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Cold War at Summerfest

Jun. 17, 2009
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So often the ground on which we tread holds a story of significance. The unrelenting passage of time and the steady drive of development can cover the evidence of an era gone by, and knowledge of that history fades into oblivion. When the masses descend on Henry Maier Festival Park for this year’s Summerfest, how many visitors will know they are walking on buried remains of the Cold War?

Immediately after World War II, the U.S. Army concluded that guided missiles were the only way to provide air-defense against fast, high-flying bombers. And so the Nike Ajax, the world’s first operational surface-to-air guided missile system, was born. As a last line of defense from an air attack, Nike anti-aircraft missile installations were placed all over the United States in the 1950s to protect strategic and tactical areas, including cities and military bases.

Eight Nike sites formed a protective ring around Milwaukee. Because the Nike missile had a limited range of 25 miles, the missile had to be located very close to the area it was protecting. The Army concluded that the best place to safeguard Downtown from an air attack over Lake Michigan was from Maitland Field on the lakefront, one of the first Downtown airports in America.

Each Nike installation consisted of three “packages”: a missile launching area, control area and housing area. Like many Nike sites, control and housing were combined at Maitland Field. The Nike system used one radar to track the target and a separate radar to track the missile’s flight. These radars would report electronically to a computer, which would compare the two tracks and send corrections to the missile via radio.

The Nike missiles were stored in an underground magazine—a 58-by-60-foot rectangle with concrete walls 12 inches thick. The structure had footings that plunged 30-feet into the earth, with a finished floor at 20 feet. Thirty-inch steel beams supported a 6-inch concrete slab ceiling 12 feet above the floor. Above the ceiling was 3 feet of dirt and another 6-inch concrete slab. It was within this enclosure that the slender 20-foot-long white missiles with 10-foot booster charges were each cradled horizontally in their own moveable launcher. When an alert was sounded, the rockets were moved onto an elevator, raised to ground level and erected into a firing position.

Nike anti-aircraft installations faded into obsolescence when the threat of high-speed, high-altitude aircraft was replaced by the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Like all Nike sites, Maitland Field had been constructed to survive a nuclear strike. When workers attempted to remove it, they found themselves at an impasse. And so they decided to fill the site with concrete. Summerfest laid camp at the old site in 1970, establishing its headquarters in a building formerly occupied by the Army.

At Summerfest this year, spring for a trip on the Skyglider and imagine the land beneath you as a poised and alert military installation. Sit back and enjoy the ride secure in the knowledge that the threat the Nike missiles were designed to encounter is no more.

Photo courtesy of Sydney Miller of www.nikemissile.com


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