Off target: Nike missile restoration ‘in limbo,’ supervisor says

Published 6:40 pm Wednesday, October 26, 2022

A Nike-Ajax missile the city of Hampton donated to Isle of Wight County three years ago still isn’t on public display in Carrollton’s Nike Park.

At the county supervisors’ Oct. 20 meeting, Supervisor William McCarty described the project as being “in limbo” and pushed for the completion of the display intended to honor the 1950s-era Army base-turned-park’s Cold War past.

McCarty, according to past reporting by The Smithfield Times, helped secure the donation from Hampton.

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“It’s just collecting rust, and it’s really not doing what I thought,” McCarty said, asking that county officials finish the restoration “in the cheapest fashion” using a “common-sense approach.”

According to County Administrator Randy Keaton, the county had received several offers from contractors when the missile arrived who’d proposed to restore it “very cheaply,” but “some of those didn’t materialize.”

“Then we went out to look for a traditional way of setting the missile up and mounting it; those prices came back extremely high,” Keaton said.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put the county’s restoration plans for the missile on hold.

The latest hold-up, Keaton said, is the missile having tested positive for lead-based paint. Lead is toxic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and can cause neurological effects, particularly in children. 

“Being a children’s area we can’t have an item out there that has lead paint,” Keaton said.

Just this month, the county received two quotes for removing the paint, the lowest being $4,380. The county intends to accept the low bid and proceed with the removal. Once the paint is safely removed and disposed of, the missile can be detached from its launcher, which Keaton said is “too far gone” for the county to use as part of its display.

Don Jennings, director of the county’s General Services Department, is working on an alternative design for mounting and displaying the missile, Keaton said.

Nike Park, named for the 1950s-era missile, operated as one of eight surface-to-air missile bases in the Norfolk Defense Area from 1954 through 1961, according to the Isle of Wight County Museum’s website and past reporting by the Times. The bases, scattered throughout Hampton Roads, were intended to shoot down bomber planes from the former Soviet Union should they attempt to attack.

During the base’s heyday, more than 30 Nike-Ajax missiles would have been stored underground, with soldiers stationed there awaiting an alert from Norfolk to launch. Though none were ever launched from what is now Nike Park, each missile had a range of about 30 miles

By 1958, the Army had begun production of the Nike-Ajax’s successor, the Nike-Hercules, which had a range of about 75 miles and, unlike the Ajax, could carry a nuclear warhead. That same year, the Army began to modify some Nike-Ajax bases to fire Hercules missiles and deactivated missile operations at others, among them the Carrollton base known as N-75. From 1961 to 1971, the Army repurposed the Carrollton site as a radio relay station.

The roughly 8½ acres comprising the base-turned-park, which includes nearly all the original buildings and three underground missile magazines, was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 2019. Isle of Wight County erected a skate park atop the missile magazines in 2000.