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Shielding Pittsburgh business: Half a century ago, Pittsburgh was considered to be a likely military target

This prompted the U.S. government to ring the region with missile bunkers and control towers

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Deep in the woods of the North Hills, a steel door creaks open.

The stairs, descending into the ground, lead to a dark room fortified by three-foot-thick concrete walls. The ceiling, which was once retractable, filters light through a camouflage of dirt and grass. Far below, on the floor, are bolts that helped cradle 1,200-pound guided missiles. When the time came, the bunker would mechanically spring into action. An elevator would carry the rockets to the surface. They would tilt at an 85-degree angle and shoot into the sky over Pittsburgh at 1,500 miles per hour.

Allegheny County Fire Department official Tom Cook emerges from one of three bunkers in North Park. The bunkers are empty, but the nearby land is used as a training center for county police officers and firefighters. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette Photos)

During the Cold War, this bunker was one of southwestern Pennsylvania's last lines of defense against the type of surprise assault on the United States that crippled New York City and Washington, D.C., almost two weeks ago.

But now, the missiles are gone, and the floor is awash in pools of rainwater, chipped paint and rust.

Scanning the room with a flashlight, Allegheny County Fire Department official Tom Cook said, "There is not much to see anymore."

The same could be said for the 11 other underground Cold War missile bases scattered throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Starting in the early 1950s, the Army made the protection of Pittsburgh's industrial complex a matter of national security, circling the area with bunkers, radar towers and communications equipment. It stationed more than 1,000 military officers amid the hills and woods of Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties, asking them to monitor the skies and live in hastily constructed, low-slung barracks. Their mission was to watch for long-range Soviet bombers and be prepared to knock them down with the world's first guided surface-to-air missile, known as the "Nike."

But as technology advanced and the Soviet threat receded, the Army deactivated its missiles and emptied all of its Nike camps in 1974.

Some of the sites have been left as they were during the Cold War, with switches on the walls and warning signs on the doors. Others have been paved by new owners, and some of the above-ground missile buildings are now housing a retirement home, a senior citizens center, a religious school, an air-traffic radar center, a driver's training center, a YMCA and a Native American job-training headquarters.

A few missile sites are still in the federal government's hands, awaiting a sale.

Before the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, these sites and their missiles were still buried deep in the public's imagination, relics of another period in history. But the events of the past two weeks have reawakened those Cold War memories, prompting new thoughts about the caution and preparation of the time.

The Nike missile "would be a good weapon today against terrorism," said Donald Goldstein, a professor of international relations at the University of Pittsburgh.

"If you had one on Long Island, it would have done the deed."

For Pittsburgh, a city never seriously threatened by air attack, the biggest boost from the Nike missile was always psychological. Not only did it inspire pride in the city's industrial assets, but it provided people with a strange, silent reassurance at a time of uncertainty. As former Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence put it, after touring the underground missile bunkers in 1958, "I, for one am going to sleep better because of what I saw."

Feeling safe

On a warm Saturday morning in May 1955, Pittsburgh's Nike missiles went on public display for the first time. In one of the city's largest-ever military demonstrations, a parade of 5,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine reserve units marched from the North Side to Downtown, accompanied by 10 bands, a fleet of tanks and several 90 millimeter anti-aircraft guns.

F-86 jet fighters roared overhead.

But the star of the parade was the 20-foot-long winged missile named after the Greek goddess of victory. Newspapers hailed Nike, which looked like a telephone pole with fins, as a "wonder weapon" and a "new city guardian." Planning for it began in the last days of World War II, when the United States realized that conventional anti-aircraft artillery was no match for fast, high-flying jets used by other countries, including Germany. It reflected a new thinking among the U.S. military that it needed to shield some of the country's largest and most important cities from a Soviet air attack.

Light from the flashlight of Allegheny County Fire Department official Tom Cook illuminates pools of water in the elevator assembly inside a North Park bunker, where Nike missiles would have been stored decades ago. If called into action, the missiles would have been heaved through the bunker's doors above to the earth's surface, then shot into the sky at 1,600 mph.

Pittsburgh was at the top of that list.

"Back then, Pittsburgh was definitely a target," said Barry Kukovich, who as a boy witnessed the arrival of the Nike missiles.

A 1952 U.S. Army National Guard report outlined the threat to Pittsburgh, noting its vulnerabilities. "It can be approached from all directions with no protection from the mountains," read the report, now on file at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. "Critical industrial areas strung out along the Monongahela, Ohio and Allegheny Valleys, though well dispersed, are suited for pinpoint landing but not mass or atomic bombs. River patterns excellent landmarks for navigation."

The same report also catalogued Pittsburgh's strengths as an industrial power, calling this area of the country "probably the most important section of the United States." The region's bituminous coal mines were producing most of the nation's soft coal; the steel mills were providing the steel for most of the nation's buildings, bridges and warships; and its shops were producing most of the country's machine tools. The report listed 16 steel plants that needed to be protected, along with a litany of electric manufacturing plants, highway tunnels, railroad yards and railroad tunnels.

Not mentioned, but certainly worth protecting, was the region's nuclear know-how.

