Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Cold War in South El Monte and Whittier, Cal.

There is hardly a trace of the Nike bases in South El Monte or in the unincorporated part of Whittier.

The U.S. military Nike missile project (the same Greek word as associated with the shoe) was spawned by the Soviet competition during the Cold War.  It resulted in hundreds of missile sites throughout the country, including 16 in the Los Angeles region alone by 1958.

Image courtesy of the Aerospace Contamination Museum of Education

The Fort MacArthur Museum website states:

Nike missiles were launched from a self-contained launch area. Each site was equipped with two or three launching platforms each with an underground storage magazines, an elevator and four missile erectors. The missiles were stored underground on rails and were brought to the surface by an elevator. Once on the surface, they were pushed on rails to an erector and with the proper electrical and hydraulic connections completed, raised to an angle of about 85 degrees for firing.

The Nike missiles employed the "command guidance" system in which the major control equipment was ground-based and not part of the expendable missile. The missiles were guided from a control area located at least 1000 yards from the launch area. It contained the radar equipment for acquiring and tracking the target and missile. Separate radars simultaneously located and tracked both the target and the Nike missile. Data from these radars was fed to the electronic computer which sent "commands" to the missile in flight to guide it to the target.

LA-14, as shown in the above map, was the South El Monte Launch site, near 1201 Potrero Road, which is today a county park yard in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area.  A little over a mile east, formerly at 3600 Workman Mill Road, was the Control center.  The LA-14 site is believed to have been in operation from 1956-1961, however, a newspaper article suggests that the site and its military personnel were already established as early as 1953.

Missile sites like the one in South El Monte stocked Nike-Ajax missiles, which had conventional warheads. The closure of South El Monte's LA-14 by 1961 was the result of the military having replaced its Ajax missiles with more powerful ones called Hercules thus requiring fewer missile sites.

The Rio Hondo College campus eventually took over land that included the former Control center.  During the negotiating phase of the to-be-constructed College, the former Launch site was under consideration for college use, but that never materialized.