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Bear Divide and ‘the good ol’ days’

Empty silos serve as reminders of Cold War era

Posted: March 7, 2009 1:23 a.m.
Updated: March 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Relics of the Cold War era can still be seen at this decommissioned Army Nike missile launch site atop the Bear Divide area, which is currently the site of ITT Gilfillon, a radar systems company. Nike-Hercules nuclear missiles were stored, maintained and prepared for launch beneath these launch doors.

 
The early ’60s marked a time when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris staged a stunning assault to beat Babe Ruth’s home-run record.

It was a time when you were either a gyrating Elvis fan or a manic Beatles fan.

And it was the Cold War era, a time when Los Angeles was ringed with sleek and slender nuclear missiles, touted as being as graceful as the Greek goddess of victory for which they were named.

Before there was a city of Santa Clarita, when the population of Newhall was about 20,000, there were LA-94 and LA-98 — two out of 16 Nike-Hercules missile sites constructed as a “ring of supersonic steel” to protect the Los Angeles area.

These long-forgotten sites, located on Bear Divide and Magic Mountain, were staffed with the best soldiers the Army could muster and ready to fire at the first sight of Russian bomber planes during the Cold War.

“People don’t know about these areas,” says Ed Vadnais, a launcher crewman, D Battery, 1st Missile Battalion, 56th Artillery, who served in the Army at LA-94 from 1963 to 1965. “They don’t realize how big a threat there was to the U.S. during the Cold War.

The government could have pushed the button anytime. It was so tension filled.”

Vadnais, now 65 and a resident of Tehachapi, worked in “the pit,” underground with the missiles. The self-proclaimed 19-year-old punk kid from Jacksonville, Fla., joined the military to get to California; in an actual emergency, he would have designated which launcher was to be fired.

“They told us the nuke warheads we had — anywhere from 20 to 40 kilotons — were bigger than what was dropped on Hiroshima. It was pretty eye-opening,” said Vadnais, who after his discharge spent time as an inspector of B-2 Bombers and eventually retired from Lockheed Martin. While at Lockheed he traveled the world for NASA studying hurricanes and jet streams.

When the missile bases were established, Pearl Harbor was still largely on U.S. policymakers’ minds. Fearing a repeat, but from the Soviets, they launched Project Nike (pronounced like the shoe brand) in 1944 — when the War Department demanded an innovative air defense system to combat the new jet aircraft manned by the Russians, particularly the Bear and the Bison planes.

Existing gun-based systems, as well as missiles and rockets at the time, were inadequate at defending against the 500 mph speeds and up to 60,000-foot altitudes these planes were capable of flying.

In response, the U.S. developed a missile system that had radar capable of tracking a plane while simultaneously tracking a launched missile. According to Christopher Bright, independent historian and national authority on political history, a computer would do the calculations and ensure the missile would hit the target.

“It was very sophisticated for the time,” said Bright. “It was developed in the ‘40s and put into its first active site in 1952.”

Bright says the first version of the missile was called Nike-Ajax and it was not armed with nuclear warheads. The missiles also weren’t considered foolproof since they could potentially miss their targets while engaged with enemy pilots.

“Military and weapons designers proposed modifying (the Ajax) to be a little bigger, capable of carrying a heavier load and putting a small nuclear head on it,” said Bright. “This meant you didn’t have to actually hit the target because the bomb would go off and destroy everything in the zone around it.”

Hence, the Nike-Hercules (affectionately known as “Herc”) was born — a 40-foot-long missile armed with a nuclear warhead that could reach a maximum speed of Mach 3.65 — more than three times the speed of sound.

Some 2,500 Hercs were positioned at 123 launch sites around 26 cities in 25 states. The Santa Clarita Valley, known primarily as the communities of Newhall and Saugus at the time, had two sites, only one of which had the Herc nuclear missiles.

LA-98, or “Los Angeles nine-eight” in proper military jargon, was an Ajax site located at the peak of Magic Mountain, which according to local sources, reportedly got the name because of the constant glow of military activity at night.

It had three firing sections with four launchers each. The underground casemates could house a total of 30 missiles and are still atop the mountain today.

