Veterans explore old nuclear missile sites in Anchorage

Veterans from across the United States gathered in Anchorage last weekend to tour two of Alaska’s eight Nike Sites. The sites housed nuclear missiles in bunkers around Anchorage and Fairbanks during the Cold War. 

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Midway up the mountain that looms over Arctic Valley, a decrepit, weather-beaten one-room building sits in the tundra by an old gravel road. Tiles peel off the floor and broken circuitry hangs out of the wall. On a recent Saturday morning, Nike Vet Greg Durocher gives a tour to veterans who served on the mountain and at similar sites around the state. He points out oddities, like the endless layers of paint on the walls.

“And I know for a fact that some of the painting around here was done by me when I’d get extra duty for something,” he confesses as the group laughs knowingly. “Because I, none of us, would always tow the line.”

Durocher was stationed at Nike Summit above Anchorage from 1974 to ’76 as a military police officer. He sat in the sentry post and tested door locks to make sure no one entered the top secret areas. He says the soldiers had many long, boring stretches, so they played quick draw with their guns or tried to slide down the mountain in the snow. Durocher says they were there to do an important job, though he can’t say much about what exactly they were doing.

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” he says half seriously. “I don’t really know what we’re cleared to say.”

Other Nike vets were less reticent to talk about their time working at the sites containing nuclear missiles meant to protect the United States from a Soviet invasion. Standing on the crumbling mountaintop launch pad, a group of vets compared notes on what each person knew about the rotation schedule for the three missile launch sites stationed around Anchorage.

“One week on, one week standby… ” one says.

“But the hot battery would usually have something wrong and the other would have to be called up,” another interjects.

Nike sites were set up near all of the major cities and military bases in the United States to protect them from potential Soviet air strikes. Using radars, the soldiers tracked Soviet planes and could fire nuclear warheads at them within 15 minutes of notification. The ones in Alaska were considered especially important because Soviet planes would have to fly over the state to get to strategic sites in the Lower 48.

Kincaid Park was another site.

Nike Site history buff Mike Cox walks through the upper parking lot and points to a gray concrete building.

“You can tell this is a launch bunker… here are the rails, right here,” pointing to the tracks where the missiles would roll out of the bunkers for test runs. Most of the rails were covered over by the parking lot.

Cox says the sites were obsolete pretty soon after they were built in 1959 because the radars weren’t fast enough to track missiles launched from the ground or from submarines. But the military kept the sites as deterrents. One of the concrete bunkers at the park was filled with missiles during the 1964 earthquake.

“There were missiles here on their cradles,” he says while standing in the building now used for waxing skis. “They all came crashing to the ground and the missiles split. The solid propellants were spilled all over the ground in here. Several missiles went live in the sense that the electronics became alive and the gyroscopes started spinning. Now just think what could have happened had that propellant gone off and exploded.”

Cox says luckily nothing sparked in the area.

The soldiers stationed at the site spent three days cleaning up the bunker. An account from one soldier calls it the most terrifying period of his life. The unit was given a meritorious citation.

“However, because this was all top secret, they could never talk about it. They had a parade on base but they couldn’t tell their spouses what they had done.”

Now their story is told on a new brass plaque displayed at the park.

Many of the vets said that despite the high levels of secrecy, the relationships they formed as they hid from nasty weather in rec rooms and passed the long, dark hours were incredibly important.

For Tony Barbee, his most important relationship beyond his marriage was with his sentry dog, a German Shepard named Monty.

“Sweetest creature you would ever want to know. Unless you annoyed him or broke a rule on entrance.”

Barbee says he was bonded with his dog, who saw everyone else as an enemy. They patrolled the site at Arctic Valley day and night and in all weather conditions. He says after two years, in 1966, he trained the next handler then had to leave Monty behind.

“It just broke my heart. But I knew that was gonna come,” he recalls. “But I just enjoy and cherish the memories of the activities that went on and what we did. And the fact that we were part of a force that was necessary and needed.”

In 1979, the Nike Site Summit in Arctic Valley was one of the last sites to be closed in the nation. The Friends of Nike Site Summit are trying to restore some of the ageing buildings and offer limited tours of the areas.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne