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Feb 11, 2009 9:48 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Former Westhampton missile base boasts rich history

Feb 11, 2009 9:48 AM

At the beginning of the Cold War, in the late 1950s, an essential component of the federal government’s first line of defense against a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union lay hidden in the woods of Westhampton.

Fifty-six nuclear-tipped missiles were stored in metal garages nestled in the woods just north of Old Country Road. Their potential target: Soviet bombers whose mission was to drop atomic bombs on vital American targets, including New York City, some 75 miles to the west.

“In 1950, the U.S. government was looking into the possibility of shooting a small nuclear device at an attacking airplane,” said Chris Bright, an independent scholar of U.S. nuclear anti-aircraft weapons who lives in Virginia. “At the time, the U.S. thought you needed a nuclear bomb to stop an aircraft.”

The Westhampton missile base, which operated from 1959 until it was decommissioned in 1964, was one of 10 such facilities that defended the East Coast from a potential Soviet air attack. Other missile bases were located as far south as Newport News, Virginia, and as far north as Quebec, Canada, according to Mr. Bright. The sites, known as BOMARC facilities, were named after the developers of the nuclear missiles­—Boeing and the Michigan Aerospace Research Center.

The missiles at the Westhampton base have been gone for decades and ownership of the property was later transferred to Suffolk County. Suffolk lawmakers are now looking to cash in on the 186-acre property, though not in the way some might expect.

At the suggestion of Suffolk County Legislator Bill Lindsay, the presiding officer of the government body, crews are expected to clear out tons of scrap metal that have been stored in the former missile shelters, as well as dozens of impounded cars that now litter the property, and recycle it all for cash. The scrap metal initiative is expected to generate as much as $1.2 million in revenue for the county, according to Mr. Lindsay.

He originally estimated that the site contained as much as $3 million worth of scrap metal.

Kara Hahn, Mr. Lindsay’s assistant, said the $1.2 million estimate was offered by an employee of a Long Island scrap metal recycling company who toured the BOMARC property last year. Ms. Hahn declined to identify the company.

“We’re not taking away the history,” Mr. Lindsay said. “Anything we’re throwing away is not historic, except that it’s very old. Some things will go in Dumpsters. Anything that has any value, we’ll try to sell for scrap metal.”

Mr. Lindsay is hopeful the revenue from the scrap sale will go directly into the county’s general fund and help reduce the $117 million budget deficit.

A Rich History

The Westhampton base, which was staffed by 150 U.S. Air Force members during the Cold War, cost the government about $20 million to construct. Each of the 56 nuclear-tipped missiles cost about $3.2 million to assemble, Mr. Bright said. In total, the federal government invested some $179.2 million in building and arming the facility.

Clayton Chun, a professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said that the Air Force-run BOMARC program was not the military’s only defense against attacking Soviet bombers. The U.S. Army operated another air defense system that utilized nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules missiles. Unlike the rural BOMARC program, the Nike Hercules missiles were placed in major cities.

“There were more of those than BOMARC,” Mr. Chun said, noting that the Nike Hercules missiles had shorter ranges than their counterparts. “They protected urban areas like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles.”

When they were operational, the roofs of the garages housing the four-story missiles would split open, according to Mr. Bright. The BOMARC missiles were designed to streak through the sky at speeds topping 2,000 mph, and could cover distances of up to 200 miles.

Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller, who was a New York State Trooper on Long Island at the time, said he can still recall when the nuclear-tipped missiles were shipped to the Westhampton base on trailers in the late 1950s. “It wasn’t scary. No one paid attention to them,” said Mr. Teller, a former chief of the Southampton Town and Westhampton Beach police departments. “I never saw the silos open with the missiles coming out of there.”

Mr. Teller’s friend, Jim Doyle, a former Westhampton Beach and Southampton Town Police officer, said he assisted in the transporting of the missiles from what is now Francis S. Gabreski Airport to the BOMARC facility on Old Country Road.

