Cold War Heroes Kept Citizens Safe at Nike Missile Sites throughout Western Pa

By Hofstetter, Bethany | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

Cold War Heroes Kept Citizens Safe at Nike Missile Sites throughout Western Pa


Hofstetter, Bethany, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Although the Cold War is a chapter in history books today, more than 50 years ago, people in Pittsburgh perceived a Soviet air attack as a real threat.

"(Pittsburgh) was full of industry, so it would be a target," said Thomas White, archivist at Duquesne University and an adjunct history lecturer.

To protect this industrial region, the government placed 12 air- defense sites, armed with Nike missiles and radar, throughout Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties. Operated by the Army's 31st Artillery Brigade, the sites were active until intercontinental ballistic missiles made them obsolete, and by 1974, all of the sites were shut down.

Today, they are abandoned or repurposed. But military veterans who manned the Nike installations are reminding people of the sites' importance.

"It's part of what the Army has done, in terms of its mission in defending this country," said James Young, 70, of Carnegie, who served in the Army and National Guard at several Nike sites. "In my case -- in the case of all these Nike people -- this is what we did, this is our contribution."

The term "Cold War" refers to the strained economic and political relationship between the United States and the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It lasted from 1947 to 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. During the era, many Americans lived in fear of a Soviet attack.

"I know the Cold War is probably archaic stuff anymore, but I still feel a great deal of pride in what I did, in what all these men did," Young said. "It was a big deal back in those days."

There were about 22.7 million veterans in the United States as of September 2010, and almost 1 million of them were living in Pennsylvania, according to the National Center for Veterans them Analysis and Statistics. Although Memorial Day is designated as a time to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country, it's also a time to reflect on the sacrifice all servicemen and women make, abroad and stateside.

Besides contributing personnel to the military during active wars, Pittsburgh was a key producer of armament resources, such as steel, and technological research through the Cold War period. The steel industry expanded through the 1960s, and corporations such as Westinghouse became involved in energy projects that included developing nuclear reactors. That made the region a potentially strategic target for the Soviet Union's long-range bomber planes.

"The way the industries were laid out in the river valley, it was set up more for precision bombing ... and certainly, it would be easy to see a steel factory at night," White said.

In 1952, the government established the suburban air-defense sites, each equipped with four, 90 mm anti-aircraft guns that could fire to 34,000 feet high over a range of 11 miles. …

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