Nike Missile New York Defense Area
Nike missile battery designations and locations in the New York Defense Area
(NY-80) Livingston (double site)
(NY-561 Fort Hancock/Sandy Hook
(NY-881 Mountain View/Wayne
(NY-58/60) South Amboy
(NY-65) South Plainfield Mahwah/Franklin Lakes (double site).
During the 1960s Headquarters facilities were located at Fort Hancock.
Combined with the sites on the other side of the Hudson River, the Jersey sites contributed to an extensive air defense net around the nation's largest city. The New Jersey Army National Guard assumed responsibility from the Regular Army for many of these sites.
NY-54, NY-56, NY-58/60, NY-65, NY-80, and NY-93/94 replaced their Nike Ajax missiles with the longer range Hercules model. Beginning on June 6, 1960, command and control for target designation of these regional missile batteries was handled at a Missile Master facility constructed at Atlantic Highlands near Sandy Hook. Prior to Missile Master, defenses were manually coordinated from Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island.
On May 22, 1958, disaster struck NY-53, which was maintained by Battery B of the 526th AA4 Missile Battalion. On this sunny day, 14 Nike Ajax missiles were located above ground: 7 in Section A, 4 in Section B, and 3 in Section C. In Section A, an ordnance unit teamed up with battery personnel to install improved safety and arming mechanisms. To install the devices, two of the three warheads built into each missile had to be removed to facilitate access. Judging by the size of the crater left in front of the missile that was undergoing modification, the investigating board concluded that the two warheads had been removed and were sitting on the ground when the third warhead detonated. A Time magazine article described the incident:
Suddenly the missile blew with a roar and a sky-searing pillow of
orange flame from burning kerosene and nitric acid fuels . . .
Explosion and flame touched off seven more Nikes squatting on
adjacent pads, blew or burned ten men to death, showered a three
mile radius with fragments . . .
In addition to destroying the other six above-ground missiles at Section A, a flying red-hot pellet apparently ignited the booster of the nearest missile sitting on its pad in Section B. This missile blasted into the side of a nearby hill. Fortunately, the Nike Ajax failed to detonate, sparing the Battery additional damage.
The subsequent investigation determined that the "point of initiation of the explosion was probably a PETN relay cap." Realizing this condition could exist in other missiles that had recently received the new arming device, the Army initiated "Operation Fix-it." By August 30, 1958, 5,971 Nike Ajax missiles had completed inspection. The new arming device was found to have been incorrectly installed on 605 of these missiles and another 309 were found to contain ruptured or damaged relay caps.
Locally, Army officials attended a special town meeting called by the Mayor of Middletown to explain what happened. Army lawyers arrived to settle claims from local residents that would total nearly $12,000. Claims ranged from repair of broken fire hoses to costs associated with fixing broken windows.
However, "fixing" the damage done to the public perception of the Army's Air Defense program would prove to be more complicated. The explosion undermined an extensive public relations campaign that had been fostered by the Army Air Defense Command to instill public confidence in these sites. In the wake of the disaster, newspaper and magazine editors mocked Army claims that a Nike installation was no more dangerous a neighbor than a gas station. Time concluded:
Last week the gas station blew up . . . Meanwhile the Army had
little to say about a development yet to come: along with two dozen
other missile installations ringing New York City, B Battery is
scheduled to replace its TNT Nike Ajaxes after this year with the
atomic Nike Hercules. In the wake of Leonardo's explosive afternoon,
it was going to be hard to convince the neighbors in New
Jersey-or around the Nikes guarding 22 other U.S. industrial
complexes-that living alongside atomic warheads was still like
living beside a gas station,
Nike Hercules batteries NY-54 and NY 58/60 remained active until 1968 and NY-56, NY-65, and NY-93/94 held on for 3 more years. Site NY-80 at Livingston became the sole survivor, being deactivated in April 1974.