Air Force Bases

Nike Story: Col. William Lawrence shares experiences at northwest Indiana Nike sites

Subj: Info on Northwest Indiana Nike Sites
Date: 8/23/99 1:56:09 PM Central Daylight Time
From: (William J. Lawrence)

I was assigned to HQ, 79th AAA Missile Battalion (soon to be redesignated HQ, 1st Missile Battalion, 60th Artillery) at the Gary Airport in July of '58. I had just finished both the Nike Ajax and Hercules Maintenance Officer Courses in the preceding eighteen months. As the Battalion Missile Officer, I stayed at Fort Bliss to attend Nike Hercules Package Training with B Battery, Site C-32. I actually arrived in Gary in late October. I stayed at the Gary Airport site, C-45. The following spring, after a six week stint as an evaluator at the Red Canyon Missile Range, I was sent to A Battery, Site C-47, the Wheeler site, to take command. Halfway through the process, our higher Hq, 22d Air Defense Group in Orland Park, IL, decided that they needed the D Battery CO on their staff, so I detoured to C-48, the Glen Park site, and took it over, leaving C-47 to be commanded by its XO. In November of '59, I was given command of C-32, the Porter Nike Hercules site. I left there in September of '61 to attend the Artillery Officers' Career Course.

Given the above experience, I feel that I can make some relevant observations about operations at these sites.

Site Location

Site C-45, the Gary Nike Site, was located near the Gary Regional Airport. Its largest area, the administrative area, was at the southwest end of the airport. It could be reached by an unimproved road leading southwest from U.S. 12 next to a railroad embankment. The area was originally built to house both a firing battery and a full HQ & HQ battery. By the time I joined the battalion, however, the headquarters had been downsized and most of its administrative functions moved to HQ 22d ADA Group at Orland Park, IL. This left a fair bit of extra room for billeting, recreation, and such requirements. The site consisted of prefabricated metal buildings, some connected by unheated corridors. Latrines were in separate buildings, which made night trips there through unheated corridors a brisk walk in winter.
The launcher area, consisting of two underground launching sections, was about a half mile further down the road away from U.S. 12. The fire control area was about a mile further down that same road, which had turned directly south. It had no radar towers.

Site C-48, the Glen Park Nike Site, had two areas just off Grant Street.
The fire control system was in a small, fenced in area on the east side of Grant Street, I think about halfway between W. 36th and W. 37th Aves. It was right behind a Midas Muffler Shop. This site also had no radar towers. This caused the Missile Tracking Radar some problems as it attempted to hold lock on either a missile or the test responder located directly across the line of traffic which ran along Grant Street. We hoped that the traffic would stop when the war started. The administrative and launcher area was located off of W. 37th Ave. to the west of Grant Street and behind a large shopping center containing a Montgomery Ward store. The construction was the same as C-45, and it too had only two launching sections.

Site C-32, the Porter Nike Site, had its administrative and fire control area just north of U.S. 20 on Mineral Springs Road. It was of cinder block construction, and had 40 foot radar towers. The launcher area was on Wagner Road, also north of U.S. 20 and across the street from a VFW club. I visited the site in the summer of '98 and found the administrative area in excellent shape under the ownership of the National Park Service. Its buildings had all received new siding and were in an excellent state of repair. All were in use, except the towers, which had been razed. Even the lawns were newly mowed, always a problem for us. When I journeyed to see the launcher area, however, I became as depressed as I had been elated at the sight of the other area. The above ground buildings had all been vandalized. The cyclone fences all had weeds growing up their entire height. I suddenly felt like I had come upon a jungle.

Site C-47, the Wheeler Nike Site, is where Mr. Hedges described it. I attempted to locate it from memory using a current map, but simply could not recall the roads that I used to get there in the old days. I note the efforts to keep C-47 as a tribute to the Nike program, and I hope they will be successful. I'll check that out when I'm back that way next. My late wife was from Gary, and her brother and his family run a car dealership in Chesterton, so I still visit.

Evolution of the Chicago-Gary Defense.

Nike sites are deployed in a ring around the defended area, to the extent the terrain warrants. Obviously, the planners did not want to build sites offshore into Lake Michigan, so the plan was modified. Originally, the defense consisted of 24 Nike Ajax fire units, organized into two groups of three battalions each. When the Nike Hercules missile system was deployed, its greater range and lethality permitted the area to be defended with less sites. I believe that the 24 sites were downsized to seven prior to their final inactivation. The sites were inactivated when it was determined that the major threat to the Chicago-Gary area was no longer air-breathing aircraft but rather InterContinental Ballistic Missiles. A logical progression would have been to replace the Nike Hercules system with an Anti-Ballistic Missile System: the Nike Zeus or its successors (Sentinel, Safeguard), but these systems had not yet reliably solved their technical problems. Later, a treaty was signed with the USSR which limited such deployments, effectively killing the initiative. Hawk, the Army's other major ADA missile system, was kept as a defense of tactical forces in the field in such places as Germany and Korea, with one exception, the Homestead AFB, FL defense which was installed after the Cuban missile crisis..

The Life of a Nike Missileman

There is no doubt about it. Life was tough for the officers and enlisted men assigned to the Northern Indiana Nike sites. The major reason for that was the tremendously long hours that they put in. Work weeks of eighty to one hundred hours were not uncommon. Of course there was the normal work day, spent training to increase teamwork and proficiency and maintaining the equipment to keep it at a high state of readiness. Beyond that, a number of the defense's sites were maintained on 15 minute status. That is to say, the site should be able to launch a missile at a hostile aircraft within 15 minutes of being put on battle stations. It was common that at least one of the sites of 1/60 would be on 15 minute status at any given time.
Unannounced drills were performed frequently to determine if this state of readiness was achieved. As a matter of fact, that was my major job during my first months there, to run the battalion's Operational Readiness Evaluation (ORE) team. My orders were simple: to run the most firm, fair, and chicken---- evaluations there were. We did.

The 15 minute status requirement applied to all defenses on the periphery of the United States. Since the expected direction of aircraft attack of Chicago was from the north, we were included in that requirement. The distinction between 15 minute status and 30 minute status for a Nike site is significant. On 30 minute status you can have your equipment off while on 15 minute status, not only must the equipment be on, but maintenance checks must be run on it every four hours. (Incidentally, at C-32 we never turned off our fire control equipment, never. We discovered early on that the DC power supplies were much more stable if they were just left on.)

Beyond staying operationally ready, much of the rest of the time was spent in housekeeping chores. There was grass to keep cut in the summer and snow to shovel or plow in the winter. Eventually, some of the sites got help from John Deere-like tractors, but not all were so equipped, I think. That was a big help at C-32 especially in the winter, as we were in the area that got hit frequently by lake-effect snows. I can remember one time in particular when we were undergoing an ORE, that ice was forming on the sideways launcher rails as fast as the crewmen could scrape it off. The drill was cancelled due to safety considerations, but only after giving it the old try.

Additional time was spent participating in community affairs. While the Nike Ajax sites could hold periodic open houses, such activities were not allowed on the Hercules sites.

When a unit was on 15 minute status, there was a minimum manning level specified by numbers of each specialty. Early on in my command period, I decided that I needed more personnel on duty than were on the minimum manning list.
Specifically, I added a driver, a cook, and a duty officer for the launcher area, plus a couple of others. In those days, none of my launcher officers or WOs were really qualified to be battery control officers (they later were required by regulation to be), so they split the duty, acting as launcher control officers during drills, a job the manning level allowed to be filled by an NCO. I thought it worked well, and our results showed that the extra effort was worth it. But then Brigade HQ liked the idea so much they one-upped me and the rest of the defense in a big way. They decreed that when a battery was on 15 minute status that all of its present-for-duty strength, officers, WOs, NCOs, et all, be on site. That arrangement lasted for two months, with great instant improvement in ORE scores at first but followed by rapidly decreasing returns. Fortunately, no one ever called it the Lawrence plan, because it wasn't.

