Missiles on the Lakefront: The Forgotten Story of Congressman Ab Mikva and Nike Base C-41

 /  Oct. 2, 2014, 6:15 p.m.


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Part I - “It Would Seem Right at Home in Hyde Park”

On March 19, 1956, a young attorney named Abner Mikva rose to address his fellow guests at one of the strangest meetings in Chicago Park District (CPD) history. The previous speaker had already raised the day’s stakes with a blunt request for the CPD’s Commissioners: “You have been entrusted with a precious legacy. We urge you to direct every effort to protecting this legacy and providing more adequate lakefront recreational area.” To the chagrin of Mrs. Alex Eleson and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), 22 acres of that “precious legacy” now lay in the hands of two distinguished guests. For Generals George Arnold and S. Carter of the Fifth Army, Jackson Park made an ideal vantage point to scan for Chicago-bound Soviet bombers.

But Mrs. Eleson’s focus was firmly on the ground. Representing the HPKCC at Chicago board meetings, she routinely voiced the group’s concerns over crumbling homes, rising crime, and sinking quality of life in two of South Chicago’s largest neighborhoods. In this vein, Mrs. Eleson now pressed the two officers “to put before the secretary of defense the exceptional hardship which present installations bring to Chicago and to ask that a portion of the billions spent for defense be set aside for providing a better solution. By changing its plans, the army can make a tremendous contribution to the efforts of urban renewal.” [ref]

"Park District Backs Nike Transfer." The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 29 May 1956: 6. The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

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For his part, Mikva had already decided that the army meant to stay. With its Nike missile installation up and running in Jackson Park, he asked, had the city, the park district, anyone asked to be compensated beyond the one dollar per acre, per year that the army currently paid?

Arnold replied no; CPD Superintendent James Gately clarified. The commissioners had requested fair compensation for the army’s swaths of Lakefront parkland, only to learn that no Defense Department funds existed to reimburse municipal governments. [ref]

"Nike Dispute Aired." Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 21 Mar. 1956: 10. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

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With “billions spent for defense,” it seemed, there wasn’t much left for Jackson Park.

Ab Mikva had just witnessed the opening blows in a struggle that would vex Hyde Park organizers, Pentagon officials, and his own career for nearly two decades. Voicing Hyde Park’s interests first in Springfield, then in Washington, the broad-shouldered, genial-faced Mikva grappled with two burning issues of mid-twentieth century America. “The next fifty years of American history will be written in these two areas,” he predicted in an editorial, “how we succeed or fail to make our cities habitable and how wisely we use our wealth and power in the world.” [ref]

Mikva, Abner. "Mikva, Challenger." Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices [Chicago] June 1966: 2. Print.

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Nearly fifty years after Ab’s stark assessment, few recall that a suite of nuclear-tipped missiles in a troubled city’s park once united these two concerns. Even fewer recall the conferences, op-eds, and floor votes in which Mikva and his colleagues struggled to shift funds and attention from missile defense systems to city streets. Their campaign reached remarkable insights into US defense policy as Cold War weaponry evolved from bombers to faster, higher, and deadlier intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The question of how—and if—the United States should guard against these rocket-borne threats lives on, summed up in one activist’s assessment: “It’s enormously expensive…they can’t hire enough teachers, the roads are going to pot, there’s just not enough money…Why are we really developing a missile defense system?” [ref]

Apel, Dennis. Telephone interview. 17 Sept. 2014.

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Ab Mikva, his colleagues, and his neighbors sought and found answers to that question. Yet as they filed out of the Park District’s downtown office on that brisk March day in 1956, it’s safe to assume they were focused on Jackson Park.

The Fifth Army had its own name for the largest, most historic park on Chicago’s South Side: Nike Base C-41, just another stitch in a nationwide net. [ref]

Whitacre, Christine, Christina M. Carlson, Robert Lyon, and Arnold Thallheimer. Last Line of Defense Nike Missile Sites in Illinois. Denver, CO: Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Rocky Mountain System Support Office, 1996. Print.

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By 1956, seven years after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, tacticians in Washington were girding the nation with defense systems for a nuclear age. Installations ranged from radar-equipped “Texas Towers” in the Atlantic to B-52 bases deep in the heartland. If they all failed before a fleet of Russian bombers, one final line of defense waited on target cities’ outer fringes: The Nike-Ajax missile.

US Army Specialist Frank Ritt saw the Nike’s potential firsthand. When C-41 rotated onto its schedule as a “hot battery,” Spc. Ritt huddled over control panels for twelve hours at a time, awaiting the signal to launch. Ten minutes’ flight time from the base, the Nike acquisition radar, beamed from a golf-ball-shaped tower, locked onto the nuclear threat. Hydraulics angled the 32-foot-long Ajax out of its underground bunker, three high-explosive warheads primed for detonation. After a choreographed sequence of key turns and security checks, the Ajax arced skyward at twice the speed of sound. Gauging its progress from land, Spc. Ritt’s target-tracking radar fed speeds, angles, and coordinates into a hulking analog computer. Updated settings for the missile’s flaps and thrusters pinged back to the Nike via a third radar until—hopefully—the warheads caught up with the aircraft and detonated on contact. [ref]

Morgan, Mark L., and Mark A. Berhow. Rings of Supersonic Steel: Air Defenses of the United States Army 1950-1979: An Introductory History and Site Guide. San Pedro, CA: Fort MacArthur, 2002. Print.

