A Cold War flagpole, reclaimed
Veterans Day ceremony at Florida Keys wildlife refuge looks back to Cuban Missile Crisis
Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Florida – In October, 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union brought the world as close it has ever come to the brink of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most serious Cold War standoff between the two superpowers. Before it ended peacefully, a lot of people thought, with reason, that the end of the world could be at hand.
When it was over, President John F. Kennedy said, “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to bring an end to civilization.”
In November 2018, more than half a century later, one small relic of that historic moment stood 35 feet tall at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Key Largo, the site of a former Cold War U.S. missile base.
On Veterans Day, a Coast Guard color guard raised the Stars and Stripes up a unique flagpole for the first time. A handful of veterans and Boy Scout Troop 912, among other guests, recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
The refuge’s new flagpole was once a lightning arrestor — basically the same thing as a lightning rod — from the days when the land was home to a U.S. military base, bristling with Nike Hercules missiles, rather than a protected place for wildlife.
“Not much of the old base exists anymore,” said Jeremy Dixon, refuge manager of Crocodile Lake.
“When I first arrived here over five years ago, nature and time had mostly overtaken the missile launch site. Most of the buildings had been reduced to rubble and the forest had reclaimed it. But earlier this year, through the tree canopy, we spied a mast.”
Service staff conferred with local veterans and discovered the “mast” was a lightning arrestor. Volunteers converted it into a flagpole and dug a hole for it outside the refuge headquarters.
“They dug that hole by hand. Blisters and all,” Dixon said.
A lot of veterans who served at the base — there were about 140 men stationed here at any given time — wanted to attend the 2018 ceremony, Dixon said, but they are widely scattered now. Five men who served when it was a military base managed to attend.
The Florida Keys Wildlife Society, a friends group for the Florida Keys refuges, raised funds for the flagpole plaque and planned the event, which it streamed on Facebook Live. The Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys was represented by Jerry Wilkinson, a local historian and U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who lived in the Keys during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“This place was loaded with missiles” in the 1960s, Wilkinson recalled.
Missiles and the staff to control them started heading to South Florida during the 1962 crisis, but the whole thing was over by the time they arrived. The U.S. government decided to build an array of missile bases throughout South Florida anyway, including one on Key Largo. The Nike Hercules missiles stationed there were surface-to-air missiles, 41 feet long, tipped with nuclear warheads.
The missile base, known as the Key Largo HM-40 Nike Hercules site, closed for good in 1979, and the refuge was founded in 1980. Among the animals that call the refuge home: the American crocodile, the Key Largo woodrat, and the Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly.
The refuge headquarters, site of the flagpole, is open to the public, but the refuge land itself — 6,500 acres — is not open.
At the end of the ceremony, the Nike veterans in attendance unveiled a plaque at the base of the flagpole. It reads: “This structure, once a lightning arrestor, stood at a Nike missile site on what is now Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The missile base was built following the Cuban Missile Crisis at a time when national security against Soviet attack was America’s priority. Dedicated to the men of Battery B (HM-40), 2nd Nike Hercules Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery. 1965-1979.”
The plaque concludes with the quote from President Kennedy.
Dixon thanked the veterans who had served at the base, and said, “May their service to our country never be forgotten.”
To learn more, visit keyshistory.org.
Watch the livestream from the Refuge:
Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist
firstname.lastname@example.org, (404) 679-7299