The original story appeared in Newsday March 2002
The Russians Were Coming
But Long Island was ready with a string of Cold War defenses, some of which are still intact today
By Bill Bleyer
March 10, 2002
RAYMOND GROHS was a radar operator at an Army anti-aircraft missile base in October 1962 when President John F. Kennedy announced the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Just as JFK reached the point in his televised speech when he issued an ultimatum to Soviet leaders to remove the missiles, the alert siren at Grohs' base blared.
"We knew it meant business," Grohs remembered. Everyone raced to the vans that housed the controls for operating the radar and launching the 35-foot-long Nike Ajax missiles, which could destroy enemy planes carrying nuclear bombs up to 28 miles away.
While other servicemen prepared to raise some of the 60 missiles from underground storage bunkers less than a mile away, Grohs stared transfixed at the display of five colored lights in the control van that indicated the level of security threat. They blinked to DEFCON-3, two steps below all-out war.
"It was pretty bad because we were never at that level before," he said. "All of a sudden I got the sickest feeling in my stomach, and so did everybody else."
Grohs, an airman first class who was serving full time in the Army National Guard, found time to call his wife at home three miles away and urged her to take their two children to his parents' house farther from the base. "She wanted to stay close to me," recalled Grohs, now 64 and living in Long Beach. "She said, 'If I'm going to die, I'll die near you.'"
So she remained at home and he remained by his missiles -- not at some remote installation in the Great Plains, but in Lido Beach.
From the end of World War II into the early 1980s, Long Island was on the front lines of the Cold War. It played a pivotal role in shielding the metropolitan area and the Northeast from nuclear attack with a string of radar installations, air bases and anti-aircraft missile batteries.
|F-101 VOODOO FROM THE AIR DEFENSE COMMAND WING LOCATED AT SUFFOLK COUNTY AIR FORCE BASE ON PATROL OF SUFFOLK'S AIRSPACE SCAFB CLOSED IN EARLY 1969|
Fortress Long Island ran from Grohs' Nike site in Lido Beach to a radar complex near Montauk Point. Some installations were isolated; others were practically in the backyards of suburbia. Bowing to reality, the military didn't try to keep them a secret. The Army went as far as hosting open houses at some bases.
"Everybody knew about them," said John Hammond, 60, an Oyster Bay historian who remembers the 1950s air raid drills in schools and fallout shelters in public buildings and backyards. "You saw the Army trucks." He recalls watching a Nike Hercules missile rolling through downtown Oyster Bay in a 1958 parade.
But even many Long Islanders who remember the strong military presence do a double take when they learn that at times from the late 1950s until 1974, the missiles poised to strike from Rocky Point, North Amityville and Westhampton carried a nuclear punch.
The Nike Hercules, with a range of 87 miles, was topped with a nuclear warhead bearing the firepower of up to 30 kilotons of TNT, or three times the strength of the atomic bomb that leveled Nagasaki in 1945. BOMARC-A missiles could carry 10-kiloton warheads 240 miles. And some interceptor jets carried missiles with 2-kiloton warheads.
Those nuclear weapons, intended to destroy several Russian bombers at once, are long gone, but many remnants of Long Island's Cold War past remain.
The most visible is the empty 85-foot-tall concrete radar tower topped by a giant steel "sail" that dominates the landscape near Montauk Point. While it is slated to be revived as a museum in the future, other facilities have already been converted to new uses. The interceptor hangars at Suffolk County Air Force Base -- now Gabreski Airport -- are home to Air National Guard rescue helicopters. Buildings that once housed radar and missile technicians in Brookville are an environmental education center. A Lido Beach building where Ray Grohs spent much of his time from 1962 to 1964 is a kindergarten.
But all that lingers from the Lloyd Harbor Nike battery is a rusty chain-link fence.
***Long Island's most intact former Nike missile base is hidden at the rear of the Army Reserve Center on Route 25A in Rocky Point. The field surrounded by rusting barbed wire looks like a parking lot for vehicles painted in camouflage colors. But among the trucks is a line of low concrete boxes, steel doors and plates, and mushroom-shaped funnels. These are the entrances, missile elevator doors, escape hatches, ventilators and firing platforms of three Nike storage bunkers in use from 1957 through 1974.
