Cuban Bomber Crisis

One of the Nike Hercules missiles in its storage barn. If needed, it would have been rolled out and launched from where we stand.

March 19, 2021.

I’ve heard a lot about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but I didn’t know that it was also a “bomber” crisis. Along with the nuclear missiles that Soviet Premier Khrushchev shipped to Cuba were the parts for 42 Ilyushin Il-28 bombers. And while 265 defensive anti-aircraft missile sites had been established already in the US, none were in the country’s “Achilles Heel” — Southern Florida.

As the Soviet missile and bombers were disassembled, Florida quickly became part of Project Nike. In late October 1962, 150 members of the Army’s 2nd Missile Battalion were deployed to set up eight sites in Southern Florida. Swampy conditions in the tent campsite outside the Everglades caused problems with personnel and equipment. Three years later the site relocated to “higher” ground (inches higher) within the park. Permanent structures were built. Decommissioned in 1979, the buildings of this relocated base still stand, and are open to the public.

Project Nike was proposed in 1945. Implementation began with the birth of Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missiles in 1953. Underground launch sites for the Nikes were built in many states. Permafrost kept this from being an option in Alaska. Launch trailers were used there. The same approach was used in the glades, where the water table is close to the ground surface.

The first stage of a 41-foot Nike missile housed four solid-propellant tanks. The second stage was propelled by liquid fuel. It could be armed with different ballistic warheads or even a nuclear warhead. Missile speed was 3.5 times the speed of sound. Radar was an important component in the detection of targets and in missile guidance. There was no assumption that a missile would make direct contact with another missile or incoming bomber. The missiles were supposed to explode close enough to impede or disable enemy aircraft.

Interestingly, one of the radio technologies supporting this system was partially invented by Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr. She and composer George Antheil had developed a radio frequency-hopping system. With it the sender and receiver could coordinate radio frequency changes rapidly, preventing the enemy from jamming their communication. Elements of this technique are used now in clock signals to prevent interference, and in wifi and Bluetooth to increase security and bandwidth

* You can visit the HM69 Nike Missile Base in the Everglades National Park. The site offers ranger-guided tours and has open house days. Click here for more info.

Here’s a closer look at the missile, showing the green solid propellant chambers at the base. The payload could be armed with a nuclear warhead.
The perimeter of the missile site was fenced and patrolled by soldiers with dogs. On the left is the old kennel building. In the background is one of the berms the Army built up. The berms were firebreaks. In the event of a launch, fire would ignite anything aft of the rocket.
Launch and guidance control station.
Major Rudolf Anderson from our old stomping grounds. He was born in Spartanburg, SC, and attended Greenville High School and Clemson. He was the only combat casualty of the conflict. He was killed by shrapnel while on a high-altitude recon mission. He was the first recipient of the Air Force Cross for valor. His remains are in Woodland Memorial Park in Greenville. Parts of his planes are in museums in Havana, Cuba.
Sadly, I was too young to mail in the cereal box tops required to get my own rocket launcher. Remember when you had to wait four to six weeks for delivery of all those magnificent toys?
Rocket mural on the side of the Missile Assembly and Warhead Building.

20 thoughts on “Cuban Bomber Crisis

  1. My first job out of college in 1960 was for Douglas Aircraft. There were lots of job openings and we were allowed to “interview” for which job we wanted. I selected Space Thermodynamics on the Saturn S-IVB second stage of the Saturn rocket that would take men to the moon.

    After I’d been there two weeks I received a call from a secretary asking me to come interview with her boss in Missiles Thermodynamics.. I said I had already started working on the Space Thermodynamics side. She said, and I quote: “Oh that doesn’t matter, you can change if you want.” Feeling much like a cog in a big machine I made an appointment to see her boss, Dr. Robert Wood.

    I showed up for my appointment to a “bull pen” as we called them. Bob Wood was seated behind a desk on a dais overlooking the members of his group. Not all the desks were occupied, but that was normal as people could be out doing some testing or talking to other engineers. Bob invited me to sit down on the chair at the side of the desk. It was much like a teacher’s desk looking out over the classroom. We talked and it turned out Bob had found out I had a degree in Physics and so did he. Mine was a Bachelors degree, his was a PhD. He said he preferred hiring physicists as they had better training to solve problems with lots of unknowns. Engineers were mostly confined to the cookbook equations the had learned in school and not so good at solving problems that didn’t have an equation attached. Bob explained that his group was working on thermodynamics for the Nike Zeus project. I really hadn’t heard much about the Nike projects, but the Zeus was faster and bigger than the others; it was meant to intercept missiles, not airplanes. Testing was done at Kwajalein in the South Pacific and I would be going there every 6 months or so to do the tests if I accepted the job. While the South Pacific sounded interesting I decided to stick with my original pick, Space Thermodynamics.

    Bob later became the Assistant Director of the Missiles and Space Division of Douglas Aircraft and I ended up working for him several layers below anyway. I interacted with him occasionally and we were nominally friends. I eventually left, by then, McDonnell-Douglas Corporation, but Bob stayed on to become a Director and maybe a Vice President. Working for him back in 1960 could have been a good career move, who knows? He is still alive at 90 something and I see his videos giving talks to a group we both belong to, Society for Scientific Exploration. I’ve never made it a to an annual meeting yet, so I haven’t seen him in person again.

    1. I love your stories John! What interesting choices for your first job. My father worked as an electrical engineer for McDonnell-Douglas in St. Louis his whole career starting in the mid 50s. Not sure exactly what he did but in his early career much of it was secret and he needed security clearance.

  2. Another great read ! Most people of our age group probably don’t know anything about Hedy Lamarr.
    I watched a documentary about this fascinating woman who not only had a an acting carreer, but was also a cutting edge inventor. It was her that developed the radio frequency-hopping system during WWII and tried to demonstrate this to the U.S. military, but because of the times, women were not taken seriously, especially being a Hollywood actress. Only after her idea was presented by a male was the technology given the acknowledgement and development it deserved.

    1. Thank you Chris. Hedy sounds like she was a seriously talented person. I hate that she didn’t get the recognition she deserved.

  3. I just watched an episode of beyond the Unknown where Lucille Ball picked of radio signals in her teeth (while driving) and accidently discovered a spy ring. (Long story short) News of the weird!

  4. So interesting. If they ever open the bunker on Peanut Island you should go. It was built to house President Kennedy should the need arise during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    1. Yes, we’d definitely like to see that. Wish we had thought to visit when we were sailing. We have been anchored next to Peanut Island many times.

    1. You’re welcome, Steve. We had no idea either – and Greg grew up close to the Everglades. We wouldn’t have known about it if we hadn’t been in the park and had seen the signs.

    1. I wasn’t born yet so I only know about it from the history books. I imagine anyone who lived down her in Florida remembers it pretty well, though.

  5. A truly terrifying period of history – I think we (as a world) were lucky to escape without near total disaster. I hate to think what would happen if some of the recent and current world leaders had been in charge at that time.

    Hope all is well – Stewart M – Melbourne

    1. So that gave chills thinking about what could have happened if some 21st-century leaders were in power back then. So glad the cold war stayed cold.

  6. I had no idea there was one of these in Southern Florida. We might have told you about bases like this one in Northern California, along the coast in Marin County. And even in San Francisco! These were secret places, though and very cool to visit now.

    1. Yes – Greg grew up here and never heard of it. I am glad that they are tourist destinations now and are no longer active.

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