“I used to be on guard when the missiles were brought in,” Mr. Doyle said. “They had patrol cars, one in front and one in back.”

Today, the 186 acres that once housed the missile base, located just east of the Pulte Homes development, a subdivision for senior citizens that was built on the former Westhampton Dragstrip property, are utilized for myriad purposes: more than 3,000 cars involved in serious accidents are stored there by the Suffolk County Police Department, a shooting range used by Federal Bureau of Investigation officials and Suffolk Police officers operates on the northern end of the property and a section of the land is used as a training course for emergency vehicles.

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The real story here should be the amount of contamination that was caused by all of these military sites, the amount that was dumped into the water, the pine barrens and what seeped into the land. Just bearing witness to what was left behind shows the carelessness of this operation. Governor Pataki declared Brownfield Sites at the airport, there seems to be plumes from Speonk to Quiogue I wasn't here back then but I live just south of the airport and its disturbing to think of what lies beneath ...more
By shock (70), whb on Feb 9, 09 8:36 PM
Back in that time they didn't realize how toxic this stuff was.Or didn't care because they had bigger worries , think Cold War.
By PrivateerMatt (390), Weesuck Creek , EQ on Feb 10, 09 11:01 AM
The real story is the history of the area and its part in the Cold War defense system. The Press got the story right. Note to "shock"-the airport was there long before you chose to live in Quiogue.
By Lefty46 (56), Westhampton on Feb 10, 09 11:26 PM
I don't live in Quiogue by the way I have no problem with living near an airport just what has happened to all the nuclear waste, and the proper responsiblity of the cleanup , I look at the whole picture not just the past history but the future as well
By shock (70), whb on Feb 11, 09 8:16 AM
Hey, come over to Northampton -- it's nowhere near any flight patterns, former military installations or matériel dumps, and the biggest "highway" anywhere near us is the Moriches-Riverhead Road.

It's quiet, peaceful, one of the most secluded but accessible areas east of the Floyd, and we've got a nice deep lake that doesn['t have olive drab desks, typewriters and file cabinets at the bottom.

On second thought, stay away!
By Frank Wheeler (1826), Northampton on Feb 11, 09 10:49 AM
Great idea to clean it up - and the $$ to the County is much needed.

Why use a middleman? The County has trucks & people who could take all the scrap directly to recycling facilities. Why settle for half and use a company that is a HUGE
political donor?

I'm sure with budget & service cuts coming - some County employees would be happy to have the work clearing the site. Just a thought.......
By G (342), Southampton on Feb 12, 09 11:10 AM
"G" - you hit the nail directly on the head ! It seems whenever politicians or County officials ( same thing! ) get invilved there is a built in 'slop' factor where the project is mismanaged and money is diverted to "friends" or contributors. Thanks for your perspective, we nedd to keep the crooks somewhat honest, if that's possible.
By Bill in Riverhead (190), Riverhead on Feb 15, 09 8:32 AM
Elyse, You are 100 % correct in your assumption that the plume may have originated from the old BOMARC base, look at the mess from the old fuel depot at Gabreski - the people on Peters Lane all had to be converted to county water, and I doubt that the plume was ever totally cleaned up, since the government was once again investigating itself!
By Bill in Riverhead (190), Riverhead on Feb 15, 09 8:37 AM
Lefty, you once again missed the point - it doesn't matter one bit who was there first, it matters a great deal that the airbase contaminated the groundwater in the area, possibly for a very long time. Try to keep up Lefty!
By Bill in Riverhead (190), Riverhead on Feb 15, 09 8:43 AM
Oh the luxury of hindsight. The island depends on aquifers , but we have landfills, agricultural chemicals, gasoline additive contamination, etc. We all have been very cavalier about what would eventually migrate to our drinking water.
So stop using today's standards against the 1950's. As the news article stated both Bomarc and Nike-Hercules missiles contained nuclear warheads--please read some history of the cold war. Ground water contamination was not part of the equation then.
When ...more
By Rich213 (1), Northport on Mar 29, 09 11:08 AM