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The Nike never proved itself against a Soviet Bear or Bison bomber, but the army  logged an 80 percent success rate against B-52 drones over the New Mexico desert. [ref]

McDavid, Glenn. "...missiles." Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 27 July 1966: n. pag. Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

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Describing the days when commanders summoned his unit to practice on a moment’s notice on the White Sands Missile Range, Spc. Ritt recalls, “we never had a problem.” [ref]

Ritt, Frank. Telephone interview. 3 Sept. 2014.

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Nike may have tested well, but the system’s short range and shorter response time prompted an excess of caution among the planners tasked with installing the system. Uncertain about the direction of an enemy attack, the army ringed dozens of American cities and military bases with Ajax batteries in the early 1950s. The “Chicago-Gary Defense Area” alone boasted 22. To broaden the buffer zone between cities and bombers’ wreckage the army stationed most Nike missiles and radar towers in rural locales miles from urban centers. [ref]

Whitacre, Christine, Last Line of Defense

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Chicago was different. Flanked by Lake Michigan directly to the east, the city lay dangerously exposed to enemy aircraft—unless the army closed the gap by installing missiles along the lakefront. With much of the shoreline heavily developed, only one stretch of open land remained for bunkers, barracks, and radar towers: the city’s parks. Since 1909, when Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago proposed an unbroken band of greenery along Lake Michigan, the CPD had been gilding the lakeshore with trees, fields, and lagoons. Jackson Park anchored the system’s southern end with over 500 acres sculpted by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. [ref]

Bachrach, Julia. "Daniel S. Burnham and Chicago's Parks." Chicago Park District. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

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The Fifth Army claimed it had no other option. “We don’t want to take any park land, but we have no alternative,” explained Carter to the Chicago Daily News. “A circular defense of the city is best from a military point of view. In lake front cities like Chicago the defense must cut across the ‘diameter’ of the circle, the lake shore. We make every adjustment possible without throwing defense out the window.” [ref]

Despres, Marian. Letter to Col. A.J. Cooper. 24 May 1954. University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.

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Even with those “adjustments,” Hyde Park still received a shock from the Southeast Economist’s front page on April 15, 1954: “Wooded Island, in Jackson Park Lagoon, was turned over to the Army yesterday by the Chicago Park District for use of radar and super-secret other devices for the detection of enemy aircraft which may be headed for Chicago.” For residents old enough to recall Burnham and Olmstead’s race to create grounds fit for the 1893 World’s Fair, the prospect of “Super-secret devices” on the fairgrounds’ centerpiece must have marked a long fall from grace. Adding insult to injury, Superintendent Gately assured the Economist that “The Park District is very happy to have the opportunity to cooperate with the Army for the defense of Chicago.”

The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference stayed respectful, but took a more nuanced stance at a hearing with the army and Chicago Park District. “The whole meeting…was conducted in a friendly atmosphere,” reported one attendee, “The South Siders made it quite clear that they were not opposed to defense needs, but that they hoped an alternate site to Wooded Island could be found.” [ref]

Qtd. in Whitacre, Christine, Last Line of Defense

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The army was quick to comply. Within a month, Mrs. Marian Despres assured Col. A.J. Cooper that “We here on Chicago’s South Side were very happy to learn that you had been able to relocate the guided missile site originally planned for Wooded Island…we deeply appreciate the friendly spirit of cooperation in which you and Col. Woodbury approached the problem.” [ref]

Des Jardins, Charlotte. "Another Battle for Park Land That Was Lost." The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 13 July 1966: 25. The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

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Having spared Wooded Island, the army instead raised its radar towers over the 55th St. Promontory, a circular, windswept field jutting into Lake Michigan. Their guidance systems in place, Nike-Ajax missiles soon arrived just below 63rd and Lake Shore Drive, along with personnel to maintain, guard, and fire them. By the end of 1954, Base C-41 had begun operations. [ref]

Des Jardins, Charlotte. “Another Battle for Park Land That Was Lost.”

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It only kept civilians from 22 of Jackson Park’s 567 acres. Yet with Hyde Parkers barred from the point that offered, in its architect’s words, “a sense of the power of nature and the power of the sea," emotions ran high. [ref]

Caldwell, Alfred, qtd. in Ossewaarde, Gary. "Promontory Point in Chicago's Burnham Park." N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014" 

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"The loss is far more than 'aesthetic,'" seethed University of Chicago Professor Sol Tax in a letter to Parks Superintendent George Donohue. "It is as though somebody moved into one's home, set up shop in the middle of the living room, and argued that he was only taking up 10% or 15% of the total area, leaving plenty of space for the family. The integrity of our best recreational facility is destroyed." [ref]

 1955. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.

