Cougar Mountain and the Cold War connection
June 29, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Missiles atop peak defended region against Soviet threat
President Kennedy had a bad cold.
The leader of the free world begged off public appearances in October 1962, blaming a respiratory infection. Kennedy skipped a planned appearance in Seattle to close the Century 21 World’s Fair.
Except, the president had no cold, bad or otherwise.
The discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the United States and the Soviet Union — both nuclear-armed superpowers — to the edge of annihilation. The ersatz illness provided a ruse for Kennedy to duck the limelight and address the crisis.
U.S. military installations around the globe operated at heightened alert in case a spark ignited the Cold War flashpoint.
High above tiny Issaquah, anti-aircraft missiles sat poised on Cougar Mountain. Installed less than a decade earlier, the system had been devised to protect the Puget Sound region in case bombers came screaming across the Bering Strait from the Soviet Union.
The program debuted in the late 1950s as a technological triumph — the first operational, surface-to-air guided missile system used by U.S. forces.
The military positioned more than 200 Nike Ajax installations nationwide — including 13 around Puget Sound — near major cities and key military and industrial sites as a last line of defense against a Soviet air attack. The missile network defended the economic and political center of the Pacific Northwest, as well as Boeing aircraft factories, shipyards and military installations.
The mountaintop Issaquah site originated during World War II as a lookout post for incendiary balloons launched by the Japanese. The then-high-tech Nike Ajax missiles replaced radar-guided anti-aircraft guns.
Cougar Mountain remained strategically important as the conflict ended and postwar tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union hardened into the Cold War.
Ezio Nurisio, national secretary for the Nike Historical Society in Alameda, Calif., said the actual number of close calls remains unknown to civilians.
“There were many, many situations when sites were alert to potential threats that the public never knew about,” he said.
Project Nike, named for the winged goddess of victory in Greek mythology, germinated during the closing days of World War II. Military leaders needed a system to counter the jet aircraft developed during wartime. Jets operated at altitudes and speeds beyond the reach of traditional ground-based defenses.
The effort took on greater urgency after the U.S.S.R. developed the atomic bomb in 1949 and the mightier hydrogen bomb in 1955.
Nike Ajax missiles — sleek, more than 40 feet long and called Ajax after the legendary warrior in Greek myth — could knock enemy planes from the sky from 30 miles distant and up to 70,000 feet. Propelled by a liquid-fueled rocket, the 2,460-pound projectile reached speeds more than twice the speed of sound.
Bulky computers packed with vacuum tubes ran the guidance system: LOPAR, the radar used to acquire the target, and Target Tracking Radar. The system could handle a single target at a time, and fire a missile every 45 minutes.
The missile site at Cougar Mountain came online in 1957. Designated as Site 20, the launcher sprouted just east of 166th Way Southeast — not far from neighborhoods in nearby Bellevue. The fire-control area — complete with the radar equipment — sat atop the mountain. The military built barracks, offices and a cafeteria on the mountain, too.
Fences patrolled by armed soldiers and guard dogs kept onlookers — a more frequent sight than communist spies — at bay.
Rick Patterson, deputy to the joint chief of staff for the Washington National Guard, served as a guardsman at Nike sites in the late ’60s and early ’70s. By then, the Nike Hercules — a more advanced missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead — had supplanted the Ajax.
Despite the change in technology, secrecy remained paramount from the Ajax to Hercules eras. Regardless, Jane’s — the series of British guides to military matériel — had details.
“There was more information in Jane’s and even in the encyclopedia than I was allowed to talk about,” Patterson said.
The deterrent next door
Though the military shrouded the Cougar Mountain site in Cold War secrecy, neighbors knew the post contained sensitive equipment.
“The Army points out that a Nike site is not dangerous, but as safe as a gas station and as important to security and as much a part of the local community as the police and fire departments,” a pamphlet prepared by Project Nike contractors read.
Contemporary accounts regarded the Nike Ajax program as the pinnacle of Yankee ingenuity. A piece in the former Bellevue American newspaper billed the Nike Ajax missile as “the modern musket” and likened the guardsmen at the site to colonial minutemen.
Charlie Staggers served on Cougar Mountain as a young soldier in 1958. From the site atop the mountain, he manned radar.
The team of about 100 men slept and worked in low buildings surrounded by forest and sweeping vistas of the surrounding peaks. Staggers and others rode buses from the mountaintop down to the launcher-area cafeteria for meals. On snowy days, soldiers kept the road to the site open using a dump truck outfitted with a plow.
Soldiers trained and trained and, each year, traveled to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to fire live missiles.
The site also made for a potential target, but residents did not complain or, at least, kept their reservations quiet.
“The only time they would have been in danger is if war had been declared,” Newcastle historian Milt Swanson said.
Megan Carlisle, archivist at the Eastside Heritage Center in Bellevue, said the lack of dissent about the proximity of the site provided “a good indication of the way the average person thought in those days.”
Matthew Seelinger, chief historian for the Army Historical Foundation in Arlington, Va., said residents treated the missiles in the neighborhood as “a necessary evil.” Memories of the Korean War and the omnipresent threat of Soviet attack shaped attitudes.
“People had a different attitude,” he said. “You couldn’t just walk in — the sites were secure — but people knew they were there.”
Cold War relics
Nowadays, only worn concrete pads dot the site. The forest, once shorn to accommodate the barracks and fire-control buildings, has encroached again.
Issaquah Alps Trails Club President Steve Williams recalled how he assisted a Boy Scout working to attain Eagle rank to develop the interpretive signs at the site. The placards remind hikers about the important role Cougar Mountain played in the Cold War. The names Radar Park and Anti-Aircraft Peak recall the past, although Williams said parkgoers sometimes fail to make the connection.
Williams, a former King County parks employee, recalled cleaning up the site after neighbors complained about motorcycle gangs and teenagers carousing in the abandoned structures.
Crews later removed the structures due to the threat from asbestos used in construction. The subterranean missile-storage facility also posed a hazard, so workers welded shut the metal hatch covers in the effort to transform the site from a military installation into a county park.
In 1965, the military started the process to transfer the land to King County. The old missile site turned out to be some of the initial pieces of modern-day Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, a forested 3,100-acre preserve.
By the time the Cuban Missile Crisis ratcheted up Cold War tensions from a simmer to a boil, the Nike Ajax missile site near Issaquah represented a program already on the wane.
The system became obsolete as intercontinental ballistic missiles turned the entire continent into a target and fighter jets supplanted ground-based defenses.
Other Nike Ajax sites around Puget Sound — Kingston, Redmond and Vashon Island — had been upgraded to handle next-generation Nike Hercules missiles, but the Issaquah facility had been deemed obsolete.
The military deactivated the Cougar Mountain site in March 1964. The entire Nike program had been pulled from service by 1979. The last line of defense remained reliable, but more advanced weaponry and détente between the United States and the Soviet Union meant the end had arrived.
“All of us saw that its day had sunset-ed,” Patterson said.