“If It Flies, It Dies”: Exploring Indiana’s C-47 Nike Missile Site
Nike Missile Site C-47, Today
Staring at a stretch of concrete littered with forty years of trespassing, vandalism, and weeds, it’s easy to view the entire Nike Missile Program as millions wasted.
Twenty years, 265 sites, 40 strategic defense areas, round-the-clock staffing, updates, training, technology, construction, and eventual decommissioning—all of this carrying a price tag so staggering, estimating it in 2019 dollars would turn your stomach.
History in hindsight is always deceptively simple: Rome traded democracy for dictatorship. Feudalism ended with the longbow. Literacy began with the Plague. Never fight a Russian winter. Khrushchev blinked. Reagan didn’t.
There is no simplifying history; only oversimplifying it.
Let’s reframe the Nike Missile Program and the C-47 Site:
Imagine jumping out of a plane with not one parachute, but ten carefully-packed parachutes. As you plummet to the ground, you pull the rip cords, only to find each parachute has failed, one by one. When you got to that tenth and final chute, wouldn’t you regard it with reverence? Wouldn’t it become something more than thread, silk, and wire?
—Please, please work, PLEASE—
For two decades, the Nike program sites were America’s final parachute. If nuclear war had ever arrived, and the Soviet bombers and/or ICBMs eluded a Strategic Air Command’s first-strike, NATO defenses, waves of American fighters AND anti-aircraft missiles…these Nike missile bases were the last line of defense for Chicago and all of Northwest Indiana. Those sites stood against an unimaginable tapestry of horror, suffering, and death by the hundreds of thousands.
Seeing it like that…adjusting 1953 dollars for inflation seems a little ridiculous.
Project Nike: 1953-1973
From 1953 to 1973, approximately 265 Nike Missile Sites protected 40 defense areas across the United States. The rudimentary delivery systems for nuclear weapons in the early 1950s necessitated a focus on cities and concentrated industrial or strategic targets. The “overkill” strategy of mutually-assured destruction would not arrive for another decade or so.
The purpose of Project Nike was entirely defensive; an effort to fortify the likeliest targets in the United States and eliminate the chance of Soviet success in nuclear attack. These sites, which formed asymmetrical clusters called “Defense Areas,” served the same function as anti-aircraft gun batteries had during World War II.
Jet propulsion and high altitude bombardment had rendered AA guns obsolete; Project Nike merged the budding technology of computers, radar systems, and rocket propulsion in a single package. The result was a weapon that exceeded Mach 2, had an effective range of 25 miles, and utilized advanced radar guidance data to adapt to changes in target altitude, direction, and speed.
Development and testing took several years, since the engineers of Project Nike were creating the world’s first surface-to-air missile, but once the Nike Ajax had proved itself again and again in live fire demonstrations, the US Army quickly began replacing the nearly one thousand AA batteries across the US with Nike launch sites. By the early 60s, 265 Nike bases dotted the US.
Each Nike missile site differed in layout, depending on local topography, but shared three major components: a launcher area, a control or administrative area, and at least three radar towers. Military policy required a half-mile separation between the control and launcher areas, so control staff would be protected in case of an accidental missile explosion.
Multiple radar towers allowed Project Nike computers to acquire, track, and guide missiles simultaneously. Combined with a rigorously-trained staff and efficient launcher design, a single Nike battery could fire nearly a missile a minute at approaching targets.
In the case of Northwest Indiana’s C-47 base (which contained three launch batteries), that meant a fire rate of one Ajax every twenty seconds. Add that to the 19 other Nike sites in the Chicago-Gary Defense Area, you have a blanket of supersonic destruction with which Soviet bombers had to contend.
Going Nuclear: Nike-Hercules
Despite its reliability and accuracy, the Nike Ajax had a significant flaw; when approaching grouped target formations, its control and radar systems tended to see clustered targets (such as a wing of Soviet bombers) as a single target, resulting in the Ajax’s premature detonation with no damage to target aircraft.
Additionally, the Soviet military’s addition of ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) to its nuclear arsenal posed a challenge for the Ajax, which had an operational flight ceiling of 70,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 2.25. While effective against a long-range bomber, those performance specs do little against an ICBM reentry vehicle traveling at speeds exceeding Mach 5. While designers originally intended to simply mount a small nuclear warhead on the Ajax, they ultimately decided an improved surface-to-air missile utilizing the same launch platform as the Ajax would be a better investment.
