I heard a whirring sound just before the large metal gates clanked open. A Nike missile rose ominously out of the ground. It was pointed at me. “I surrender,” I said to the missile as I slowly raised my hands. It seemed like the wise thing to do. Not very long ago (1953-1979), back in the disturbing days of the Cold War, this deadly weapon had been loaded with a nuclear warhead two-three times as powerful as the atom bombs America had dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. It still spoke of destruction, but now it was defanged. It had become a museum piece, a shell of its former self, a relic of our very scary past.
SF-88 is located in what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It was one of 300 Nike missile sites across the US built as a last line of defense against Soviet bombers carrying nuclear weapons. It now serves as the only restored Nike site in America.
I visited the museum as part of my August trip up the North Coast of California. When I arrived, two park rangers sat outside enjoying the sun. I put one to work; he volunteered to take me on a personal tour of the underground facility. We climbed down the stairs with our footsteps echoing into a large room filled with missiles. After describing how the massive weapons were to be used, he suggested I try pulling one on its track. I couldn’t believe how easily it moved; I felt like I had super powers. He explained that the system was designed for getting the missiles up and ready to fire in 15 minutes. Several million lives depended on quick action.
The Nike missiles at SF-88 were intended to target Russian bombers 90 mile off the coast from the Golden Gate. The nuclear warheads were to assure that none got through. The greatest fear was that they might be carrying 50-megaton Tsar Hydrogen bombs, the mother of all bombs. The Russians had built one and blown it up as a warning to the US. To put things in perspective, it had 1,350–1,570 times the explosive power of the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The Tsar Bomb,” the park ranger explained, “would be exploded a few thousand feet up in the air above San Francisco.” All people living in the region would be killed. There would no longer be a San Francisco, an Oakland, a San Jose, a Berkeley, or any of the other communities located in the Bay Area. Neither would there be any birds, mammals, reptiles, trees, grass, or other life left living. A chill settled over me as I recalled I was a student at Berkeley during the 60s, at the height of the Cold War.
I thought even the smaller Nike weapons would be devastating to the region. The prominent west winds would bring deadly radiation from the explosions raining down on the Bay Area and points east. “What would it matter?” the ranger asked. What indeed. Once a nuclear war started, the US and Russia had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out life on earth— several times over.
Having heard enough bad news, I climbed out of the bunker leaving the ranger to explain doomsday to another group of visitors that had arrived. I was outside by myself when Nike Missile came rumbling up from its underground hideout. No one had told me it was part of the tour.
NEXT BLOG: I visit the Marconi Station at Point Reyes National Seashore where Morse Code messages were once sent out to all ships at sea in the Pacific Ocean— and are still sent out to the sunken Titanic in the Atlantic.