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When the Bay was Groun Zero 

A look at the Cold War ghosts that haunt the rim of the city

Wednesday, Oct 16 1996
These days, the Cold War seems a distant memory, a hazy blur of missile silos, duck-and-cover drills, and Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table at the U.N. But drive into the Marin Headlands, and the Cold War is suddenly hot again.

"The first most-asked question around here is 'Where's the bathroom?' " reports Bud Halsey, the unofficial curator of a restored Nike missile site at Fort Barry, overlooking Rodeo Beach. "And the second most-asked question is, 'How come they named the Nike missiles after sneakers?' "

It's a measure of how far removed we are from the Cold War that for many people, the name Nike calls to mind not vaporized citizens and irradiated cities, but Michael Jordan soaring majestically above the rim. Never mind beating swords into plowshares -- we've managed to beat missiles into sneakers. The National Park Service, which manages the Nike launch area as a historical site, even approached Nike -- the shoe company -- to see if it would contribute money to the site, as a kind of zany cross-promotion. Nike Inc. wasn't interested, and perhaps it's just as well. Nuclear missiles probably aren't the best tie-in for a company whose slogan is "Just Do It."

The namesake in question is the Greek goddess of victory, which makes a kind of sense for both missiles and sneakers. Only Nikes of the explosive variety, of course, were deployed in the Marin Headlands from 1954 until 1974.

Nikes were guided anti-aircraft missiles, the Bay Area's last line of defense against attacking enemy (read: Soviet) bombers. The last generation of Nikes had a range of 90 miles, flew faster than 3 1/2 times the speed of sound, and could be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads. The Bay Area counted 12 Nike batteries, including sites at Fort Cronkhite (now occupied by the California Marine Mammal Center), Angel Island, the Presidio, Fort Funston (now a parking lot for hang gliders), and the Berkeley Hills. But the Fort Barry battery, officially designated by the Army as Site SF88L, is the only such site of more than 300 nationwide that's been restored for public viewing.

"This is the only national park in the country that shows the Cold War," says Halsey, a 62-year-old retired Army colonel, historian, and author who served in Korea and Vietnam and headed the Fort Point rehab for eight years. "It's a little-discussed period of our history, because it's so recent. This will probably be more important to people 100 years from now."

Generously proportioned, with a booming voice, Halsey is the quintessential sword-to-the-shoulder-spit-and-polish Army lifer. He comes from a long line of career Army vets, and lived the itinerant lifestyle of a career military man, stationed at 56 Army posts during his 34 years in the service.

"One of my daughters was 5 months old before I laid eyes on her," Halsey says.

Halsey never served at a Nike site during his Army days, but he's adopted the Fort Barry site as his latest posting. He gives curious passers-by impromptu tours of the facility and coordinates a crew of about 45 volunteers helping to restore the site to exactly how it looked when it was in operation. On a clear day, you can stand on Rodeo Beach and tell whether Halsey is manning the Nike site half a mile away -- if Old Glory is flying from the flagpole, retired Col. Bud Halsey, U.S. Army, is open for business.

"I think I've missed five days this year," Halsey says. "It's just something that has to be done."

On the first Sunday of each month, Halsey and other veterans give interpretive tours of the Nike site; most other days, you can drop by and look around yourself. A childishly hand-lettered sign welcoming you to "Bravo Battery" stands at the front gate, where once a 24-hour armed sentry stared you down. Just inside the gate is the "launch trailer," an inconspicuous truck that was actually the brains of the missile site, housing the communications equipment that actually launched the missiles. Nearby is a building that once contained four diesel generators that could provide electrical power to the base in case the Russkies knocked out West Coast power plants. There's also the battery commander's trailer, where the location of attacking planes and outgoing missiles could be tracked on a radar screen and analyzed by a charmingly crude vacuum tube computer that has less computing power than today's pocket calculators.

The missiles themselves are also on display, a dozen or so first-generation Nike-Ajax and second-generation Nike-Hercules weapons in various states of assembly, with the engines and warheads removed to prevent an accidental National Park Service missile strike on Sausalito. Even two decades after being deactivated, the 5-ton, 41-foot-long Nike-Hercules looks like it means business, twice the size of the low-flying Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at Iraq beginning on Sept. 3.

"It's one of those missiles that looks like what you think a missile should look like," says Halsey, with admiration. "It's got a lot of bang to it."

Perhaps the most surreal part of the site is an area known by crewmen as "the pit." Here, the Nikes were stored below ground to protect them from the elements, a serious consideration in the Marin Headlands, an area lashed by salty winds and thick, corrosive fog. During the Sunday afternoon tours, visitors can stand alongside a restored Nike-Hercules and ride a hydraulic elevator that lowers them and the warhead into the missile men's underground lair. As the noisy elevator clanks to the bottom of the shaft, a set of bay doors snap shut above you, and suddenly, you're trapped in a dank, dimly lit underground pit with a gigantic missile labeled "US ARMY." If a crazed Army officer suddenly grabbed you by the sleeve and started babbling about his "precious bodily fluids," you wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Down in the underground pit, behind three supposedly blastproof doors, the launch crew could sit behind a console, raise the missile to the surface, and have it ready to fire within 15 minutes. But in 20 years on the job, no Nike missile was ever fired from the Fort Barry site. In fact, no missiles were ever launched from any of the more than 300 Nike sites across the country, one of the many high-priced American weapons that deterred attack by sitting on its ass and looking mean. As the overheated slogan coined by Nike's manufacturers, Western Electric, put it in 1962: "Whatever tomorrow brings ... NIKE will be watching, always ready."

About The Author

Tom McNichol


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