Guest column / When Cold War Fairfield kept Khrushchev in check
It was in the early 1990s -- more than a decade after we had moved to Fairfield -- that I first heard about "the Nike site," a popular after-hours destination for high-school kids. I figured the name came from an old rumor that morphed into a "suburban legend," or from an arcane riff on the world's dominant footwear company.
I was stunned to discover that not only was it true that Fairfield was home to an actual, no-nonsense Nike missile base on Old Dam Road, but that I had unknowingly been on the site countless times for the purpose of chasing tennis balls.
This discovery was unsettling. For me, the idea of a military installation in Fairfield clashed with its benign, small-town image. And if you were a child during the Cold War as I was, the Nike missile was a prominent part of the zeitgeist, along with mushroom clouds, the Civil Defense air raid drills, Nikita Khrushchev's "we will bury you" threat and the existential horror of the Cuban missile crisis.
What was our friendly little New England town doing with a Nike missile base? It turns out that Fairfield's base was one of six in southwestern Connecticut (a total of 12 in the state), their mission being the defense of Bridgeport. Bridgeport had become a major munitions manufacturing center during World War II, and was seen as a prime target for a nuclear attack.
In 1955, the town agreed to lease a tract of land on Old Dam Road to the United States Army for a missile site. There was no significant local opposition, likely because of the intensely defensive Cold War attitude that gripped the nation. The Army also built radar and control towers on One Rod Highway, less than a mile away across the marsh. Twenty-eight housing units for officers were constructed on Reef Road, an enclave we now know as Fort Devens. A newspaper account alluded to the possible military use of land in Greenfield Hill. It never went further, but somehow I don't think that idea had much of a chance.
In 1956 the base became operational, manned by about 200 officers and enlisted men. The enlisted men were housed in a one-story cinderblock barracks, still standing today and serving multiple uses. In a 1958 ceremony, the base was named after Isaac Jarvis, a local boy who rose to hero status in the Revolutionary War by leading a successful defense of Fairfield against a 1779 British advance from the shoreline up Beach Road. I am trying to imagine this.
The Nike Ajax missile, 34 feet long and only a foot in diameter (4 feet with fins), was designed to intercept and destroy invading Russian bombers. With its needle-nosed warhead, and bristling with sharp, angular fins, it cut a menacing profile. Any child of the Cold War would have seen film clips of Nike missiles suddenly spewing fire and leaping off their launchers, accelerating with such astonishing speed that it seemed to disappear in a second. With a range of 25 miles and a ceiling of 70,000 feet, it could reach speeds of almost 2,000 mph.
By the early `60s, weapons technology surpassed the Nike's antiaircraft capabilities, so the base was decommissioned. For six or seven years, though, Fairfield had a significant military presence, and essentially became an army-base town. Uniformed soldiers and military vehicles must have been everyday sights, to the benefit of local merchants. Memorial Day parades got an extra touch of panache with the 741st missile battalion sending a marching contingent. There was also an annual Nike Day in town, with a parade and a tour of the base. For the occasion, about a dozen Nike Ajax missiles were brought up from underground storage to be put on display.
There were no missile mishaps in Fairfield, but in 1958, a Nike Ajax exploded on a base in New Jersey and killed several servicemen. Along these lines, you may be interested to learn that other sites around Connecticut had larger Nike Hercules missiles that had nuclear warheads. The idea was that a nuclear device could knock out a bunch of Russian bombers up there before they got to drop their payloads on us down here. An airborne nuclear explosion was judged to be preferable to the alternative. Who could argue?
The radar and control towers, 40-foot shoeboxes with corrugated metal skins, were used as Fire Department training structures until the town got a modern facility. They were torn down in 1996. I never saw them in person, but in photos they had a Mad Max, post-apocalyptic look that made them less-than-desirable neighborhood landmarks.
It must have been a remarkable era in Fairfield, an era of which only traces remain. It would be interesting to hear from Fairfielders who lived here then!
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer. He may be reached at: email@example.com.