Real estate broker Wayne Keller is showing another curious “looky loo” around an unusual property: the launch area of a Nike missile base that was constructed more than 50 years ago in the countryside of Southern Illinois.
From atop this peaceful hill in Monroe County, the U.S. Army once kept eyes on the skies, ready to blast Hercules missiles at Soviet bombers headed for St. Louis, about 30 miles to the northwest.
The 14-acre site, which will be auctioned on July 12, is a hot property judging from the emails and phone calls Keller’s getting. A video posted on his Facebook page and Buy-A-Farm.com website has had nearly 200,000 hits.
Keller says folks are downright curious about this Cold War relic that hasn’t seen a missile since it was deactivated in January 1969.
“It’s my understanding that this is one of the most complete and best-kept Nike missile facilities in the country,’’ he says.
Keller, who usually sells farms with soybean fields and corn silos, has some ideas for repurposing this former military installation now knee-high in grass and weeds and colorful wildflowers.
Former missile bases around the country have been converted into luxury homes or warehouse storage, he says. Among the novel ideas he’s heard for the Hecker site: turning the three underground bunkers, where missiles were once stored, into an underground pot farm to grow medical marijuana. Or, flooding the rooms for a scuba diving school. Some neighboring landowners are interested in the land, military history buffs would like it to be a museum -- and he’s heard from a few survivalists.
The minimum opening bid is $70,000, and Keller knows several potential buyers who are willing to meet that. So the actual sales price could, well, skyrocket.
“You really can’t appraise something like this,’’ Keller says. “I figure the best appraisal for a property like this is an auction. And we’ll see at the end of the day what it brings.’’
Keller emphasizes that the property, including several weathered cinderblock buildings, is being sold “As Is.’’
And one other thing.
“It’s BYOM,’’ he says, with a grin.
“Bring Your Own Missiles.”
A Missile Base With A View
The missile station, officially dubbed SL-40, is near Hecker, a town of 500, though it has a Red Bud address: 5055 M Road. It was one of four “backyard” missile sites that formed the St. Louis Air Defense System, a protective ring of firepower that operated for nearly a decade -- from mid-1959 to early 1969.
They were the city’s last line of defense.
Should intruders cross the DEW Line (the Distant Early Warning radar system) that protected the U.S. and Canada and make it through all of the air defenses, they’d be smashed to smithereens by 5-ton nuclear-tipped Hercules missiles launched from hundreds of these rural Army outposts that were spread across the U.S. to protect major cities and industry.
The other St. Louis bases were in Grafton (SL-90), Marine, Ill., (SL-10), and Pacific, Mo., (SL-60) with Scott Air Force Base (SL-20) serving as headquarters.
Keller is well-versed in the history of the place, which he believes was put on alert only once – during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
He can point out the rusty remnants of launch pads still embedded in slabs of aging concrete, and he explains how the missiles were rolled on now-gone tracks. Weathered steel doors above ground lead to the bunkers, which are as damp and dark as most old basements but still intact and functional. Faded lettering on the walls point to emergency escape hatches -- reminders of the dangerous business once conducted here. Massive elevators that lifted 40-foot Hercules missiles topside still work. Loudly.
Plus, there’s that commanding view of the countryside.
Proceeds from the sale go to Career Center of Southern Illinois (CCSI), a cooperative vocational school which serves local school districts and has owned the site since the early 1970s.
Keller has set up two open houses for people with “a genuine interest” in purchasing the property: from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 26 and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on June 27. Prospective buyers should go to the Hecker Community Center, where shuttles will take them to the site. He’s hoping the open houses will limit the number of people who just want to poke around a former missile base.
“From what I have found so far, most of the people who took the time to call do have a genuine interest in it,’’ he says. “The ones who are just looky loos are going to the social media accounts and commenting back and forth.’’
In the meantime, the gates to the site are kept locked, and there are security alarms -- so looky loos, be warned.
The auction at 10 a.m. on July 12 will also be at the Hecker Community Center.
“We know it is going to sell that day,’’ Keller says. “So if you want to own a Nike missile launch site be here July 12.’’
From Missiles To Classrooms
About 100 soldiers of the Army’s 62nd Artillery, 1st Missile Battalion, operated the Hecker base, according to a Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) produced in 1994. The base cost about $2.6 million to build, including $22,400 for the land, which was purchased from a local farmer. And those Hercules missiles? The bunkers held 18; they cost about $55,000 a piece.
The Nike bases were all constructed using a basic template. Each consisted of separate control and launch areas that were located 1 to 3 miles apart. At SL-40 in Hecker, the barracks, mess and recreation facilities were at the control area about a mile from the launch site. Those buildings are now part of the campus of the vocational school.
When the Army mothballed the Nike sites, many were bought by local governments and school districts. That was the case in Hecker where the government sold the base for $1 to be used for educational purposes. The control area of the base was extensively remodeled and transformed into classrooms for the Beck Vocational Center, which opened in 1972, the forerunner of today's career center. The Nike missile base in Pacific, Mo., was also converted to a school.
CCSI serves 12 high schools stretching from Columbia and Dupo in the north to Chester and Sparta in the south. It provides vocational training in welding, automotive service, auto body, law enforcement, heating ventilation and air conditioning. The school also offers a separate adult training program for licensed practical nurses and serves as an alternative school for at-risk high school students.