This redesign, first called the Nike B, then the Nike-Hercules, was a significant upgrade from the Ajax. The Hercules used only solid fuel as a propellent, rather than liquid fuel, improving the missile’s safety and rate of fire. It also posed a significant threat for bombers AND ICBMs—it had an effective range of almost 100 miles and a flight ceiling of 100,000 feet, with a top speed of Mach 3.65. To provide these performance boosts in short order, military engineers simply bolted four Nike-Ajax boosters together to create a single Hercules’ booster.
But the most significant change was the replacement of a conventional warhead with a nuclear one, allowing a single missile to destroy multiple targets and increase its chances of success against an ICBM. The C-47 Nike missile site was among the first to receive the nuclear-armed Hercules (a 20-kiloton warhead, roughly the same as the Nagasaki bomb).
Ending an Era
For twenty years, the Nike sites provided 24-hour protection against an impending Soviet attack, but by the mid-1960s, the number of ICBMs in the Soviet and American arsenals rendered the defensive capability of the Nike sites obsolete. In 1965, Soviet and American military each possessed around 30,000 nuclear warheads in a variety of forms, with enough potential to destroy human civilization twenty times over.
Things had, uh, gotten out of hand.
In 1972, the United States sacrificed the aging Nike program as a concession in the SALT I talks (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) and by 1974, almost all Nike sites were decommissioned, including all those in the Chicago-Gary Defense Area. Missiles and equipment were dismantled, repurposed, or scrapped, leaving behind only the immovable structures.
*My father was among the military personnel to decommission and scrap site C-45 near the Gary Municipal Airport.
C-47 Site Launcher Area, Today
Contrary to rumors, the C-47 site is NOT an abandoned parcel of land, but a National Historic Site and therefore, protected. I toured the facility myself recently, but that was under the unofficial purveyance of historian and county park employee. To be more specific, I know what to look for and I know what I shouldn’t touch.
In Northwest Indiana, the site is no secret, as evidenced by the tapestry of graffiti covering the structure. Across the entire launch site, the only item in good repair was the swinging gate guarding its entrance. Everything else had been tragically left to the elements. YouTube videos and image searches prove the site has been crawled over again and again, yet I have seen nothing hinting at its historic importance.
Not all Nike sites are historic. C-47 is the only complete base remaining out of the 19 in the Chicago-Gary Defense Area. The Control or Administration Area is now leased to a paintball facility known as Blast Camp, which creatively wove the site’s history into its company branding. The original buildings (including the radar towers) remain relatively intact in both areas. Coupled with that is the site’s early use of the nuclear-armed Nike-Hercules.
The C-47 site has been designed “historic” since 1998, yet nothing has been done since then, other than a new padlock installed on the site’s gate. Chances are no local, county, state, or federal officials will do anything significant with the site. Instead C-47 has been subjected to the humiliation of slow decay and an assortment of cryptic graffiti. That is a damn tragedy.
My hope is that a company or private donor, interested in the preservation of historic structures, might take an interest in the site and restore it, at least enough that guided tours might be possible. A water pump and generator, a half-dozen weed whackers, some herbicide, and a mass of volunteers could transform the site in a few weeks.
My visit was brief; the forest of weeds surrounding the buildings made entry too complicated and the temperature hovered near 100. I’ll return when cold weather has thinned the greenery, making exploration easier.
C-47 LAUNCH ELEVATORS
The shock of seeing the crumbling, vandalized buildings being swallowed by weeds didn’t anger as much as sadden me. Those of who have lived in and near Chicago and Northwest Indiana, or have family from this area, owe a debt to the site and to the soldiers that staffed it. Few things are more political or controversial than nuclear weapons, but this site’s purpose was only defensive. Not only defensive, but our LAST DEFENSE.
Through two decades of both the imagined and actual horrors of the Cold War, soldiers manned this (and all) Nike sites 24-hours a day, ready in moments to protect citizens from nuclear annihilation. To me, the fate of C-47 is equivalent to throwing a friend’s corpse in a ditch. Burn it, bury it, but it’s not right to just let it rot away.
Still not satisfied? How about browsing the nuts and bolts of the Nike Program with this 1962 “FM 44-1: Department of the Army Field Manual“. Folks, this is the instruction manual of the entire Nike Missile system. A treasury of information.