Seattle had its own Cold War battlefields

Oct 24, 2013, 5:07 PM | Updated: Oct 29, 2013, 8:20 pm
President John F. Kennedy poses in his White House office with Gen. David Shoup, left, Marine Corps...
President John F. Kennedy poses in his White House office with Gen. David Shoup, left, Marine Corps Commandant, and Adm. George Anderson, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Oct. 29, 1962. The chiefs met with the president to review the present situation in Cuba and operation of the U.S. naval blockade. (AP)

The story of the October 1962 American-Soviet showdown known as the Cuban Missile Crisis is a well-known chapter of history. What’s not well known is that defensive missile bases surrounded Seattle during the Cold War, and that they were on high alert as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear conflict.

For most of a week, all eyes were focused on President Kennedy in the White House, Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Kremlin, and the American warships enforcing a blockade of Cuba. But the front lines of that looming conflict also included Seattle.

In an old newsreel from the 1950s, the narrator described what was called the Nike missile system and how it was deployed in the Pacific Northwest. “Nike is on guard in the Seattle area,” the narrator said. “Nike, named after the Goddess of Victory in Greek mythology, is the Army’s first supersonic antiaircraft guided missile that intercepts and destroys high flying bombers. Nike sites are sited strategically all around Seattle, prime potential target for marauders coming in via the Arctic.”

Seattle was a “prime target” because of Boeing’s defense work, and the network of shipyards, airfields, and military bases. Even so, Seattle’s Cold War battlefields don’t enjoy the “hallowed ground” status of Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor or Ground Zero, even though they were key to America’s Cold War defense.

Steve Williams, a retired King County Park Ranger, spent decades managing Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park near Newcastle. Not far from the park’s Sky Country Trailhead, Williams recently described what took place in the now forested area. “In the 1950s and sixties, this was actually a missile launch site for the Nike program,” Williams said, “to intercept what they thought would be atomic bombers coming to the United States from Russia.”

As Williams stood in what’s now a quiet meadow, he explained how the Nike system worked, and how the missiles would’ve been readied for firing in case of an incoming enemy attack. “We’re standing right on top of what used to be bunkers, rectangular underground buildings, where these missiles would’ve been stored,” Williams said. “The Army guys that were stationed here would have to lift them up on a big elevator, roll them out on metal rails, put them on a launcher, erect them up vertically, and then link them up with the radar.”

All that’s left nowadays at Cougar Mountain are some concrete pads, a few small abandoned buildings and landscape changes made when the missile base was built. The missiles and the men who stood guard, ready to fire the first shots in defense of America in the early moments of a nuclear war, are long gone.

But one man who was on duty at Cougar Mountain during the Cuban Missile Crisis actually lives just a few miles away on Mercer Island.

In October 1962, Bill Taube was a part-time soldier, serving as a member of the Washington National Guard. “I was commander of a missile battery,” Taube said recently. In the midst of the crisis, he was ordered to report to the missile base near what’s now the Sky Country Trailhead. “We were put on alert and it was pretty serious. Members of the National Guard were told to come up to the site and prepare for a potential mission.”

“I was pretty apprehensive,” Taube said. “You didn’t know if the Soviets were gonna back down, and so there were a lot of unknowns.”

Dozens of men like Taube were stationed year-round, around-the-clock at Cougar Mountain and other Nike missile bases in places like Redmond, Bothell, and Vashon Island. Back then, Bill Taube still lived with his parents and the Cuban Missile Crisis had his mom worried. As he was about to leave for Cougar Mountain in the midst of the crisis, Bill paused for a moment at the front door to reassure her.

“I just told her, I said ‘Hang on and pray, OK? I don’t know what’s happening.'”

For almost a week, it seemed as if war with the Soviet Union was imminent. But then, the news came on Sunday, October 28. The Soviets had backed down and agreed to remove their missiles and other weapons from Cuba, and the U.S. promised to never invade that island country. The crisis was over.

More than 50 years later, like a lot of veterans of that era, Taube is humble about his role in a critical period of American history.

“I’m part of a military family. It’s part of what we had to do,” Taube said. “My father was in the military in World War II and other relatives were also part of the military. I was not any combat veteran hero like a lot of these guys. What I’m saying is, there were a lot of guys who risked their lives overseas. I was personally, no war hero.”

The missile base on Cougar Mountain was shut down in the mid 1960s, but other sites in Redmond and elsewhere around the area remained in operation until 1974. Eventually, the speed and range of modern Soviet nuclear missiles made Nike technology obsolete.

And, like a lot of veterans from that era, Bill Taube hasn’t spent much time looking back or revisiting his time on Cougar Mountain during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I haven’t been up there in years,” he said.

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Seattle had its own Cold War battlefields