What’s the history of the Nike missile base on Mulholland?

Dan Kilgore (R) poses with James Latham, Deputy Chief Ranger with Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (L) at the Nike missile base in the Santa Monica Mountains. (Photo: Jenny Hamel)

Dan Kilgore lives with his family in Montrose, works at ABC Studios and loves mountain biking. He was cycling along Mulholland Drive, just west of the 405 in Encino, up high in the San Vicente Mountains, where pavement turns to dirt road, when he saw a tall metal tower. There were steps leading up to a big observation deck with a 360 degree view of the Valley to the north, the Pacific to the west, Downtown to the east. It was some sort of old military installation.

So Dan asked Curious Coast:

“What’s with the Nike missile base on Mulholland Drive? Cold war artifact? What other military artifacts are there in and around SoCal?”

A Cold War relic

You’re right Dan. This is definitely a military relic of the Cold War era.

Soldier stands guard over poised Nike guided missile. Four Nike bases form main line of defense for critical Valley area. September 8, 1960 (Courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library)

This is former Nike Missile Control Site LA-96C. The U.S. Army operated LA-96 from 1956 to 1968 with one purpose in mind – to be a last line of defense from Soviet planes that were coming to drop an atomic bomb over Los Angeles.

Army missile control specialists would be on constant lookout, using heavy-duty radar equipment to detect and track enemy planes and to help guide missiles to destroy them.

“The idea was that these batteries could protect the United States if the Soviets did a first strike with aircraft,” said James Latham, Deputy Chief Ranger with Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority who is stationed at San Vicente Mountain Park, now home to LA-96. “You’d have soldiers that were garrisoned up here for a day or two, 24 to 48 hours. Most of the people here were radar operators, and they operated the radar, the electronics, that did all the ranging and tracking for the missiles to intercept enemy bombers flying into attack.”

So, why the name Nike?

Like the shoe, the Army named their first anti-aircraft surface to air missile program after the Greek goddess of Victory. It was called Project Nike.

If the specialists at LA-96C were to track an enemy plane approaching, they would send out the order to launch a Nike Ajax or Hercules missile from a military silo in the Sepulveda Basin (a base on Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys) Some of the Nike Missiles had conventional warheads, some of the later models were equipped with nuclear warheads.

Nike missile base LA96C (Photo: Jenny Hamel)

Inside the Ring of Supersonic Steel

The Ring of Supersonic Steel, courtesy Fort MacArthur Museum

LA-96C was one of 16 Nike Missile Control Sites operated by the Army from the 1950s to the 1970s. These batteries circled the Los Angeles basin in what was called a “Ring of Supersonic Steel. There were 16 sites, including a site at San Pedro’s Fort MacArthur (which also served as headquarters for the program), one in Chatsworth, one in Malibu. Little did Angelenos know that there were hundreds of nuclear missiles at military bases near their homes, their schools, and their parks, ready to be fired.

Here’s an old Universal-International newsreel from the 1950s letting Americans know that they were being protected by the supersonic Nike Missile. The hype around the program was to make Americans feel better, and to let the Russians know that the U.S. was prepared to defend itself.

Duck and Cover

If an attack was imminent, the civil defense air raid sirens would be activated. There were hundreds of air raid sirens all over LA during the Cold War. Angelenos knew the drill. If you heard the wail of the air raid siren, you ran to a shelter, you ran to a bunker, you ducked and covered.

The well-known 1952 Civil Defense film, “Duck and Cover” featuring Bert the Turtle played at schools across the country, taught kids what to do once they heard that air raid siren go off. According to the film, the impacts of a nuclear attack were “worse than a sunburn”

Not one Nike missile was ever fired during the Cold War era. In the late 1960s, intercontinental ballistic missiles replaced bombers as an atomic threat and the Nike program became obsolete.

The Army stopped operating LA-96C in 1968 and the site languished for a while on surplus federal property. Eventually, it was incorporated into the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area and in 1996, San Vicente Mountain Park was opened to the public.

Not all the former Nike Missile sites have been preserved in this way. Many of the sites, still on government land, have been repurposed. The one in Malibu is used as a Los Angeles County Fire Department fire camp. Fort MacArthur now houses a museum, which is open to the public.

“The people that worked here would find this a fantastic legacy,” said James Latham, Deputy Chief Ranger with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, referring to the way the structures have been repurposed for recreation and enjoyment.

During a hike to LA-96C, Dan reflected on LA’s military history. “That entire generation, my father included, all worked in aerospace. Along with RocketDyne, there was Hughes Aircraft, my father worked at Bendix,” he said. “I remember the time, because it was the time of the USSR and a lot of saber rattling.”

What do you want to know more about in or around Los Angeles?

Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.