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

Missile Defense

Needham Was Ready to Take On the Soviets … Almost.

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 around the sensitive research sites in Cambridge. The weapons 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.

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.

This first system was replaced a few years later by a better one – Nike-Ajax missiles with functional radar-guidance systems. The radar and command installation was at the top of North Hill, because it required a wide field of visibility; the missile silos were placed in a field off Pine Street. There were thirty missiles at the site, and twelve launch rails.

But there was another problem, caused by the different capabilities of planes and radar. Planes fly very fast. Radar, at this time, could only triangulate very 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 Cedar 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 site over to the National Guard, and shut it down for good in 1963.  The top of the hill where the command center was located was given to the Charles River ARC (now the Charles River Center) for their facility.  The soldiers’ quarters were given to the town for use as public housing.  Unused for several decades, the silo field off Pine Street has recently been transformed into the Needham Community Farm and the off-leash dog park.