Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cold War Atomic Craziness

On Long Island, where I live, a bill was recently passed by the Suffolk County Legislature providing for prisoner labor to sort metal which has piled up at the former BOMARC base in Westhampton.

The legislature’s presiding officer said that Suffolk County could make millions of dollars by selling the metal as scrap.

The base was transferred to the county after its closing and has been used as a firing range for police, an impoundment yard for vehicles and for storage of old equipment and county records. .

To get some background on the BOMARC base, I went to Google, putting in the words BOMARC and Suffolk. Among the first websites listed was that of the New York State Military Museum which related: “BOMARC, the missile site in Westhampton was operated by the 6th Air Defense Missile Squadron of the USAF Air Defense Command. It was operational with the first version of the BOMARC missile, the BOMARC A, from 1959 through 1964. The base has 56 missile shelters. Each missile was armed with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead.”

What was that? “Each missile was armed with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead.” The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the TNT equivalent of 13 kilotons.

There were further details on other websites. They told of how the mission of the BOMARC base in Westhampton—and BOMARC bases set up all over the nation—was to blast Soviet bombers from the sky. Why use nuclear-tipped missiles? That way a direct hit need not be made. Once a BOMARC missile came close to the Soviet bombers, the atomic weapon on its tip would be detonated and destroy not one but part of a formation of bombers.

A November 21, 1958 front-page article in the New York Times (downloadable from the New York Times’ online archive) was headlined: “Riverhead Missile Base to Get Bomarcs With Nuclear Warheads by ’60.” It began: “The Suffolk Bomarc Base, ninety miles east of New York City, will be equipped with anti-aircraft missiles carrying nuclear warheads. The missiles, which have a range up to 250 miles, will be launchable from the site near Riverhead, L.I.” There would be 56 Bomarc missiles “at the ready.” The article spoke of there being, a day earlier, a “press conference by Army and civilian engineers” and “Air Force and Boeing Airplane Company specialists” at which these “experts confirmed that the Bomarc base would soon be fully operational atomically.” The story further noted: “No special provisions have been made for atomic hazards; they are not needed, the engineers said.”

Curiosity led me to information on the Nike bases I knew were set up on Long Island around the same time. BOMARC was an Air Force project and its acronym combined the names of its developers: BO for Boeing and MARC for Michigan Aerospace Research Center. Nike was an Army missile program and named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory.

There are numerous websites about the Nike bases established on Long Island and elsewhere in the U.S. and how the Nike Hercules model was nuclear-tipped—with bases on Long Island armed with nuclear-tipped Nikes including those in Rocky Point, Amityville, Lido Beach, Oyster Bay and Lloyd Harbor. While a main reason for the BOMARC base in Westhampton was to intercept Soviet bombers headed to New York City, the Nike bases were primarily set up to defend facilities on Long Island considered strategic, among them, according to the New York State Military Museum website, Brookhaven National Laboratory and military industrial facilities including the then Grumman Corp. and Republic Aviation factories.

There were three types of Nike nuclear tips: “low-yield” 3-kiloton; “medium yield” 20-kiloton; and “high yield” 30-kiloton

I put together an article for Long Island newspapers on the metal scavenging project at the ex-BOMARC base and referred to some of the history of nuclear-tipped missiles on Long Island. Editors inquired: how could this be? If these nuclear-tipped missiles were detonated over and around Long Island, wouldn’t there be impacts to people on the ground? Absolutely. We would have had warheads with vast explosive power—comparable to and greater than the Hiroshima atomic bomb—detonating all around us, spreading deadly radioactive fall-out.

With all the violence of recent years—and our concerns of violence ahead—we should give thanks that somehow we got through this Cold War atomic nightmare.

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