Lifting a set of steel double doors like those on storm cellars provides access to a long, dank staircase littered with white paint chips. The stairs lead to a cavernous concrete vault where up to 10 missiles -- first Nike Ajax, then Hercules -- were stored on rolling horizontal racks, long gone. An elevator flush with the floor carried the missiles to the surface, where other large steel doors dropped open so the weapons could be loaded on launchers.
In one corner, a 6-inch-thick steel door leads to a warren of small rooms that served as a control center. "If they had a problem, they could run back here," said Staff Sgt. Brian Garcia, 34, of Farmingville, his voice echoing off the concrete walls as water dripped from the ceiling to pool in the crawlspace under the elevator. "At first it was kind of weird coming down here, thinking of what used to go on down here," said Garcia, a full-time Army reservist who oversees the site. "Now it's not such a big deal, but it is still spooky."
At ground level, the racks that held the missiles and the adjacent hydraulic arms that lifted them into launching position are gone. But several buildings used for missile assembly and testing remain and are used for storage and maintenance. One of them, surrounded by a 12-foot-tall earthen berm, was where Nike Hercules warheads were attached to the missiles.
In theory, the berm would deflect the force of an accidental nuclear explosion from the rest of the base, said Donald Bender, a historical consultant from New Jersey who is an expert on the region's Cold War arsenal. Happily this theory was never tested; there was never a weapons accident at any Long Island site, he said.
|SUFFOLK COUNTY AIR FORCE BASE USAF AIR POLICE WITH K-9 ON PATROL OF THE FLIGHTLINE IN FRONT OF A F-101 VOODOO ALL WEATHER FIGHTER INTERCEPTOR USED BY AIR DEFENSE COMMAND BASES AROUND THE UNITED STATES SUFFOLK ALSO TRAINED USAF AIR POLICE K-9 TEAMS TO WORK WORLDWIDE AT AIRFORCE FACILITIES|
Long Island's Cold War role was born of its geography. While every major American city was ringed by air defense hardware, "Long Island had a highly strategic location," Bender said. "It's near New York City and it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, so if you're trying to stop an enemy aircraft, Long Island puts you out as far as you could go without getting your feet wet."
Moreover, the Island had a history of military aviation dating back to World War I. "We already had the air bases," said Barbara Kelly, an associate professor of media studies at Hofstra University. "Once the Cold War buildup came, it was natural."
It was also natural that when the Cold War installations were no longer needed, they were largely forgotten.
"Many Cold War-era military facilities remain unappreciated, or underappreciated, in terms of their historical value," said Bender, 40, who has been fascinated by airplanes and missiles since childhood. The sites are a half century old, but "they don't have that aura of history to them yet."
He dreams of persuading the state to establish a Long Island Cold War Heritage Trail to interpret the sites.
"I think it's a terrific idea" for the future, said state Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, whose agency is involved in creating heritage trails. She said the trail would be popular because of the focus on homeland security since Sept. 11.
A more immediate boost should come when Castro's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation opens part of the former Montauk Air Force Station at Camp Hero State Park to the public, planned by Memorial Day. The area around the Cold War buildings will still be off-limits for now, but the state has nominated the concrete radar tower and its 130-foot-wide, 70-ton antenna -- the only one of its kind still in existence in this country -- for the National Register of Historic Places. And Castro says that eventually part of the tower and some other military buildings will be be opened as historical exhibits
Ken Jacob came to Montauk in 1964 to oversee the computer that gathered information from radar antennas stretching from Massachusetts to Manorville. The facility was established in 1948 at the former Camp Hero Army base as one of the country's first regional long-range radar installations, capable of tracking planes 200 miles away.
"We used to watch the Russian bombers," Jacob, 67, recalled during a recent visit to the site with other veterans of the facility who still live in Montauk. "They would take off from Cuba and as they would come up the coast we would be tracking them on the scope. You'd see the fighters coming from Suffolk in Westhampton and Otis Air Force Base [in Massachusetts] and you'd see the Russian bombers go out to sea out of our airspace. It was more or less routine; they tried to test the radar."
The days might have been mostly routine but there was too much to do to be bored. "There was always something going on when you have a piece of equipment with 10,000 tubes," said Jacob, who was an Air Force master sergeant stationed at the base until 1973.
