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Reading 3: Site Summit Standing Guard

Alaska’s Site Summit was a Nike-Hercules missile facility and part of the Nike Project. An active missile facility from May 1959 until July 1979, it is a preserved example of an American military defense site in the Cold War. During the 1960s, the military did live practice firings from the site to prepare for a “hot” war with the Soviet Union. Site Summit was one of just a few sites where test fires were done. These test firings were a display of readiness. They showed Americans that the site was prepared to protect the Army and Air Forces bases and the City of Anchorage, as well as the Lower 48, from a Soviet attack.

In April 1957, the Army Corps of Engineers worked with a contracting company in Anchorage to build the three Anchorage Nike facilities for about $10 million. The companies began building Site Summit in May 1957 and finished it in September 1958. The Nike Project equipment arrived in February 1959 and the battery became active three months later.

COMMAND AND PERSONNEL

The Army was in charge of running the Nike facilities. Two battalions ran the Nike facilities in Alaska. One battalion was headquartered at Fort Richardson near Anchorage and one at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks.

The Anchorage battalion was made up of four batteries at Site Summit, Site Bay, and Site Point. A battery generally has two launch structures. However, Site Point was a double battery, which means it had four launch structures. Each battery had a control station and two missile launch and storage structures with four launchers.

A Nike facility usually needed 125 soldiers to operate. Only 50 men could live there, so some soldiers drove to and from the facility daily. The site was staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For security reasons, the enlisted men knew only their specific job, whether it was running the radars or assembling missiles.

The Nike missiles were not always stored at the facility. A building at Mile 3 of the Glenn Highway housed nuclear missile warheads. The warheads could be transported to Site Summit.

NIKE MISSILE SYSTEM OPERATION

The Nike missile system included radars for tracking enemy airplanes and a computer to guide a missile to its target. The radars were located at the Battery Control area. The computer was located in a radar control van that was parked inside the mechanical area of the Battery Control Building. Two acquisition radars swept the sky looking for enemy airplanes. Once one spotted an enemy target, the tracking radar locked onto the target and sent information about the enemy airplane to the computer and the missile. The target ranging radar kept the enemy from jamming the tracking radar. When they wanted to fire the missile, the Battery Control Officer commanded the Launch Control Officer, in the Launching Control building, to push the "fire" button. The radars and computer kept the missile on target once it was launched. The missile warhead exploded on command from the computer when the missile got close to its target.

LIVE MISSILE FIRINGS 1960-1963

Alaska Nike missile facilities Site Summit and Site Peter were among the few sites in the United States that fired missiles for practice. The people who worked at all of the other Nike facilities in the United States traveled to Fort Bliss, Texas, to use the White Sands Missile Range for their yearly practice firings. Fort Bliss was the Army's testing center for missiles and rockets.

The first live Nike missile practice firing from Site Summit was on November 20, 1960. This was one year after the first practice firing in Alaska took place at Site Peter. The Army practiced firings from Site Summit for four years in November and December, between 1960 and 1963. The missiles flew northeast towards Mount Witherspoon. The Army always posted the schedule of the firings in the Anchorage newspapers. The firings could be seen from most parts of Anchorage. Many of Anchorage’s residents took time out of their day to watch the firings. Children even got time out of school to watch them!

The Army cancelled practice firings from Site Summit in July 1964. The population of Anchorage increased so much since 1960 that it was no longer safe to fire practice missiles in the area. After this, the Anchorage battalion went to Fairbanks for yearly practices that lasted until 1968. Many live practice firings happened in Alaska, but the Army never used Alaska’s Nike missiles against a Soviet attack.

SUMMARY

The Army started closing the Nike facilities in 1965. The Nike system could not stop new kinds of missiles like the intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Army developed a new missile called the Patriot to fight the new missiles. The Fairbanks Nike facilities closed in 1970 and 1971. The last facilities in the country to close were in Alaska and Florida. Site Summit closed in July 1979, but the Army guarded it until 1986.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Site Summit is the most complete Nike facility in Alaska. It is better-preserved than other Nike sites from the Cold War. Special features not found at Nike facilities in the Lower 48 make it unique among all of America’s preserved Nike facilities. Alaska’s cold, subarctic weather demanded that special features at Alaska's Nike sites. For example, the radars at the battery control area needed covers. Heating coils inside the blast pad kept it clear of snow and ice. Underground tunnels held the power, heat, water, and communication lines. Evidence of these weather-braving additions is present at Site Summit. The historic site is preserved as a reminder of an unstable, uncertain period in American history as well as a reminder of how Alaska transformed from a territory into the 49th state.

Questions for Reading 3

1) What challenges and dangers did the U.S. Army face at Site Summit?

2) How did the Army overcome the geographical challenges? How did it take precautions against human threats?

3) How do you think people in Anchorage felt about the practice firings? How do you think people in California or Texas felt about the practice firings in Alaska?

4) If an archeologist discovers Site Summit 1,000 years from now, what do you think the place and its features could tell him or her about Alaska in the 1960s? Name a few features and explain what they could reveal.

 

Reading 3 adapted from National Park Service. 1996. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Site Summit.

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