NIKE MISSILE SITE HM-40
A forgotten military base in the middle of the swamp.
Entrance to the barracks | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
"You're going in by yourself?" the ranger asked me as she prepared my back country permit. When I said yes she asked me, "Aren't you scared?"
"What do I have to be afraid of?"
That's the real question, isn't it – a question she never answered by the way. The fact that I'm required to carry a back country permit at all times in the park with a copy of my ID attached to potentially identify my body should I go missing was answer enough. I've heard enough Missing 411 stories to know not to let my guard down in national parks, especially in the back country.
Storage/workshop room at the HM-40 IFC site | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
The Cuban Missile Crisis reached a boiling point in late 1962 and brought into sharp focus just how unprepared the United States was for this new type of threat. As an immediate response to this, troops and anti-aircraft missiles were rushed to the Florida coast to defend against the looming crisis. By October 26, 1962, the 6th Battalion, 65th Artillery was the first to arrive in Key West and established an Army Air Defense Command Post (AADCP) with four firing batteries of ground-to-air Hawk missiles.
A reinforcement of the newly developed Nike-Hercules missiles was supposed to reinforce this position, though it took until mid-November for these Nike-Hercules sites to be operational. This near miss led the US to order the construction of hundreds of permanent Nike missile sites throughout the country in the following years – an endeavor that authors Mark Morgan and Mark Berhow refer to as "Rings of Supersonic Steel."
Photo © Urban Ghosts Media
The Nike-Hercules missile was a new and improved version of the older Nike-Ajax model. It had the advantages of being able to carry a nuclear warhead as well as utilizing solid fuel instead of the more dangerous and unpredictable liquid fuel. The drawback – which is incidentally the reason it took the sites so long to be operational following the Cuban Missile Crisis – was that the Nike-Hercules missiles were huge. The cumbersome missiles measured 41 feet in length and weighed 10,710 pounds, making them difficult to transport.
If the HM-40 site brings about a sense of deja vu, you're not just imagining things. This Key Largo site was a sister site to HM-95 – or as we affectionately referred to it, Camp Krome. The sites were built in an almost identical layout, typically covering about 120 acres and consisting of two separate facilities linked by underground cables – the Launcher area and the Integrated Fire Control (IFC) area.
A wall of mirrors in the communal washroom area | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
The Launcher area was made up of storage vaults that were usually underground, as well as missile maintenance and assembly buildings. Near the front gate of the Launcher area is the Ready Room, where troops remained on standby at all times, ready for an emergency launch against incoming bombs or aircraft.
The Integrated Fire Control area is located about a mile away from the launch pads. The IFC area consisted of barracks with mess halls, latrines, a boiler room, generator buildings, sentry boxes, and a total of five radar towers.
HM-40 IFC site barracks | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
The sentry boxes, located at the entrances of the strictly guarded IFC area, had guards on duty twenty-four hours a day monitoring everyone who tried to gain access to the site. The barracks were the main living area for the enlisted men working on the site and also housed the mess hall and latrine. Outside of the barracks was the boiler room which provided heat to the barracks building. The generator building contained three large generators that would provide emergency power should the site lose normal power.
The five radar towers located in the IFC area of the site were the HIPAR, LOPAR (Low Power Acquisition Radar), Target Tracking Radar, Target Ranging Radar, and Missile Tracking Radar as well as a sixth, small-yet-crucial antenna that provided the ‘IFF’ system: Identification, Friend or Foe.
Photo © Keys Historeum
The HIPAR – or High Power Acquisition Radar – had a range of over 150 miles and was contained within a protective geodesic fiberglass shell called it's "radome." It constantly searched the skies for enemy airplanes. The HIPAR was accompanied by a designated HIPAR building that contained electronic equipment that supported the operation of the giant antenna.
The LOPAR – Low Power Acquisition Radar – served as a backup to the HIPAR and operated on a different frequency, allowing it to be used even if the HIPAR was jammed.
One of the remaining radar towers at the IFC area of HM-40 | Photo © 2018 Joe Juice
The Target Tracking Radar would take over once the target was acquired by either the HIPAR or LOPAR and the acquisition radar would take over searching for new targets. The Target Ranging Radar worked in tandem with the Target Tracking Radar and was used only to gain range data. The Missile Tracking Radar was used once a missile was launches and had to be led to its target. It tracked the missile from the time it was erected on the launcher to the time of burst, sending the missile's present position data to the computer and transmitting back steering and burst commands to the missile.
Basically, the IFC area was the brains and the Launcher area was brawn of these Nike sites.
The remaining area of the 120 acre facility was designated a drop zone to ensure that when a propellant booster rocket disengaged and fell away from the missile it fell into empty, military-owned land and not onto houses or other populated areas.
Over time as the war machine of the US and their enemies grew more technologically advanced, the Nike bases became obsolete and by the mid-1970's most of them had been closed. The HM-40 site was decommissioned in June 1979. In 1980, the ownership of the land housing the former launcher site was transferred from the Army to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The storage silos were filled in, hydraulic launchers damaged to prevent operation, and much of what was left was either demolished and buried beneath concrete or surrendered back to nature. The Launcher area of HM-40 is now located in the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a protected breeding and nesting area for the endangered American crocodile.
The IFC site was stripped of critical components and left to sink back into the foliage of Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. The buildings still remain, looking like a less-painted twin of Camp Krome. Three of the radar towers still sit amidst the trees, mostly intact.
HIPAR circuit breakers | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
Despite all the hype that the Cuban Missile Crisis stirred up and the millions of dollars that went into building the total of 265 Nike Missile bases built on a total 31,800 acres of US soil, no missiles were ever fired from either the US or our enemies. The Cold War turned into nothing more than a verbal slap fight of propaganda and strong words, but little action, leaving behind a legacy of nuclear panic and the bare bones of decommissioned Nike bases.
This skeleton of potential nuclear war now sits forgotten and rapidly being consumed by the surrounding foliage next to the old SR-905 that once led to it. The sentry box that once closely monitored all visitors to the property now sits empty and the barracks are home to only bugs and the occasional python.