LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Richard Kaufman was hiking in the hills above Encino when he stumbled upon a sign that made his eyes pop.
“All of a sudden, there’s a sign that says ‘Nike Missile Site,’ ” the L.A. native told CBS2’s Jeff Nguyen.
Nestled in San Vicente Mountain Park is a relic of the Cold War that the U.S. military once kept secret from the public.
“I thought, ‘This is a whole part of history I had no idea existed,'” said Kaufman, who grew up during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. “It never occurred to me during the nuclear age that there would actually be missiles in the hills where I live.”
From 1954 and 1974, the Army operated what was known as the Nike missile launch sites to protect Southern California from a potential Soviet airstrikes. The Nike Project, named for the Greek goddess of victory, was the military’s line-of-sight antiaircraft missile system.
According to Stephen Nelson, curator of the Fort MacArthur Museum, the network of 16 sites was known as the Ring of Supersonic Steel and initially designed to shoot down Soviet bombers.
“So, you can see that a target or an enemy attacking from the north is going to be intercepted: one from the west, east, south. All of that is going to be intercepted,” Nelson explained.
He oversees a museum that’s been able to preserve a piece of that missile network.
One missile site is now home to a storage yard at the Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall.
Palos Verdes Maintenance Superintendent Sean Larvenz illustrated the site’s history: “This is actually a missile magazine underground… that would load missiles onto the elevators. And then the missiles would be deployed up here on the launch decks.”
Another site was in San Pedro. It’s now home to a nature preserve. The former guard shack has been vandalized, and the steel doors are tagged with graffiti.
The Fort MacArthur Museum showcases black-and-white photos of the same location during its glory days.
One of the forgotten spots is a now place where the past and the future converge. The Federal Courthouse in Pasadena is on a former Nike support facility.
In Culver City, the former armory was built complete with walls 9 inches thick as a nuclear-attack shelter. The building will be the future home of the Wende Museum that preserves artifacts from the Cold War era.
Inside, museum director and founder Justin Jampol walked Nguyen through a bomb bunker, complete with an air-filtration system.
“How realistic was it to filter radioactive air?” Nguyen asked him.
Jampol replied: “Not very realistic. In fact, this was a blueprint created by the U.S. government in 1949, and they only used the blueprint for about one year. And then, after that, they didn’t make them anymore because there was no point to it.”
He says the Nike program was obsolete well before it was decommissioned: “It was all about trying to calm people’s nerves.”
Back in Encino, the site once known as “96,” with its former guard shack, has been turned into a park with signs commemorating its history.
But very few Nike sites have received the same treatment.
“The idea that people don’t know, and the idea that the communities are not doing anything to let people know, I’m not sure that’s doing a service to the men that defended our nation,” Jampol said.
These sites stand as reminders of our nation’s defense and are now left to defend themselves against the threat of vandals and being annihilated by the passage of time.