This article appeared in the January 1999 edition of ADA Magazine Online,
the official publication of the U.S.Army Air Defense Branch, Fort Bliss, Texas.

Relics of the Cold War:
The Northeast's Nike Missile Defenses

Donald E. Bender


The last remaining coastal artillery fortifications guarding the entrances to the ports of New York and Philadelphia, the New Jersey coast, and the surrounding region were dismantled within a year or two after the end of the Second World War. Their depart ure marked the end of an era in the defense of the United States of America that had begun in Colonial times.

As the large guns were removed from their casements to be sold for scrap, it must have seemed unlikely that the northeastern tier of states would ever again witness the construction of series of massive fixed defensive fortifications. Advances in military technologies, in particular the advent of strategic bombers with intercontinental range, the development of rockets and missiles, and the atomic bomb, had radically altered the nature of the threat to national security.

Nevertheless, within a decade, the fort-builders were back. Across the nation, and throughout the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, the Army was once again planning the locations of new defensive fortifications, surveying potential building sites and acquiring land.

Unlike the forts of previous eras, these new fortifications were not oriented to the seacoasts and harbors. Instead, they were oriented to defend against an attack from the air. Similar to the earlier structures, they were also fixed installations featuring strengthened, reinforced concrete batteries covered with protective layers of earth. These new fortifications were the Nike missile sites of the United States Army.

Within the former New York Defense Area no fewer than 19 Nike missile batteries were constructed during the mid and late 1950s, making the region one of the largest and most heavily defended in the nation. In addition to the 19 tactical sites, other facilities within the New York area had Nike-related functions, including headquarters and housing areas, regional maintenance facilities, remote radar sites, and a Missile Master installation to coordinate the firing of the batteries. The adjacent Philadelphia Defense Area contained one dozen Nike missile batteries, its own Missile Master site, and additional related facilities.

The Army's Nike missile sites were, at one time, vital components of the Cold War air defenses of the continental United States. These defenses included Long-Range Radar sites, radar-equipped aircraft, ships and submarines, a network of command and control facilities, fighter-interceptor aircraft, antiaircraft artillery (gun) batteries, Hawk missile batteries and the BOMARC missile sites of the U.S. Air Force. Within this complex, multi-tiered air defense network, the Nikes provided a vital last line of defense against the grim possibility that long-range bombers of the Soviet Air Force would attempt to attack major cities, industrial areas and other sites of strategic value within the continental United States.

Within New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia region, Nike sites were operational from the mid Fifties through 1974 when the last remaining installations were finally closed, followed soon by the inactivation of the U.S. Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM), the giant air defense organization that administered them. A number of factors had brought about their demise, including the new threats posed by intercontinental ballistic missiles as opposed to long range strategic bombers, the expenses associated with the Vietnam War, a general desire to trim defense budgets, and changing national and military priorities.

Following inactivation, the fate of the Nike sites in the former New York and Philadelphia Defense Areas varied widely. A few, located on federal property, remained largely intact. Many others were turned over to local municipalities or counties, at which time some or all of the facilities were demolished. In some instances, the buildings and structures were adapted to serve new purposes including: county and municipal offices; a dinosaur museum; school bus parking and repair facilities; a municipal recycling center; a fallout and blast shelter; a school; and a college campus. At other former Nike sites in this area the Army's original buildings were adapted to serve as stables for horses, studios for local artists and even a church!

As years passed, the original mission of the sites was not forgotten, but it did fade into obscurity. Too new to be considered historic and, in any case, lacking the aesthetic appeal of a colonial home or perhaps even of the WW II-era coastal defense batteries dotting the region, the sites were often overlooked and unappreciated.

In recent years, however, a variety of circumstances has resulted in renewed, nationwide interest in the old Nike sites. The dissolution of the former Soviet Union during 1991 brought with it the official end of the Cold War and a heightened interest in t he history of that era. Too, the continued downsizing of America's military resulted in the closure of numerous bases nationwide, including many Nike installations, and the requirement that such sites be investigated for their historical significance. Other investigations of former Nike sites nationwide were of an environmental nature, mandated under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program and similar programs.

Although interest in these sites was increasing, there was no single, convenient, comprehensive informational resource describing them. The New Jersey Nike Missile Site Survey was founded during 1994 to address this situation.

A self-sponsored historical research project of Bender Associates of New Jersey, the Survey aims to document the history and present condition of the Nike missile installations located within the former New York and Philadelphia defenses. In order to accomplish its mission, the Survey has focused on several key areas: research in military, national, state and local archives; site visits and photography of the sites as they exist today; and, interviews with former personnel who served at these sites. The result is a comprehensive informational resource which will be of value to historians of all types, preservation specialists, writers, educators, historical societies and other interested individuals and organizations.

In order to make this information widely and easily available to interested individuals and organizations, a Web site featuring information about these former Nike sites has been created. At present, only a small percentage of this material has been place d online at the Web site. However, at the time of writing (late December 1998), new and more comprehensive web pages were already being designed and written. These pages should be online not later than the end of February of 1999 and will include a historical overview of the Nike defenses of the New York and Philadelphia areas, photographs of the sites, additional historical information, useful links and a list of the units (both active duty Army and Army National Guard) which operated the sites.

This is an ongoing historical research project. Individuals with information relating to these sites are encouraged to contact the author via e-mail at bender@alpha.fdu.edu. In particular, vintage photographs of the facilities when they were still active bases are needed for scanning and placement on appropriate web pages.

One side benefit of the survey's activities has been an increase in media attention. In fact, partly as a result of the survey's activities during the past two years, several articles relating to former Nike sites in this region were published. The Survey has also made information available to county and local historical agencies and organizations. This activity has contributed to the creation of a future historical exhibit at one Nike-related site in the New York metro area and the possibility that a roadside historical marker will be erected at another.

Today, the Nike missile sites of New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia are the tangible, local relics of the Cold War, a worldwide battle which lasted for over four decades. They are the silent remnants of an era in which fears of nuclear war were widespread, and backyard and basement fallout shelters, and grammar school air raid drills were the norm. As elements of a complex, integrated, nationwide Cold War era air defense system, these sites deserve to be appreciated in the same sense that we appreciate the historical significance of the many better-known Revolutionary and Civil War era battlefields, as well as the many camps, forts and seacoast fortifications constructed during the last two centuries throughout this region. To learn more, visit our Web site at: http://alpha.fdu.edu/~bender/nike.html.

"The Bender Associates' well-organized and attractively
designed Nike website represents an important contribution
to the history of Air Defense Artillery."

Patricia Rhodes, U.S. Army
Air Defense Artillery Branch Historian

Copyright 1999 by Donald E.Bender. All Rights Reserved.


About the Author ...

Donald E. Bender is the founder of the New Jersey Nike Missile Site Survey, a self-sponsored historical project designed to document the history and present condition of former Nike missile sites located in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas. He has assisted governmental, military, academic and historical organizations with research related to former Nike missile sites and other Cold War era military installations across the nation and internationally. He can be reached via e-mail at cwresearch2@yahoo.com>


Return to Articles & Publications