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1960:  Nuclear
near-nightmare
By DAVE NEESE / The Trentonian
Tuesday, June 7, 1960, inched up over the Atlantic horizon off the Jersey Shore sunny and balmy, with no tipoff it would be anything other than another routine work day.

Everything seemed in its accustomed place: God in His heaven, the Phillies in the cellar, falling out of hailing distance even of the next-to-last-place Cubs.

The sports pages that morning noted that the struggling, overpitched workhorse, the once-great, now-fading Robin Roberts, 1 and 7, would take the mound against the Cards.

The front pages chronicled the latest presidential primary maneuverings of ambitious pols, notably a Massachusetts senator, John Kennedy, and a Texas congressman, Lyndon Johnson.

Conservative Republicans -- some things never change - were in a snit. Rocky had served notice, with too obvious a sneer for their tastes, that no way would he ever join a presidential ticket headed by Nixon.

But this was just background noise, and people were doing their best not to pay much attention to it.

Flipping on through the paper, they saw, in the want ads, that C.V. Hill was hiring punch-press operators at its Pennington Avenue plant in Trenton.

Nevius-Voorhees, the downtown Trenton clothier, had a sale on "airy cotton batistes," $17.98. And over the bridge in Morrisville, Lit Bros. had men's short-sleeve
B.V.D. dress shirts on sale, $2.99.

With full-page ads, Kent was aggressively marketing its "Micronite Filter" cigarette. "Smoked by more scientists and educators," said the ads.

"Please Don't Eat the Daisies" was playing at the Greenwood, and "I Passed for White" was on at the Dix Drive-In, aka "the passion pit."

TV fare that night would include "Dobie Gillis" and "The Red Skelton Show."

As people tooled to work that morning in their Fairlanes and Darts, they could hum along to Percy Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place." Or, with Elvis Presley bow honorably discharged from the Army, maybe the DJs would spin a number from the King's new album, "Elvis Is Back!"

But amidst all of this domestic tranquility, just at the far corner of people's consciousness but never entirely out of it, there lurked a nagging angst. A global standoff called the Cold War presented the 'round-the-clock threat of - at any moment - unimaginable nuclear destruction.

And people's nerves were kept on edge by the blustery and crude antics of a bald-headed, pig-eyed Kremlin boss, a political cartoonist's caricature in the flesh, by the name of Khrushchev.

Which explains why, on June 7, 1960, the U.S. Air Force's 46th Air Defense Missile Squadron was hunkered down in the Pine Barrens, 20 miles southeast of Trenton, with 56 nuclear-tipped missiles at the ready. They were all set to blast Rooskies out of the sky.

These BOMARC missiles, each with a one-to-15 kilogram nuclear warhead, were anti-aircraft weapons, designed to shoot down Soviet nuclear bombers. Launched by rocket and propelled to their targets by dual ramjets, the BOMARCs were more akin to Hitler's V-2s than siloed ICBMs.

The BOMARCS were kept in above-ground concrete shelters
with steel roofs that swung open to the sky. Tucked away behind a facade of pine trees on a 218-acre clearing
just off Highway 539 in Plumsted Township, Ocean County, the nuclear missile base drew little attention to itself. Which was just how the Air Force liked it.

True, there had been some peaceniks who had wondered what would happen down below if the Air Force ever actually detonated any of those nuclear weapons, overhead.

The Pentagon had an answer in the form of a question of its own: What would happen down below if Soviet nuclear bombers ever got through to unload on the big cities of the East Coast and the nation's capital?

As the crew of the 46th Missile Defense Squadron went about its by-the-numbers routines on that day, up in the state capital, in the newsroom of The Trentonian, the paper's legendary police reporter, Emil "Bull" Slaboda, was scanning the sports pages.

He was chortling over the foundering Phillies and looking for a Phils fan to bait. A Yankee fan himself, he like to describe the Phils as "a bush-league team in the world's biggest bush-league town."

Meanwhile, an impatient city editor had been pacing nearby, bugging Slaboda to come up with story worth of the front page.

When Slaboda took a call from a police source, the editor pressed: 'What is it? Anything hot?' "

Cupping the phone with one hand, Slaboda said: "If you'll hold your horses, we may have a story about a large chunk of the East Coast being removed from the face of the Earth. With us on it."

