Thursday, May 26, 2011

Nike sites helped keep West PA area safe during Cold War

While the Cold War might be just a chapter in history books today, more than 50 years ago, a Soviet air attack was a real threat for those living in Pittsburgh.

"In the Pittsburgh area, it was full of industry, so it would be a target," said Thomas White, archivist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and an adjunct history lecturer.

The United States government took steps to ensure that the Pittsburgh area was well protected against a Soviet air attack with the strategic placement of 12 air-defense sites throughout Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties. Today, the former Nike missile sites around Pittsburgh are abandoned or repurposed, but veterans hope people remember the history of the sites and those who served.

"It's part of our history and part of what the Army has done in terms of its mission in defending this country," said James Young, 70, of Carnegie, who served in the Army and National Guard at several Nike sites. "In my case, in the case of all these Nike people, this is what we did, this is our contribution.

"I know the Cold War is probably archaic stuff anymore, but I still feel a great deal of pride in what I did, in what all these men did," he said. "It was a big deal back in those days."

There were about 22.7 million veterans in the United States as of September 2010, and almost 1 million of them were living in Pennsylvania, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. On Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, Americans pause to honor those who died while serving their country.

While many men and women served during wars that were fought and are being fought overseas, some men, such as Young, served closer to home.

Bill Lowe, 69, who served in the Army and was stationed at the Dorseyville site in Indiana Township, said he hopes people make an effort to remember their country's history and that days such as Memorial Day are more than an excuse for a three-day weekend and a picnic.

"I don't want the thanks for myself, but I think as a nation, if we don't honor those who serve, who have given up a part of their life, to be free and have those weekend picnics ... if we don't pause one day a year or two days ... to remember those people, we're poorer for that," Lowe said.

During the Cold War, Pittsburgh was a hotbed of resources. The city produced steel during World War II, and the industry continued to expand through the 1960s. Pittsburgh also was emerging as a leader in technology, with Westinghouse Electric Co. involved in the development of nuclear reactors. The Soviet Union proved it had nuclear capabilities when it detonated its own atomic bomb in 1949, and the country's long-range bomber planes — taking off from air bases at the Chukchi and the Kola peninsulas — could reach any city in the continental United States.

"The way the industries were laid out in the river valley, it was set up more for precision bombing ... and certainly, it would be easy to see a steel factory at night," White said of Pittsburgh.

Against this backdrop, the federal government chose to establish an air-defense system in the Pittsburgh region to protect against a possible attack by the Soviet Union.

Gun battalions

In the early years of Pittsburgh's air-defense system, three gun battalions staffed anti-aircraft artillery sites surrounding the city.

In 1952, the Army and Army Corps of Engineers chose 12 suburban sites that each would house four 90 mm anti-aircraft guns. These large guns were capable of firing at a range of about 11 miles and to an altitude of about 34,000 feet.

The Pittsburgh sites were chosen and established so quickly that the men had to live in tents during the winter of 1952-53 and monitored the skies through ground observations from hilltops and skyscrapers, while the Corps installed radar systems, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

"The primary responsibility for the air defense was the Air Force," said Tom Koedel of Ross Township, retired Ross police chief and a local historian.

"The anti-aircraft guns were considered the last line of defense. ... We counted on the Air Force, so there may only be a few 'leakers.'"

However, the United States was perfecting technology that made the gun battalions less effective and deactivated all of them by 1958.

Nike missile sites

The Nike Project was introduced to Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s.

The project was an anti-aircraft missile system developed by the Army and named after the Greek goddess of victory. The 12 sites were located throughout Pittsburgh's countryside.

Each site consisted of two locations — a control site for the radar and a launch site to house the missiles — which were located just miles from each other and staffed by Army personnel and National Guard units. In the North Hills, launch sites were located in Ohio Township, near Avonworth High School; in North Park, at the location of the Allegheny County Police and Fire Academy; and in Indiana Township, off of Route 910 and near Rock Airport of Pittsburgh.

