By PAULENE POPARAD
Between 1957 and 1974, no one knows for sure whether nuclear warheads were
standing at the ready in Porter as part of the United States defense system,
one of 30 Nike missile bases then in the Chicago region and 260 nationwide
and in Europe.
When it comes to the nuclear question, according to retired Army Col. Bill
Lawrence, who commanded the Porter installation between August, 1959 and
September, 1961, “We could not deny or confirm that fact then and I don’t
know that anything’s changed.”
In 1945, the United States became the first nuclear superpower, closely
followed in 1949 with Russia exploding its own atomic bomb. The next decades
had both countries in the grip of the Cold War: bomb shelters, fallout
shelters, and emergency drills in school sending children scrambling under
The United States and its allies felt threatened by the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics’ efforts to promote communism. The Soviets launched
Sputnik in 1957 and tensions escalated. Distant early warning (DEW) system
posts were built in Canada and Alaska to warn of a Russian attack.
The U.S. Army chose Nike, the goddess of victory, for its missile program.
Joined by Zeus, Ajax and Hercules missiles, they were installed at military
installations built through the Fifties to protect ports, government
institutions and key industrial areas.
Among them, Northwest Indiana.
“They put a lot of emphasis on our little corner of the world,” said
National Park Service public program coordinator Cliff Goins. He spoke
Thursday about Chicago’s Ring of Fire, its Nike bases, to the Duneland
Goins said the local bases --- all since deactivated --- were at Wheeler,
now a private paintball camp; two in Gary, at the Gary/Chicago Airport and
at 35th Avenue near Chase Street; and in Porter, the latter known as C-32.
A Nike base was actually two parcels separated by about two and a half
miles, one area the command/control and radar centers and the other the
missile bunkers and launch sites. Lawrence said a missile could be fired
within 15 minutes. “We had to be ready. We got alerts very frequently. They
were all drills but a couple of times we did have a situation where we had
an unknown aircraft.”
Lawrence said the Nike missile technology was based on the long guns used in
World War II, and the computers were analog rather than digital. The 41-foot
long Nike had a range of 75 miles, said Goins, and used high explosive
fragmentation or nuclear warheads.
Compared to the precision-guided armaments being used against Iraq today,
“Ours were certainly crude,” said Lawrence, who attended to hear Goins talk.
Goins said while there’s a lot of information about the Nike missile program
available in general, there’s not much specifically about the Porter site.
Said Lawrence, “Photographs were a no no. We really enforced that.”
When C-32 was first built and equipped with Ajax missiles, the public was
allowed to visit during open houses. “They served great cake,” recalled Tom
Lipinski. But Lawrence said the open houses stopped when the Hercules
About 120 people worked at C-32 when it was at full strength. It wasn’t
uncommon to work 80-100 hours a week, said Goins. There were few
recreational facilities, and the workers likely were exposed to hazardous
materials and possibly electromagnetic radiation.
A highlight for the base was in 1959 when 10 Norwegian Army officers visited
C-32’s launch area was located on Wagner Road near Oak Hill Road. The ready
building became a private residence, and subdivisions are springing up
around the former Wagner site. The base command center is on Mineral Springs
Road and several of those buildings have been reincarnated for a new federal
Goins said when the Nike/Hercules missile system was deactivated in 1974
C-32 went up for sale. In 1976 the Park Service began negotiating to acquire
the Oak Hill Road complex to relocate its headquarters, which at that time
were crammed into the Buell Visitor Center on Kemil Road. After
rehabilitating the C-32 buildings, the Park Service moved in 1979. A former
radar tower now is used for the park’s radio repeater, and the C-32 water
treatment plant also is being used.
Goins said some former missile bases across the United States are open to
the public and provide interpretive programs. “We can tell that story at the
Indiana Dunes,” noted Goins, who also said some are lobbying at the state
level for Indiana to have a Nike base be designated an historical site.
Goins said in 1972 the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) talks began,
and in 1985 the Reagan/Gorbachev peace talks laid the groundwork for the
Cold War to end in 1990.
Speaking the night after coalition troops advanced into Iraq, Goins told
Historical Society members and guests that the quotation by Woodrow Wilson
he uses to conclude his Nike base talk took on an especially significant
“We are again face to face with the necessity of asserting anew the
fundamental right of free men to make their own laws and choose their own
allegiance, or else permit humanity to become the victim of a ruthless
ambition that is determined to destroy what it cannot master.”
HEARD: Walter Alberti of Porter, in 1957 a Sgt. 1st Class and launcher
section chief stationed at the Porter Nike base, said up to 18 missiles were
equipped with nuclear warheads of three different magnitudes. If an accident
would have occurred there, said Alberti, the warheads were designed to
implode into themselves; otherwise, they were set to detonate at a pre-set