This presentation is part of the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, Fredericksburg, TX.
Allan Blank: Thank you. Good afternoon. We had a peacemaker and a minuteman taking it out to lunch, and we’ll have Nike bringing you back home. Just want to mention, it’s a privilege being with all of you … so many great people: conservationists, and scientists, and doctors, and I’m a park interpreter.
Nike Site SF88 in San Francisco is the last of a breed. It’s the last one. And, it’s a site that was open as a military base from 1955 until 1974. Ironically, the land on which the site sits became a National Park in 1972. For two years, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which by the way in 2018, the most visited national park unit … have to throw that in, good plug … which helped us somewhat, because when the site closed in 1974 as part of the SALT I Agreement, the United States Army said to the National Park Service, “We have a present for you. We’re going to give you a Nike site.” But, like the Army, they took everything with them, and left us a bunch of buildings and a lot of holes.
The site stayed dormant for about 15 years. When in the late 1980s, a retired army Lieutenant Colonel by the name of William Bud Halsey … the name Halsey rings a bell? His uncle was the famous Admiral Halsey … found the site and recruited some former Nike veterans to try and do something with the site and they worked at it for about 10 years and hopefully got things going, and the site chugged along. It was part of the Maintenance Division and they opened up one day a month for a couple of hours to let the public in, take a look. Speeding up to 2013, I was asked, told, directed, to go out to the Nike site as the site was now going to become part of the Division of Interpretation.
If I can see, it’d be great. Did I hit the wrong button? I did. I can’t see it. I’m blind. Oh, here I am.
When we arrive at Nike Site SF88-L, there are three parts to a Nike site and I’ll touch upon that in a couple of minutes. The main entrance is within an area of the park called the Marin Headlands. Golden Gate National recreation is very unique. Everybody rushes to come see the Nike site even though we have Alcatraz and Muir Woods.
We didn’t even have a road marker to tell people where the site was. When I got there in 2013, and I was directed to the site because, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I had been in the park for nine years and couldn’t remember exactly how to get there. I went to the sign committee and said, “Can we get some signs that said, ‘Nike site?'” Well, we had to go before the sign committee and talk to everybody and do everything. In a speedy fashion of two and a half years, we got signs that said, “This way to the Nike site.” It was a unique opportunity for us to preserve history and to show off something that you cannot see anywhere else in the world, because this is the last preserved-in-full site there is.
We needed to gain recognition of the site’s importance. We had to identify all the areas that had to be rehabilitated. Finding a funding source, that was the most difficult. We had no funding for our site specific. That was our major issue. I had to seek out historical architects, project managers, cultural affairs, natural resources, all people before we can start on any project, and how do we allocate all this funding?
The site is unique. Cultural Affairs has deemed it to be a museum. Interpretation looks at it as an interpretive site. We had to work together. Cultural had their ideas of what they wanted; Interpretation had their ideas of what they wanted. On a couple of areas, we were able to get together. Being that the site is located right on the Pacific Ocean, forgetting about the salt there and the rust, we have a lot of groundwater. When the volunteers first came, there was nine feet of water in the underground magazines that had to be pumped up.
When we look at this picture, you have two pictures of a door. This leads down to one of the magazines where the missiles would’ve been kept. Now, the idea to restore them, we had to use as much as the original material as we could. Doors like this don’t exist, so we had to have the doors cast from scratch from the original blueprints. Cultural Affairs came up with the funding to replace the doors. The first thing that was done, the first rehabilitative project from the time that the United States Army gave us the site in 1974, happened in 2014, when we replaced the doors going down to the magazine.
Being an interpreter, and not being one into contracts and into PMIS, and all the other things that went along, when I saw how much these doors cost, my rehabilitative list shrank, because you know, I said, “We’ll do this, we’ll do that, we’ll do this,” and then all of a sudden, “Maybe we can do this and that.” It really became a tough object.
I had at the time, the Deputy Superintendent come out to the site. This was just towards the end of 2014 not long before he left the site, and I said to him, “A decision has to be made: Either we fix the place or we close the place. We can’t have it both ways. The site is rusting out, it’s falling apart, nothing works. It’s a disgrace. We have no funding. We are the only one of its kind. This is something that we need to preserve. It’s our heritage. It’s our history.” I had him out there for two whole days.
The next week, we got funding, and we were able to do a lot of things to enhance the visitor experience. We’re creating a welcome center out of an unused building. This was the old generator building and the only thing that was in there was garbage and more garbage. We emptied out the building: building was restored on the inside, just about finished, just waiting for the fire suppression systems to be put in so we can put artifacts back in there.
Then the problem came up, “What do you do when things just don’t exist?” One of our historic architects came up with a new word: “rehabilitative restoration.” We’ll rehabilitate, and we’ll restore. We’ll put it all together.
