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Strategic Military Sites Tell a Powerful Story in the Marin Headlands

Three sites in the Marin Headlands offer visitors a close up look at Cold War history. Take a trip to Battery Townsley, Hill 88, and the Nike Missile Site SF-88L at Fort Barry.

The ruins of old military bunkers, batteries and other defensive structures are scattered throughout the Marin Headlands. Most of them are in a state of abandon and disrepair, crumbling, falling down, and covered with the graffiti of a modern world that no longer remembers why these buildings were here. The National Park Service, which has taken over these sites from the Army, is faced with a significant challenge in explaining the role played by these ruins to the general public.

The agency needs to balance educational and interpretive goals with the sensitive political issues of nuclear proliferation, Cold War hysteria and the dramatically altered geopolitical reality of the 21st century. Historical interpretation of these sites needs to be done in a way that is accurate and educational, carefully avoiding political bias or nationalistic jingoism.

The National Park Service has faced this dilemma in other politically and culturally sensitive areas around the country, such as Civil War battlefields and Civil Rights-era memorials around the South. Starting in the 1990s, they began a concerted effort to improve the interpretive programs at sites of historical significance within the park system. In a report entitled Humanities and the National Park System, historians E. Shannon Barker, James O. Horton, and Dwight T. Pitcaithley maintain that:

This responsibility goes beyond mere recitation of events that took place at a particular site, however. The Service has an obligation to teach the meaning of these events as well as the contextual issues and values which have shaped the nation's course.

This obligation takes on powerful meaning in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where the crumbling remains of recent history teach an important lesson for humanity. The gentle hills of the Marin Headlands seem an improbable place for a thermonuclear war to take place. The hikers, bikers and dog walkers that visit this placid area go past the old batteries and defensive structures that once guarded the entrance to the Golden Gate, often unaware of what lies around and beneath them. There are three sites in particular that offer visitors a close up and in depth look at the defense installations of the Marin Headlands. These are Battery Townsley, a defensive structure that played a role in World War II and the Cold War, the radar installation at the top of Hill 88 and the Nike Missile Site SF-88L at Fort Barry.

The Hike to Battery Townsley 

I visited each of these sites, trying to get a comprehensive look at this difficult chapter in American history and how the National Park Service is telling the story. The first place I went to was Battery Townsley, which can be reached via a half mile hike up the Coastal Trail from Rodeo Beach. The battery, which is mostly hidden in the hillside, is one of the largest defensive structures in the Marin Headlands. It served to defend the coast during World War II and later as a research facility during the Cold War. Construction of Battery Townsley began in 1938, as part of the harbor defense system for San Francisco Bay, and was completed in 1940. It had two powerful 16-inch caliber guns that had enough firepower to shoot a 2,100 pound missile more than 25 miles out into the Pacific. The first test conducted by the Army in 1940 fired a projectile that landed beyond the Farallon Islands, which are 27 miles west of San Francisco.  

I took a tour of the facility with Sam Stokes, who works as a volunteer docent for the park. We started off in front of the 16-inch naval gun that was brought up to Battery Townsley just last month, where it is now displayed outside the south casemate. A replica gun carriage will eventually hold the gun, so it can be displayed inside the casemate of the battery, much like the gun that was here in 1940. The new gun is 68 feet long, weighs 120 tons, and is identical in size and caliber to each of the two guns that were mounted here during World War II. The replacement gun has a long history itself, having once been mounted on the battleship USS Missouri. It was involved in the invasion of Okinawa during World War II and later used to bombard the Korean coast during the Korean War. It was found by the National Park Service in a storage facility in Hawthorne, Nevada.

After examining the gun, Sam took us inside the labyrinthine tunnels of the battery.  It is hard to imagine from the outside, but Battery Townsley has an extensive network of underground tunnels, storage rooms, and dormitories for up to 150 men. The walls are still graced with period graffiti, including a drawing of the Oozlefinch, the official mascot of the Army Coast Artillery Corps. This bizarre and wholly mythical featherless bird had large bug-like eyes and flew backwards at supersonic speeds. Its motto was "If it flies, it dies. Blazing skies". The drawing on the wall is embellished with the additional tag of "NIKE MISSILES RULE SAUSALITO." Sam took us through the battery and then outside to examine the gun casemates, which have spectacular views out into the ocean. From this vantage point, we could see how the battery was built into the hillside and could easily be camouflaged to prevent detection from enemy warplanes.

Battery Townsley has been restored by the National Park Service to look much as it did when it was operational. An innovative feature that has been added in modern times is the solar power that generates 100% of the electricity used by the battery. The lighting and much of the restoration work on the site have been funded by a bequest gift from the estate of Charles F. Wofford, who was a historian of the Army Coast Artillery Corps and National Park Service volunteer.

Battery Townsley is open to the public on the first Sunday of each month from noon until 4:00 PM. Docents are on hand to give one-hour tours of the extensive network of underground tunnels that make up this complex fortification.