Living conditions on site

I have already touched a bit on the differences in construction that made sites C-32 and C-47 much more comfortable for the troops than C-45 and C-48.
The metal prefabricated buildings just didn't have as many of the creature comforts, and that cold walk to the latrine was a real downer. The latter sites also didn't have as many semiprivate rooms for the single Sp4s and Sp5s. And there were a number of single specialists living on site, as the percentage of those ranks who were married was noticeably less during this period than it was later when I commanded a Nike Hercules battalion at Travis AFB, CA ( '70-71).

Each site had a very small PX and a craft shop. The latter ranged from very good to great, depending on how dedicated the assigned operator was. There were also day rooms, equipped with pool tables and TVs, but of the black and white variety, color having just come on the scene then. In no way could a site offer its personnel all of the amenities one could find on a full-sized Army post. The nearest commissary was at Fort Sheridan, IL, nearly a hundred miles away. Even having our drivers, who went there from time to time on administrative runs, pick up articles for individuals was not really feasible. The unit fund was available to improve these facilities, but its income was not large because the present-for-duty strength of an individual site was not large.

Many of the personnel were exposed to hazardous materials as part of their duties. For the Ajax system, bad stuff included the missile's liquid fuel, its oxidizer (almost pure red fuming nitric acid), starting mix, and even the electrolyte in the missile batteries. The Hercules was solid fueled, but early models had a hydraulic system pump operated with a gas turbine fueled by ethylene oxide. Later models had turbines powered by one shot batteries. In later fire control systems, the danger from electromagnetic radiations increased. There was always the danger of injury from mechanical devices. At C-32, our launcher platoon sergeant was killed when he chose to bend over a launcher rail to disconnect a phone cable while the missile was descending above him.

Not all of the danger was to the site personnel. Each site had a booster disposal area designated, where the empty boosters would land after the missile was fired. On some sites, an easement had been worked out with the property owners, but on others the matter was just kept quiet. It was felt that if the missiles were fired in anger, then falling empty boosters would be the least to the nearby population's problems.

Manning levels

As time passed, it became harder and harder for the Army to maintain the sites at their authorized strengths. In particular, to maintain C-47 and C-32 at close to their authorizations, C-45 and C-48 manning levels were especially low. This was true both quantitatively and qualitatively. C-47 and C-32 had at their disposal a number of Army Regulations on personnel reliability that could be invoked to get rid of bad apples quickly. Those regulations did not apply to the other batteries, though.

It can be argued that the Nike sites should have received additional personnel to allow for day-in and day-out shift work, but if they had obtained additional authorizations, then their manning levels would have been lower for the same net effect. The Army just did not have the resources to add to the Nike program, or at least it perceived that it did not. To keep the Army Air Defense Command up to strength as much as possible in those days, the Army even decided to do away with its divisional Air Defense Artillery battalions. Fortunately, cooler heads have since prevailed and the battalions returned to the divisions, this time armed with newer and more effective weapons.

Retention of good personnel was a problem because of the long hours they worked and the Spartan conditions in which they lived. Those who enjoyed the work but not the living conditions, especially young specialists, were also tempted to leave the active Army and join the National Guard, which operated a number of sites in the Defense. There they could be paid as a state employee and work reasonable hours.

In summary

I have a lot of memories of my service with the Northern Indiana Nike sites. A lot of them are pleasant ones. For example, I met my late wife there (a Gary girl) and we were married a few months thereafter. I have also some less than pleasant memories. And I have a lot of respect for the officers, WOs, and enlisted men who worked their tails off day after day to keep the systems ready to go to war. And we were indeed ready to do that.

William J. Lawrence, COL (R) ADA.