to launch Nike missiles, and, thankfully, we never had to do that,” Carter said. “So this commendation was one of the few times a unit was decorated for not doing its job!”
Each year from Dec. 15 through April 15, you can stand here. In front of the missile barns. The old barracks. The communications bunkers. And the 41 foot-long Nike missile.
It may be silent now, in this isolated spot in the Everglades “River of Grass.” But the echoes of Nike missile base history still reverberate loudly.
When you go:
HM-69 NIKE MISSILE BASE
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