01 August 2013

Legacy of the Cold War -- Nike Missile Sites in the Metro Milwaukee Area


[Editor's note: updated 5/2015 with more information]

As many of you who've known me for a while know, I've been doing on/off research into the area's Cold War legacy, and particularly the ring of Nike sites that surrounded Milwaukee in the 1950s and 1960s.

In a nutshell, the Nike system was deployed by the U.S. Army for point defence of major metropolitan areas and strategic sites against the threat of Soviet bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-95 (NATO codename "Bear") by using radar-guided missiles to knock down any bombers that slip through, literally as a "Last Line of Defence."

Milwaukee was deemed critical because of its factories (such as Allis-Chalmers, Allen-Bradley, Cutler-Hammer, Harnischfeger, and A.O. Smith) and the fact that it sat along the northern approaches to Chicago. From the 1930s all the way through the late 1970s, Milwaukee was known as the "machine shop of the world," a fact not lost on the Soviet Union. The capabilities of Milwaukee area factories to quickly re-tool for defense production, and its ability to ship heavy machinery out via its port or on rail lines connected to the rail hubs at Chicago underscored its perceived vitality to American defense.

Therefore, the area received eight Nike sites that became operational between 1956 and 1957. In the process of developing each site, the Army bought tracts of land that had strategic value and erected the necessary structures under the auspices of the Corps of Engineers.

Generally, each site consisted of two parcels, usually separated by anywhere from a third of a mile to about two miles. One parcel typically had the administration (such as barracks, mess halls, a small PX and barber shop, the battery motor pool, and recreational areas) and radar facilities--this was often referred to as an integrated fire control (IFC) site.  The other held the missiles themselves in underground magazines or "pits" as well as supplies needed to maintain and launch each missile, such as fuel, assembly tools and space, and the warheads.

The sites around Milwaukee were designated as follows:

  • M was the letter representing that the site lay in the Milwaukee Defense Area
  • Two digits representing the relative direction of the site from Milwaukee City Hall with 00 at the north, 25 at east, 50 at south, and 75 at west. 
  • C, R, or L designated whether the parcel was a control or launch site (Lannon's site had three parcels due to Lannon Road running across the planned site parcel, so R was used to designate the parcel holding the radars) 

An example designation would have looked like this: M-02C, and would have signified that particular parcel as being the control (radar/barracks) site in the north of the Milwaukee defense.

When the sites opened, they were armed with the Nike Ajax, which carried three small high-explosive warheads and had a range of about 30 miles. Eight sites in a ring were thus deemed sufficient to provide the Milwaukee metro area with complete protection from all possible approaches. Three of these sites (at River Hills, Milwaukee's Lakefront, and Waukesha) were upgraded to a more powerful, longer-ranging, and nuclear-capable Nike Hercules missile in 1959; the remaining five sites not upgraded were closed between 1961 and 1963.

To this day, the government's official policy is that it will neither confirm nor deny as to whether a specific Nike Hercules site did in fact carry missiles armed with the W-31 warhead or if a site's armament was limited to a conventional high-explosive payload. Indeed, there are still certain aspects of Nike deployments in the continental U.S. that remain classified to this day.

Historical evidence that has been made available through veterans' websites, declassified documents in the federal archives, historians' papers, and even the National Security Archive at the George Washington University show that every Nike site that was upgraded to the Nike Hercules had missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Further, contemporary news accounts typically suggested that most or all such sites either carried nuclear arms or could obtain them if the need arose*.

By 1970, it became apparent that the primary Soviet threat came in the form of long-range missiles (e.g. ICBMs) instead of bombers flying over the North Pole. The remaining Milwaukee sites were closed by 30 June 1971, and the remaining sites in the continental U.S. followed soon thereafter as the Nike Hercules was considered an anti-ballistic missile under the terms of the SALT I treaty. Meanwhile, portability issues and further advances in technology lent themselves toward the development of SAM-D, which later became the Patriot system still in use today.

After the Nike sites closed and their sensitive equipment removed, their disposal often varied. If the lands they were built on were on federal lands, or a federal agency stepped forward, the sites were often transferred over to that agency. If the Feds passed, many of the sites (such as M-74 in Waukesha) were offered to state, county, and/or municipal governments free of charge on the condition that they be perpetually used for the public good. Often, this meant that the sites became parks or other publicly-open lands. If not, then the lands could be bought by individuals, school districts, and local governments at public surplus auctions and then used however the owners saw fit.

