Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492
 

Missile Defense

 

The first missile installation was behind the Muzi Ford lot.  The picture shows Rt. 128 and the NE Business Center, newly-built in the 1950s. The large “golf ball” is the radar system for the anti-aircraft guns.

 

Needham Was Ready to Take On the Soviets … Almost.

There has been much discussion recently about possible future uses for the land on Pine Street, known as the Nike Site. The back-story is that Needham (Needham!) once hosted a ‘top-secret’ surface-to-air missile installation intended to deflect a potential Soviet air attack.

Following the Second World War, the main threat to US security came from our former ally, the Soviet Union. Apart from their expansion into Europe, it became clear by 1947 that the Soviets had bombers that could range well into US territory; this necessitated a new deployment of anti-aircraft defenses, this time to defend our own borders.

The first anti-aircraft installation in Needham was built in 1951, on the corner of Gould St. and Highland Avenue, now a part of Muzi Ford’s lot. Needham was one of eleven batteries that formed a defensive ring around Boston and Cambridge, and the defense-research installations that were located there. The weapons deployed here were not missiles yet, but 120mm guns, with a radar-controlled guidance system. Unfortunately – and unknown to the public – the guidance system did not actually work.

This first system was replaced a few years later by a better one – Nike-Ajax surface-to-air missiles with functional radar-guidance systems.  Because it required a wide field of visibility, the radar and command installation was at the top of North Hill.  The missile magazines, which required a triangulation distance from the command center of about 2 miles, were placed in a field off Pine Street. There were thirty missiles at the site, and twelve launch rails.

Also on the North Hill site were the barracks, officers’ quarters, and mess hall to accommodate 140 men.  Married men were expected to find housing in town, but many were African-American and locals would not rent to them, so the army built quarters for the married men as well.  Although the presence of the installation was well known (the Needham Times even ran a story about it when it opened), it was still officially considered to be “top-secret,” and military personnel were expected to wear civilian clothing when they ventured out into town to avoid calling attention to their presence.

Even though the new system was functional this time, and a great improvement over the first battery at the Muzi location, there were still significant problems – in fact, the Nike-Ajax system was becoming obsolete even as it was being deployed.  Nike-Ajax was developed to combat conventional (1940s-era) bombers, but the new bombers were faster and more nimble. The North Hill radar installation could only triangulate relatively slowly. In addition, it could only calculate one trajectory at a time, so a missile had to be fired and reach its target (or fall) before the next trajectory could be calculated. So, although you had twelve missiles ready to launch, you only ever had one shot – and one was not enough.

Be thankful the need never came. The installation could never defend Needham or deflect an attack on Boston; the best it could do was draw down fire on itself.

The most crippling attack on the installation came not from the Soviets, but from a completely unexpected source – WBZ-TV. In 1960, a large TV transmission tower was built at the end of St Mary’s Street. The large mass of metal effectively blocked out all radar readings from the northwest – which happened to be the most likely direction of a hostile approach.

The army handed the sites over to the National Guard, and then shut it down for good in 1963.  The Army leased the housing, which still stands at the top of East Militia Heights Road, to the  Needham Housing Authority (the Army is currently in the process of putting the site up for sale).  The Army gave the rest of their North Hill land to the Charles River Center, then known as the Charles River ARC, which was founded in the mid-1950s to assist individuals with developmental disabilities.  The town purchased the Pine Street location.

The launch rails and magazines at Pine Street were closed off and left for a while, and then the site reused for various state or municipal purposes, including a police target range.  During the last 10-plus years, the site was capped with clean fill from the High School renovation project to seal in any remaining contamination from past use.  It is currently used for recreational purposes – an off-leash dog park and community gardens – and its future use is the topic of our current discussions.

So, apart from the homes, the rest of the army’s installation is now gone, covered in part by landfill, the Charles River Center’s Paul Merritt building, and by the growing facilities of North Hill.

 

The Nike site on Pine Street, sometime in the 1960s. By the time this picture was taken, the missiles and launch rails had been removed.