Incoming: Nike missile heads for display in S. Florida
The (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Sun Sentinel
A 41-foot Nike Hercules missile was headed for South Florida on Wednesday, destined to ignite Cold War memories of a time when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
On the back of a flatbed trailer, the deactivated missile — which may once have carried a nuclear warhead — is due to pass through the area on Interstate 95 before dawn Thursday ahead of its scheduled arrival at the George T. Baker Aviation School in Miama.
"We say "Missile incoming,' and not 'Incoming missile,'" said principal Sean Gallagan. "We don't want anyone to think we're being attacked."
At the magnet high school, students will blast off the rust, pound out dents and restore the paint and U.S. Army markings to the five-ton, surface-to-air weapon. Then it will be returned to the barn at the Nike Missile Base in Everglades National Park in time for the 50th anniverary of the Cuban missile crisis in October.
"This was a period in history when kids were doing duck-and-cover drills. We were preparing for World War III," said Ryan Meyer, the park ranger who oversees the Nike site. "This will stir some memories."
One whose memory has never waned is Charles D. Carter, who over the past 11 years has worked to locate a surplus missile to bring to the site where he was stationed as a 17-year-old Army private.
"I hope that everyone who sees this missile will reflect on what it was — a powerful force to deter the enemy," said Carter, 66, who quit his senior year at Miami High to enlist after hearing President Kennedy speak to the nation about the crisis on Oct. 22, 1962.
"We knew that we were the first line of defense," said Carter, stationed at two of the four South Florida missile bases from 1963 to 1965. "So the Russians knew they had to get past us."
Carter, who nows lives in Palm Desert, Calif., became the Nike site's unofficial historian after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. "I just felt a desire to do something patriotic," said Carter, a former sheriff's deputy who works as a public safety consultant.
He visited the Nike site, found it in good condition, and with the cooperation of the National Park Service, began to hunt for a missile. Through the Army's Center of Military History, he found it in the Anniston, Ala., Army Depot.
Carter was also instrumental in getting the 40-acre Nike base listed on theU.S. Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places in 2004, as a site with important cultural significance. The base, which is within Everglades National Park, includes 22 buildings, including three missile barns, a missile assembly building, a guard dog kennel and a barracks.
The Army stopped using the base, home of the 52nd Air Defense Artillery, in 1979. It opened to the public in 2009, with tours available from December through April. Last year, it attracted 3,500 visitors.
The $10,000 cost of transporting and restoring the missile is being picked up by the South Florida National Parks Trust, said Meyer.
Refurbishing is expected to take about two months, and Gallagan said all 600 students at the school will have a chance to work on the project. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for students to work on an inert nuclear missile," he said. "How awesome is that?"
Once unloaded, the missile will be positioned beside two aircraft parked on school grounds, and may be visible to motorists passing by on LeJeune Road, east of Miami International Airport.
Sometime in October, the missile will be trucked to Homestead and displayed in a launch position when the park resumes tours of the Nike base in December.
In his foreword to Robert F. Kennedy's memoir, "Thirteen Days," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes, "Two superpowers overarmed with nuclear weapons challenged each other in what could have spiraled so easily into the ultimate catastrophe."
The end of those 13 days, said Schlesinger, marked "a narrow escape from oblivion."
For Meyer, the addition of the missile will rachet up the impact for visitors.
"This can be a very emotional place," said Meyer. "There were 18- and 19-year-old men, sitting out in the middle of nowhere, at the only time in history that the military went to DEFCON 2, the last step before nuclear war. It was pretty scary."
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