Mark Stuart, director of CCSI, says the decision to sell the launch area is strictly business; the school hasn’t used the property for decades.
“Initially, we taught diesel repair classes and some auto classes there,’’ Stuart said. “With school funding as it is, particularly in the state of Illinois, we feel that the proceeds could supplement our general fund and enable us to continue to carry on with the programs we have -- and provide a little financial cushion or security to keep our programs running.’’
Cold War Memories: Missiles In Our Backyard
St. Louisans of a certain age, who can recall watching the Gateway Arch rise from the Mississippi riverfront from 1963 to 1965, are likely to also remember fallout shelters and civil defense drills: Duck and cover, as demonstrated in a government film.
The Cold War was part of the fabric of everyday life.
“What World War II had taught military planners was that the main threat would no longer come from the ground or the sea but from the air,” says Krister Knapp, who teaches Cold War history at Washington University. “U.S. military planners thought that a large aircraft attack would come across the North Pole from the Soviet Union and would be directed against Midwestern industrial centers with large civilian populations -- Chicago being first and foremost but St. Louis also ranking high on that list.’’
Worries deepened after the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in September 1949. By the mid-1950s, the U.S. was constructing a national network of air defense installations -- a mix of antiaircraft guns and missile bases.
Initally, St. Louis defenses were limited to 90mm antiaircraft guns, but city officials pressed for Nikes. In May 1958 -- the year construction began on the local missile bases -- the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on a mock air attack that would have killed nearly 150,000 St. Louisans.
Not surprisingly, the plan to build missile bases worried some area residents. The Army held a series of public meetings in July 1957 to assure its new neighbors that the St. Louis missile stations would not be “hot targets.”
Meeting with several hundred residents from Edwardsville and Grafton, Col. James H. Farren of the Air Defense Command insisted that the sites would be “as safe as a gas station.” According to newspaper accounts, Farren also promised that the missiles would never be fired unless there was an enemy attack.
The Army also produced a series of promotional films to sell Americans on the idea. In “The Nike-Hercules Story” (1960), the opening scene of carefree children playing with a toy plane triggers thoughts of Hiroshima for the commander of a local Nike base. The narrator gravely describes the “thin shadow of dread” that hangs over Elm Street -- and the nation. The film, which includes footage of Nike base operations, concludes, “Nike-Hercules is our assurance that what might happen will not happen here.’’
By contrast, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the classic film “Dr. Strangelove,” which satirized the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as a deterrent to nuclear war and the thriller “Fail Safe,” which promised to have moviegoers “sitting on the brink of eternity.”
Both films were released in 1964 -- when Nike bases were still watching the nation’s skies.
But Would They Have Worked?
In the end, the nation’s Nike stations, including SL-40, never fired a missile before the Army declared them obsolete and began shutting them down.
The feared Soviet bombers had never come. And by the late 1960s, the Army said Hercules missiles were no match for the latest missile technology: intercontinental ballistic missiles. The arms race had moved on.
Mark Morgan, a civilian historian at Scott Air Force Base, says Hercules missiles performed well in government testing. He believes they would have done their job in a conventional air attack -- but the nuclear fallout would have been devastating,
“For what it was designed against -- which was formations of Soviet bombers -- it would have worked very well -- but at great expense,’’ he says.
Morgan has made it his personal mission to visit old missile bases. He and Mark Berhow of Peoria co-authored “Rings of Supersonic Steel,” a guide to U.S. missile bases. They planned to visit the Hecker site one last time before the auction.
“It is the most intact former Nike site of the four that formerly defended St. Louis,’’ Morgan says. “Except for the lack of radar towers and equipment everything is still there. Generally, that’s hard to find.”
Morgan says the Army operated 234 Nike sites in the U.S. and Greenland, plus additional sites located around the world.
“Most people are still not aware of the extent of these missile systems,’’ he says. “They were literally missiles in our backyard.’’
As it turns out, the Soviets didn't have the capability of delivering conventional nuclear weapons to the extent that was feared, particularly in the early years of the Cold War, according to historians.
But the missile bases were good PR for the U.S. government, which needed to be viewed as doing something to prepare for a worst-case scenario, says Knapp.
“That’s just basic government responsibility for national security,’’ he says. “And that started in the 1920s before WWII -- this idea that we have to protect civilians, as population centers have grown.’’
The U.S. economy was rolling, and the government had a large defense budget.
“From 1945 to 1973, nearly a 30-year period, this is the longest period of sustained economic growth in the history of the United States -- a period we’re not likely to ever see again at least not for some time, given recent financial problems and economic woes,’’ Knapp says. “The money was available, and it was a cash cow like most defense contracting. This was good for both national federal government employees but also for creating local jobs.’’
“Duck and cover” wouldn’t have shielded Americans from harm during a nuclear attack, but the civil defense posters and jingles – and “backyard” missile bases -- were a daily reminder that the nation was at war. Meanwhile, the “hot” battles between the two superpowers played out far from U.S. soil in places like Vietnam and Korea, Knapp says.
The engagement of civilians in the post-9/11 era has been far different, even though the U.S. faces continued threats of terrorism, he points out.
“Outside of airport security there are not many signs of what is, in fact, a raging and highly sophisticated war on terror,’’ Knapp says.