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Even as they fumed over Jackson Park’s new tenant, Tax and his allies lent their support to the broader purpose behind C-41. Picking his words carefully for a group of nearly five hundred protesters, US Representative Barratt O’Hara cast the Fifth Army as “well-motivated persons who are destroying the community’s parks.” By the time of that June 1955 gathering, supporters of Tax and O’Hara had rallied around calls to base the Nikes on an artificial island in Lake Michigan. Why, wondered O’Hara, had the army’s planners opted for Jackson Park? “Is the government or the Army acting on the belief that war is imminent or will come in one year?” [ref]

"Facing Parks Destruction: O'Hara." The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 29 June 1955: 1. The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

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The best person to answer that question may be Christopher J. Bright. With a Ph. D in Cold War History from George Washington University, Bright has devoted over 300 published pages to the little-known story of America’s anti-aircraft missiles. Where Hyde Park residents saw a heavy-handed, insensitive military, Dr. Bright sees one pressed by tight budgets and unrelenting deadlines—and used to local compliance.

“I would say in about seventy percent of the cases, Nike sites were established without any local resistance,” he explains, “and in a substantial minority of cases, Nike sites were eagerly solicited. I would say only [in] about 20 or so of these cases was there objection.” [ref]

Bright, Christopher. Telephone interview. 2 July 2014.

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Dr. Bright doesn’t recall any other proposals to relocate a Nike base offshore. He does, however, suspect that Rep. O’Hara’s much-hyped alternative would have been “not even notionally something to consider.” “Cost was a tremendous concern,” he points out, and the prospect of a three-year, $19.5 million construction effort in Lake Michigan failed to clear the Pentagon’s beancounters. [ref]

“HPKCC Board of Directors Meeting Minutes February 21, 1956” HPKCC Records, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. All monetary values, except those in quotation marks, have been converted to 2014 dollars. "US Inflation Calculator." US Inflation Calculator. Coin News Media Group, LLC, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

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So did compensation for the Chicago Park District; by February 1956, the HPKCC’s Board of Directors had received word that “in no city has the Army made its own landfill or paid for the use of public lands.” A month later, Superintendent Gately repeated that reply to Ab Mikva.

Having saved on trees and Lakefront, the Defense Department had plenty of funds for a space-age upgrade to C-41. In a November 1958 press conference, Col. Thomas Metz announced that C-41’s bunkers would be widened and antennae expanded to make way for the longer, faster, strategy-changing Nike Hercules missile. Frank Ritt had practiced with the Ajax, but his base now serviced, guarded, and prepared to fire the Hercules.

“It was not a weapon to take out an aircraft,” he explains, “This was a weapon to take out a formation of aircraft.” Once a base installed the Nike-Hercules, its operators no longer homed in on an individual bomber. When an air raid siren shrieked, ten minutes of acquisition, launch, and guidance saw the Nike-Hercules climb thousands of feet above the Soviet fleet. A “burst” signal from the radar then detonated a single 20 kiloton nuclear warhead. If all went according to plan, a blast more powerful than Little Boy’s would destroy the bombers at a safe distance from Chicago.

For all the firepower at their fingertips, the men at C-41 had begun raising doubts by the time Spc. Ritt arrived in 1967. “At the time I hated it,” he admits, “because it was clear we weren’t going to do anything. It [was] like being a net for catching unicorns.”

Spc. Ritt’s colorful assessment marked a bleak reality. By the late 1960s, America and the USSR no longer faced off with bombers, but with intercontinental ballistic missiles crouching beneath the plains of North Dakota and Siberia. The elaborate Nike-Hercules dance rehearsed by Mr. Ritt’s unit could never hope to hold back an SS-9 missile bearing down on Chicago at seven kilometers per second. [ref]

Ritt, Frank. Telephone interview. 3 Sept. 2014.

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Four years before Americans learned that these missiles had been aimed at their largest cities from Cuba, Hyde Parkers had already taken notice. Days after an open house held to reassure residents about the Nike system’s safety, a newly formed protest group—the Hyde Park Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy—led concerned residents to the base’s gates. Their “key objection,” reported the Hyde Park Herald, “was their contention that the missile system is ‘obsolete’ and of little defense against an ICBM which an enemy would use in case of attack.” [ref]

"Peace Group Pickets Army Missile Base; Protests Atomic Race." The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 19 Nov. 1958: The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

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Few communities had raised doubts about America’s new missile defenses; fewer, if any, had raised these doubts. Bright explains that in this first decade of the Nike installations, “only a very small group of people objected to them, and even a smaller percentage objected to them on anything but ideological grounds…I think a group of people, or even an individual, who raises the prospect that it wouldn’t work, is very interesting.” Upon hearing that Base C-41’s neighbors had raised this exact prospect in 1958, he remarked, “That’s a sentiment before its time. It would seem right at home in Hyde Park.” [ref]

Bright, Christopher. Telephone Interview. 2 July 2014

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Missiles on the Lakefront: The Forgotten Story of Congressman Ab Mikva and Nike Base C-41 - Part 1: “It Would Seem Right at Home in Hyde Park.” is the first chapter in a four-part series by Gate editor, Patrick Reilly.


Patrick Reilly


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