Fifty years have gone by since Milford housed 12 34-foot-long missiles, four per underground magazine, as a base of operations to protect the area from attacks during the Cold War.
It was also 50 years ago that the Milford Nike Ajax Missile Site was decommissioned after serving as one of 12 Nike bases in the state. City officials plan to commemorate that anniversary with a plaque dedication at Eells Hill Oct. 15 at 11 a.m.
This Cold War part of Milford’s history began in 1955, when the U.S. government began buying land on Eells Hill Road and Rock Lane in Milford. By 1956 construction on the Milford sites began and 12-foot-high fences were erected.
In 1957 the base was designated as BR (Bridgeport) 17 and was dedicated with the placement of a bronze plaque naming it the Milford Battery Site, an anti-aircraft missile battalion.
The Nike Ajax was the world’s first operational guided surface-to-air missile, and it entered service in 1954, according to online encyclopedias. It was designed to attack conventional bomber aircraft flying at high subsonic speeds and altitudes above 50,000 feet.
“The original Nike missile, the Ajax, used a high explosive fragmentation warhead that could successfully destroy or at least damage a single incoming Russian bomber,” according to Coldwar-ct.com.
The Nike base in Milford was fully operational from 1957 to 1963. It consisted of missiles housed in the Launcher Control area on Rock Lane, the Fire Control area on Eells Hill, and a support facility on Seemans Lane.
Today Eells Hill is like a ghost town with an eerie vibe created by the buildings left over from its Nike days. The buildings are worn and boarded, and the area has been largely deserted and unused since the Milford Board of Education stopped using it for its main offices in the mid 1980s. Today the primary users are an amateur radio club, and sometimes an area astronomy group heads up the hill to observe the skies.
“When I arrived at Eells Hill in June 1955, the site was still under assembly,” wrote Hugh Walker on the coldwar-ct.com website. “The buildings were all there, but equipment was just arriving for installation. The Army screwed up and sent the first crews in before they should have.”
At Eells Hill in that year, Walker would have found radar equipment, computers, generators, a mess hall, medic office, signal and supply rooms, PX and barbershop, barracks, plus an enlisted men’s club that offered beer, booze, sandwiches, cards, and more.
It was from Eells Hill that military personnel would use the equipment at their disposal to detect incoming targets and direct the missiles if need be. The missiles lay in underground magazines at the launch site on Rock Lane.
The elevators would bring missiles up from the “pits,” then they were slid onto a rail and erected from there. The rails held up to 12 at a time.
Seemans Lane housed the Ordnance Support facility. “If we ran out of an electronic or other parts for our system or needed technical assistance, it was there for us and other Connecticut sites,” said Milford resident Eric Muth.
The base was initially manned by the U.S. Army, but was turned over to the National Guard in 1961. There were 48 full-time technicians, augmented by at least another 53 part-time National Guardsmen who performed Tuesday evening, often weekend, and annual two-week training sessions. In the event of a national emergency, they would be called up and the battery would be at full strength.
“Most positions required security clearances,” Muth said. “Some, all the way up to top secret.”
The National Guard technicians took their posts at the Milford site on Oct. 31, 1960, and they assumed the mission on Jan. 5, 1961, after completion of three months of training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and McGregor Range, N.M. The 63rd Artillery Group turned over sites to the National Guard in Milford, Portland, Simsbury, and Westport. With very short notice, annually, the battery would fly out of Sikorsky Airport to Texas and New Mexico to fire Ajax missiles.
At the time, the state of Connecticut adjutant general said of them: “These guardsmen have become the modern Minutemen of the missile age; these men with supersonic missiles will defend Connecticut’s cities and towns.”
It was a year after the National Guard took control of the base that the biggest test of its existence occurred at the Milford site.
“On Oct. 15, 1962, the Cuban missile crisis gripped the nation and the site was placed on full alert and battle stations, which was a first,” Muth said. “All stations were manned 24 hours a day during the two-week crisis, which ended on Oct. 28.”
For those two weeks, the front line of Air Defense troops worked four hours on and four hours off.
