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The Missiles of Los Angeles

Photo from Nike Historical Society

During most of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, the United States saw large formations of attacking bombers as its primary strategic threat. Its answer to this threat came to be Nike supersonic anti-aircraft missile launch sites surrounding key American population and industrial centers such as Los Angeles.

In 1954, the Army began operating its first Nike missile launch site in the Los Angeles area. The site was located in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu. In late 1952, the 47th Air Defense Brigade established its headquarters at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro to assume responsibility for providing air defenses for the Los Angeles area. By 1958, the brigade had established 16 Nike-Ajax launch sites ringing the Greater Los Angeles area. These sites were located in Malibu, Van Nuys, Chatsworth, Newhall, Saugus, Mt. Gleason, Barley Flats, El Monte, Brea, Stanton, Long Beach, San Pedro, Palos Verdes, Torrance, El Segundo, and Playa del Rey. At each site, missiles were concealed in underground bunkers and, in the event of a threat, were brought to the surface, loaded onto missile launchers and elevated for firing.

In 1958, the Army began upgrading Nike missile sites in the Los Angeles area from the Nike-Ajax missile to the more powerful and longer-range Nike-Hercules missile. The new missile could also be armed with a nuclear warhead. Due to the enhanced capabilities of Nike-Hercules, the Army reduced the number of launch sites around Los Angeles from 16 to 9.

In order to protect this vital arsenal, the Los Angeles area air defense system became the first in the nation to use Army sentry dogs to protect missile sites. In November 1958, four sentry dogs and their handlers began patrolling the Chatsworth missile launch site.

By the end of the 1960s, the need for anti-aircraft missiles had begun to diminish. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) became the dominant strategic threat. By 1971, only 6 of the 16 original Nike launch sites in the Los Angeles area remained operational. On February 4, 1974, the Army ordered all Nike missile sites to deactivate.

Few signs are left of the former Los Angeles Nike missile system. Former sites have been "beaten into plowshares" and are now used for such diverse purposes as fire department and correctional facilities (Malibu, Mt. Gleason, Barley Flats), local government maintenance yards (El Monte, Palos Verdes), an oil field (Brea), an office complex (Long Beach), a commercial radar site (Newhall) and a cement company (Saugus). The California National Guard currently uses the former Van Nuys and Stanton sites. The Federal Court House in Pasadena is located on a former Nike support facility. Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall occupies the former administrative building for the Palos Verdes Missile Site.

Source: The Fort MacArthur Museum