We have a building, and I’ll show you a picture in a second, of the assembly building. All the buildings on the site are cinder block except one, and that’s this assembly building which came later to fit the new Nike Hercules missile, a much bigger missile. It was built out of wallboard and corrugated metal. And being that we’re on the Pacific Ocean and corrugated metal and Pacific Ocean: rust! The whole thing rusted out and it became a nature sanctuary inside the building. Fortunately, none of our critters that decided to occupy the building were endangered.
We were able to gently move them out. We took a building that was totally rusted out and what we did … we had to have lead abatement and all … this is the original siding that’s been sanded, sandblasted, repainted. That which we couldn’t replace, we cut away. I don’t know if you can see on the bottom here; that’s all been cut away and painted green to match.
This is our rehabilitative restoration that we’ve been doing. And again, that building is finished, and again, we’re just waiting for our phone company to come in and put the phone lines in for fire alarms and security alarms. And, these two buildings have taken approximately two and a half years to complete.
Now, guard dogs were an important part of the site. There were four of them and they lived at the site; important interpretive piece of history, not really accessible because of where it’s located, but visually, it can be seen. The only thing that we were able to see was a pile of junk. Our next project was to restore the kennel and the supply sheds to bring back the original look, and this was all restored using as much of the original material from the original blueprints. We have the blueprints and we’re recreating the training course for the dogs and we’re going to have a Marin County, California dogs train out there, which they used to do. This is a whole new avenue for us and a whole new part of the site that wasn’t available before.
I came to California 22 years ago. I’m originally from the deep south of New York: New York City. I never knew what an avocado was. I didn’t know. I came to California and I discovered an avocado. They looked great on the outside. Sometimes, if you open an avocado, looks great on the outside, it’s rotten on the inside?
Well, that’s another problem that we have and that’s called the hydraulics. We have a lot of motorized equipment and we’re faced with a dilemma. We have about 280 little hoses and those little hoses are 60 years old and the fittings are as old as the hoses. They all need to be replaced. Problem is can it be done? And, we’ve had people come out and give estimates. It’s difficult to decide what’s important to the site to keep it active as an Interpretive Site, to keep its heritage alive, or what’s not.
Now, I talked about cultural and natural. They all have their ideas of what they want done. We have our ideas, what they want done. Natural resources decided they wanted the grass and the bushes to look like 1963 or 62. How are we going to do that? Goats. So, the Nike Site, for several months, had goats wandering around. Now that the goats are finished, what happened to the grass? It’s right back where it started from. We have another dilemma. Do we look at that part as important to our interpretive situation or is that something that we can just put on the side?
When you’re working with multiple divisions, you know, interpretive, I’m out there with the interpretive idea of what to do, and cultural resource, being a museum, they have an idea of what they want to do and what they want me to do, and what natural resources wants me to do, so it presents a problem. Currently, the site is open between one and three days a week and we operate three to four hours a day, depending upon the time of the year. We do three to four tours a year. We had about 22,000 plus visitors in 2018. The staff is one ranger plus volunteers. The site currently, all the mechanics; the elevators, the launchers, are being done by former Nike veterans. They come in … and myself … was a V J image, whereas my best friend, all the uniforms I’ve roomed with, hydraulic fluid, to keep fixing it and we have no annual dedicated budget, so we’re running into issues that are difficult.
When we were at the museum last night, I was talking to Mike, the retired general who heads the fundraising arm, and he asked me a question. I was introduced to him by Mary, who said, “Here’s Allan, the Nike guy.” We got into this conversation, and he asked me, “Why is the site open at all?” And I asked him, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Why do people want to come see missiles?” I said, “It’s not about the missiles. It’s about the story. We had school groups come out and they talk about the Cold War and they said, ‘People get sick during the Cold War? Is that why they got colds?'” And that’s true.
As an interpreter for the National Park Service, I have a job to fulfill, and that’s to tell that story to make sure everybody knows what this Cold War was about. About a missile, when we talked about it this morning, Eric had mentioned mutually assured destruction, and we talk about a defensive missile that can travel 80 to a 100 miles whose goal was to take out a squadron of nuclear-carrying Soviet aircraft with a bomb more powerful than Little Boy and Fat Man put together. What were we doing? What were we thinking? What was the world like for those that lived through the Cold War? Can you identify with hiding under the desk? The stories that we tell, the life that we lived, missiles were a lot cheaper than keeping divisions of army all over the place. It was just an incredible time.
Here you see one of our missiles up in its launch position and we demonstrate this when we’re open; we do lift and it’s all done hydraulically. And, the picture on your right is one of the magazines, and there were six missiles down there and we bring them up on the elevator. We do all the demonstrations to show people what life was like, what the fears were.
Our history is why we’re here, so when we look at all of this and we see it, what is our limit? Where do we go? Is it worth our time and energy to save it? Of course it is. It’s like we were trying to preserve everything else that we’re here to do.
We’re leaving the park to the people and it’s maintaining our heritage and I’m the front man for all the Cultural people and Natural people and our historic architects. So when I’m pointing my finger at a building, that’s also to give thanks to all of you who work on the preservation part. I may help with an idea, “Let’s do this. Let’s do that. Let’s do this,” but I’m not the one doing the paperwork and finding the right bid, and bidding out the contract, and choking when I see how much the amounts are.
