CuriosiD: When Detroit was Armed with Missiles

Listener Steven Gold remembers seeing a Nike missile base in Detroit as a kid. “Am I crazy?” he asks WDET’s CuriosiD.

For this edition of CuriosiD, we tackle a question from Steven Gold. Click on the audio player above or use this link to hear the audio story.

When I was a young kid my parents would take me to a doctor’s appointment in Detroit somewhere around the 6 mile and Wyoming area, and I could swear that I saw a nike missile base. I’ve looked and there’s nothing there now. I mean there’s no sign that there were ever missiles located actually in Detroit. So, am I crazy?  |  Steven Gold

The Short Answer

You’re not crazy. We have not been able to find evidence of a Nike base around Six Mile Road and Wyoming Avenue, but Detroit and the surrounding area housed more than a dozen bases. Most of them have been completely demolished by now.

You can view the locations of the different sites in the accompanying map.

Map created using information compiled and organized by Tom Bateman. You can view his Nike website here.

Project Nike – Feeling Safe in a Time of National Fear

More than a decade before athletes in Oregon started wearing new-fangled running shoes with a “swoosh” on them, the U.S. military began its own project named after the Greek goddess of victory.

It was birthed during the 1940s, an era of deep national anxiety, and it brought about the country’s first anti-aircraft missile system.

“After the end of World War II, in a couple of years we had a new enemy,” said Melvin Small, a Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus from Wayne State University.

The new enemy was communism. And the Soviets were leading the charge.  

“And this enemy had the atomic bomb by 1949 – which many people said they stole from us through spies all over the place. China, our ally in World War II, went communist. All of Eastern Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain.”

Small said that in the 1950s an attack felt imminent. And so Americans were taking measures to protect themselves. Or at least to feel like they were protecting themselves. In case of a nuclear attack, school kids learned to duck and cover under their desks. Families built underground shelters with thick concrete walls that they could hide in.

When the military tried to strategize using war games, the threat of nuclear weapons seemed very plausible.

Over and over again we played these war games in the Pentagon and the outcome of using some nuclear missiles ended up in using them all and blowing up everybody,” he said.

The Nike program was developed as another way for Americans to feel protected. If an enemy aircraft tried to drop a bomb on the U.S., radar systems at a Nike base would detect the plane and shoot it down with a guided missile like the Nike Hercules model, which was sometimes armed with a nuclear warhead.

Laura Herberg

Life on a Nike Missile Base

Michael Willie is a Vietnam veteran, and he also served at a Nike missile base in the Detroit area from 1968-69.   

Willie served at the Union Lake Nike Base in Commerce Township. That base is now not much more than a large, overgrown field with some dirt and concrete pathways. The “H” of a helicopter landing pad seems to be the only nod to what began here in the mid-1950s.

Nike bases were split into two areas – an Integrated Fire Control (IFC) site with radar detection and a missile launch site where the weapons were stored.

Willie ran the launch control.

I was making sure good communication happened between the missile silos and the radar area,” he said.  “I was basically a glorified telephone operator, but I had the capability to light the candle.”

Meaning he had the capability to fire a missile.  But no missiles were ever fired from here. The Cold War was called the Cold War for a reason, after all.

Willie spent each day in the presence of these sleeping giants, which were housed in large silos.

“The silos are a great big rectangular room made out of concrete down in the ground. On the top is steel grating with steel doors that opened up.” 

Inside, the missiles sat on rails that enabled them to slide back and forth. An elevator raised them up in preparation for a launch or servicing. The missiles Willie worked with had four booster engines strapped to them. This brought each weapon to about 40 feet long, six feet wide and more than 10,000 pounds – roughly the weight of three cars.


The Fate of Project Nike

By the mid-1970s, Nike missile technology was deemed outdated. Bases were shut down across the nation. The Union Lake base was no exception. Opened in 1955 it was decommissioned in 1974.    

Union Lake wasn’t the only Nike base in the metro Detroit area. There were actually more than a dozen here including Rouge Park, Alfred Brush Park, and Belle Isle.

Like the duck and cover drills and the fallout shelters, the Nike missile bases were never tested in a live situation. But Michael Willie says just having them here provided a level of comfort.

“This site was integral to other sites in the area,” said Willie. “During the Cold War, when the Nike sites were viable, people could sleep peacefully at night because we were the last stand. They weren’t going to get through.”

During the Cold War, when the Nike sites were viable, people could sleep peacefully at night because we were the last stand. They weren’t going to get through.”

The enemies never did get through. Well, not physically, at least.

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  • Laura Herberg
    Laura Herberg is a Reporter for 101.9 WDET, telling the stories about people inhabiting the Detroit region and the issues that affect us here.