Fort Tilden’s secret history as NYC’s nuclear defense post

Fort Tilden’s secret history as NYC’s nuclear defense post

Looking back to a time when missiles lined the Queens shoreline.

As nuclear tensions with North Korea build, it's worth looking back to a time when missiles lined the Queens shoreline to protect against Soviet bombers and missiles.
As nuclear tensions with North Korea build, it’s worth looking back to a time when missiles lined the Queens shoreline to protect against Soviet bombers and missiles. Photo Credit: Lauren Green via Facebook

The former missile site at Fort Tilden is overgrown and decommissioned, no use in a world of varied threats. Yet the nuclear threat it once partly guarded against continues.

Several weeks ago, North Korea attempted another missile test; although unsuccessful, it demonstrated Kim Jong Un’s commitment to long-range weapons. In the game of one-upmanship, President Donald Trump has chosen newly tough words, and Wednesday he is scheduled to gather the U.S. Senate for a briefing on the situation.

The situation is tense and in search of a solution, as it was decades ago when nuclear and superpower warfare first became a possibility and the Cold War began.

Hiding in plain sight

For New York, part of the defense solution was Fort Tilden in Queens. Heading to the beach at Riis Park and drifting southwest away from the crowds, you might come across the powerful installation established in 1917, guarding the city against battleships and early aircraft. Its long guns were less useful after World War II. In the 1950s radar-guided Nike missiles arrived, surface-to-air devices which could shoot down attacking jets and keep New York theoretically safe.

The fact that the missiles were there was “sort of an open secret,” says John Lincoln Hallowell, a ranger at the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, which now cares for the old fort.

A generation of locals went to the beach without paying much heed to the goings-on at the military complex just off the shoreline, but the military wasn’t exactly hiding anything. The missiles, Hallowell says, were sometimes raised in salute on holidays.

They were “strictly defensive,” says Hallowell, but some carried a nuclear warhead. The idea was to fight fire with fire — a small tactical nuke could, theoretically, make the weapon even more reliable against groups of aircraft.

The army never confirmed that the Fort Tilden Nike missiles were actually armed with nuclear warheads, but one day a man came to Gateway and told Hallowell he had served as a military policeman at the location in the 1960s, patrolling the perimeter. He said it was possible to tell when nuclear material arrived because the gates would be shut, the phones turned off, and a plain tractor trailer would drive up to the site. No military markings, no escort, just a quiet drive through the city to the fort. “Hiding in plain sight,” Hallowell says, though he adds that the system was never put to the test.

How worried should we be?

Even during the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the closest the world has overtly come to nuclear war (and likely more dangerous than today given the two superpowers on outwardly opposite sides), Fort Tilden didn’t leap to any immediate action. There were general alerts that went out and the fort was placed in a state of heightened readiness, says Hallowell.

“Cuban crisis: Will it be war or peace?” asked one sober headline in Newsday at the tail end of the situation, outlining the escalating rhetoric and steps taken by opposing leaders. An American embargo of Cuba was followed by a threat of “further action,” similar to what the Trump administration threatened North Korea with this month; the Soviet Union accusing the United States of flirting with the “unleashing of a thermonuclear world war,” close to how North Korea responded to the recent mobilization of some American forces. Back then, the Soviets canceled Red Army leaves and American troops massed in Florida; now, we send Navy ships (eventually) heading in the direction of a different threatening isolated nation.

In the end, it wasn’t defensive missiles that saved the day in 1962, but high-stakes deal making precariously conducted by a first-term president.

Fort Tilden didn’t become necessary, and in 1974 it was decommissioned.

“The technology moved on,” says Hallowell: other sites in other places were slotted to make defensive attempts if intercontinental ballistic missiles, for example, were launched toward the United States.

All that was left in NYC was a memory of perceived involvement in nuclear defense — the proud bristling missiles in semi-plain site around the metropolitan area, on a base often operated by National Guardsmen. The learned habit of ducking under your desk for school drills. Now, we don’t even bother, just waiting and relying on that high stakes presidential deal making once again.

Mark Chiusano