At the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, Westinghouse Electric Corp. was hard at work on the first "atomic engine," a force that would propel submarines and make the U.S. Navy the most powerful on Earth. The first submarine to run on that power source slid into the water on Jan. 21, 1954, only a few months before construction started on the region's first Nike site, outside Bridgeville.

Because of the region's industrial might, "there was a fear of a domestic attack here," said Jack Gordon, spokesman for Army Reserve 99th Regional Support Command.

The first Nike missile, called the Ajax, was a formidable deterrent. It had a maximum speed of 1,600 mph and could reach altitudes of 70,000 feet. Its range was 25 miles. Its successor, the Hercules, had a maximum range of 90 miles, maximum speeds of 3,200 mph and the ability to reach targets at altitudes of 100,000 feet. Also, the Hercules could target a plane carrying nuclear weapons, hit the plane and prevent those weapons from being detonated.

To house and guide these missiles, the Army built 12 installations on the fringes of Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties, according to military records. They were in Rural Ridge-Dorseyville, Plum, Irwin, Herminie, Elizabeth, Elrama, Finleyville, Bridgeville, Robinson, North Park and Westview. The sites were often on hills, heavily protected by woods. Each battery, including barracks and underground storage space, had more than 100 men, with 60 percent of them required to be ready at all times to launch within 20 minutes.

The Army also built a command center in Oakdale, where technicians monitored radar and maps amid the glow of blue neon lights.

Supplementing the new missile system was a ring of 90 mm gun batteries in such places as Connellsville, Greensburg, Freeport, Brownsville, New Kensington, Carnegie, Amity and Claysville.

In the early 1950s, "Pittsburgh was one of the more heavily defended cities in the U.S.," said former Army National Guard Sgt. Earl Close, co-author of the 1952 "Operation Plan for the Anti-aircraft Defense of Pittsburgh."

The Nike missiles had an immediate impact on the public's imagination. The soldiers manning the sites became known as the "Buck Rogers boys," and the military tried to dazzle people with the missile's technology, letting young boys climb the rocket at a Downtown parade and giving tours of the underground bunkers. Kukovich, a public relations director at the University of Pittsburgh's graduate business school, remembers one such tour near his Westmoreland County home, in Manor.

It inspired a poem that Kukovich published in "Manortown," a collection about his hometown. When the base opened, a crowd gathered around the silos, children and parents holding hands.

"We stared as the missiles were raised up on their hydraulic shafts . . . pointing overhead into the light, blue morning sky . . . The missiles were white, the color of victory and God . . . And then they were lowered again into their pits . . .and the covers were sealed with dense, blind eyelids . . .sealed and waiting . . . while their radar twisted overhead in raw, free loops . . . thicker than my arms."

Ghosts of the cold war

Soviet bombers, however, never appeared on the horizon, and not one Nike missile ever passed through Kukovich's blue, morning sky.

Technology launched the Nike program, and technology sealed its fate.

President John F. Kennedy, when asked by the Army in 1962 to authorize a newer, more advanced Nike missile, questioned its effectiveness by comparing the Nike's defense to shooting a bullet with a bullet. Should an enemy fire thousands of bullets, Kennedy said, it would create a problem "which we have not mastered yet." Also, the Nikes were thought to be no match for the Soviet's newer intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

Defense dollars shifted elsewhere, and the Nike bases began to close.

In the Pittsburgh area, the list of Nike sites was winnowed to six by 1959 and four by 1973. The United States shut down all Nike sites in 1974. The last to close its doors in the Pittsburgh area was in Robinson, where a military man packing his papers into a cardboard box told The Pittsburgh Press, "It's the end of an era. A good era. We were given this job and we did it. It was a program that worked."

Today, many of the old Nike sites are hard to find.

The site near Manor is still obscured by low-hanging leaves, branches, thorny bushes and grapevines. There still are cows grazing in a nearby farm. Remaining are three underground missile bunkers, an administration building and a fallout shelter, all of it flanked by "Nike Road."

The site was last used by the Navy Reserves in 1985. Since then, "the facility has been sitting vacant, not doing anything," said Bob Eathorne, president of the Central Westmoreland Council of Governments. For 10 years, Eathorne's group has been trying to buy the 15-acre site from the federal government, and use it to store salt, gravel and other road materials.

Most former missile sites are undergoing similarly nonglamorous transformations.

The site in Oakdale, once mission control for the local Nike missiles, is an air traffic control tower for the Federal Aviation Administration. The site in North Park is a training center for county police officers and firefighters. An old missile site in Robinson now functions as a senior citizens center, and a site in West Deer is now home to a retirement home and The Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center Inc., which provides job training to native Americans. On a site in Irwin, there is a YMCA and in Elizabeth, there is driver's training center designed for police officers and leased by the Twin Rivers Council of Governments, which recently spent $40,000 on renovations.

Many of the homes and barracks have been renovated into new housing, too.

In Union and Finleyville, developer Robert VanVoorhis purchased 30 units of housing that once belonged to the Nike sites, paying $600,000. He renovated them and resold them, naming one of the developments "Meadowview." Growing up in Washington County, VanVoorhis remembers hearing about the missile sites he now owns, but "we didn't know an awful lot about them," he said.

The military, he said, "kept most things quiet."

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