Cold War blast from the past

First public tour held at missile site


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The clamshell radars at the Nike Hercules missile site in Arctic Valley will be preserved. However, the battery building at Site Summit cannot be salvaged.

MIKE NESPER

Seeking knowledge about the Cold War?

Just look up.

Perched atop a 4,000-foot mountain in Arctic Valley sits Site Summit — a Nike Hercules missile site on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

One hundred lucky individuals were the first to take a public tour of the launch site on a sunny Saturday, Sept. 8.

Site Summit is the only one of 145 Nike Hercules sites to survive as a nearly complete site.

And Jim Renkert wants to keep it that way.

Renkert, director of Friends of Nike Site Summit (FONSS), wants to restore as much of the launch site as possible to educate people about the Cold War.

“You need to preserve your heritage,” he said.

With views of the Chugach Mountains, Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains, Site Summit also offers more than a history lesson, Renkert said.

“You get to see a historical site, and you get the beautiful views,” he said.

FONSS was created in 2007 and restoration started on three sentry buildings two summers ago. At first, the project seemed a little too daunting, Renkert said.

“When we started, we were at the bottom of a very long climb,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

It took more than 800 volunteer hours to refurbish the sentry stations, Renkert said. Now, FONSS is in the process of restoring the launch control building, the missile maintenance building and dog kennels used to house German Shepherd guard dogs.

 

Protecting Anchorage

Site Summit was one of three protecting Anchorage from long-range Soviet Union bombers from 1959 to 1979. The other sites were located at Kincaid Park (Point Site) and Goose Bay (Site Bay).

It was also one of two Nike Hercules sites that conducted live fire exercises.

Cities always had at least three launch sites, said Bruce Long, who conducted radar maintenance on Nike sites in the late 1960s. One was on firing status, another for backup while the third was under maintenance, he said.

As a last line of defense, Nike Hercules missiles had a range of 100 miles and could reach 100,000 feet in elevation, Long said.

Nike Hercules missiles became obsolete after the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile. Site Summit was one of the last sites to close in 1979.

Due to the necessary secrecy, many are unaware that these Nike sites existed, Long said — another reason why preserving Site Summit is crucial.

“It was all top secret,” he said. “A whole generation missed it.”

 

‘An adventure’

Living on Site Summit was an experience Greg Durocher will never forget.

“It was an adventure,” said Durocher, who served as a military police officer from 1974 to 1976. “When the wind would blow, the building would shake.”

If the Soviets did strike, Durocher said the goal was mutually assured destruction.

“We had a fatalistic attitude,” he said. “We knew if we had to launch those missiles, it would be world war three.”

Though memorable, Durocher said he’s happy the Cold War and his time at Site Summit have passed.

“It was an interesting time to live,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over.”

 

Guard dogs

Every Nike site had German Shepherds on patrol, said Tom Namtvedt, who worked as a dog handler at Site Summit in 1968.

“Most of them were approachable,” he said. “Some would try to tear your hand off.”

Dogs were on guard duty from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., Namtvedt said. They even had their own septic system, he said.

Namtvedt, who was the handler for a 2-year-old named Shadow, said a choke chain was the only way to restrain the dogs.

“A leather collar, they were a force,” he said. “They loved to pull like an Iditarod dog.”

After getting drafted, Namtvedt said he joined the military police in the hopes of getting assigned to Alaska. Namtvedt said he loved his time in the service.

“It was fantastic,” he said.

Having a draft, the military in the late 60s was nothing like today, Namtvedt said.

“It was a totally different world back then,” he said. “I’m still grappling with an all-volunteer military.”

 

What’s next?

Volunteers will continue restoration work on Site Summit — which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 — for a few more weeks, Renkert said. Then, it’s back to applying for grants and raising funds.

Thanks to the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, raising money has been easier, Renkert said.

FONSS is planning three public tours a year, Renkert said. The guided bus tour includes history about the site from Nike veterans and makes stops to allow up-close inspection of many of the buildings.

Renkert said FONSS is seeking volunteers and/or donations. For more information, visit www.nikesitesummit.net.

Renkert said he wants Site Summit, which overlooks the Arctic Valley Star, to be viewed as a symbol of hope.

Because the Cold War, which symbolically “ended” Dec. 25, 1991, and the Star — which is lit the day after Thanksgiving and stays on until the final musher finishes the Iditarod — have a Christmas theme in common, Renkert said he wants the launch site to remind those who visit it that the world’s problems can be solved.

“We want you to think of Site Summit not only as a reminder of the Cold War, but also as a beacon of hope,” he said.

 

Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or mike.nesper@alaskastar.com.

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