“None of us could believe that this was actually happening,” Muth said. “We were hooked up and ready to fire, all but for that red covered button. We were never in a higher DEFCON and we now know how very real that crisis was and how close we came to actually having to push that red button.”
Milford resident William Finch was a section chief at the missile launch site on Rock Lane. Still with a sense of the secrecy that surrounded the project at the time, Finch is hesitant to say how many missiles were there.
His job was to help bring the missiles “topside” during drills, or in the case of the Cuban missile crisis, when they might be needed for genuine action.
“During the Cuban missile crisis, we had them up and ready to go,” Finch said.
Bill Biagoni, also of Milford, was stationed at the launch site as well. A former member of the 82nd Airborne Division, Biagoni had parachuted into Normandy in 1944 before joining the National Guard. He worked in the assembly area at the Rock Lane launching area, but wasn’t supposed to be on duty when the base went into full alert in 1962. “I was on a back road, and I heard what was going on and knew right away there was a problem,” Biagoni said. “All the missiles were up, so I reported for duty.”
Lee Baldieri of Milford was a communication specialist in charge of maintaining all the communications throughout the Nike site.
Once a month the battery was on an alert status and worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off, but other than the alert status, it was job like most people had.
“However, the day the military intelligence confirmed the missiles on the Russian trawlers heading toward Cuba, we began to elevate our alert status until we were at full alert and manning our radar positions,” Baldieri said. “After announcing our duty position I recall hearing from the battery control officer, ‘All stations, this is the BCO, battle stations, battle stations.’ These words were strictly used if and when we prepared for battle. We always used the words ‘blazing skies’ for training, and when we heard battle stations we knew it was the real thing.
“I recall calling my wife on the telephone and telling her I was not coming home that evening and don’t ask me any questions about why or when,” he continued. “We did work long hours and it wasn’t too unusual to come home late, but when I added, ‘Don’t ask me any questions about why or when,’ she knew something serious was happening at the site.”
When there was no crisis, the military base operated like any other base, and Muth recounted some stories from daily life.
“When we took over in Milford the closest food was from the Starlight Dairy on New Haven Avenue, which had limited hours and resembled our generator shack,” he said. “Within a year or so Secondi’s truck stop was opened and it had the first and only 24-hour-a-day diner operation in this part of town, a godsend.”
Reveille and retreat occurred daily to the tune of a scratchy bugle recording. Everyone kept close track of their watches so they would not be caught outside at the appointed times, which required standing at attention and saluting for the duration of the recording.
The battery sponsored Scout Troop & Post 19 and took part in many community events, such as blood drives and parades. Still, there was much that wasn’t known publicly about the missiles and the operation here.
“On one sunny day in the 1950s a dummy Nike Ajax missile dislodged from its in-transient lowboy trailer onto Merwin Avenue near Riverdale Road in Milford,” Muth said. “I heard that people came from all around to view this event. Secrecy prevented their knowing better, but many civilians thought they had a ‘nuc’ lying on their street.”
Nike virtually ended on paper when the threat of Soviet bombers shifted to ballistic missiles, but the Hercules sites, which replaced the Ajax program, remained around for a while. The United States signed the SALT II treaty in 1974 and that ended the Nike Air Defense program in the nation.
As Muth and city officials have been working to observe this part of Milford’s history, Muth was also trying to find the original plaque that was placed at the site. A man who had been stationed there reportedly removed the original 1957 plaque and then brought it with him to a reunion several years ago. Muth traced the plaque through several “owners” before managing to bring it back to Milford.
The city mounted the 1957 dedication plaque on a boulder and placed a new plaque dedicated to Nike Missilemen above it. Both will be featured at the dedication ceremony at Eells Hill.
“The Milford Ajax IFC site belongs to the city of Milford,” Muth said. “Now and then I take a ride up to ‘the hill,’ walk around a bit and relive some memories. Though you can go back, you can’t go back.”
(Editor’s note: According to City Historian Richard Platt, Eells Hill is the proper spelling, although street signs and maps refer to Eels Hill. To get to the dedication site, take New Haven Avenue toward Woodmont, and turn left on Eels Hill Road.)