The atomic fly swatter


Nike Hercules missiles

“The flight of 16 Soviet Bear bombers is detected more than 100 miles out. The big four-engine aircraft, with their contra-rotating props and swept-back wings, rumble at high altitude toward the northern California coast. Each carries thermonuclear bombs destined for targets in the San Francisco Bay area.

“Atop Hill 88 in the Marin Headlands near the Golden Gate, search, targeting and tracking radars of the Army’s SF-88 air defense artillery installation at Ft. Barry pick up the incoming Bears. The duty crew at the Integrated Fire Control buildings on Hill 88 work out the intercept solution. Meanwhile, and the ready flight of Nike Hercules missiles is warmed up at the blacktopped launch area in Rodeo Valley below.

“The first missile is raised on its launcher. The Nike booster ignites and the missile streaks away to the northwest, into the blue dome of the Pacific sky, its smoke trail quickly shredded by the strong onshore wind.


Tupolev Tu-95 Bear

“The Bear flight crews 75 miles away never see the nuclear-tipped Hercules second stage closing in on them at Mach 3.65. The 20-kiloton W31 warhead of the Hercules detonates when it reaches the bomber formation. Most of the 16 Bears are obliterated, or knocked into flaming pieces. Perhaps one or two of the trail aircraft survive the blast only to lose their crews to the massive dose of X-rays. The big aircraft fly on, obediently carrying the bodies of their dead masters.

“Back at Ft. Barry in the Marin Headlands, the missile crews of Battery A , 2nd Battalion, 51st Artillery bring more weapons up from the underground magazine, slide them into launchers and raise those toward the sky. They are ready to fire again. The first round of thermonuclear war has begun. The nervous soldiers at Ft. Barry have no idea what round two will bring.”

The scenario above thankfully never happened. The concept of shooting down flights of Soviet bombers with nuclear warheads was, however, very real. A recent visit to Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation area brought home the reality of this particular slice of Cold War crazy.

Located just north of San Francisco the SF 88 installation, maintained by volunteers under the auspices of the National Parks Service, is the only remaining Nike Hercules launch site in the world. The rest of the more than 130 sites that once ringed U.S. cities at the height of the Cold War have been scrapped. A few of the sites are rusting into oblivion in private hands.

The evolution of the Nike Hercules started with the need for a guided missile to hit fast, high altitude enemy bombers. Gun-based antiaircraft weapons required vast numbers of rounds expended to get even a single hit. According to author Ian White, British AA gunners fired an average of 4,100 rounds for a single shootdown; And Eric Westerman writes that German gunners fired an estimated average of 2,800 rounds to kill a single B-17.


Nike Ajax

The original Nike guided missile model was a two-stage Bell Labs design called Nike Ajax, which carried a conventional warhead. Radar of the late 40s and early 50s, however, didn’t have sufficient resolution to differentiate between individual bombers in a multi-plane formation. Thus, the missile could find the group of attacking planes, but there was no way to ensure it could hit any one of them.

This was the atomic age, so naturally the solution was a bigger bang. A WX-9 nuclear warhead was fitted to the Nike Ajax models. With a nuclear warhead whole formations could be eliminated by one missile. One Nike unit motto grimly summed up the intended result: “If it flies, it dies.”

As the Soviets developed faster bombers, there was a worry that these aircraft could release their weapons up to 50 miles from their targets. This rendered the 30-mile range of Nike Ajax a distinct liability. Bell Labs was given the go ahead by the Army to develop a longer range antiaircraft missile called Nike Hercules. The Hercules second stage was wider than the Ajax second stage so it could carry implosion-type warheads like the W31, which were more efficient than the gun type WX-9 warhead.

To boost the heavier Hercules second stage, the first stage of Nike Hercules was built using four of the Ajax first stages strapped together into a four booster configuration. The Nike Hercules had a range of 90 miles and streaked to an altitude of 100,000 feet, allowing it to reach out and touch Soviet bombers before they released their bombs. The increased range also meant Nike Hercules could cover a larger area with fewer missiles and bases, saving money — always a plus when you have lots of cool Cold War gear you want to buy.


Nike Hercules sights in the lower 48

By 1960, many major U.S. cities were ringed by Nike Hercules sites, making for an effective Bear repellent. As the 60s progressed, however, the importance of bombers faded and ICBMs gained ascendancy. But Nike Hercules were useless against ICBM warheads plunging from space and soon the number of active deployments went into decline.

By 1974, Nike Hercules sites were closed nationwide. Almost all of them were torn up. Interestingly some of the sites (shorn of their electronics and missiles!) were bought as surplus by private individuals. At least one site in Caribou. Maine, which once guarded the B-52s at Loring AFB, is still there, its missile hatches rusting and overgrown.


When the Army turned over the Nike site SF-88 in the Marin Headlands to the National Park Service, a combination of good luck, forward thinking and the work of many former Nike Hercules missile crewmen volunteers resulted in the site being saved and restored.


The SF-88 site in the Marin Headlands

The Army had neglected the maintenance of the site and the leaky seals on the doors covering the launch elevator allowed thousands of gallons of rainwater to fill the underground missile magazine.

Volunteers put in many hours of work pumping out the magazine and restoring the missile lift and the magazine interior. Four Nike Hercules missiles were procured from various sources and those are now part of the exhibit (the National Park Service has presumably removed the W31 warheads).

When my son Jack and I visited the site recently, we were unlucky and missed the tour. But we got to talking to Park Service

Park Ranger Michael Morales and Jack Queeney in the underground missile magazine.

Park Ranger Michael Morales and Jack Queeney in the underground missile magazine.

ranger Michael Morales, who was happy to answer my endless questions. Finally I asked him if Jack and I could get a quick tour of the missile magazine. He responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” We descended the yellow and black painted steps into the lair of the missiles. And there they lay, a patient group of five Nike Hercules. Just as they had laid in wait for Soviet Bears 50 years ago.


The ultimate atomic fly swatter.

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