It’s just an incredible, incredible thing to see it and to see these people when we get last Saturday … Oh, and what’s great about it, the first Saturday of the month, is an open house where I have about 10 to 14 former Nike vets out there. We had close to a thousand visitors this past Saturday, and we can drive in, you can drive in, and we can park cars and trailers and all kinds of stuff in there. The site’s pretty big. It’s an incredible gift that the army gave to us, unknowingly probably. But, to be the only one is an incredible thing to have.
And I want to leave you with the Oozlefinch. The Oozlefinch! The mascot of the NIKE soldier, knight in the Air Defense team. It’s a blind, featherless bird that flies backwards at supersonic speed. Nike represents about the last opportunity to keep the Oozlefinch alive, but in reality all of us are Oozlefinches. We’re all part of the order of Oozlefinches flying at supersonic speed, to keep the heritage and preservation of our historic sites alive. I thank you for all that you do and I look forward to great times ahead, and thank you for allowing me to speak to you this afternoon. Thank you all.
Mary Striegel: Who has a question.
Speaker 1: You mentioned that the site is at the launcher installation? That component? Do you have possession of the integrated fire control or the administrative area?
Allan Blank: I failed to mention it, thank you. The Nike site was made up of three parts; you had the launch area, the control area, and the admin area. The control area for this site is inaccessible other than by foot, and that area contained the radar, the launch trailers, and the computers. What we’ve done … and I can’t take credit for it, this was done prior to me being there. We brought the radar and the trailers down to the launch area, and we actually even hooked up the radar that spins around, and the computers light up and the radar works, we can get it to work, and the administrative areas where the men slept and ate is now a YMCA. But thank you for reminding me about that. It’s all there, and we’re never here in San Francisco, I promise you it won’t be a hundred degrees, and it won’t be 95% humidity. When I left San Francisco Monday, it was 44.
Mary Striegel: Any other questions?
Speaker 2: Hi, I’m just wondering, like the other missile sites, are you also doing an oral history collection with the Nike veterans?
Allan Blank: Yeah, we have quite a few. Again, the gentlemen who served at Nike now are in their mid-seventies to late eighties. We have quite a few oral histories. I guess working Nike site has kept these guys going, and we are continuing our oral history. What is amazing about the Nike site and with the division of the launch area and the control area, if you worked in the control area, you knew nothing about the launch area, and vice versa. We get many guys who worked in the control area who come to the site just to see the launch area and they say, “By the way, while you’re here, you mind if we get an oral history?” That’s how we’ve been able to accumulate those.
Speaker 3: Since you’re from New York City, you know that there’s some Nike missile sites that were part of the defenses of the city and now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area-
Allan Blank: Yeah, Gateway at Sandy Hook … and I’ve been there, I’ve worked with them to try and get this site up, but when Super Storm Sandy came in, it totally destroyed the site.
Speaker 3: Well, it didn’t totally it because I’m-
Allan Blank: Well, it destroyed it enough that the work that we put into it at the time-
Speaker 3: Right, and that was my question for you, is, with the rising sea level and the storms that are getting worse and worse because of it, is there some armoring or anything else that’s going on with your site and if so, how is that working? What are you doing?
Allan Blank: Well, we have groundwater problems as it is and we run 18 pumps all the time. Nothing else is being done as far as fortification against flooding or anything like that, no, and I have not seen any plans to do so.
Mary Striegel: One last question. Here we go.
Speaker 4: Thanks a lot. Putting aside money for a minute, because everybody in this room faces money problems and so on, what do you take as the biggest challenge of rehabilitating or protecting this site so it can tell the story of the Nike Program and the Cold War.
Allan Blank: We have to make the determination of, “Is there a point where, if we can’t do something, is it still a viable site?” And that is the mechanical aspect where the equipment is old and not replaceable because it’s just not made. So, we jerry-rig parts, but that’s eventually not going to help it at a point, and that’s the biggest challenge. So really, money couldn’t even probably fix it, because how do you fix something that doesn’t exist without ripping the whole thing out and rebuilding the whole thing, which is not what we’re about. The hydraulics, that snake in the pit, that is our biggest challenge. As an alternative, can we do the site as well, as effective, without the missile? It’d just be a static missiles down below without bringing it up and all that kind of thing.
Allan Blank has been at Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 2004. During his tenure at the park, he has worked as an Interpreter on Alcatraz Island, and at Muir Woods National Monument and the Marin Headlands. He has also worked for the park in Public Affairs and the Office of Special Park Uses.
One of his current duties is Site Manager for historic Nike Site SF-88. Over a period of the last five years, the park has undertaken a restoration of the site keeping in mind its’ historic place in history, a remarkable and rewarding experience. Originally from New York City, he never thought that his life’s adventure would bring him to San Francisco to work on the restoration of a nuclear missile site. But this work has been the most rewarding of all.