Hiking up to Hill 88 to Get the Big Picture

Beyond Battery Townsley, the Coastal Trail continues up to Hill 88, another relic of the Cold War. Hill 88, officially known as Site SF-88C, is the site of a former Nike missile radar station. This strategic hilltop site was the control center for the Nike Missile Site SF-88L, which was the launch site down below at Fort Barry. The site, also referred to as the Integrated Fire Control, was built in 1954-1955 and included missile tracking radar and target acquisition radar, all encased in five massive geodesic domes. Hill 88 is in a state of disrepair, forlorn and completely abandoned, with crumbling graffiti-covered buildings and an eerie atmosphere of the uncertain times in the not so distant past. There are no interpretive signs or volunteer docents, so it is up to the visitor’s imagination to figure out the role of Hill 88. A helpful diagram can be found online, which explains the functions of each of the buildings. A YouTube video does a good job of conveying the eeriness of the place.

Hill 88 rises 833 feet above sea level and is the highest point on Wolf Ridge. There are spectacular views here, making the hike and the long climb well worth it. San Francisco Bay spreads out to the south and east. To the north is Tennessee Valley, with Mount Tamalpais rising above it in the distance. Rodeo Beach is directly below, where the surfers appear like small water bugs riding the waves. Look just inland from Rodeo Beach and you can spot the Nike missile launch site SF-88L at Fort Barry, while imagining what it was like for the men who were stationed here, on the lookout for an enemy attack.

The buildings on Hill 88 are decaying ruins of what seems like an ancient civilization. Two raised platforms are all that remain of the massive radar systems that once were here. The windswept desolation adds to the atmosphere of ancient ruins from a time long forgotten, although this site was decommissioned only a few decades ago. While Hill 88 can be a very chilling and eerie place, it is especially so on a foggy day. The abandoned buildings appear ominous through the fog, while ravens swoop down from out of nowhere, perching curiously on rusted railings. Colors are muted in the fog, creating a black and white landscape that evokes the 1950s, while distant foghorns add to the Hitchcockian gloom.

Launching Armageddon: Nike Missile Site SF-88L

A few days later I visited the Nike Missile Site SF-88L, which has been preserved in much the same condition that it was in at the time of its deactivation in the early 1970s. I arrived at the site on a cold, foggy day, passing by the sentry station at the entrance, where a mannequin in Army uniform greeted me with a stony face. Once inside the gate, I joined a guided tour with Brian Powers of the National Park Service.

Nike missiles, which were intended to destroy high altitude enemy aircraft, became obsolete during the 1960s as they proved to be ineffective against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Site SF-88L was one of 280 Nike missile sites around the United States that began to be decommissioned in 1972, as a result of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union. As part of the treaty, each country pledged to maintain one site as an educational museum and reminder of how close the world once came to nuclear annihilation. Site SF-88L was chosen as the American site to be preserved, and is now maintained by the National Park Service.

Brian talked about the history of the site and explained the differences between the Ajax and the more advanced Hercules missiles. He took us into the Warhead Building, where an Ajax missile on display had cutaway sections that revealed the inner workings of the missile. An interesting feature was the ability of critical components to self-destruct as a target was hit, preventing technological secrets from falling into the hands of the enemy. Brian showed us where the nuclear components were loaded into a missile, after detailing a complex series of steps that were taken to ensure the security of the material and the crew assigned to work with it. It was a very serious matter, although Brian managed to impart some humor into the tale as he opened up the missile, explaining that “the National Park Service frowns on giving me nuclear material, so the missile is no longer armed.”

We moved on to look at the equipment that made up the radar system, which was displayed in the center of a wide grassy area. These components were originally installed on top of Hill 88, on the raised platforms that I had seen a few days earlier. One of them was the Acquisition Radar, which would find the target, while the larger, oddly shaped component was the Target Tracking Radar, which would lock onto the location of the target as it moved across the sky. Next to these two pieces of equipment were two mobile units, the Battery Control Van and the Target Tracking Van, where the men manned the computers and had access to "The Button." It was here that a nuclear response to a threat could have been launched, although thankfully no such event ever occurred.

The highlight of the tour was descending a stairway down into the Missile Magazine, where a number of disarmed missiles are stored. While looking at these frightening armaments, Brian told us a story of a veteran he had talked to, who took part in an actual countdown to launch. The countdown got as far as the number seven before the order came to stand down. With good reason, Brian described those Cold War days as "probably the most dangerous times in the history of the world." We then went back upstairs, where Brian gave us a simulation of the launch sequence. The doors of the Missile Magazine opened up and a missile was slowly brought up above ground on the elevator. It was then raised up to a vertical position, pointing directly at the sky. The sight was enough to bring out goose bumps, as audible gasps could be heard from members of the tour group.

The Nike Missile Site SF-88L is open Wednesday through Friday, plus an Open House on the first Saturday of each month, from 12:30 to 3:30 PM. One-hour guided tours are available. Veterans who were stationed here come for the Open House, to tell stories of what it was like in the Cold War days.  

Moving on after Facing Nuclear Catastrophe

After visiting these three sites that interpret the history of the Cold War, I can see the importance of telling this story. While the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, nuclear proliferation is still happening and we are faced with the even more alarming prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Sites such as Hill 88 can educate the public about the chilling military strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D). The National Park Service is working to impart the lessons of those anxious times, so future generations will not have fear for the end of the world. I was inspired to read up on the work of Global Zero, which is an international movement that promotes the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This idea is expressed so well in the poignant words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

wassup November 12, 2012 at 11:16 PM
the missile site is super cool. go on the first Sunday of the month and you can ride up the giant missile elevators as they deploy the missiles from the underground magazine

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