National park rangers are working to recover a missile base that played a central role in the nuclear tensions between the United States and Soviet Union during the 1960s. Washington quickly built the Florida base after the discovery of Soviet missiles some 300 kilometers away, on the island of Cuba. Now the historic site is drawing crowds, including former U.S. service members who lived through the Cuban missile crisis.
Everglades national park lies at the tip of the Florida peninsula, a long drive for many tourists. The newest attraction is drawing crowds though.
"This was the missile assembly building. Most of the other sites are long gone," explains Park Ranger Leon Howell. "That's the real deal, original artwork left by the soldiers that were here."
This spring, Everglades park launched tours to what was once a highly restricted military base.
"This is the barn, this is where the missiles were stored," he adds. "Every one of these barns was a launch site that had three launchers."
Only the buildings remain, after the base was closed and all missile equipment was removed in the 1970's. Other nearby missile sites have been dismantled and turned into a grocery store and a prison.
"At night when the sirens would go off and we would be there for 24 hours I would go to launch control trailer and sit with a headset on and listen to them track an airplane," recalls Wayne Landry a Nike missile technician.
HOWELL: "These guys had a real threat. Their radars and their defenses were tested by Cuban aircraft."
LANDRY: "Of course, [U.S.] planes were in the air. We were just there to back up the planes - if they could not get them down, then we took them down. But we never had to do anything."
Many other former service members took the tour this spring. Their memories are crucial to putting together the history of the missile bases, which were active from 1962 to 1979.
"It has been hard because we know next to nothing about it to begin with," adds Howell. "There are a lot of details and when we run across people who were stationed in this unit, they do not necessarily know the operation of the whole unit."
Some 250 Nike missile batteries were active in the 1960s. Veterans recall that tension ran high during the Cuban missile crisis. They look back with nostalgia now, only because the missiles bases were never called into use.
LANDRY: "You did not tell anyone there were warheads down there, nothing, they did not know there were nuclear warheads. Of course they were not all nuclear, some of them were, some of them were not. At the time, it was secret."
HOWELL: "I reflect on the day, what I was doing, what my folks were doing, what this country was doing. And in the end, I reflect on war itself as a phenomenon. Many of us go different ways when we do that. But that is what this place does to me."
The park hopes to offer more tours next spring, to maintain the history for those who lived through it and for future generations.
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