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CITYSCAPES / JOSE CARDENAS

Harking Back to Days When Nike Stood for Missile

September 12, 1998|JOSE CARDENAS

Long gone are the soldiers who kept watch at an Army facility in the Santa Monica Mountains, searching the skies for Soviet planes that might soar in from the Pacific to bomb Los Angeles.

Their weather-battered guard shack off a gravelly road in the steep hills behind Encino now has rusted window frames and a hole in one wall. Only the radar tower still stands tall.

Some mountain bikers and occasional hikers who explore the mountains know the history of the former Nike Missile Control Site, a military fortress-turned-park that they now use as a water stop.

Tucked inconspicuously amid encroaching dry vegetation, the park--inaccessible by car--is a silent reminder of the Cold War, a time so distant that some younger bikers who pass here associate Nike with fashion, not history.

"They say, 'What? They make shoes up there?' " said Russ Decker, a 45-year-old Woodland Hills resident taking a break from a ride. "So, you tell them, 'No, Nike missiles, remember?' "

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In the post-World War II military buildup that followed the hardening of relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Americans lived with the lingering possibility of a nuclear attack. "We will bury you," Soviet Premier Khrushchev threatened.

In response, the Army established Nike missile control sites around the country, including 16 around Los Angeles to protect the city from possible invasion by Soviet planes that could carry nuclear warheads.

One of the sites was the 1,950-foot-high mountaintop behind the Encino reservoir, one of the highest points in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was activated in 1956.

LA96C, as the military installation was named, offered soldiers a clear view of downtown Los Angeles 15 miles to the southeast. If enemy planes managed to snake through military defenses, LA96C's radar--able to detect planes as far as 100 miles away--could spot them.

Computers at the mountaintop missile control site could alert the launching site--LA96L--four miles away in the Sepulveda Basin, where up to 30 Nike missiles stood ready to intercept enemy aircraft.

Located in an area that remains wild even today, LA96C was fenced in to keep away the coyotes, mountain lions and deer that populate the hills.

The missile control system consisted of radar instruments and a series of computers housed in buildings.

The site contained barracks, where the soldiers lived, a latrine, a generator and water tanks. Soldiers kept a garden with cactus and other plants to pass the time and as a sign of hope.

For security purposes, the soldiers were not allowed to know how the full missile defense system worked. They only knew their specific duties.

As the Cold War progressed, technology advanced.

The United States switched from the Nike Ajax defense missile, which used conventional warheads, to the larger, nuclear warhead-carrying Nike-Hercules missile.

The Soviet Union developed airplanes that American radar could not detect. Then, the United States developed radar that could track the most modern Soviet planes.

Eventually, both superpowers developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that could fly so fast and so high that the Nike missile defense system became obsolete.

LA96C was abandoned in 1968.

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The radar tower can still be seen from miles around, said biker Decker, who has been riding in the mountains for nearly 20 years.

In 1995, the property was bought by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which buys mountain land around Los Angeles for public parks and trails. It was named San Vicente Mountain Park.

The park is about a mile up a dirt road extension off Mulholland and Encino Hills drives. A gate prevents motor vehicles from entering.

The conservancy has installed modest amenities: a few picnic tables and park benches, new restrooms and two soft drink machines.

Military-style signs tell of the site's history:

"LA96C has been partially restored to give you the feeling of the site as a heavily secured and harsh military outpost--even as it is reclaimed by nature."

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