Plaques evoke era of Nike 'missilemen'
Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, Conn.
MILFORD, Conn. — About 50 veterans of the Cold War, some in trim uniforms, others on unsteady legs, turned out Tuesday morning as two bronze plaques were unveiled at the Nike missile site on the city's East Side.
These vets were the so-called "missilemen," the National Guardsmen who manned the 240 Nike sites from coast to coast.
Tuesday's ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of the decommissioning of Milford's Nike Ajax site on Eells Hill Road, its buildings now covered in brambles.
"We are gathered here to remember a time when the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed our nation to the brink," said Mayor Benjamin Blake, who emceed the event. "This piece of Milford's history is important and needs to be celebrated."
Nike missiles were never fired in anger, but there were times when they nearly were.
"I was a long-range radar operator here," said Jim Mansfield, who now lives in Colchester. "In October of 1961, we thought that this was it. The word came down for headquarters: battle stations. Out came the secret plans from the safes, and the missiles were moved topside. We went to DEFCON ("DEFense CONdition) 2 — the highest DEFCON without all-out war. We waited and waited."
Mansfield said that it was the closest that the base ever came to a launch situation.
"We had to be ready at all times," he said. "The Army officers would show up at the gate unannounced with their stopwatches. We had to go from a nominal condition to launch-ready in 15 minutes."
City Historian Richard Platt was also a Cold War veteran, serving aboard a Navy radar picket ship — a converted World War II Liberty freighter — that was parked offshore for weeks at a time, tracking Soviet bombers as they made their runs between the Soviet Union and Cuba.
"We could do all of 11 knots," he said.
The Nike sites were created to ward off the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 heavy bomber, an aircraft capable of hitting targets in the U.S., particularly along the Eastern seaboard. The many sites were needed because of the limited range of the Ajax missile.
Blake, with the assistance of Milford Nike site veteran Eric Muth, unveiled a pair of plaques that pay tribute to the era.
The first was originally installed in 1957, but was lost for decades. It was recovered by Muth after it made a multistate journey. Meanwhile, the mayor's office had the other plaque created.
Platt noted that the street sign, "Eels Hill Road," is misspelled.
"It should have two e's, two l's, no apostrophe," he said.