Reunion 2008

Click here to see photos of our reunion.

Click here to see the 2008 Reunion Program.

Dozens remember facing the Cold War nuclear threat.

By Richard Robbins
Sunday, August 24, 2008

For nearly two decades they stood watch — the nearly 1,100 men of Battery B, U.S. Air Defense Site PI-37 near Herminie.

They spanned eras. From Dwight Eisenhower to Gerald Ford. There was the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam and the days of war protests. And finally, the era of detente with the Soviet Union.

During the period from 1957 to 1974, Battery B, which occupied both sides of a lonely stretch of road in Sewickley Township, was a cog in the great wheel of defense protecting the United States against threat of thermonuclear war during some of the darkest days of the Cold War.

For that reason, it was not surprising that on Saturday, at the battery’s first reunion, some men had tears in their eyes, if not for the peace they helped maintained, then for their lost youth.

Bill McCue of Pittsburgh, who served a two-year stretch with Battery B beginning in 1957, was one of those who misted over.

“It’s just a great experience,” McCue said, moments after emerging from the 30-foot deep underground room where six of the battery’s Nike Hercules nuclear-tipped missiles had been stored.

The current property owner, Rick Zizan, had presided over what to many seemed a miracle: The raising and lowering of the elevator that brought the missiles to ground level, followed by the opening and closing of the bunker’s roof. There was a clank and a hiss.

“That sound — I’ll never forget it,” McCue said. “I hadn’t heard it for 50 years, but, boy, it was so familiar. As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was.” The past seemed to wash over McCue as he spoke. “This means so much to me.”

Cold War memories

Nearly 80 men, plus a sprinkling of wives, were on hand for the reunion, which was largely organized by Don Wellman of Dallas, Texas.

The Cold War was close to mid-passage when Wellman reported to duty at Herminie as an 18-year-old in 1958.

The youngster from Waco, Texas, was still wet behind the ears, and the world of Great Power confrontations meant little to him.

Looking back, though, Wellman said he and most of the others who served at Battery B, as well as at the dozen or so other Nike sites that surrounded Pittsburgh in those days, take sober satisfaction from the fact that they, in some sense, were in the front ranks during the Cold War.

“They expected the Russians to come over the North Pole at us in their bombers,” Wellman said. “That’s one thing we did take seriously.”

Two former battery commanders attended the reunion. One was Jack Boggs of Libertyville, Ill. The other was Anthony Laspada of Pittsburgh. Both had been captains. Boggs was at Herminie between 1962 and 1964 while Laspada served exactly 10 years later from 1972 to 1974.

They traded stories.

Boggs told about a Battery B party thrown at a hall that belonged to one of the local volunteer departments. The ex-commander recalled that he didn’t like the idea of mixing senior officers, noncoms and enlisted personnel at a gathering fueled by alcohol.

Surprisingly, he said, the first-year’s party went off without a hitch, but then he laughed and said the second-year party was a complete bust: “It was chaotic.”

Laspada, listening closely, said, “Well, do you know where we had our parties? On base, just for that reason.”

Making farmers nervous

A number of the men recalled the times when the batteries were placed on high alert. Boggs mentioned, in particularly, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and President Kennedy’s assassination 13 months later.

Frank Mellage of Raleigh, N.C., who had been a young lieutenant in charge of the Nike missile launch sites, recalled the period marked by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and the anti-war turmoil on the campus of Kent State University in the spring of 1970.

Not only were the missiles greased and tested, but security around the perimeter of the battery was beefed up. “Someone thought the gates would be easy pickings,” Mellage said.

Guard dogs patrolled the grounds. Peter Major of Carmel, N.Y., who was to become a New York City policeman, was one of four dog handlers on duty in 1966.

“They were mean,” Major said of the dogs. “They’d tear a man apart if they had to. They say you don’t have to worry if a dog is wagging his tail. Don’t believe it. These dogs enjoyed the attack.”

The canines came onboard only when Battery B went nuclear in the Fall of 1959. The 18 Nike Hercules missiles stationed in Herminie contained more firepower than all the Allied ordnance dropped during World War II, someone said.

Indeed, according to several of the men, the Nike Hercules in just this one location were potentially more destructive than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, ending the Second World War.

No wonder nearby farmers working their fields must have gotten a little nervous any time they saw the missiles lifted from their underground homes and raised 30 feet in the air.

“They must have wondered whether to run or not,” Mellage said.

It was all very serious business. Boggs and Laspada explained that the codes relating to the missiles were changed daily to prevent any unauthorized firing. If the president of the United States gave the signal, the battery was ready to spring into action, he said, but not before then.

The base closing in 1974 still vexes Laspada. For one thing, he said, the batteries remained critical to U.S. national defense. Second, there was the little matter of the battery’s swimming pool. It had just opened when Washington sent word down the line that Battery B was being mothballed.

Laspada shook his head in disgust. All that money spent on improvements for nothing, he said.

Richard Robbins can be reached at or 724-836-5660.


Interview from 2003

Sites provided homeland defense during the Cold War

Here is a link to a story that appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003. Several Nike vets from the Pittsburgh were interviewed by Gerald DeFlitch.



-The Owners of the Launcher and IFC Areas for their warm hospitality and hard work preparingĀ for our visit to the old Nike site.
-Ferrante’s Lakeview on Route 30, Greensburg, for the great Reunion facilities and the wonderful food.
-Howard Hodson and STA for providing the bus transport to and from theĀ Nike site.
-Suburban Community Church for allowing us to use their parking lot for boarding the buses.
-BSA Troop Leader Ed Collins and Herminie Troop #259 for the meaningful Flag Ceremony at our Banquet.
-Ray Adams for video taping our Reunion.

Reunion Photo

Nike Site PI-37 2008 reunion photo. Click on the photo to go to full size image with names of attendees. (In order to keep file size to a minimum the names may be hard to read so you may need to click “alt key and + key” to enlarge the photo.)

This photo as well as a DVD of the reunion activities was taken and produced by photographer/videographer Ray Adams. Copies of the photo and DVD are available from Roy. You can email your request to

The price is $10.00 for the 8 X 10 group photo and $25.00 for the DVD including shipping.

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. Don Wellman #

    Good story, Steve!!!
    I don’t think Cpt. Laspada is still looking for you, so you can come to the Reunion in August!

  2. Steve Favreau #

    Interesting to read about Cpt. Lasapda’s comments about the swimming pool – that it had just opened when Washington sent word down the line that Battery B was being mothballed…..”all that money spent on improvements for nothing.” After a night in town several of us opted to go swimming before the pool officially opened. Seems that our adventure damaged the yet unsettled bottom and required repairs which the 1st Sgt. gave us a choice – pay for the damages or go up on charges. It costs us a lot of money, especially on E-3 pay, to cover the damages but better that than an article 15 or courts martial. So it was our money too that was spent for nothing since the pool never did officially open.

Your Comment