Cold War Bases

Five bases in the region were built to protect Philadelphia from Cold War Soviet nuclear attacks.

by Vince Farinaccio

From 1955 to 1974, there existed a ring of military bases throughout South Jersey and Pennsylvania that were designed to protect Philadelphia from Soviet nuclear attacks during the Cold War. Each location was equipped with state-of-the-art Nike missiles that could, with the press of a button, emerge from their underground storage and be readied for firing at a moment’s notice if the radar towers at each site detected incoming threats.

There were seven locations in Pennsylvania and five in South Jersey that initially comprised the protective ring. The Keystone State sites were in Valley Forge, Worcester, Richboro, Bristol, Edgemont, Warrington and Chester, all of which were established in the timeframe of 1955-1956. Missile bases in South Jersey could be found in Swedesboro, Erial, Lumberton, Pitman and Marlton.

The 33-acre Swedesboro site on Paulsboro Road near Route 322 in Woolwich Township opened in 1957 and was known by its official designation as PH-58. It was typical of the 200-plus installations sprinkled across the country to protect major urban centers and key facilities. According to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the base had two parts: the command section, which housed the facility’s radar towers and control center, and a launch center, where the base’s nuclear-guided missiles were stored horizontally in underground magazines.”

Today, remnants of the base provide a better picture of life at the facility during the Cold War. The Inquirer article identifies vestiges such as “hatches that go down 30 feet to the missile vaults, four radio towers, a spare-parts building, a pump house, a mess hall, a drained swimming pool, quarters for officers and enlisted soldiers, a guard shack, and several sheds.”

The nj.com website dates the origin of the Erial PH-41/43 site to 1956 with its missile battery located “off Williamstown-Erial Road and the control station along Berlin-Crosskeys Road.” The PH-23/25 Lumberton base was established in 1958, one of its underground magazines now “behind the town garage,” with its “rusting radar towers and old structures…further along the road,” according to a 2010 njmonthly.com article. The PH-49 Pitman base, built in 1956, was located on Jefferson Road where, njmonthly.com reported, its launch buildings were being used by a construction company and “the control area has been taken over by Gloucester County Christian School.”

Online sources indicate that the PH-32 Marlton base, located on 35 acres, opened on July 1, 1955. The site originally contained Nike-Ajax missiles but, by the early 1960s, more bases began to wield the superior Nike-Hercules model. Unlike its predecessor, the Hercules was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and its show of strength resulted in the downsizing of the 12-site ring of bases protecting Philadelphia. In 1963, the Marlton and Pitman sites were the first of the South Jersey bases to close. By 1964, five Pennsylvania bases had also been shuttered. Only Edgemont, which would be closed in 1968, and Warrington, which would be abandoned in 1971, remained.

A southjersey.com website report from a 2001 Action News story on the Lumberton site explains publicity films of the era informed people that the Hercules missiles “‘contain a small new atomic device that can protect us safely…’ For those protecting the homeland, defensive atomic warheads were the lesser of two evils.”

The most conspicuous reminders of such Cold War installations seem to be the radar towers that still loom over the land. The njmonthly.com reporter noted of the Swedesboro site in 2010, “I spotted two radar towers rising up in the overgrown launch area off Paulsboro Road.” And the southjersey.com report from Lumberton couldn’t help but notice, “down the road, the abandoned radar towers still stand.”

We’ll take a look at the North Jersey bases next week and the mishap that occurred at one of them.

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