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Base Mishaps

Nine bases were built in northern New Jersey to protect New York City from Soviet nuclear attacks.

by Vince Farinaccio

The Cold War threat of Soviet air attacks divided the halves of New Jersey more than usual by establishing a ring of five Nike missile bases in the southern portion to protect Philadelphia and another ring of nine sites in the north to guard New York City. But the North Jersey bases seem to have drawn the most attention over time.

The North Jersey Nike sites, established in 1955, were located in Sandy Hook, Mahwah, Holmdel, Livingston, Middletown, Old Bridge, South Plainfield, Summit and Wayne.

The most recent high-profile acknowledgment of one of the missile bases is the use of Livingston in a recent novel by Harlan Coben who, according to the New York Times in 2017, “… spent an hour nosing around a place now known as Riker Hill Art Park. It figures in his latest novel, Don’t Let Go, not for what it is now but for what it once was: a Nike antiaircraft missile base…”

The Sandy Hook base, contained on a sprawling 20 acres, had some real-life drama during the 1960s when, according to the Roadside America website, “the site was placed on high alert during critical moments (1965 Northeast blackout, 1967 Six Day War, 1973 Yom Kippur War).” But a 2010 NJ Monthly online article reports that “the summer of 1970 brought the big one…A Soviet bomber had intruded into U.S. airspace, and the crew waited while Air Force fighters chased it away.” The crew, in fact, had been five minutes away from launching missiles but was ordered to wait for nearly an hour before they were finally told to stand down.

However, the Middletown base, which the New York Times has reported is “about thirty airline miles south from midtown New York in the vicinity of Sandy Hook Bay,” is still remembered for the calamity that claimed the lives of six Army soldiers and four civilians and had nothing to do with Soviet planes or Cold War threats. On May 22, 1958, eight Nike Ajax missiles exploded on the grounds of the base.

The New York Times reported the next day that “the apparently accidental explosions occurred at about 1:15 P.M. as five ordnance experts, aided by nine soldiers, were installing new arming mechanisms on the missiles,” and that “the explosions…shook an area within a radius of three miles. Debris and pieces of the missiles and their twenty-four nonatomic warheads were scattered over an area almost as great.”

The newspaper also identified that “a twelve-foot-long section of a Nike Ajax missile landed in a backyard three-quarters of a mile away, but it did not explode.” It added that “there was no report of injury to anyone outside the base.”

The timing of the mishap was treacherously close to coinciding with changes being implemented at Nike missile bases throughout the country. Each Ajax missile that exploded on May 22 was, the New York Times noted, “believed capable of producing a detonation force equivalent to more than a ton of TNT.” But the newest of Nike missiles, the Hercules, was now replacing the Ajax at most sites and was armed with a nuclear warhead.

“The [Middletown] explosion,” the New York Times said, “came a few hours after the Army had announced it was converting the base here and eight other Nike installations in Northern New Jersey from Ajax to Hercules missiles.”

The introduction of the Hercules missile eventually resulted in the shuttering of the Middletown and Wayne bases in 1963 and, by 1971, Holmdel, Old Bridge and South Plainfield had also been closed. The remaining sites were decommissioned in 1974. Today Fort Hancock in Sandy Hook contains a memorial to those killed at the Middletown base in 1958.

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