The Nike Base

Aerial Photograph of East Hanover Nike Base, 1960

Why Nike Drive?

Most of us call it the “Hanover Park Condos” but every now and again, someone will refer to the condo property just west of River Road as “The Nike Base”. What was it? Many surmise and some theorize, but the best guess of all may have come from one the original property owners himself. In 1955 the U.S. ARMY knocked on the door of 96 River Road, the old Mattarazzo Farm House. “We would like to buy your property” they said to the Matarazzo’s. At 55 acres the farm was the perfect size & location for a new National Defense system the Army was about to implement. Andy Matarazzo, then in his mid 20’s said; his father told the Army to take a hike and that the family farm was not for sale. However, the property was vital to National Defense and the ARMY was able to seize the property via Eminent Domain and $55,000 in compensation. Soon, the property perimeter was double lined with barbwire fences. guard dogs roamed between the fences. For months construction equipment went in and out, ARMY Helicopters landed and took-off. A small village was built, complete with; living quarters, a mess hall, recreation areas & electrical generating plant. East Hanover Residents were left to wonder. Later that year the ARMY released information that they had encircled all major US cities with Surface-to-Air Missile or SAM sites. These sites were designed to shoot down incoming enemy aircraft. But… was there more to it some thought? Andy Matarazzo was certainly one to think so and with good reason. Andy lived, on Sabina Terrace in the closest house in East Hanover to the base. One morning he was minding his vegetable garden when he decided to shoot some gophers that had been harvesting his crop. After his first shot two armed military personnel approached him slowly, they calmly asked him to discard the weapon and never to use it again. Andy said; “I wouldn’t have thought much of it but the soldiers were actually shaking and white like ghosts, from that point on I thought they (the missiles) were nuclear.”

The Nike Program

World War II ended with a bang. Literally, it ended with a huge bang, the United States, releasing for the first time in warfare ”The Atomic Bomb”. During WWII many new weapons technologies were designed and fast tracked to the battle field. This ideology combined with the political-cultural schism between the United States and the Soviet Union set the stage for what we now refer to as the ”Cold War”. A period of tension, conflict and competition between these two new super powers. With the fear, that someday the Soviet Union would call an all out attack against the continental United States, in the late 1940’s, the US Army Developed a Defensive System to protect us. The System was called “Nike”, after the winged goddess of victory. It was comprised of some 300 Nike Sites throughout the United States. Each Nike Site was equipped with the World’s First Supersonic, Guided, Surface-to-Air Missile system. During the systems lifespan, two generations of missiles were deployed. The first generation missile, the Ajax, served between 1953-1960. It had a single rocket booster, traveled at Mach 2.5 and had a range of about 25 miles. Soon after its deployment, the Army observed that the Ajax system had limitations. It could not successfully track and destroy large squadrons of Bombers. With this in mind a bigger, stronger, faster missile was designed. Enter; The Nike Hercules! This missile served from 1958 to 1974, it had a four rocket booster, traveled at Mach 3.5 and had a range of over 100 miles. Oh, one more thing, Andy Matarazzo was right, it carried a Nuclear Warhead three times the size of the one that ended WII. Would you fly your bombers in to that force field? Well, thankfully the Russians never did send bombers this way. Eventually they changed focus to Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Thus rendering the Nike System obsolete. Or was it?

Rings of Supersonic Steel

Any major US city or military instillation was encircled by rings of 5-20 Nike Bases. Each base required two parcels of land or locations; the Radar Area and a couple of miles away , the Launch Area. Each area was individually staffed and supported between 50-100 soldiers. The Radar Area had multiple tasks. It was responsible for identifying and tracking enemy aircraft. Once locked on the target, the guidance system would steer the Nike missile from the launcher to enemy intercept. At the Launch Area, missiles were configured, fueled and maintained. Once readied they were stored in underground bunkers called magazines. The reason for the distance between the two areas was not obvious but simple. When launched, a Nike Missile would accelerate to 1700 MPH, more than twice the speed of sound, in 4 seconds. If the Missile Tracking Radar were in the launch area it simply would not move fast enough to follow the missile. Imagine you were going to track a flying bird with your finger, would it be easier if he flew right by your head or if he passed further away from you? The two locations communicated via public utilities and standard radio communications but in the event of attack or catastrophe an underground cable linked the two sites.

New York Nike Ring
New York Nike Ring

NY-80

NY-80 was the Nike call sign for the East Hanover/Livingston Base. It was one of 19 bases that circled and defended New York City. The East Hanover site, NY-80L was the Launch Area and NY-80C, on Riker Hill in Livingston was the Battery Control or Radar area. This area is one of a small group of Nike Sites in the country that can still be observed, complete with all buildings and radar towers. It’s is now Riker Hill Art Park off Beufort Ave. Contrary to public opinion and local folklore there were no underground tunnels on Riker Hill. Most Nike Bases had 2-4 launchers. NY-80 had six and was the largest in the country. In 1972, largely due to the SALT treaty, cutbacks were made and many bases were closed. NY-80, due to its size and flexibility, was the last base defending the metropolitan area until 1975, when it closed

By 1964, the base was fully converted to a Nike Hercules (Nuclear) site. Additional living quarters and a recreational area were added as well. The Base was operational, with 18 Nike Hercules Missiles for the next 11 years. Over that same period a new Nike missile called Nike Zeus was in development. This missile was capable of intercepting Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles. Zeus was never deployed. In 1975, NY-80 was finally closed. Many reasons have been stated; SALT Treaty, Vietnam Funding and the Nike technology itself being obsolete. Whatever the reason... the US Government decided to dismantle a state of the art multi-billion dollar defense system in favor of the F-14 and F-15 fighter planes. Today, Russia, China, Serbia, Iran and North Korea all possess elaborate Surface-to–Air missile systems. Does the U.S.? On 9-11, 2 F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to engage the second hijacked Boeing Airliner heading toward New York City. As history tells us, they were 10 minutes late and it crashed in to the south tower of the World Trade Center . In 10 minutes NY-80 could have tracked destroyed 8 incoming aircraft. Food for thought…

By Rich Ford

For more information consult the EAST HANOVER HISTORICAL SOCIETY