The missiles are long gone and the circular steel doors are welded shut, but as you stand in the center of one of them while overlooking the Santa Clarita Valley, you get a sense of what it must have been like to be stationed there — assigned to protect Los Angeles from imminent threat. The site was activated in 1955 and completely closed in December 1968.

LA-94 was a Hercules nuclear missile site located on a mountain top we know today as Bear Divide, southeast of Magic Mountain.

Within sight of LA-98, it, too, was activated in 1955 with Ajax missiles. It went operational with the Hercules nukes in 1961.

Today, when you take the leisurely drive along the picturesque windy mountain road to the Bear Divide picnic area, you’ll find a road leading to the launcher and radar areas currently fenced off by ITT Gilfillon, a radar systems company.

Though not accessible to the public, the rusting steel launcher doors hiding the echoing caverns beneath are still there. A sign at the bottom of the steel steps leading to the underground missile storage and launcher elevators reads, “Two man rule — violators punishable by courts martial” — a reminder of former military presence.

The old Army administration buildings there are intact as well, being used by Los Angeles County Fire Department Camp 9.

“I painted most of those buildings,” said 61-year-young Don Schlotfelt, a Cold War veteran who served in the Army at LA-94 starting in 1966 until the site was closed in 1968. “We use to say, ‘If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it.’”

On a visit to the site, Schlotfelt stood in the exact spot where his bed used to be in the barracks, alongside roughly 30 other guys’ bunks in the same room. More than 100 Army personnel were stationed at the site, which came complete with community showers and a movie theatre building that has since been torn down. A helicopter pad now occupies the spot.

“We would sing ‘Yellow Submarine’ by the Beatles in here,” he said while squeezing into his Army jacket issued in basic training 43 years ago. He recalls a time where he thought people were nuts to live out in Newhall — the middle of the desert.

He’s been a Canyon Country resident for the past 26 years.

“Our motto was ‘If it flies, it dies,’” Schlotfelt said, fondly remembering his time as a 19-year old launcher crewman in A Battery, 1st Battalion, 56th Artillery, where he worked directly with the missiles on a daily basis and eventually was promoted to Specialist E-5. He calls those times “the good ’ol days.”

“We knew how dangerous those nukes were,” Schlotfelt said. “We would goof off, but when we were working the missile, it was all business. We never really wanted to fire one in anger.”

A chosen few soldiers, however, did get to fire one once a year during SNAP — Short Notice Annual Practice — at a test site in Fort Bliss, Texas. Shlotfelt and Vadnais were both commissioned by the government during their enlisted days to build an entire missile system, minus the nuclear warhead, and shoot down a real plane.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” said Vadnais, “to actually fire one after all the training and to actually see what they could do.”

According to Bright, when armed with the nuclear warhead and launched, the Hercules would create a relatively small nuclear explosion high in the air near its target.

The military did numerous studies resulting in a strong belief that there was not a threat to people on the ground.

Whether this was true our not, the public will never know, because not one of these missiles was ever fired from a tactical site.

“The Soviets knew we had it” — that’s Schlotfelt’s explanation for why the system was never used. He refers to it as M.A.D. — Mutually Assured Destruction.

“The Soviets didn’t want to die,” Schlotfelt summed up, “and neither did we.”

“There were almost 200 of these (sites) nationwide,” said Bright. “These places were not secrets. The Army promoted them. The fact that they had nuclear warheads was open information.”

Bright explained that there were atomic anti-bomber weapons on display (unarmed) in many public venues, and some missile launch sites and manufacturing facilities held open houses to show them off. American pop culture gobbled it up, including missile toy models, cereal trading cards — even a “Lassie” television episode was filmed at LA-88, a site in the Chatsworth area.

The U.S. military decommissioned the last missile site in 1974. According to Bright, once technology provided more accurate missiles, there was no longer a need for them to be nuclear.

Little remains of the extraordinary time. Most sites have been turned into parks or handed over to local governments and private contractors. At the Bear Divide location, young lovers park nearby to enjoy the 360-degree view of the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. They know it’s called “the site” but not why it’s so dubbed.

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