This is the first of a three part article about the anti-aircraft defenses around New York City from World War II through the Cold War years. 

Some of you might be old enough to remember the 1974 docudrama made-for-television special called “The Missiles of October” about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the famous 13-day period from October 16 to 28, 1962, when a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning the Soviet’s rapid deployment of ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba almost led to a nuclear war between the world’s two great Super-Powers. We are forever thankful that President John F. Kennedy, through hard-edge diplomatic negotiation and “Brinksmanship” was able to avoid what surely would have been a world-wide Nuclear War by literally a last minute “Hair-Trigger” negotiation with the Soviet Union and its leader, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Similarly, from 1954 to 1974, another form of “Hair-Trigger” nuclear alerts existed in the United States around our major cities, industrial centers and our SAC strategic USAF bomber bases. This was the “Ring of Steel” that was built around those strategic centers in the form of what would become as many as 250 Nike Missile Batteries around those centers to protect America from attacks by mass formations of Soviet nuclear strategic bombers, primarily the Tupolev TU-95 long range “Bear” bomber. The Bear still exists today as Russia’s primary intercontinental bomber, along with the Tu-160 “Blackjack” and the TU-22M “Backfire” bombers.

Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bomber; US Navy Photo, unknown photographer

The Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bomber is a massive four-engined turbo-prop powered strategic bomber and stand-off missile platform. Of 500 “Bears” built, including the Tu-95 intercontinental bomber and the Tu-142 ASW-RECCE bombers, 60 “Bears” remain operational and are still flying today, some of which are still flying off the East Coast and Alaska. (The metrics are similar to that of the USAF – Of 744 B-52’s built, 75 still remain operational today.) The Tu-95 was first flown in 1952 (as was the YB-52) and became fully operational in in 1956, and is expected to serve the Russian Air Force at least until 2040 (as is the USAF B-52H). The Tu-95 has four turbo-prop engines with eight high-speed coaxial contra-rotating propellers (CRP), has an un-fueled range of 9,400 miles, a cruise speed of 575 mph and a ceiling of 45,000 feet. In the 1950’s and 1960″s, the last line of defense from anticipated attacks by massed formations of Tu-95 “Bear” bombers attacking American urban centers like New York City with City-Busting 50 megaton nukes, were the multi-tiered USAF long-range radar sites, the USAF Air Defense Command (ADC) fighter interceptor jets, the long range BOMARC aircraft interceptor missiles, and the final Close-In weapon system of the day, the Nike-Ajax and nuclear-tipped Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile batteries.

The Nike Missile:

The Nike Missile System was the “Ring of Steel” proposed by President Eisenhower to encircle and protect the big East Coast cities like New York from Soviet nuclear bomber attack. The Nike Missile (named after “Nike”, the goddess of Victory from Greek mythology) was a US Army project first proposed in May 1945 by Bell Laboratories, a firm actually located in New Jersey right near Sandy Hook, to develop a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system. The project delivered the United States’ first operational anti-aircraft missile system, the Nike-Ajax, in 1953. The first Nike System deployed around New York City was the Nike-Ajax MIM-3/3A from 1953 to 1964. The Nike-Ajax, a 2-stage SAM, developed by Bell Labs in nearby Holmdel, New Jersey and built by Douglas Aircraft, had a flight ceiling of 70,000 feet, and an operational range of 30 miles, a speed of 1,710 mph, had a solid fuel rocket “Booster” stage and a liquid fuel second stage “Sustainer”, a length of 32 feet 8 inches, a diameter of 16 inches and carried a three-part payload warhead with explosive charges consisting of three high-explosive (HE) fragmentation warheads mounted in the nose, center and aft sections of the missile – almost an early version of a MIRV concept. By 1958 there were 200 Nike-Ajax Batteries around the US at 40 “Defense Areas” with a “Ring of Steel” around potential targets consisting of clusters of Nikes. Each Nike-Ajax SAM Battery consisted of a Nike Integrated Fire Control (IFC) and Radar Center, a separate Magazine Missile Storage and Launch Area (MLA) and the Administrative Support Facility (A).

Due to advances in the Soviet Tu-95 and development of early short range stand-off missiles, a new Nike missile was needed with a longer range and a safer solid fuel system was needed. In response, a new Nike-Hercules started being developed in 1953. The newer Nike-Hercules (MIM-14A/B) (SAM-A-25) was also a 2-stage SAM missile with a little used surface-to-surface capability and an early ability to hit other short range incoming stand-off missiles in flight, beside its primary anti-aircraft mission. The Nike-Hercules, operational from 1958 to 1974, was also designed by Bell Labs in New Jersey and built by Douglas Aircraft. The Hercules was 51 feet long, had a Booster diameter of 31.5 inches and had a conventional or nuclear warhead capability. The nuclear warhead for the Hercules was typically 2, 20 or 40 kiloton yield. As a point of reference, the Hiroshima bomb yield was 15 kiloton and the Nagasaki bomb yield was 21 kiloton.) The Hercules could also have a T-45 HE conventional warhead of 1,106 pounds with an additional 600 pounds of HBX-6 M17 Blast Fragmentation Metal used in a proximity burst. This missile also had a first stage solid fuel “Booster” with a 4-rocket cluster and with a second stage Thiokol “Sustainer” M30 split fuel rocket with the warhead attached to the nose. It had a radar ground controlled command guidance system, a range of 90 miles, a speed of 2,750 mph and a ceiling of 150,000 feet. The ceiling was so great because the Hercules was designed to be boosted above the Tu-95 bomber formation operating at 45,000 feet and into the thinner air and “loft” down and descend on it in a arcing gliding dive. The 40 kiloton nuke would detonate above the bomber formation and the explosion would, in theory, kill a number of “Bears” with one single missile. The Hercules could also kill a single Tu-95 in a similar downward arc. The arc targeting in conjunction with radar command guidance was tested in Alaska on real aircraft targets and the measured accuracy was within 3 feet of the target with 1 Vs. 1 targeting.

There were 25 Nike-Hercules Batteries around New York City: 9 sites were in New York, 10 sites were in New Jersey (excluding the Philadelphia area which was a different Air Defense Sector) and 6 in nearby Connecticut. Most Nike-Hercules missile batteries, like the one at Sandy Hook, had 16 missiles on Alert ready to fire instantly. There were usually an additional 8 missiles kept in storage in the underground Missile Magazine concrete bunker for a total of 24 missiles at most Nike Missile Batteries. One of the 10 Nike Missile batteries in New Jersey was at “Sandy Hook”, a narrow curving 5 mile long spit of sand at the most northern reaches of the Jersey Shore jutting out into New York Harbor. On this sliver of sand sits the second most well preserved Nike-Hercules Missile Battery in the entire United States – “NY-56” – its official USAF / NORAD / SAGE designation during the Cold War. Sandy Hook NY-56 still has a refurbished “Integrated Fore Control (IFC) Center”, open and hidden Target Tracking and Missile Guidance Radar Stands, Missile Launch Area and Underground Missile Magazine Bunker Storage and some support buildings. Most importantly, there are six refurbished inert Nike Missiles on public display. I discovered all this Cold War stuff while on a Recon Mission to Sandy Hook in October of 2018. Like the “Missiles of October”, I call all this military archeology the “Missiles of Sandy Hook”!!! Onward !!!

While recovering from the September Super Shows at Stewart and Oceana, I took a drive up the Jersey Shore in late October to explore the military archeology of Sandy Hook National Park, It is at the coastal northeastern tip of New Jersey that juts out into Raritan Bay and Lower New York Bay overlooking the New York City skyline about 10 miles away. Sandy Hook – officially called “Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground National Historic Landmark”, is a part of the “Gateway National Recreation Area”, a giant National Park system that encircles large tracts of land and beaches around Lower New York Bay. It includes such well known old military bases as: the famous Floyd Bennett Field with its HARP Historic Aircraft Restoration Project with 15 warbirds; Fort Tildon with the ruins of another Nike base; and Fort Wadsworth, a large fortification with harbor defensive WW2 gun emplacements located at the base of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on the Staten Island side. On the Brooklyn side is another gun emplacement within Fort Hamilton, still an active Army military base almost under the bridge. Sandy Hook is a narrow five mile long curving spit of sand with low vegetation that curves into Lower New York Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The whole “Hook” was an active military base from before the Revolutionary War until 1974 due to its strategic location protecting New York City and the approaches into New York Harbor. The British were the first to realize its military importance and quickly occupied it during the Revolutionary War allowing for the easy capture of New York City by the Red Coats in 1776. Sandy Hook became home to Fort Hancock in 1895 as a large Army base increasing the size of the older small fort at the far northern end.

The Guns at Fort Hancock:

Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook was first responsible for protecting New York Harbor from enemy attack by ships at sea with the Fort’s large coastal guns. Many large concrete gun batteries were built around Sandy Hook between 1890 and 1945 both on the Bay side and on the Atlantic Ocean side concealed by Sandy Hook’s natural sand dune topography and protected by massive concrete bunkers that surprisingly all still exist today. The first was “Battery Potter”, a steam-powered “lift-gun battery” that could raise hydraulically two 12 inch caliber breech-loading big riffled guns up and out of its concrete roof enclosure and could fire half-ton armor-piercing projectiles seven miles out and then be lowered back into the concrete casement for protection and re-loading. They became known as “disappearing guns”. Sandy Hook was also the site of America’s first defensive long range Mortar Battery. The still accessible mortar cluster mounted sixteen 12-inch caliber breech-loading riffled mortars contained in four massive concrete and earth covered “Firing Pits”. These mortars were designed to fire armor-piercing projectiles weighing up to 1,000 pounds in high firing arcs to bombard almost like an aircraft bomber an approaching battleship or a cruiser that had penetrated close to shore.

