Chesterton Tribune

Was Porter host to nuclear warheads? Cold War history still being written

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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 their desks.

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 Historical Society.

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 missiles arrived.

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 here.

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 use.

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 meaning:

“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 altitude.

Posted 3/24/2003

Updated 3/26/2003