Missile gets makeover on 50th anniversary of Cuban crisis

MIAMI Sat Oct 13, 2012 12:23pm EDT

1 of 6. Miami area high school students at the George T. Baker Aviation school prepare to attach ailerons to a 41-foot surface-to-air Nike Hercules missile as they restore it at the school in Miami, Florida October 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper

Related Topics

MIAMI (Reuters) - In October 1962, as fears of mushroom clouds and radioactive fallout gripped the United States in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, a battery of anti-ballistic missiles near Miami stood as the nation's first line of defense against nuclear attack.

Half a century later the missile base is still there, in the middle of the marshy Everglades, but the missiles are long gone.

Now, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, students at a Miami aviation school are restoring one of the original Nike Hercules missiles once tipped with a nuclear warhead and aimed at Cuba.

The United States and Cuba remain ideological foes to this day, and Florida is home to tens of thousands of Cubans who fled the island after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, but tensions have cooled down considerably as memories fade.

The students realize the decommissioned missile was once part of a historic event but confess to knowing little about one of the momentous episodes of the Cold War.

"I just know it was part of the Cuban missile crisis, but I haven't researched it," said Abraham Hidalgo, 17, one of the students at George T. Baker Aviation School.

The 41-foot (12.5-meter), surface-to-air Nike Hercules missile was previously stored in a U.S. army depot in Alabama, covered in dust and spider webs. A flatbed truck hauled it down Interstate-95 to the school next to Miami International Airport.

For the last two months, students have been working to restore the 5-ton missile to near-original condition; sanding wings, replacing sheet metal and repainting the U.S. Army markings. Its final destination is Everglades National Park, where it will be installed at an abandoned Nike missile base.

The 13-day missile crisis began on October 16, 1962, when then-President John F. Kennedy first learned the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba, barely 90 miles off the Florida coast.

After secret negotiations between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the United States agreed not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles from the island.

'HEARD SOMETHING ABOUT CHE'

"The irony is a lot of these kids are Cuban," said George T. Baker principal Sean Gallagan. "And if this missile was used as it was intended a lot of these kids wouldn't be here."

Samuel Robles, 16, said he didn't know a lot about the incident but "heard something about Che Guevara on the History Channel," referring to the Argentine-born revolutionary icon who fought in the 1959 revolution.

Military use of the Everglades site ended in 1979 and the facility, known as HM69 Nike Missile Base, was turned over to the National Park Service, which offers visitor tours in the winter months.

Because the site lies within a national park, the base is almost unchanged since its closure, including the three missile "barns," a missile assembly building, barracks and a guard dog kennel.

The refurbished Nike Hercules is due to be housed in one of the barns and will be officially unveiled on October 20.

During the Cold War the United States was dotted with Nike sites - named after the Greek goddess of victory - strategically located near cities as part of a national air defense system.

Most have disappeared or been converted into other public uses, including an immigration detention facility in Florida, a golf course in Illinois and an elementary school in Kansas.

Commemoration events marking the anniversary are scheduled around the country, including an exhibition at the National Archives in Washington D.C. titled "To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," featuring secretly recorded White House tapes of Kennedy and his advisers as they sought to avert a nuclear war.

One of the reasons these anniversaries are important is that "they serve as a flashpoint" for people who don't remember or weren't alive, said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

A handful of events are taking place across Miami - an exile home to many of the Cubans who fled communist rule on the island - including a panel discussion at the local history museum and the University of Miami.

"I think there was more fear and frenzy here than anywhere because we were so close to it," said Paul George, a professor at Miami Dade College and historian at the HistoryMiami museum.

But the "Kennedy years for students are kind of a dim thing ... I teach history and I see it every day," he added.

(Additional reporting and editing by David Adams; Editing by Jim Loney)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (5)
tiktin wrote:
This story is so totally erroneous I don’t even know where to begin. It’s the result of our system of education. They’re taught to believe that it doesn’t matter whether you get it right or wrong, you pass anyway. But in this harsh and unforgiving world, Americans will learn that it does matter. Only by that time, it will be too late.

Oct 13, 2012 9:38am EDT  --  Report as abuse
LittleStream wrote:
How do these kids not know very much about this event? Don’t they even teach history in class anymore?

Oct 13, 2012 10:17am EDT  --  Report as abuse
johnaustin wrote:
The reporter is also a product of the same public education system (if not, someone deserves a refund).

In 1962 the MIM-14 was nuclear-tipped but the internal guidance system was implemented with vacuum tubes. The one essential component of an anti-ballistic-missile system was not available. There was no computer system in the field to deliver a firing solution to the missile in he time required.

NORAD radar stations of the time mostly employed Ground-Controlled-Intercept which required manual action. Nuclear warheads are problematic in this application because of the executive authority required to use the weapon.

Oct 13, 2012 11:17am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Pictures