Cold War mission remembered

  • Published
  • By SSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Public Affairs
For more than a quarter century, through the coldest years of the Cold War, the people of the Detroit region - and the all-important industrial might of the Motor City - were protected by their local, neighborhood missile system. 

For 26 years, soldiers and missiles in places like River Bends Park in Shelby Township and on Belle Isle in the Detroit River, were charged with preventing a bomber attack by the communist Soviet union. 

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the joint military agency created by the U.S. and Canada to protect against the communist threat. 

While the techniques and the threats have changed for NORAD - the North American Aerospace Defense Command - the mission to protect the homeland from military attack continues. 

Already, the Army's Nike missiles have been gone longer than they were here and the nation has long since moved beyond the Cold War, passed through a period dubbed the "Peace Dividend" by the first President Bush and, since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been engaged in the Global War on Terror. But for 26 years, from 1948 to 1974, the Army and its series of Nike missiles kept the Detroit area and other U.S. cities safe from the threat of Soviet bombers. 

"(The missiles were) the last line of defense against attacking enemy aircraft," U.S. Army Col. Stephen P. Moeller wrote in "Vigilant and Invincible" a history of the Army's Air Defense Command, or ARADCOM, which appeared in the May/June 1995 issue of ADA (Air Defense Artillery) Magazine. 

"When deterrence became a part of the United States' national strategy, ARADCOM was key and essential to that effort. Was it successful? Measured by the number of attacks on the United States by the Soviets in the 24 years of ARADCOM's existence, it was 100 percent so." 

Recognizing the importance of the industrial muscle of Detroit, NORAD protected the region using the Army's ARADCOM and fighter jets on 24-hour alert at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township. 

Later this summer, fighter jets based in Toledo will take over the 24-hour alert mission for the region as Selfridge transitions to new types of aircraft. 

While the Air Force's jets can occasionally be seen screaming through the skies over the Detroit region, the missiles were a permanent fixture in the neighborhoods.
"Oh, people knew we were there. I guess they just didn't think much of it at that time," said Tom Lundregan, who worked on a maintenance crew at one of the 18 sites in the Detroit region. Lundregan was assigned to D-23, which was located between Jefferson and the Detroit River at the end of Lenox Street on Detroit's east side, for about 18 months in 1955-57. "Detroit was a good serviceman's town. The people treated us well and there was plenty to do." 

Lundregan worked at the FC, or fire control site, for D-23. There, several radars scanned the skies for enemy bombers. Another radar was in contact with D-23's missiles, which were at the LS, or launch site, a couple miles away on the north end of Belle Isle. About 30-35 soldiers, including the battery commander, worked and lived at the FC, another 25 or so worked at the LS, Lundregan recalled. In other locations, the FC and LS were within sight of each other. 

According to Lundregan, the Nike missiles were very high-tech operations in their day.
"The Army sent me to 11 months of training at Fort Bliss, Texas, to learn how to operate and work on the missile," said Lundregan, now 74 and retired in Chandler, Ariz. "So, after only about 18 months on the job, my enlistment came up. The battery commander tried hard to keep me in, even promoted me all the way up to sergeant first class to try to get me to stay in. I thought about it, but I had other things I wanted to do." 

An article in the Mount Clemens (Mich.) Monitor Leader, a predecessor of today's Macomb Daily newspaper, marked the 12th anniversary of the 516th Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion on Sept. 20, 1955, and explained how the missiles operated: 

"When the battalion was formed in 1948, anti-aircraft defense was about as complicated as a pheasant hunt," reporter Simon O'Shea wrote in the article. With the Nike system, "Radio signals will relentlessly direct the guided missiles to a deadly rendezvous with the enemy." 

According to the plan at the time, fighters from Selfridge and other bases around the country would first be dispatched to intercept any possible attack. Any bombers that slipped through and got to within 150 miles of the city were to be knocked out by the 34-foot long, one-ton missile. A direct hit was not considered necessary. Clearly, during the
1955 anniversary celebration, the Army and the Air Force made a believer out of O'Shea, the reporter. 

"The deadly accuracy and explosive power of the fantastic missiles guided to their targets by radar could prove a vital force in defending the whole metropolitan area and the mighty air force base," he wrote at the time. 

According to Lou Nigro, a retired Michigan Air National Guard pilot who now serves as director of the museum at Selfridge, said the only building used for the Nike missile operates remains intact at Selfridge: Building 1030 where radar returns were processed and, if necessary, information sent to the Nike missile battalions on the threat.
He said there are also vestiges of one of the former sites in the southwest portion of the base. 

In addition, the Selfridge Museum has two old and deactivated ("but lovingly restored and cared for" missiles on display at the museum's air park, a SAM-A-7 Nike Ajax and a SAM-N-25 Nike Hercules. 

Likewise, there is little evidence of the old missile system at any of the 18 Detroit area locations where they once were located. One site is now a parking lot at Oakland University's Auburn Hills campus; at another, the Detroit Police Department now operates a training center. One site was located at Detroit Metro Airport, another was at Fort Wayne and a total of three were located at Selfridge. 

R.B. Logan, now a retiree living in Kankakee, Ill., served on the launch crew for "A" Battery on Belle Isle for two years in the mid-1950s. At the time, he and his crew worked 12 hours on and 24 hours off. 

"The worst part was K.P. (kitchen 'police' duty)," Logan recalled. "The captain made the radar crew exempt, so the launch crews had to pull double duty on K.P." 

Logan said he and the soldiers on his crew were a tight-knit group that often stuck together during off-duty hours as well. 

"We would spend much of our off-duty time in downtown Detroit. The USO movies were free, the bus ride there was free and many events in downtown such as baseball games and stage shows were free in those days for G.I.s," he recalled. 

A highlight came on Labor Day 1956. Logan went with a group to see former President Harry S Truman speak at a labor event in Detroit's Cadillac Square. 

"I had mixed feelings, as this was the person who signed the draft law for my two years," Logan said. 

NORAD and the military eventually determined that the Air Force fighter jets on alert at various bases, couple with improving early warning radar systems, were adequate to defend the nation's largest cities, according to Moeller's article. The missile system was cut back in 1971, and then in 1974 the Army de-activated all the missile sites in the Detroit region and across the nation, save for a few that operated in southern Florida for another half-dozen years. 

"What story do I tell about my Army days? I don't even have to think about it," said Lundregan. "I say 'You're looking at a guy who used to shoot missiles for a living.' There's not too many of us left."