5Q :: French River’s nuclear missiles reach big audienceDuring the Cold War, eight sites around the nation (and two in Canada) housed 48-foot, 16,000-pound anti-aircraft missiles. Thanks to one historian, these nuclear warheads will finally get their day in the sun.
Most visitors to North Shore are unaware that the area was once home to 16,000-pound anti-aircraft missiles. That’s right; there were 28 Boeing-produced Bomarc missiles being held at the French River Air Base between Duluth and Two Harbors. Each one had about half the explosive power of the infamous Hiroshima nuke.
They were all removed by August 1972, but, thanks to scholar Christopher J. Bright, a lot more Northlanders will be able to read about what was almost right in their backyard. In his book “Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era,” the George Washington University-educated independent historian also looks at the seven other Bomarc sites around the nation.
Budgeteer For starters, how did you get so involved in this subject matter? What first piqued your interest?
Bright: I live near the former site of another type of Cold War nuclear antiaircraft missile (a U.S. Army Nike-Hercules emplacement).
Before starting history graduate school, I researched the background of that and other neighboring sites in 1995. That research, in turn, led me to become aware of Bomarc and other weapons.
What can you tell us about your book? How long has it been in the works?
As you know, history graduate students must complete a book-length manuscript, a dissertation, to receive their [doctorate] degrees. About 10 years ago, I decided to expand upon my earlier research about Army nuclear Nike-Hercules near Washington, D.C., to cover other similar weapons nationwide and make that the topic of my dissertation. No other historian had studied them in the same manner. For a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic, that’s a very important consideration. After I completed the dissertation in 2006, I sent it to Palgrave Macmillan, which agreed to publish it as a book.
One of the many interesting things to me about this project is how numerous these nuclear anti-aircraft weapons were and how widely they were known to the public at the time. The government touted them; they weren’t secrets. Yet, they seem curiosities today.
Do you ever run into trouble researching this matter, as in government files that are still classified to this day?
Most of the information was already declassified, but nobody had paid much attention to it. I asked the government, using a standard procedure, to declassify other documents at my request. It took a few years, but they complied. Some details such as precise nuclear yields and some weapon design data is still classified, lest dangerous parties today get hold of it and use it to try to fashion their own weapon.
In a few specific instances, I was able to make a pretty good guess about details, based upon other information which was readily available.
Were there a lot of sites in Minnesota where anti-aircraft missiles were stored?
There was only one Bomarc site in Minnesota. It was one of eight nationwide, with two more in Canada. The Minnesota site (at French River) held 28 missiles. These were in above-ground structures — not underground silos — which resembled barns.
There were Army nuclear Nike-Hercules missiles in three locations in Minnesota, around the Twin Cities, and another site across the border in Wisconsin.
There were also U.S. Air Force interceptors stationed at Duluth, and I think MSP, which carried nuclear weapons (called “Genie” rockets) which were also intended for use against incoming Soviet bombers.
My book covers these topics.
Is any part of your new book dedicated to French River’s missile base? If so, were there any little-know facts about the area you unearthed?
In my book, I mention the “Duluth” Bomarc site. It operated from August 1961 to April 30, 1972 — closing a little over 38 years ago.
NEWS TO USE
Learn more about Christopher J. Bright’s research and his new book, “Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era,” at www.christopherjohnbright.com.
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