- Atahualpa Amerise @atareports
- BBC News World
When on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy denounced the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, the world was placed on the brink of an atomic war.
At that time, no part of the United States was safe from possible attack by Soviet nuclear weapons.
And the first line of fire was the Florida panhandle, whose closest point to the island is a mere 145km away of some of the missile platforms secretly installed by the USSR in Cuba.
“People in Miami were aware that the missiles in Cuba were offensive and aimed at the US. And this was the closest large US city to the island,” the main historian of the city’s Museum of History, Paul S. .George.
The 1.5 million inhabitants of Miami at that time (today its metropolitan area is home to 6.2 million) knew priority candidates a a first atomic attack Russian.
“People were leaving empty shelves in supermarkets, and some were even building bunkers in their homes,” says George.
The Florida Defense
The authorities, for their part, quickly moved thousands of soldiers, weapons, vehicles and military equipment from all over the country to South Florida.
The historian recalls that “in those days trains full of soldiers were constantly arriving and the streets were taken over by jeeps and tanks.”
“The city of Miami, and Florida in general, they were on the warpath“, he assures.
The Miami-Dade college campus, housed on former Army installations, was temporarily reverted to a military base.
George, who was only 19 years old and was studying at the same college when the crisis broke out, shares a personal anecdote that illustrates the tense atmosphere of those days in the city.
“I had a girlfriend who lived far away and we were sad, because really we thought it could be the end of the world And we weren’t going to see each other again.”
Meanwhile, local officials hurriedly assessed the strength of the city’s buildings, designating more than 100 of them as nuclear-attack shelters.
Unlike other cities like New York or Washington DC, the defense of Miami presented a big problem: the ground.
Being based on swampy terrain, the city lacks subway or deep underground facilities where its inhabitants could take shelter in a situation of alert by air or missile attack.
In any case, the priority for the US was to prevent a single projectile, especially with a nuclear charge, from hitting Florida.
To this end, in the days of tension that followed Kennedy’s announcement, they quickly installed four temporary defensive bases to complement and protect those already existing in the state.
An elite unit, the 52nd Artillery Regiment, moved to these four bases, which in just a few days deployed what would be the main defensive resource of the US against the Soviets and the Cubans: Nike Hercules missiles.
Inside the Nike base
To relive the events that took place 60 years ago, the BBC visited the only one of these four former bases that has not been completely dismantled.
Located in the Everglades National Park on the southern tip of the peninsula, the Nike HM69 missile base was considered crucial in defending the US if conflict broke out.
“Florida was ground zero in the missile crisis, and within Florida this park was ground zero“, says the forest ranger Daniel Agudelo in a tour for BBC Mundo through the facilities of the old base.
Here the soldiers of the 52nd regiment arrived at the end of October: “Without time to say goodbye, they took a train at midnight with everything, including equipment, machines, vehicles and missile parts, to set up a temporary missile base.”
Just a hundred meters from the assembly building stands the first of the three huge warehouses that housed up to 18 Nike Hercules missiles.
And, on the esplanade in front of the gate, a network of rails and platforms connected to the interior of the hangar can be seen.
“In case of receiving the alert, the soldiers would open the doors and push the missile along the rails to place it on the launch pad, move it at an angle of 87 degrees and fire at the target,” explains Agudelo.
With a limited range of about 150 kilometers and three times the speed of sound, the Nike Hercules missiles were purely defensive: their task was intercept large projectiles to enter US airspace, like Soviet atomic missiles.
“Some of them contained nuclear warheads and, for example, if 15 or 20 enemy planes loaded with atomic bombs came at the same time, they could destroy them all in the sky,” says the guard.
The defensive nature of the Nike base did not mean that South Florida lacked the resources to attack Cuban or Russian soil.
Barely 15 kilometers away, Homestead Air Base was home to a legion of B-52 bombers loaded with atomic shells and ready to go into action.
“During the crisis at all times there were B-52s in the air with nuclear weapons to respond to a Soviet surprise attack. The USSR knew this, so it was not going to attack because we had not only missiles, but aircraft that could carry out offensives. atomic bombs,” explains historian Paul S. George.
Following the missile crisis, the HM69 base continued to operate as a temporary military facility for another three years.
In 1965 the tents where the soldiers were staying were replaced by concrete buildings and the place was consolidated as a permanent base of the armed forces.
But it was only operational for another 13 years, until 1979, when its facilities were withdrawn from service and left abandoned in the middle of the natural park.
It was not until the 2000s when a veteran who had served as a soldier at the base during the missile crisis, Charles Carter, together with local authorities undertook a project to preserve it and open it to the public for several months of the year.
Since then, those who visit the Everglades natural park between December and March can not only see crocodiles, alligators, birds and manatees, but also an unusual relic of the Cold War.
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