Diversion of Soviet planes carrying nuclear bombs was the purpose of the 275 Nike Missile bases in the U.S. (Nike Historical Society 2016, pg 1). Introduction of nuclear bombs created the need for air defense during the Cold War, because war could have been triggered at any given moment over this period. As a result of this, Nike bases across America were birthed, and tasked with protecting American families.
Bases were generally centralized around big cities associated with high populations and key industry. This particular site is located just outside of Detroit, in the city of Riverview, MI. The site consisted of 82.84 acres, and now the property is currently owned by the City of Riverview, Michigan (Denja, 2002). The physical site was broken up into two areas, an Integrated Fire Control (IFC) site with radar detection and a missile launch site where the weapons were stored (Willie, 2015). The launch site was where the missiles were kept on standby if needed to be fired, and the IFC radar station scanned the area looking for possible enemy threats. The soldiers that manned this particular site were from the first battalion of the 177th Michigan Army National Guard (Bashlor, 2013). National Guardsmen often manned most of these sites. Guard commanders staffed the sites with a combination of full and part-time personnel, and even a small number of civilians, which were later replaced by military technicians, handled the continuous operations (Listman, 2001). At the sites peak, it housed up to 24 launchers and up to 60 Ajax missiles, which is one of the highest number of missiles in the area (Bashlor, 2013). The nearby sites of Grosse ile and Wayne County Airport each only had 30 Ajax missiles and 12 launchers (Bashlor, 2013). The land where the site was has now been converted to public use for the city’s residents. “That property now has a Library, Fire Station and Park on it….. There is one original building left on the property that the city has refurbed and uses as a hall” (Hempel, 2014). If someone were to see the site today, they would never know about the history that was there, except for a lone monument present. The former launcher area has a Nike missile and a plaque dedicated to the site that was once standing (Denja, 2002). The barracks, former buildings and launchers were either torn down or buried; a lone soccer field covers one of the launcher pads (Denja, 2002).
Riverview, MI Commemorative D-54 Plaque (From Waymarking.com)
The Nike system, is one of several various air defense systems that were developed and employed after the conflict of WWII. These systems were a result of a research program initiated by the United States in 1944, where the United States Army recognized the need for an air defense system capable of maneuvering quickly while closing in on a moving target (App, 2010). The Nike project produced the world’s first successful, widely-deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Development of a command guidance system composed of a radio guided rocket, two radars and a computer was accelerated in 1951 largely as a result of the Korean Conflict and eventually, by 1954 the Nike Missile system began to be employed throughout the continental United States, and showed up in areas like Riverview, MI (App, 2010).
Importance of Nike Technology
The missiles in the 1950-60’s were part of a greater national nuclear response system. This system was set up in order to defend American cities from potential nuclear threats from the Russians. Site D-54 is one of sixteen original Nike Missile Batteries that surrounded the city of Detroit, Michigan in 1958 (App, 2010). The Nike missile systems were set up in a “ring” around the area that they were to protect (Lang, 2010). This ring ensured overlapping field of fire, so any incoming bombers could be spotted and taken down by the Nike missiles. The lower part of the Detroit ring was made up of sites D-51 on Grosse Ile, D-54 in Riverview, D57/58 in Newport/Carleton, and D-61 at the Metro Airport (Lang, 2010). Since Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) from Russia could enter the atmosphere anywhere, the nation needed anti-ballistic missile systems spaced regularly throughout the United States to protect the nation’s entire population, infrastructure, and military capabilities (Smoley, 2008 pg. 184). The military spared no expense during the Cold War to ensure the protection of these resources and industry.
The Nike Missile site that was located here was to protect the Metro Detroit Area, specifically the automobile and steel industries. Detroit during the Cold War would be an extremely important target for soviet destruction, due to it being not only the automotive capital, but also among the nation’s leaders in wartime production of weaponry and transportation. This called for critical protection of a city that contributes to America’s “Arsenal of Democracy”. To counteract potential Soviet destruction, Nike missile base D-54 was constructed in January of 1955, and remained occupied mostly by the Michigan National Guard, until February of 1963 (Bashlor 2013, pg. 1). Riverview’s Nike base was decommissioned with many other sites due to the changing of Nike Ajax missiles to the newer Hercules missiles. The Ajax had a range of approximately 25-30 miles, and could reach altitudes of about 70,000 feet, while the Hercules could travel 75+ miles and reach an altitude of 100,000+ feet (Listman 2001, pg 29). The need for many Nike bases in an area was decreased, because the Hercules could the cover the ground of two or even three bases. New technologies surrounding missiles led to site D-54’s eminent deactivation.
