BOMARC at McGuire AFB
McGuire AFB began in 1937 as a single dirt-strip runway, which was assigned to support the nearby Army post at Fort Dix. Airfield activities rapidly expanded during World War II. During this time, the base became involved with its first guided missile activity when the Second Army Air Force Electronic Experimental Unit set up shop at the Fort Dix Army Airfield in the summer of 1943. Supported by the 414th Service Squadron, the unit did missile-related research at Fort Dix until April 1944.
By 1954, air transport had assumed a major role in the base mission. However, because of McGuire's strategic location, the Air Defense Command selected the base to deploy its first BOMARC missile squadron, the 46th Air Defense Missile Squadron. It was located in the New Jersey Pine Barrens on a tract located 11 miles east of McGuire AFB in Ocean County just east of county highway 539. The Philadelphia District of the Corps of Engineers supervised construction of the 56 Model II shelters and ancillary buildings. Construction began in January 1958 and took nearly 2 years to complete. The site was declared operationally ready on September 1, 1959. However, according to the Air Defense Command historian, this operational readiness declaration severely strained the concept of the term. As late as December, the facility hosted only one ready missile.
On June 7, 1960, disaster struck at missile shelter 204. A defective helium vessel ruptured, causing an explosion and a fire. During the 30-minute fire, the IM-99A BOMARC missile and nuclear warhead burned causing the loss of approximately 1.0 to 1.5 kilograms of plutonium. Part of the loss may have been due to the water run-off from the fire fighting effort.
Shortly after the explosion, the State Police station near Fort Dix received a call from an Air Force sergeant who stated, "an atomic warhead has exploded." The State Police quickly notified area civil defense forces and closed off area roads. Troops at Fort Dix on maneuvers were recalled to post. Shortly thereafter, a wire service sent out the following bulletin:
State Police reported an atomic warhead of a BOMARC exploded
today near here sending heavy radiation throughout the area.
While overseas reports in British newspapers of "200 square miles of terror" and "mothers fleeing with their children" may have exaggerated the initial panic, there is little doubt that the vagueness of the bulletin caused considerable concern as military personnel at Fort Dix and McGuire AFB answered hundreds of calls from citizens inquiring about radiation danger. A few hours later, Air Force officials declared that "there was no radiation danger to the public."
Immediately, the Air Force took steps to contain the contamination to the area within the immediate vicinity of the shelter. Decontamination teams from Wright-Patterson and Griffiss AFBs arrived to handle the radioactive hazard. Eventually, concrete and asphalt was applied to seal the contaminated area.
The bursting helium bottle that caused the disaster was located between the missile's two fuel cells. Thereafter, the pressure within the bottles was reduced from 4,500 psi to 3,000 psi. The Air Force then placed cumbersome top-off tanks within each of the shelters. Just prior to missile launch, the helium bottle again would be charged to the 4,300 psi limit.
Damage control extended well beyond the site as the Air Force combated the negative publicity by emphasizing the minimal nature of the radioactive discharge. Unfortunately for the Air Force, the incident gave critics an opportunity to rehash the recent cutbacks in the program and the developmental problems of this weapon system.
By October 1962, the BOMARC As were replaced with the B variant. Rather than reconfigure the Model II shelters to accept the new missile, the Air Force directed that Model IV shelters be constructed on adjacent property. The New York District of the Corps of Engineers supervised the construction of these new launcher shelters.
Upon deactivation in 1972, the site was closed to access. Several environmental studies have been completed to evaluate any potential dangers of plutonium residue to the local ecosystem.
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