The town’s Nike Ajax missile operation of the 1950s, a suburban legend of the highest order, brings equal doses of fascination and misinformation. Here’s everything you’ve always wanted to know about the operation but thought you’d never find out. Every photo in this article was taken in Burlington and belongs to Richard Sheppard unless otherwise noted.
Everything you’ve been told is probably off by a mile. The missiles never sat atop a hill in Winnmere. They were a mile west, where the Northeastern University mini-campus is now. In fact, the main Northeastern building sits where the missiles were. The black and white aerial, sent by E. Thelen, shows the missile silos, with one in the chamber. Another missile is strapped to a trailer in the middle of the image. Those two little buildings are an equipment room full of tools and a fueling station. Downhill from the site, you see the familiar military houses on S. Bedford St. And in the background is Route 128 Drive-In, where the Roche Bros. plaza is now.
But what about Edgemere Ave. in Winnmere? That was the “integrated fire control” operation, comprising the radar systems and the buttons that could launch the missiles from the other hill. Here’s the layout of that site:
- This building was divided into many areas: A day room with a pool table, a household item store, the battery commander’s office (with secretary), barber shop, supply room containing firearms, a laundry room and a hobby/craft area. Yes, all in that one building.
- Army vehicle parking. It’s now a ragged basketball court with “Nike site” spraypainted on the backboards.
- Enlisted men’s living quarters. This housed up to 50 men at any given time. They slept on stacks of bunk-beds separated by partitions. The area is now used by the Burlington Players theater group.
- “Bachelor’s quarters,” which meant second lieutenant and above.
- Mess hall, a.k.a. cafeteria:
- Civilian parking. The highway department shed wasn’t there.
- Target-tracking radar. This would lock in on enemy aircraft:
- Acquisition radar. This would bounce electronic signals off airplanes to determine “friend or foe.” Friendly aircraft would respond with a specific signal that functioned as a secret handshake:
- Control room. This coordinated the signals from the various equipment and also had the “fire” buttons. This was manned all day, every day:
- Missile-tracking radar. This looked identical to the target-tracking radar on the opposite side (#7). The missiles could attack targets up to 30 miles away and 70,000 feet in the air.
Why did this whole missile operation exist? During the Cold War with Russia, the US feared a Soviet air strike. The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) era of warfare hadn’t yet begun, so air bombing raids were still the enemy’s modus operandi. The US set up many, many missile defense sites to defend major cities. Burlington’s site was among several in the area tasked with protecting Boston. But the first lines of defense were Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines that stretched across the Arctic and Canada. They functioned as tripwires. If a Soviet jet crossed the Arctic and penetrated a DEW line, the Nike missile bases would have to swing into action.
So what happened every day at these Burlington locations? Drills. Lots of them. Sometimes a decoy squadron would approach the area and drop huge clouds of chaff, little strips of aluminum foil mounted to black paper, to “foil” the radar systems. Radar crews had to practice getting a radar lock on the airplanes despite the chaff, which came raining down all over Burlington and surrounding towns. The outdoor radar equipment also needed to be calibrated to extreme precision every single morning, rain or shine, zero degrees or 100, two feet of snow or otherwise. If the units were even a fraction of an inch out of balance, a missile could miss its target by 20 feet. Newer, more advanced missile systems, such as Patriot, don’t require this manual labor.
The Nike troops and Winnmere residents got along very well. Neighborhood children would sometimes ride their bikes around the facility. A school janitor named Vinnie Reynolds could be called in at a moments’ notice to spiff up the grounds using tractor-mowers that he owned. Why the urgency? Because sometimes a general would fly in by helicopter to inspect the site, on short notice, and this was a “spit-shine” operation to the extreme. If the grounds were unsightly, oh the agita.
Sometimes Winnmere homes quivered under the blare from an extremely loud siren, at any ol’ time of day, even 2 a.m. Why? That was the “alert” signal, usually due to an imminent visit from another Nike operation. They shared resources. Nobody ever had the excuse, “I didn’t hear the siren, sir.”
Why did the missile program fold? When the ICBM came along, the threat of an airplane bombing went away, and so did the missiles. Some Nike Hercules sites, with more potent missiles, stayed online through the early 70s, but the Nike Ajax sites dismantled by the early 60s. If you attended Burlington’s Memorial Day parades in the late 50s to early 60s, you probably witnessed a Nike missile on a trailer, rolling down Cambridge Street. The last hurrah.