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Nuclear Hangars And The River Of Grass, An Odd Marriage

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK (CBS4) -- In sprawling Everglades National Park, not far from Homestead, there is a sight that makes you do a double take.

Cast your gaze into the distance and you see old missile barns, or hangars, rising from the famed River of Grass.

It is a Cold War story waiting to be told.

The place once bristled with Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missiles, some of them nuclear tipped.

CBS4's Michael Williams took a tour with 68-year-old Ken Earl, an Army veteran and former radar operator at the site.

Earl told Williams, "We knew we were the last line of defense and that if we ever had to fire, it would have been a nuclear calamity."

It was the 1960s, the height of the Cold War.

In October 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.

The Soviets had placed offensive, nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba, and President John F. Kennedy demanded they be removed.

It was a war of nerves that the United States came out on top on.

The episode ended when the Soviets took the missiles off the island, but the tensions lingered. The result? Four U.S. Army Nike missile bases established during or just after the crisis were created and ringed South Florida until 1979.

They were capable of wiping out an enemy air armada.

Earl's radar post put him in an Army van. It bristled with the best technology that era had to offer and sat in the middle of the Everglades.

He recalled, "One week out of the month we were on hot status, which meant that in 15 minutes we had to have radars up and running, have a target acquired and be ready to fire a missile."

They never had to hit that trigger.

In 2004 the Nike complex in the Everglades was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Earl now lives with his wife in an RV, roaming the country, and by chance he heard of the need for a volunteer guide back at his old station.

He is back doing a different kind of duty now, reminding visitors about those Cold War days when the world was poised on the brink of mutually assured annihilation.

A half-century has passed, but none of it has diminished the pride of an old soldier who once stood watch in the Everglades.


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