When most people think of the Florida Everglades, they think of wildlife and mangrove swamps, but did you know that the Everglades was also once the home of an important site in defending the United States during the Cold War?
A Little History
In October of 1962, an American U2 spy plane flying over Cuba discovered Soviet Nuclear Missile Sites capable of hitting targets in the U.S., and this was the beginning of what we now call the “Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Up to this time in history, the U.S. was only prepared for attacks coming from the Soviet Union over the North Pole, and the Cuban Missile Crisis revealed south Florida as the nation’s “Achilles Heel.”
The U.S. military had to act quickly, realizing the nation’s vulnerability to attacks from the south. The U.S. Army’s 2nd Missile Battalion and 52nd Air Defense Artillery were sent to South Florida, setting up tent encampments outside the Everglades National Park.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers immediately began constructing the anti-aircraft missile site within the Everglades National Park, located just 160 miles from the Cuban coast. In 1965, a Battery moved to this new permanent missile site, HM-69, and it remained in use until 1979.
For those of you who are old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, this tour will bring back memories of the fear of the times, the duck and cover drills at school, the frightening public service announcements, and everyone’s rush to build bomb shelters. While we were on the tour, John remembered that as a schoolboy, he and his schoolmates were issued dog tags so the children could be identified in the event of an attack.
I myself was too young and vaguely remembered my parents talking about the grave situation of the times. For me, the tour was a history lesson and an eye-opener to just how close we came to nuclear war.
Heros of a War Never Fought
The men stationed at HM-69 maintained 41-foot missiles in a constant state of readiness. The nuclear warheads ranged up to 40 kilotons, roughly three times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Although these missiles served to protect south Florida, a Nike Hercules was capable of striking ground targets on the Cuban mainland.
Can you imagine the task of these men? Soviet MIG aircraft were regularly detected on radar, and our defenses were constantly being tested. These men lived 24/7 on a high state of alert. Can you imagine the stress? But these men, appropriately responded to the tests and never once panicked or jumped the gun. A split second wrong decision would have put us in the midst of nuclear war.
Nike Missile Site HM-69 and its history has been preserved and in 2004 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Park staff and volunteers maintain the site and educate the public of its importance in history.
Historical records have been gathered from veterans who served at HM-69, and their stories of living under a constant state of alert are shared with the public.
Nike Missile Site HM-69 is much the same as it was left in 1979 when the site was terminated and serves as a sobering reminder to us all, of just how close we came to life being forever altered.
Our tour lasted about an hour and a half, and after the presentation, you are left to roam and explore the facility freely. The amount of time you should allow for your visit depends on your level of interest.
John and I found the presentation of the site’s history and the artifacts within the site to be quite fascinating. John is an Airforce veteran and is old enough to have clear memories of the turbulent times, so his interest level was very high. Having little recollection of the times, my experience was more on an enlightenment level, and I walked away knowing more about our nation’s history than when I came.
No matter what your age or whether you remember this fearful time in history or not, a visit to Nike Missile Site Hm-69 will leave you with a better understanding of the Cold War and of these words spoken by President John F. Kennedy on October 27th, 1962; ” It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”
Access to the HM-69 Missile Site is only available through ranger-guided tours. There is no charge for the tour, but reservations need to be made beforehand. For specific information on tour times and dates, stop by the Ernest Coe Visitor Center at the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park or call 304-242-7700.
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