Only one Nike site in the nation was turned over intact for preservation at closure (site SF-88 just north of San Francisco), and a few others have been preserved and/or are undergoing restoration. Most of the rest have been destroyed or are slowly decaying as time passes, and as these sites decay, so do the obvious reminders of a critical point in our (currently) recent history. Indeed in 2013 it's still somewhat difficult to imagine the military throwing up missiles in our backyards; we tend to think they do it "out west" where few people live.

So, for a quick little reference, I've created some rough sketches in Google maps showing where some of the major features for each site were, which is helpful as most of the sites have been either radically modified or destroyed. These "drawings" aren't meant to be authoritative or mark exactly where the structures were, but rather to give the casual viewer a rough idea of what stood where in relation to how the sites would look today. The maps work best when the 45 degree view is turned off (hover over the "Map" icon in the upper right and in the menu that appears, ensure that 45 degree is unticked), but the shapes still kind of shift a slight bit thanks to how Google maps operates.

I got the data from HistoricAerials, using largely the 1963 (and for Waukesha County, 1970) aerial photographs of the Milwaukee area. In addition, a couple of the sites showed up on county Geographic Information System (GIS) websites. What follows are the map links and a brief note on each site:

M-02 (River Hills / Brown Deer)

  • In operation from 1957 to June 1971
  • Manned by A Battery, 852nd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion (Nike) (Continental), which was re-designated A Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 59th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • Upgraded to Nike Hercules as of 10 July 1959
  • The Milwaukee Tenants Union (with backing from both Milwaukee County and Governor Lucey) wanted to use the closed sites for a subsidised-housing project, while Milwaukee Area Technical College wanted to erect a new TV tower for their public-broadcasting (PBS) channels
  • However, the Village of River Hills was successful in bidding for the sites at a cost of $59,000; the sites were then redeveloped over the years into residential lots
  • Control/IFC Map, obliterated and is now the site of Congregation Emanu-El on Brown Deer Road
  • Launch Map, obliterated and now a subdivision north of Brown Deer Road and just west of Interstate 43

M-20 (Milwaukee's lakefront)

  • In operation from 1957 to September 1969
  • Manned by B Battery, 852nd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, which was re-designated B Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 59th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • Upgraded to Nike Hercules as of 24 April 1959
  • The launch area was previously a low-use airport known as Maitland Field (and later, the Milwaukee Seadrome), and was eyed by some in the city government as potential for expanding the Port of Milwaukee to go along with the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway
  • Radars were located in Lake Park, and due to this location, the rest of the administration was collocated with the launch area
  • There remained controversy between the Army and the City of Milwaukee regarding the site's location; this controversy remained until the Army left in 1969
    • At one point, it was suggested that the Army re-activate a site in Franklin and move this battery there, but this didn't take off
  • Unlike many of the other sites, the land reverted back to the City of Milwaukee upon closure, because the City had owned the lands before it became a missile site
  • Under Mayor Henry Maier, the former launch/administration area became home to Summerfest; the site has thus changed drastically over the years
  • Radar Map, located in Lake Park on a small bluff just southeast of the golf course and ravine, and near the "Eight Lions." This site has been obliterated save for the ready building (now being used as a shed)
  • Launch Area and Barracks Map, mostly obliterated to develop what is now the Henry Maier Festival Park (Summerfest Grounds) as well as part of I-794


M-42 (Cudahy)

  • In operation from 1956 to August 1961
  • Manned by C Battery, 852nd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, which was initially redesignated as C Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion (Ajax), 59th Artillery on 1 September 1958
    • This battery is not to be confused with the Waukesha site (below), which was re-aligned after the Hercules sites became operational as Waukesha's site became C/3/59 late in 1959
  • After the site closed, the Control/IFC area was used by the Wisconsin Air National Guard for training (this training moved back to the Air Guard's facilities at Mitchell Field in 1972), and then was remodeled by Milwaukee County for use as a senior citizen centre in 1974
  • The launch site was obliterated for an expansion to the Warnimont Park golf course after 1965 by using a $50,000 grant from the federal government
  • Control/IFC Map, partially intact and now the site of a county-operated senior centre on Lake Drive just north of College Avenue
  • Launch Map, obliterated and is now the south half of the county golf course in Warnimont Park

M-54 (Franklin / Paynesville)

  • In operation from 1956 to August 1961
  • Had Battalion HQ facilities for the 401st Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, re-designated Headquarters & Headquarters Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 67th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • Firing Battery was manned by A Battery, 401st Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, which was re-designated as A Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 67th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • After it closed in 1961, there was talk about reactivating the site and moving the Lakefront battery to it, however, this never came into fruition in no small part because of nearby development
  • The sites were sold to the City of Franklin in 1965 for $22,500; the city decided to reuse the magazines as water reservoirs and develop the land around it
  • Control/IFC & Bn HQ Map, obliterated and now an empty plot of land just south of the Milwaukee County House of Correction and apparently used by Milwaukee County
  • Launch Map, mostly obliterated, the area is now a City of Franklin industrial park just south of Ryan Road, and the city's Sewer & Water Office sits on the southernmost magazine area.  


