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from Ron Plante Sun, Dec 05, 2010
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firstname.lastname@example.org December 05, 2010 2:00 AM
Fearing a Pearl Harbor-style attack by the Soviets, Otis Air Force Base was one of eight sites on the East Coast equipped with nuclear missiles pre-approved for launch by the president if an airstrike were detected.
The capability of these weapons at Otis and how easily the button could have been pushed are revealed in a new book about the nation's defense strategy during the height of the Cold War.
In December 1957, the U.S. Air Force announced plans to locate a Boeing and Michigan Aeronautical Research Center missile site, known as a BOMARC, at Otis Air Force Base. It was no secret that the 6½-ton surface-to-air missiles had nuclear capabilities, but there was little uproar among residents who apparently feared an enemy attack more than the threat of radiation.
The missiles, which could carry either nuclear or conventional warheads, could strike a target 400 miles offshore and as high as 70,000 feet.
The powerful explosives did not require a direct hit to destroy enemy aircraft and it could be in the air within 30 seconds of the launch order.
In his book on the widespread deployment of nuclear weapons titled "Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War," Christopher Bright sifted through newspaper clippings and declassified documents to write about a period when communities not only welcomed nuclear missiles to their neighborhoods, but were upset when they didn't get them.
"What I found is that many mayors and officials complained they didn't get these missiles," Bright said in a phone interview. "They felt like they weren't being protected."
In his research, Bright, who grew up near an Army missile site in Virginia that prompted his interest, found President Dwight D. Eisenhower had authorized in advance the use of these missiles in the event an attack on the United States was under way and the president could not be reached.
The once top secret documents are now posted on the National Security Archive, part of the George Washington University website.
They show that military leaders preferred the BOMARC missiles to fight back against a Soviet attack because they provided the "maximum kill capability" of incoming bombers.
On Dec. 13, 1957, on Cape Cod, the Air Force held a briefing for state, local and civic leaders about the surface-to-air missiles. Newspaper clippings from the time indicate residents were somewhat nonchalant in their reaction to the deployment.
"Following cocktails and dinner (roast beef, sole or turkey) at Otis Officers Club, guests had an opportunity to view a mock-up of the proposed construction, examine a missile model, and watch a film of an unarmed BOMARC test flight, all amid the 'pleasant accompaniment' of piano played by the sergeant's 'attractive wife'," Bright wrote quoting newspaper accounts.
According to a Cape Cod Times story published Dec. 14, 1957, one guest expressed concerns about whether the missiles would make the Cape a target, but a military official assured him that the enemy would be "wasting his efforts to aim strikes against defense bases" and instead Strategic Air Command bases would be "on the enemy's knockout list."
There were no questions raised about the nuclear capabilities of the weapons system, according to the account published by the Times.
That was a sign of the times, Bright said. "The Cape Cod reaction wasn't any different than elsewhere," he said. "They looked to government to (protect them) and they trusted the government to do it. They were told highly trained members of the military would be in charge of using the missiles. People were receptive to it."
A 1956 defense department memo that's part of the declassified documents shows military leaders believed the public would embrace the plan. "(Deployment) should have a positive effect on national morale and lessen apprehension," wrote Herbert Loper, an aide to Defense Secretary Charles Wilson.
According to Bright's book, Air Force officials were disappointed that one widely anticipated question didn't get asked at their Cape forum. The military was prepared to assure local residents that the BOMARC missiles would not affect television reception. The number of jobs the missile site created also played a role in the public support. The Times reported the BOMARC site would create 300 to 500 jobs, but Sagamore resident Donald "Jerry" Ellis said it was probably even more than that. The missile project was particularly lucrative for local pipe-fitters, he said.
Ellis, an Air Force veteran with Strategic Air Command, used his knowledge of military lingo to land a job with a subcontractor under the umbrella of Boeing at the Otis site from 1958 to 1962. He was hired to work on the classified documents having to do with the missile system. Even today, he said, he's never received clearance to talk about whether the missiles on the Cape were nuclear or conventional weapons.
"As far as I know, I'm sworn to secrecy," said the 76-year-old, who has a love of military history.
But he can talk about the mood on Cape Cod at the time and it was very supportive of the missiles. He said those who worked at the site had complete confidence in the engineers and military officers of the 26th Air Defense Command responsible for the BOMARC site.
"The engineers I had worked with, they were the most intelligent men I ever worked with. The officers were conscientious about what they were doing," Ellis said. "I felt perfectly safe. There were no scatter brains. The mission was the most important thing."
There were two types of BOMARC missiles — 28 that operated on liquid fuel and a 28 more with solid fuel that had the consistency of peanut butter, Ellis said.
Like a scene out of a James Bond movie, the missiles were housed on the base in huge warehouse-style buildings with roofs that opened up, then a mechanical arm would lift the missile skyward.
The huge steel doors, on rollers, could open within seconds, Ellis said. "The sound was incredible," he said.
The BOMARC site, located on Greenway Road near a Forestdale neighborhood and the Sandwich gate, operated at Otis from 1960 to 1973, when it was decommissioned, according to a press release issued in 1998 by Doug Karson, a spokesman for the Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment (known then as the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence).
In 1998, the BOMARC site and the area around it tested negative for radioactive contaminants, according to a study conducted by the Air Force. The site was used by the Massachusetts National Guard for equipment storage until the last buildings were removed in 2005.
Otis was one of eight BOMARC sites that included 409 missiles, according to Bright's research. There were also thousands of Genie, Falcon and Nike-Hercules missiles strategically deployed for the country's defense, Bright said.
The location of the missile sites, including Otis, were widely known and accepted, he said. His research showed that a presidential advisory panel concluded it would be impossible to hide the locations from the public.
"I think the decision was that there were going to be so many weapons and so boldly distributed that it would be impossible to keep it secret," Bright said.
ON THE WEB
To find out more about national defense during the Cold War,
see http://www.ChristopherJohnBright.com and http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb332/index.htm