Site D-54 operations (From Mike Denja)
In March 1952, due to limitations of the soon-to-be-deployed Nike Ajax system, such as the inability to discern individual bombers within a dense flying formation, the Bureau of Ordnance recommended a study of the feasibility of equipping Nike Ajax with a nuclear warhead (App, 2010). This development of the original Nike Ajax rocket, eventually led to what was the new and improved Hercules missile. The Nike-Hercules ATBM System was designed to combat aircraft, air supported missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles and be conditioned to operate against surface targets, which was more advanced than the original Ajax (Nike Historical Society, 2016). This missile system became implemented across the same major cities that the Ajax was originally found. On June 3, 1960 the improved Nike Hercules system tracked and destroyed another Hercules missile, which was the first time in history that a missile had tracked and destroyed another guided missile, and that target missile was moving faster than any manned aircraft in existence at the time could travel (Smoley, 2008 pg. 179). Pushing capabilities of technology is a precedent that can be seen throughout the 1950’s and 60’s during the Cold War.
Site D-54’s Context in the Cold War
The pictured image at the beginning of the article is actually very ironic that it is erected as a monument in the present day “Young Patriot’s Park”, where the former missile base D-54 was once active. This is because the missile pictured is a Hercules missile, which was never even present at Site D-54 in Riverview, and the creation of that very missile made sites like this particular base obsolete. Changing missile systems to newer, more improved, and more powerful ones is a perfect example of how improvements in technology and the importance of showing military strength was in the Cold War. Militarism in the Cold War was rampant. The demand for the latest and greatest technological advances fueled the Cold War between us and Russia. The country with superior firepower and advanced technologies was seen as greater than the other. The U.S. did not stop improving its technology, whether it was communications, spaceships, or even Nike missiles that were used to protect American cities.
Deterrence was the dominant military context of the Cold War in the United States (Smoley 2008, pg. 3). Although none of these missiles were thankfully ever launched at enemy Russian bombers, it was the threat that maybe one day they could fly overhead and drop a devastating nuclear bomb on Americans is what created the need for them. The purpose of air defense guided missile systems is to deter or minimize the effects of enemy attacks by detecting and destroying enemy aircraft and missiles approaching a defended area (Nike Historical Society, 2016). The Nike missiles purpose sums up exactly what the Cold War was about. The United States and Russia continually refined their weaponry and defenses until they would both become so powerful that the other would not attack them on their own soil for fear of total annihilation. If Russia were to attack or vice versa, an all-out resource destroying war using nuclear weapons would have occurred and each country would be turned to rubble. Clearly, the tactic of deterrence worked as the threat of a nuclear holocaust from Russian bombers never revealed to be true. Additionally, when it came to use of nuclear weapons, we had an upper hand. The U.S. was and still is the only country to use a nuclear bomb on an enemy country, and Russia new at the time we would not be afraid to drop the A-bomb again, except for instead of Japan being the target, it would be mother Russia. However, Russia never proved to attack, due to our threat of “massive retaliation” as a means to deter the Soviet aggression.
Ajax Missile on standby. (From Nike Historical Society)
The Nike missile system was actually named after the Greek goddess of victory (Smoley 2008, pg. 163). The Ajax model of the Nike system was also named after Greek mythology. The name “Ajax”, was from two Ajax characters, who were both swift, skillful, and strong (App, 2010). The name given to the rocket was a very fitting one for America’s first line of defense missile. Even with the Greek name given to the system for “Victory”, it is unclear if there was a real winner of the Cold war, however the Nike Ajax base D-54 ultimately did its job. Although, the U.S. may have had an internal win, because as a result of the Cold war, American technology was drastically improved and many new technologies were invented as a result. The deterrence these Nike bases provided to us is unmeasurable. In addition to protection, these sites helped to provide citizens peace of mind. “During the Cold War, when the Nike sites were viable, people could sleep peacefully at night because we were the last stand. They weren’t going to get through” (Willie, 2015). People in the area likely felt a lot more comfortable during the Cold War knowing that we had missile systems emplaced around them, manned 24/7 to prevent enemy attacks or bombing raids. Presence of sites like D-54 may have well prevented the U.S. from ultimately going to war with Russia. Russia would not be able to bomb our cities or invade the country through the air due to the advanced radar and threats of missiles soaring towards them from the Nike sites.
- Source 1. App, Bill (2010). “Nike Missile Battery Detroit, Michigan”. The Military Standard.
- Source 2. Bashlor, Katie (2013). “Downriver helped protect the Arsenal of Democracy in the Cold War Years”. Downriver Things.
- Source 3. Listman, John (2001). “National Guard”. SciTech Premium Collection 55: 28-30.
- Source 4. Nike Historical Society (2016). “Nike Ajax MIM-3 MIM-3A”. Nike Missile.
- Source 5. Smoley, John (2008). “Seizing Victory from the Jaws of Deterrence: Preservation and Public Memory of America’s Nike Air Defense Missile System”. University of California Dissertations.
- Source 6. Denja, Mike (2002). ARADCOM. Detroit-Cleveland Defense Area Interview
- Source 7. Hempel, Tom (2014). Riverview/Wyandotte Site D-54 interview.
- Source 8. Lang, Steve (2010). “The Case of the Disappearing Nike Missile Range”.
- Source 9. Willie, Michael (2015). “When Detroit was Armed with Nuclear Missiles”. CuriosiD.
For Further Reading
Information could be gathered from various online sources like some of the ones listed below, or possibly Riverview Public Library.