Slaboda's tip was that a warhead had detonated right in the middle of the nuclear missile base, down around Fort Dix.

Minutes earlier, at 3:15 p.m., that's pretty much how the news had clattered in over the teletype at the State Police Troop C headquarters in Princeton: "Atom ... ic ... war ... head ... ex ... plosion."

The State Police alerted civil defense officials in Trenton and Burlington County to start assembling emergency equipment and to round up vehicles for mass evacuations.

The teletype dispatch was soon set straight. Not an explosion. A fire.

But that was well short of reassuring news. A fire raging away where 56 nuclear-tipped missiles
were clustered 30 feet apart from one another signalled the possibility of a chain-reaction nuclear nightmare.

Airmen were withdrawn from the missile base and military firefighters and volunteers from nearby small towns began to converge on the scene.

Tense State Police officials and other local authorities waited for details from the Air Force. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Trenton Police Commissioner, William J. "Fat Will" Waldron, finally sent two of his detectives to the base to see if they could find out what was up.

The civil defense director in nearby New Egypt, Dr. Louis Glockin, also kept in the dark, posted himself at the radio to glean what details he could.

The 47-foot-tall BOMARC missile in Shelter No. 204, about 500 feet from Highway 539 - the second missile in from the road in a row of seven - had sprung a fuel leak and ignited.

It was spewing an incredibly powerful, 20-foot blowtorch-like flame, a flame that had already blown off the shelter's steel roof and steel doors, twisted its steel support beams like pieces of licorice and sent a massive black smoke plume swirling hundreds of feet into the air.

To John Caines, who ran a nearby gas station, it looked like "smoke from a smokestack," and that was good news to him: at least it wasn't the dreaded mushroom cloud.

Not yet, anyway. He told his wife to be ready to hop in the car and gun it out of there.

But within 45 minutes, the missile fire burned itself out. No detonation. No injuries.

At 7:15 p.m., four hours after the first report of the "explosion," John Kane, civil defense operations officer at the State Police control center at Wilburtha, received his first bit of information from lock-jawed military authorities. Only the debris of Shelter 204 was smoking hotter than he was.

Not everyone in the area, however, had been caught up in the drama.

Five hours later, when a reporter knocked on the door of 68-year-old Mrs. Henry Klumpers on Pinehurst Road and asked her impression of the fire, her reaction was: "What fire?" With her radio turned off, she'd remained oblivious to an event that had multi-starred, sweating generals huffing and puffing around the corridors of the Pentagon.

Finally the Air Force issued a statement: "There is no radiation danger to the public. A small amount of radioactive material was scattered in the immediate shelter area but there is no significant health hazard or contamination problem."

Some of the small-town firefighters at the scene wondered, though. They'd noticed the "green men" poking and probing around the base. These were eight-man military nuclear warfare teams whose members wore green protective outfits. The teams had been flown in from air bases as far away as Ohio.

Shelter 204 was roped off, and the missile base continued in service until 1972.

Only now, 39 years after the incident, is the military moving to clean up the potentially lethal plutonium contamination that -- contrary to the official reassurances in 1960 -- extends well beyond "the immediate shelter area."

The contamination takes thousands of years to degrade and can cause bone and liver cancer, even if ingested in miniscule amounts via food or water.

Higher-than-average samples of plutonium-239 have been found off the long-abandoned base, 2,400 feet along the Elisha Branch, a drainage creek that flows into the state's adjacent Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area.

The Air Force, though, still insists there's no danger. Its cleanup would leave behind radioactive contamination up to 133 times greater than the average plutomium fallout level for the United States.

A once skeptical N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, so often unyielding in its enforcement of even trivial environmental rules against small businesses and homeowners, signed off on an Air Force cleanup plan much less stringent than the state's own standards.

As for the two to three tons of likely contaminated debris from the burned missile launcher, the Air Force says it has no idea where it is or what was done with it.

Says a consultant's report for the Air Force: "The missile launcher is believed to have been moved ... shortly after the accident. However, its location remains unknown, and no verified records indicating the manner of its disposal are known to exist."