M-64 (Muskego / Prospect)

  • In operation from 1956 to December 1963
  • Originally manned by C Battery, 401st Antiaircraft Battalion, re-designated C Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 67th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • Turned over to the Wisconsin National Guard as B Battery, 1st Missile Battalion, 126th Artillery in 1960
  • This battery would be trained to take over the Waukesha site, they did this as they closed up shop in Muskego
  • The lands were sold in 1965 to a private developer for $49,500 although the City of Muskego had shown interest in buying the sites
  • Control/IFC Map, partially intact and now in reuse as Reynolds Machine Co. on Martin Road
  • Launch Map, partially intact and now on private property and hidden in a subdivision off of Adrian Drive


M-74 (Waukesha)

  • In operation from 1956 to June 1971
  • Manned by D Battery, 401st Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, re-designated D Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 67th Artillery as of 1 September 1958
  • Upgraded to Nike Hercules as of 2 December 1959
  • The Hercules upgrade also resulted in a re-designation to C Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 59th Artillery
  • Received HIPAR set as part of the Improved Nike Hercules package in 1963, and fallout shelters in 1964
  • Site was turned over to the Wisconsin National Guard on 19 June 1964 and designated B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 126th Artillery
  • The City of Waukesha received the deeds for the site as part of President Nixon's Legacy of Parks programme in 1972
  • The former IFC/Radar site became Hillcrest Park, and the city put an underground water reservoir on the west end of the property
    • In 1982, the City approved the use of the former mess hall for use as an indoor air-gun and .22 rifle range (for which it is still used to this day) by a local rifle and pistol club
    • The HIPAR and Target-Track Radar (TTR) towers, blast-proof shelter, and a couple of the original radar pads still remain
    • Much of the road within the site was repaved and a parking area put in over the past few years (as a result of its use as a city park)
  • City of Waukesha officials returned the launch site (Missile Park) to the GSA in 1987, particularly over safety and cleanup concerns--however it is also worth noting:
    • The City of Waukesha had also been using it as an unsanctioned dumping ground; Mayor Paul Keenan ordered it closed in September 1983 upon learning that city crews dumped and buried two truckloads of asbestos (and allegedly, raw garbage and sewer sludge) on the property
    • Site remediation and demolition has taken place; the magazines and most of the remaining structures were razed or buried under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1999; concrete pads and parts of the berms still remain though
    • The city and the Federal Government executed a quitclaim deed in 2012, with the city effectively getting the property interest in the site and is responsible for maintaining it for public use as well as maintaining state-mandated barriers against possible contamination 
    • There is new development that abuts the west end of the property
  • There have been ideas floating around about hosting a chapter of the Cold War Museum at Hillcrest Park
  • Control/IFC Map, the site is partially intact as a park
  • Launch Map, mostly obliterated due to safety concerns technically under federal ownership


M-86 (Lannon)

  • In operation from 1956 to August 1961
  • Manned by B Battery, 401st Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, re-designated B Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 67th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • All three parcels were excessed in 1962, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Waukesha County received the barracks portion in 1963 for public use (on the condition that they pay for 50% of the value for 20 years) and integrated it into Menomonee County Park
    • Interestingly enough, the former mess hall served as a recreation building and was sometimes used by local Boy Scout troops for winter camping 
    • Most of the Nike structures were demolished in late 2013 and early 2014 as part of Capital Project #201106. This was justified on the grounds that the buildings were deteriorating to the point where new maintenance buildings had to be built. Presumably, repairing or restoring the buildings would have been more expensive to county taxpayers than just erecting new and safe structures elsewhere in the park
    • The site's well and sewerage systems were deemed unsafe and properly abandoned or removed
    • Google Satellite imagery on 4 April 2014 shows that the sentry hut, barracks, and mess hall were demolished and the land graded over
  • The remainder was bought by Milwaukee County in 1963 for $17,500 and was considered as an option for setting up a continuity-of-government bunker (but fell through).
  • Milwaukee County sold off its lands starting in 1967 to private developers
  • Administration Map, mostly obliterated 
  • Radar Map, mostly obliterated and now sitting on private property directly across Lannon Road from the administration site
  • Launch Map, largely intact and now also on private property and a homestead