Whenever a plane appeared on the screens that could not be identified, interceptors would be scrambled. Usually, "they were all friendly aircraft that were off course," said Jim Sullivan, 71, who arrived in Montauk in 1957 to serve for a year as an Air Force radar controller guiding interceptors to their targets.
To hone their skills, the controllers were constantly given electronic practice targets to track. "We didn't know if some of them were real or not," Jacob said."I was never really worried about atomic attack," added Chuck Corron, 65, who moved to Montauk in 1962 to work for a contractor installing radar equipment and four years later became a civilian government employee. "I figured it was safe because everybody was counteracting each other. It was just a game."
But Corron, who worked at the air station for 17 years, remembers one day it didn't seem like a game at all. Someone forgot to realign the antenna after maintenance. "The antenna was off so everything came up as an unknown and they scrambled planes and one of them crashed," he said.
Many of the structures where Corron and the others worked are still at Camp Hero. Besides the concrete radar tower and antenna, there is the adjacent operations building, the concrete base of a small radar tower, several cinderblock barracks buildings, a communications center and the former commissary -- all vandalized and graffiti-smeared. Other structures were deemed too dilapidated and were removed last year by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Walking around the crumbling concrete exterior of the operations building, Jacob talked about the radar scopes and large plotting board that were once mounted inside. "The building was very secure; employees had to use a combination code to open the locked door on either end." Concrete slabs were erected in front of each door to protect against a nuclear blast from an enemy attack. "Inside there was a room where they stored all their secret codes they had to change every day for aircraft identification. There were no windows. It was dark inside with dim lights, and all the operators sat in front of scopes with a green light."
There was a similar scene in East Hills inside the regional Air Force command center where defensive strikes by missiles and interceptor jets were coordinated. The building at the former Roslyn Air Force Station still stands -- but only temporarily. The property will be transformed into a park by the Village of East Hills, which last year acquired the 50 acres from the federal government for $3 million. Some buildings dating to 1948 are being reused -- as a village hall, for example. But the command center and other structures stand in the way of a planned swimming pool and other recreational facilities.
The yellow cinderblock command center looks like a factory. But inside are two distinctive features. One is the basement war room that looks like a carpeted squash court and features a glass-front observation room on the second floor; that was where the general in charge watched personnel mark the position of enemy aircraft on a two-story-high clear plastic map, now removed.The second reminder of more dangerous times is in the sub-basement: an air filtration system designed to protect the staff from chemical and biological warfare. At its heart are two rows of black filtration cylinders; brass plates state they were made by the Army's Chemical Warfare Service at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.
When the commanders at Roslyn spotted a target to intercept, they sent word to the missile batteries and to the jet squadrons at the Suffolk and Mitchel Air Force bases. At Gabreski Airport (formerly Suffolk Air Force Base), eight unusual alert hangars that once housed interceptor jets are still standing. They look like peeling ruins -- thanks to a contractor applying the wrong paint to the galvanized steel skins -- but store rescue helicopters for the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York National Guard.
"The alert barns were designed to allow the aircraft to get out quickly," Bender said. "The doors were designed to open rapidly at either end of the hangar so the engines could be started in the hangar." The huge doors are counterweighted with large boxes of sand so they can tip up quickly.
Jim MacDougall, the 106th's executive officer, explained that "the taxiway is right out in front so they could just zip right out and shoot down the bad guys."
***"You sort of sense that the Cold War ghosts are still here," Bender said as he wandered around the former BOMARC missile base in Westhampton.
Just to the north are 56 one-story, 60-foot-long buildings made of reinforced concrete and steel, laid out with military precision in rows of seven.
The buildings, partially engulfed in brush, many with their doors and windows gaping open, look like rundown self-storage units. Indeed, they are stuffed with cast-off furniture, tires and office equipment. But between 1959 and 1964 each shed contained a BOMARC-A nuclear anti-aircraft missile.
Had the BOMARCs with their 10-kiloton warheads been needed, "the doors at the ends would open up, the roof would draw back and the missile would be raised to a vertical firing position by a big hydraulic arm," Bender said. "The missile would be launched right out of the building with flames and smoke -- very impressive.
"It seems like something right out of 1950s science fiction."
--------------------RAYMOND GROHS was a radar operator at an Army anti-aircraft missile... Jump to text »
from radar antennas stretching from Massachusetts to Manorville. Jump to text »