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.
39 thoughts on “What to Do When a Nike Missile Is Pointed at You… Surrender.”
Wow! Terrifying and sad how destructive we humans still are. Important post Curt. I had no idea this was even there.
Terrifying and sad it is, Cindy. As long as we continue to think that our survival is based on having bigger and more terrifying weapons (whether on a national or personal level) our future as a species is bleak and very dark. –Curt
Local and state governments have “repurposed” some of the Nike sites to civilian use. The prime real estate these hilltop places utilized have new missions and serve as reminders of how fragile life can be.
Guns to plowshares, hopefully. Life is as fragile as it is precious. If we could only learn that, we might live in a much better world. Thanks for your thoughts. –Curt
Well, sort of. One of the sights is now a police firearms training range and another is the Rhode Island State Police Academy. At least they’re not nuclear powered.
What a sobering place to visit. I imagine my husband would like to make a stop there on our next trip to San Francisco. Not sure he could convince me to tag along. Maybe I’ll hang out in China Town instead…
You don’t want to miss Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Carrie. In addition to the reminders of our frightening past (there are also a number of World War II gun emplacements that were built into the hills to stop a feared invasion by Japan), it has great hiking trails, natural beauty, and wildlife. –Curt
Frightening to think just how recent this was!
Only, yesterday, Andrew. –Curt
Growing up in bay area, we knew these places existed. As a boy we just assumed that in the event of an attack we were all dead as the Soviets would simple throw enough fire power here to silence us in the first round. The bay was an armed nuclear camp in those days. Some day I’d like to visit this place just to marvel that it was never needed.
I think the horror of nuclear devastation was too terrible to grasp, so we ignored it and went on with life. People who think today is the worst of all times (and I recognize how bad it is) lack an historical perspective. What frightens me, as always, is that our capacity to destroy seems greater than our ability to grow, and change, and forgive. –Curt
All too true, Curt.
What you say is so true, Curt. This is a bad time, in many ways, but calling it the worst tends to minimize other times that were, perhaps, even more horrific — in reality. One of today’s favorite Christmas carols is grounded in events of the Civil War: a terrible time, indeed. Most people don’t even know its context.
Thanks, Linda. And even now, the most terrible times are happening elsewhere and are often ignored. I am thinking specifically of the Liberian Civil War. –Curt
I’m always amazed by what I don’t know!
Boy, I hear that, Susan. Me too. The key, it seems to me, is not to be overwhelmed by everything out there, but to keep an open mind. And to keep on learning. I always enjoy doing the research for blogs as much as I do writing them. –Curt
Now we can destroy life without destroying property. Consider the nuclear poisoning of Hanford, WIPP, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Ah, the peacetime use of nukes…..
I didn’t like the idea when nuclear power was prom0ted as the answer to all of our energy needs in the 70s. On my trip up the north coast I stopped in Bodega Bay, which was one of the locations PG&E had selected for one of a series of nuclear power plants it had planned for the California coast. A big hole in the ground, now a pond, still exists. PG&E was ready to build the plant on top of the San Andreas Fault until it was stopped. –Curt
A la Diablo Canyon and San Onofre…. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned, an after-the-fact, “what were we thinking” doesn’t help in a nuclear after-the-fact.
No, it doesn’t. –Curt
Terrifying. If this missile encountered an incoming war head and blew it up… wouldn’t that have triggered a double nuclear holocaust? Even if was over the ocean, the fallout would still have had a world impact…?
I don’t know the answer to that Hillary. It’s a good question, however, and scary— as everything related to nuclear weapons is. Maybe some one who reads this blog has the answer. –Curt
A frightening sight – to say the least!!
It was a frightening time, GP. I still remember sitting glued to a radio and listening to the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold. –Curt
I think I held my breath the entire time. I had my uncle already in Cuba and a cousin in the Navy at Norfolk, VA
Wow, GP. You had more reasons than I did. But the whole world held it’s breath on that one. –Curt
I believe you’re right, Curt!!
Informative and terrifying at the same time. This is a whole part of history I know little of, a too easily forgotten era. -Ginette
So right Ginette “too easily forgotten” and so important we remember. –Curt
Fascinating and compelling. Maybe *because* it’s so terrifying, rather than in spite of. Lucky to get a solo tour. I think watching the missile rise from the ground would have freaked me the heck out. I can almost feel chills on my spine right now, just imagining it.
It certainly would have frightened me if I hadn’t already seen the missiles underground. I might still be running. 🙂
This is a fascinating post, Curt. Having grown up in the days of NORAD, the Civil Air Patrol, North Dakota missile silos, and such, there’s a certain tinge of nostalgia about all this — but I’m also aware of one of the worst fears I have today: that our military is no longer competent to deal with such weaponry. Of course there are very many good people in the various services — very, very many — but the politicization of the military is worrisome.
Certainly the mistakes we have seen over the past few years are nothing to assure confidence. What is even scarier to me is the possibility of terrorists getting ahold of a nuclear weapon. Too many are out there— both terrorists and weapons. And there are none of the restraints. –Curt
Curt I am so interested to read about this. I have photos from that exact hill but had no idea about the museum. Perhaps i just wasn’t looking for the signs at the time. Frightening to think about the ‘what ifs’ of such destruction.
Ever so scary, Sue. I stumbled on the museum when I was reading about Golden Gate National Recreation in prep for my trip up the coast. I’ve spent lot of time in the area and have never heard of it. –Curt
Can’t think of anything more lovely than a trip up to Northern California. This missile base sounds so interesting. Great post. Had no idea you could visit a missile base. Thank you for sharing this.
It’s well were a visit JoHanna. Be sure to take time to hike some of the trials as well if you go there. –Curt