WATERTOWN, Minn. – Half a century later, Tony Vanderlinde remembers the sight “plain as day.”
Baling hay on his family’s dairy farm near the border of western Hennepin and northern Carver counties, he came over a hill and saw nuclear missiles pointing to the sky.
“There were two sets of three or four missiles, and they had them elevated,” Vanderlinde recalled recently. “And I didn’t know if we were going to get attacked, or what.”
An attack never came. But for more than a decade at the height of the Cold War, the Twin Cities were protected by a quartet of nuclear missile installations ringing the metro area.
In the days before intercontinental missiles, any Soviet attack would have come from bombers taking the polar route across Canada. The four missile sites — in Watertown, Bethel, Farmington and Roberts, Wis. — were designed to send Nike-Hercules missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, into the atmosphere, where they’d explode and blow the enemy airplanes out of the sky.
It’s a frightening prospect to look back on. At the time, however, people in this rural area about 40 miles west of Minneapolis took it in stride.
“We knew what was going on,” said Joe Weiland of St. Bonifacius. “You’d see Army trucks and guys in uniform.
“No one was really afraid of it. It was kind of cool, actually.”
Ken Silus of Minnetrista graduated from Mound High School in 1959, the year the missile site went into service.
“It wasn’t anything scary,” he said. “They were just doing their job. It was there, they were in the service, there were missiles.
“It was just accepted.”
Site set for cleanup
Today, the launch site near Watertown — long overdue for a cleanup of the chemicals buried on the property — is slowly being reclaimed by nature.
Weeds, shrubs and trees have sprouted through the cracked asphalt and concrete. The chain-link fence ringing the 23 acres is overgrown with grapevines, blocking out the view and making the place feel like a world apart. A litter of coyote pups is currently living in one corner of the property, neighbors said.
Massive concrete blocks have been placed on top of doorways and hatches, preventing entrance to the bunkers, which extend for five stories underground. There, missiles were stored and dozens of soldiers worked. The concrete walls of the underground bunkers are as much as 5 to 6 feet thick.
Elevators brought the missiles to a concrete pad aboveground, roughly the size of two football fields, where they would be launched in case of an attack. Each missile, about 40 feet long, carried a nuclear warhead of up to 30 kilotons — twice the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.
After the site was closed in 1971, it was bought by a group of area fire departments and used for training. They’d set fires with propane and gasoline to learn how to put them out, or start smoky fires in the buildings, since torn down, for search-and-rescue practice.
Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy also trained firefighting crews there.
Greg Pederson, chief of the Mound Fire Department, is also president of the Western Area Fire Training Academy, which used the site for decades. For nearly 20 years, Pederson has been trying to get federal money to clean up the site, working with four different congressmen. This year, he finally may have succeeded.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., sponsored an amendment to the federal defense budget bill that would allocate around $1 million to clean up solvents and petroleum products left in the soil by all the activities over the years. (There is no nuclear waste on the site.)
“My understanding is that they’re really confident,” Pederson said last week, picking his way through obstacles around the launchpad. “The House has passed it.
“Based on what the congressman’s staff is telling me, this is really looking good.”
In the mid-1960s, about 115 soldiers were stationed here, some at the launch site and others at a separate command post about 2 miles away on Nike Road. The troops were welcomed warmly by local residents, recalled Tony Wainzierl of St. Bonifacius.
“Some of the soldiers married gals from around here,” he said.
For many years, Pederson said, groups of ex-soldiers would return to reminisce about their service. One former GI from Iowa organized a reunion each year for decades, Pederson said.
“The guys who were here — they really liked it,” he said. “They thought it was pretty cool.”
For his own part, Pederson wasn’t much of a fan.
Descending into the bunker, he said, “was like going down into a damn dungeon.”
On the Vanderlinde dairy farm, directly across Nike Road from the command post, another old soldier also paid his respects to the Army installation.
Every day at 6 p.m., martial music would blare from loudspeakers at the command site. And Alphonse Vanderlinde, a World War II veteran and Tony’s father, would stop his milking and stand at attention.
“He’d put his right hand over his right eyebrow,” Tony Vanderlinde said. “My dad would stand there in his bib overalls and do the salute.”