"We all knew it was there. It had guard dogs inside. At the time, I figured it was a good defensive system and necessary," Ailor said. "The feeling at the time was that those things were there for a reason. But most of us only knew it as a missile site. Nobody talked about nuclear weapons being there."
Retired National Guard Col. Carlos Ramirez was commander in charge of the battery in Stanton in central Orange County.
"If anybody asked, we were instructed to say only that the Hercules had nuclear capability," said Ramirez, who served at the base from 1964 to 1974. "We had houses north of us on Katella, south on Chapman, east on Western and west across Knott, where there was also a school."
The Stanton base's control center was in Garden Grove at Knott Avenue and Patterson Drive, which is now a light industrial area. The launch site was east of there on Western Avenue, now an Army Reserve Center.
Missile System Built to Meet Russian Threat
The bases operated at a time when the Russians appeared unbeatable. They launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1957. In 1961, a Russian cosmonaut became the first man in space. On May Day 1960, they shot down an American U-2 spy plane with a surface-to-air missile, capturing the pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 8, 2000 Orange County Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Nike missiles--A graphic that ran Monday locating Nike missile sites omitted a location in Long Beach.
It was a time when many American schoolboys assumed they would grow up and fight the Russians, who were already in Cuba--90 miles from Florida--positioning their nuclear missiles to strike the U.S.
"The times were a lot different and a little scary. People didn't ask a lot of questions in those days, and everyone expected the military to defend against the communists," said Frank Evans, a biomedical engineer in Sun Valley who commanded a battery near Pittsburgh, Pa.
Americans' view of the military was more accommodating then too.
Evans recalled a time when a Hercules missile, all 11,000 pounds of it, fell off his battery's launcher, prompting fears that the nuclear warhead had ruptured. Fortunately, it had not, but Evans said that as a precaution "many, many people" living nearby in the Pittsburgh suburb were evacuated while troops checked for radiation.
The Army offered little or no information about the sudden evacuation but "nobody really complained," Evans said.
There were close calls in Los Angeles too. In 1966, a brush fire in Los Pinetos, near Newhall, claimed 11 lives and came dangerously close to destroying the Nike site where nuclear missiles were based. The soldiers doubled as firefighters and repelled the flames just yards from the base's perimeter.
A 1959 Army report about the 211 Nike sites throughout the country recounted the difficulty military authorities had in acquiring land from cities and private landowners for the missile bases. The report said that "the Los Angeles area was in a class all its own" in refusing to give up private land for the nation's defense.
The Army wanted a combined 25 acres at the northwest and southwest ends of LAX. The report noted then-Mayor Norris Poulson's intransigence in giving up the parcels. According to the report, Poulson "carried the fight to Washington after calling local Army representatives bull-headed."
Among their many objections, Poulson and other opponents feared that the Nike's booster rockets, which fell to earth, "would be a hazard to the area." An Army general responded that "if we are attacked, there'll be more deadly things than booster cases falling through the sky unless the attackers are stopped."
But Poulson prevailed. The report said that top military officials "decided the city was right and the installation was relocated" to Playa del Rey instead.
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Nike missile sites in the Los Angeles region were part of an air defense system designed to protect such key industries as aerospace, ship building, transportation and communications, aswell as military installations in the Los Angeles area. Ten of those sites, including two in Orange County, had nuclear warheads.