A Nike Hercules missile at the Marin Headlands site rises from its underground bunker on a huge elevator, to be raised into launch position. The Nikes were decommissioned in 1974. (Craig Miller/KQED)
This post contains a correction.
Throughout its history, the Bay Area has been a hotbed of military activity, from the original Army prison on Alcatraz Island, to the building of nuclear submarines in Vallejo.
(One of the nuclear subs built there was named after Mariano Vallejo, one of California's early statesmen. You can see the vertical “sail” of that sub on Mare Island today.)
It’s a mere shadow of what it was during World War II or even up until the mid-1990s, when you could still catch sight of subs slinking to and from the Mare Island shipyard or aircraft carriers putting in at Alameda Naval Air Station.
But did you know we also had missiles?
Bay Curious listener Chris Johanson has done a little bit of reading about the old Nike missile base in the Marin Headlands, which is now a museum run by the National Park Service, and he knew that it had the ability to be equipped with nuclear missiles.
"But I wasn’t sure if they ever actually had nuclear missiles in the Headlands themselves," Chris said.
Oh, yeah there were nuclear missiles.
Last Line of Defense
In the 1950s and 60s, there were Nike Ajax and Hercules missiles based all over the Bay Area, not just in the Marin Headlands. There were batteries in Pacifica, Fremont, San Rafael and on Angel Island. They were built to be a last line of defense against air attack during the Cold War.
They weren’t standing in vertical silos, as we think of land-based missiles today, but rather laid out horizontally in underground magazines, known as “the pit.” Each one was about the length of a school bus but much more sleek, like a set of lawn darts on steroids.
The missiles are essentially shells now, but until the 1970s they carried nuclear warheads with a maximum yield of 40 to 60 kilotons. One kiloton is equivalent to the energy force of 1,000 tons of dynamite.
"A lot of people think we exaggerate destruction," said Jerry Feight, a former Air Force missileman who now leads tours of the site, "but it was not an exaggeration."
The W31 nuclear warheads on the Nike were “variable yield;" crews could literally dial up the size of the detonation. At 40 kilotons, the young soldiers stationed at the Marin Headlands battery, designated SF-88, could with a single missile unleash an atomic force greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
"Some people think that’s kind of a bit of overkill," Feight recently told a tour group, "but if we had to fire, effectively you’re already at World War III because the target had been identified, the Navy and Air Force hadn’t been able to bring him down, and we’re goin’ to war."
'If It Flies, It Dies'
"You had this responsibility at a very young age," said Dave Kreutzinger. He was stationed at SF-88 from 1967 to 1969.
"I came here when I was 18," he remembered.
By the time he was 19, he was the launch officer, though as a Specialist 4, he held the rank equivalent of a corporal.
"The oldest guy out here was 28," he said matter-of-factly. "Most of us were 19."
Their job was to shoot down incoming Soviet bombers — most likely whole squadrons carrying atomic bombs in the 20-megaton range. That was the perceived threat when the Nikes were rolled out in 1954, less than a decade after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to force surrender and end World War II.
The Army cohort of 120 or so crewing the Nike battery had one primary mission: to try to save the Bay Area from the same fate by launching a single missile that would vaporize anything in the air for a radius of 30 miles around the intercept — a statistic that gave rise to the unit's charming motto: “If it flies, it dies.”
By the time Dave Kreutzinger was there, the primary threat had shifted to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). But for years after the whole setup was obsolete, radar at SF-88 still swept the skies for 150 miles out, looking for Russian “Bear” bombers carrying nuclear weapons, something that Kreutzinger and his crew kind of took for granted.
"Actually, you didn't think about it very much," he said. "There was so much training, a lot of education went into being here. We knew the responsibility of it, but you practiced and practiced and practiced, and there's a lot of testing involved to be sure that you have the mental ability to launch this weapon."
By the time that would ever happen, of course, the U.S. would already be facing a nuclear attack from those incoming planes and/or missiles. It was taken for granted that a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union would be the end of the world as we know it, a concept known as MAD for "mutual assured destruction." So, launching one of these Nike Hercules missiles would essentially mean that the apocalypse was already underway.
"We kind of knew," Kreutzinger said, "but it wasn't on the top of our minds that this was pretty much the end. It wasn't something you thought about all the time."
But the Nike crews also knew that launching one of their supersonic spears in anger would likely be their last living act. The Army didn’t mince around this fact. They told Kreutzinger and his fellow GIs flat-out what their life expectancy would be after an actual launch.
"Thirty minutes," said Kreutzinger. "That was the thing that every crewman knew."
Prepared but Never Put Into Action
Since Kreutzinger was still around to talk to us, that pretty well answers another question that Bay Curious listener Chris Johanson had: Were any of these missiles ever launched?
Thankfully, no — except for training flights in New Mexico — though the crews were called to battle stations with regularity when worrisome "bogeys" appeared on the radar.
The site was finally decommissioned in 1974 and the Park Service took it over. Since then, a small cadre of Cold War missile veterans has spent years cobbling parts together, often catching them just before they were scrapped, so that visitors can watch an actual Nike Hercules missile raised ominously on a giant elevator and hoisted into launch position at SF-88. Few visitors leave unimpressed.
Even more eerie was the feeling it gave Chris when Jerry Feight handed him the actual launch keys from 50 years ago.
"If you had those in your hand and it was of that era," Feight calmly explained, "you could be part of sending the world to destruction."
So, no pressure.
"No pressure," agreed Chris, laughing nervously, "no pressure whatsoever."
You can see veteran docents walk you through a mock launch sequence and answer all of your nuclear annihilation questions at the SF-88 site in the Marin Headlands on Saturday afternoons from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.
June 14: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to Mariano Vallejo as the last Mexican governor of California. Vallejo was an influential early statesmen but never served as governor of Mexican California. The last Mexican governor of California was Pío Pico. The story has been edited to correct the error.