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Mitchell recounts time in Albany

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- For Col. Shelton Mitchell, the apocalypse was never more than 15 minutes away.

The commander of the U.S. Army's 2nd Missile Battalion, it was his finger that stayed fixed on the trigger of 24 nuclear missiles originally meant as the last line of defense between Soviet bombers and the U.S. mainland during the height of the cold war.

Now approaching 90, Mitchell is talking about his experiences in Albany and is grateful that the orders he and his men trained for never came down.

"It was a terrifying thought really," Mitchell said. "But it was something that we trained for. Something that we all knew we had to be ready for because if we were ever called on, it meant our nightmares had just become reality."

As commander, Mitchell was responsible for two missile batteries: one just north of the city on a small site where the Anchorage is currently located and another inside of northern Worth County just a few hundred yards from the Sylvester airport.

According to Mitchell, each battery had 12 missiles, all pointed at the sky waiting for any sign of Soviet bombers.

Initially armed with conventional NIKE-AJAX surface-to-air missiles, Mitchell said that during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. Army chose to deploy nuclear-tipped Hercules anti-aircraft missiles.

"We had 12 missiles in each battery, and 11 of them had 2 kiloton warheads and one of them had a 10 kiloton warhead," Mitchell said. "They had a range of 90 miles and could be launched within 15 minutes of receiving our orders."

With a range of 90 miles, the missiles' effective range meant that bombers would've had to have been over U.S. airspace by the time they ever would have been able to launch, with the exception of flights originating in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mitchell said Army officials believed that if the Soviets attacked, they would likely target high-value military, civilian and political targets first and would likely send wave after wave of bombers to accomplish the mission.

"That's why our missiles had the nuclear warheads," he said. "We could fire one up and take out a wave of bombers or at least disrupt their ability to make war with a high probability of success."

Mitchell also said that the Hercules warheads were designed to completely destroy the larger nuclear weapons likely to be on the Soviet bombers so that when they came crashing down, there would be only a small likelihood that the bombs would detonate.

Albany's two bases were two of only a handful of Nike bases throughout the state and 125 batteries nationwide.

The sites were chosen because of Turner Air Force Base, whose bombers -- which carried much larger nuclear weapons -- were part of the nation's Strategic Air Command.

"We were told that Albany was likely to be a first-strike target because the Soviets wanted to weaken our ability to strike back, and between the bombers at Turner and the Marine Corps supply depot, Albany was a vital military target," Mitchell said.

The presence of nuclear missiles in Albany has perhaps been the worst-kept secret in military history. Several Web sites talk about the facilities, and whispers of the old bases still float around town.

But few people knew the details of the bases, especially while they were active, Mitchell said.

"We'd give tours of the sites and let some members of the public look at the facilities, but no one knew that the nuclear firepower on any one base was more than what we dropped on Japan," Mitchell said.

Even during some of the most tense moments of the Cold War, few outside of the military's chain of command knew just how close some NIKE bases came to being activated.

In 1962, when Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev ordered Soviet missiles to be delivered to communist-led Cuba, U.S. President John Kennedy considered a military-planned strike on the island in hopes of eradicating Fidel Castro's ability to launch a nuclear strike in America's backyard.

Part of that plan called for the possible activation of a NIKE missile base built in the Everglades. According to Mitchell, that was one of the few bases where military commanders considered using the anti-aircraft NIKE missiles as a means to destroy land-based targets in Havana as tactical nuclear weapons.

But as missile technology advanced, the U.S. and its communist adversaries -- namely Russia and China -- developed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of miles from one continent to another.

This forced the U.S. to upgrade its missile defense program from one that targeted large bomber fleets to one that was able to target the new ICBMs.

Officially, the Nike sites were decommissioned in 1966, but according to declassified documents from the U.S Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ordered the Albany site to be one of only three on the east coast where Spartan Anti-ballistic Missiles were to be deployed in November 1967.

Listed among the first 10 missile bases to become part of the Sentinel anti-ballistic missile program, Albany was one of only three sites on the East Coast originally named as Spartan missile sites. New York and Boston were the other original sites, although Washington, D.C. was added but never publicly announced.

Spartan missiles were thermonuclear missiles with a five-megaton yield, roughly 80 to 100 times stronger than the warheads on the two-kiloton Hercules missiles and 60 to 70 times stronger than on the 10-kiloton missiles.

Equal to five million tons of TNT, the missiles were designed to explode in the atmosphere, taking out multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from either Russia or China.

The Spartan missiles were never deployed in Albany after President Richard Nixon changed the plans for the program after taking office in 1970, renaming it project SAFEGUARD.

Looking back on his time with the Army, Mitchell said that he was treated "like a general" by both the Air Force personnel and the Marine officials in Albany.

"Albany was a great place for me," he said. "Looking back, it really was a remarkable time. The men I had the pleasure to work with, the community, everyone was just great."

After the bases were decommissioned, Mitchell oversaw the military's role in turning the land back over to the local citizenry, before starting a concrete business from which he has since retired.

Mitchell's involvement in the cold war is a piece of history that continues to captivate the country. Rumors of hidden or secret missile silos permeate rural America and have entrenched themselves into local lore.

In Irwin County, a former government communications site situated on 5.5 acres on top of a 6,400-square-foot underground hardened nuclear bunker is actually for sale on www.missilebases.com.

According to that site, the facility isn't what locals thought was an actual missile site, but instead is a hardened communications center complete with six-inch-thick blast doors, its own self-contained water and electric systems, emergency escape hatch and radiation air filters.

The cold war relic is listed for sale at $295,000 on the site.

In Thomasville, a FEMA Regional Center responsible for government emergency response and preparedness in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee is rumored on conspiracy sites to be housed in a 37,000- square-foot underground facility that at one point was supposed to have been a warning station for what used to be the Office of Emergency Preparedness.