Just before WW1 more heavy concrete gun batteries were built at Sandy Hook and all are still accessible today to the public. To speed up and simplify the “disappearing gun” concept and increase the rate of fire, a simple large counter-weight was later used to raise the gun into a firing position. After firing, the recoil of the gun lowered the gun back down and back into its protective wall of the battery. From 1896 to 1909, seven counter-weight type disappearing guns mounting a total of sixteen 6, 8, 10, and 12 inch caliber guns were built at Sandy Hook. These included the still accessible “Battery Granger”, with two 12-inch guns, the huge “Nine-Gun Battery” at North Beach and a single 2-gun battery at the northern most tip of Sandy Hook. Fort Hancock defenses in WWI also included smaller gun batteries that mounted 3, 5 and 6-inch caliber guns that could be loaded, aimed and fired quickly to sink small and fast enemy warships like destroyers and torpedo boats. An existing example of this type of gun at Sandy Hook is the “Battery Gunnison” near Gunnison Beach. Gunnison, originally a 6-inch Disappearing Gun in WW1, was modified in WW2 to become two Model 1900 6-inch “Barbette Guns”. Today, these two guns are the only surviving heavy steel guns of Fort Hancock’s many gun batteries. All the other large steel gun barrels were scrapped after WW2 in 1946. However, all the concrete gun batteries still exist today and you can walk around all of them and get pretty close. The Battery interiors are very dangerous and are totally Off-Limits for safety reasons.

By World War 2, battleship guns out-ranged the Disappearing Gun Batteries 7 to 10 mile range. To out-range anticipated attacks by German battleships, the “Model 1917 Barbette” gun carriage was introduced. This carriage allowed 12-inch guns to fire at a high angle over 20 miles in any direction. The Army built two Barbette Gun Batteries at Sandy Hook on the bayside where they could not be seen by enemy warships. Named “Battery Kingman” and “Battery Mills”, they each mounted two 10-inch guns. “Battery Kingston” was also added. All the WW2 Gun batteries still exist today. Visual range spotting towers were built on the nearby 500 foot high Mount Mitchell, the highest point on the eastern seaboard south of Maine, on an area still called “The Atlantic Highlands” over-looking the entrance to Sandy Hook with a magnificent view far out into the Atlantic Ocean. Additional long range coastal guns were located at the “Highlands”, Fort Wadsworth and Fort Hamilton, now at both ends of the massive Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and also at Fort Tildon in Queens, NY, on the beach near Floyd Bennett Field in southern Brooklyn with a pair of big 16 inch battleship-type guns, all ringing New York Harbor. Sandy Hook also had many concrete machine gun nests and other concrete bunkers to store the high explosive shells, as well as many anti-aircraft gun batteries. By 1940, Atlantic Highlands had a number of gun batteries that still exist today – Battery Lewis, a casement coastal defense battery with two 16 inch / 50 caliber Mark-2 guns, one recently re-installed from reserve USS Iowa Class battleship guns; and Battery 219, with two 6 inch M1903, 25 foot long guns that were on circular rotary mounts and an underground command bunker that still remains there in the woods. By WWII, the fear was German planes attacking New York City. Many anti-aircraft gun batteries were added to protect the big guns at Sandy Hook and the City from German aerial attacks, as remote as that seemed. In addition, thick concrete walls and roofs called “Casements” were built around any exposed long range guns for aerial bombardment protection. No German aircraft ever attacked the New York City area.

The Proving Grounds:

In addition to the massive gun batteries, Sandy Hook was also home to the “Sandy Hook Proving Ground”. The Secretary of War established the facility in 1874 to serve as the US Army’s first proving ground for “the testing of ordinance and material” until it was relocated to the “Aberdeen Proving Ground” in Maryland in 1919. “Proof Battery”, which still exists today, was used to test various types of long range guns and shells. Additional testing batteries were added to test a variety of guns, some as large as 14 inches. In 1893 a narrow gauge railroad was built to bring guns and shells from a dock to the Battery. In 1899, a standard gauge railroad connected the mainland RR systems was built to provide easy access for the large guns and ordinance to be tested. Initially guns were fired south parallel with the beach and exploding on the beach as far south as seven miles down range in what is now Sea Bright, New Jersey, in what was then a totally unpopulated area. As the required ranges went beyond seven miles, the gun were aimed out into the Atlantic Ocean to achieve greater testing ranges. After WWII, in 1946 the testing gun batteries were abandoned in place, the steel guns and mounts were scrapped and today you can walk around all of these old massive concrete artillery testing batteries and gun mounts at Sandy Hook.

Be sure to return right here for Parts 2 and 3 during the month of January, 2019!

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