The Nike sites cost about $1 million each, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, and included three underground missile silos and attached personnel shelters with 7-foot cinder-block walls and thick blast doors to withstand shock waves from firing the missiles. The sites also supported test buildings, generator buildings, administrative buildings and barracks.

Young served active duty working in missile maintenance. After he served his three years, he joined the National Guard and earned the rank of warrant officer as a systems repair technician.

In the early 1960s, Young was stationed at Rural Ridge and then the North Park launch site as a missile assembly technician with the National Guard on a Mobilization Day Unit, or M-Day Unit, which shadowed its full-time counterparts. He worked in the launching area running electronic checks with a Douglas electrical test set.

When a battery was on "hot status" the missiles would be brought to the surface from the underground bunkers and then were directed from the control sites.

The control sites housed three types of radars: the acquisition radar, which located the target; the target-tracking radar, used for tracking the plane; and missile- tracking radar to track the fired missile.

Lowe, of Rochester, N.Y., had just graduated from high school in Bloomsburg, when he enlisted in the Army and was stationed at the control site in Dorseyville.  Lowe served as an acquisition operator and was responsible for locating the target.

At the height of the Cold War, there was a mentality that the United States could be attacked at any time, Lowe said, so the Nike sites frequently ran tests and drills, sometimes in conjunction with the pilots stationed at the local Air National Guard, so the men were prepared in case of a real attack.

"We ran simulated attacks," Lowe said. "We would be graded on how well we did, as well as the bomber crews on how well they evaded us."

Tests could run two to three days straight. Men stationed at the Nike sites also had to be prepared for unannounced visits from "Missile Master." Missile Master, located near Oakdale, in Collier Township, was the headquarters for the 31st Artillery Brigade and all the Pittsburgh sites.

"The Missile Master team landed in a helicopter and said, 'You have X minutes to fire a missile,'" Lowe said.

"We would hit the klaxon (alarm), and everyone on duty for that day had to get their butts up there. They graded us on everything we did in the process of getting ready to fire."

About 100 men were stationed at each launch and control location, and during their downtime, the servicemen would spend time in the day room, where there was a television and pool table. Lowe and a fellow serviceman would pull out their guitars and an amplifier and play music from The Ventures.

"It was good duty," Young said. "It was unique. The sites were on a mission 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It was a real-world mission.

"We felt there was that possibility of the Russians, (they) had that bomber capability, so we capitalized on that by trying to be ready for whatever the enemy might want to send at us. It was a matter of not wanting to be caught unaware like we were, for example, at Pearl Harbor."

Soon, the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, with a range of 3,500 miles, made aircraft attacks less of a threat, and by 1974, all of the Pittsburgh area Nike sites were decommissioned.

"One of my favorite lines I use ... 'I defended Pittsburgh for a year and a half, and I must have done a good job because it was never attacked,'" Lowe said.

On this Memorial Day, Lowe hopes people remember all those who served.

"We need to honor those who serve us and give unselfishly, to those who give their time and their lives," he said.

"It's a gift to the people, and it would be nice if someone sent a thank-you card."

Designation and Location
   The Pittsburgh area was well protected against the threat of a Soviet air attack during the Cold War with the strategic placement of 12 Nike missile sites in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties. Each site consisted of two locations: a control site for the radar and a launch site to house the missiles.

PI-02: Rural Ridge
PI-03: Dorsyville/Indianola
PI-25: Murrysville/Monroeville
PI-36: Irwin
PI-37: Cowansburg/Herminie
PI-42: Elizabeth
PI-43: Elrama
PI-52: Finleyville
PI-62: Bridgeville/Bryant
PI-71: Coraopolis/Beacon
PI-92: Bryant/North Park
PI-93: West View
PI-70DC: Oakdale *
*  Oakdale "Missile Master" Army Air-Defense Command Post Headquarters and Headquarters Battery 31st Brigade.