M-96 (Milwaukee / Silver Spring)
  • Held the Milwaukee Defence Area HQ until the Milwaukee Defence was merged into that of Chicago-Gary in 1968, originally this was known as the 61st Artillery Group and later consolidated as 3rd Missile Battalion, 59th Artillery
  • Held the Battalion HQ for the 852nd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion; on 1 September 1958, this was re-designated as Headquarters and HQ Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 59th Artillery
  • On the turnover of sites to the Wisconsin National Guard, this site also hosted the 1st Missile Battalion, 126th Artillery (which was re-designated in 1963 as the 2nd Missile Battalion)
  • Firing Battery was D Battery, 852nd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, which was re-designated D Battery, 3rd Missile Battalion, 59th Artillery on 1 September 1958
  • Firing Battery was taken over by the Wisconsin National Guard as A Battery, 1st Missile Battalion, 126th Artillery in 1959 and later closed in December 1963
  • Launch Area was adjacent to the former Milwaukee County House of Correction, which was later used by the Army as a branch of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks; this was turned over to the City of Milwaukee and the Interior Department--both sold it to the State of Wisconsin by 1980 to become Havenwoods State Forest. 
  • Control/IFC, Bn HQ, & Defence HQ Map, was retained by the Army and continues to be used as part of the Army Reserve Centre on Silver Spring Dr; most of the buildings have been repurposed
  • Launch Map, obliterated and now a part of Havenwoods State Forest


*However, I've also read various accounts by Nike veterans (and even the docents/guides at the Fort Barry museum) suggesting that there were still ways to determine whether or not a missile was nuclear or not; this often involved a coloured stripe just above the "U.S. ARMY" lettering on the upper half of the missile. No stripes generally indicated a conventional warhead; green, yellow, or red stripes indicated a nuclear payload with the colour indicating the yield in kilotons (green 2, yellow 20, and red 40). In addition, the nuclear-tipped Hercules missiles needed a barometric probe as part of the safety mechanism; these usually had a red cover (often called a "doghouse") that fit over the missile's nose.

End note -- Did the Milwaukee sites really have nuclear missiles?

As for whether or not the three (later, two) Nike sites in operation in the 1960s carried nuclear missiles, the answer appears to be that they did. Each site could carry up to 18 Nike Hercules missiles, but to this day, the Pentagon will not disclose how many at each site were armed with each yield.

A brief summary by site:

M-02 (River Hills): There are pictures on the Internet that indicate that this site carried nuclear payloads; two of them show Hercules missiles in the magazine bearing yellow markings for 20kt.

M-20 (Milwaukee/Lakefront): While I have not seen photographic or specific site documents as of this writing, I have read reports from the National Security Archive during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as a historical dissertation published on the Nike system, and they all appear to indicate that virtually all of the sites armed with the Nike Hercules had missiles containing nuclear warheads. Further, the optional "high-explosive" warheads were in the vast minority when it came to deployment, but were still available at the depot level.

M-74 (Waukesha): In addition to the note regarding M-20, the Milwaukee Sentinel ran an article on 19 June 1958 noting that the site was to receive facilities for guard dog kennels because the site was slated to receive atomic warheads. Also, Ed Thelen's excellent website shows links for people who served at the Waukesha site and were part of the warhead custodial team after 1964, meaning that M-74 also carried nuclear payloads. This is significant because of the fact that a warhead custodial team consisted of Regular Army personnel whose purpose were to supervise and hold custody over the nuclear warheads--at the time, National Guard technicians were considered employes of the States. Or, to put simply: when the site was turned over to the Wisconsin National Guard, any nuclear munitions had to still unambiguously remain in federal control.

Given the declassified NSArchive reports, it would not be unreasonable to figure that most (if not all) of the missiles at River Hills, the Lakefront, and Waukesha carried nuclear arms.

Finally, it's worth noting that each of these sites are safe to visit because there has been no evidence of radiological contamination or leaks; all of the environmental problems have to do with petroleum and other chemicals instead.


This image was taken during the Tightrope test on 4 November 1962 at Johnston Island. Tightrope was used to test the atomic power of the Nike Hercules carrying a W-31 warhead. The missile was set up like it would be at a "regular" Nike site, and fired as if it were needed in air defence. If the Nike missiles defending Milwaukee had to be fired against incoming Soviet bombers, this would have been seen over the skies of Wisconsin, although at a presumably-high altitude. 


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