Needham History Center & Museum

Missile Defense

An aerial view of the Nike site before it was fully dismantled.
An aerial view of the Nike site before it was fully dismantled. The launch rails were in the area at the top.

Needham Was Ready to Take On the Soviets … Almost. In the aftermath of World War 2, our former ally, the Soviet Union, became the main threat to our security, requiring a new defense strategy.

 

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.

The first radar installation was behind the Muzi Ford site. The inset detail shows the radar "ball."
The first radar installation was behind the Muzi Ford site. The inset detail shows the radar “ball.” In 1951, when this picture was taken, Route 128 was under construction. Note also the rows of new post-war housing on Evelyn Road and Woodbine circle.

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 silos, 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 them and 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. The Ajax system was later replaced with more modern Nike Hercules missiles. 

Although the missile crew practiced tirelessly and stringently to meet an attack, there was, thankfully, never the need.  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 gave the 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 Needham Housing Authority took over a lease to the married housing, which still stands at the top of East Militia Heights Road; the site was recently sold by the Army to the Charles River Center.  The town purchased the Pine Street location.

The empty missile silos 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 15-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.

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.

 

Nike Ajax missiles, shown on their launch rails.
Nike Ajax missiles, shown on their launch rails.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum