Sunday, August 17, 2014

Four Corners' role in the Cold War

A couple of days ago, I saw a comment thread on the Woodmoor/4 Corners Facebook group in which a few people recounted memories of a military installation in Four Corners, which was said to be in the vicinity of Northwood High School and Caddington Avenue.  One person said that they thought it might have been home to an anti-aircraft battery or missile site of some kind, perhaps part of the Nike missile program.  Another said that installation seemed to have been decommissioned by 1956 or 1957, and that the land was turned over to a developer who built the homes that currently stand in the area.

During the Cold War, the military erected missile sites around all major U.S. cities as part of Project Nike.  Similar to the Civil War forts a century earlier, these missile sites formed a ring around the nation's capital to protect is from enemies.  While the Civil War forts were built to defend against the Confederate Army, the missile sites were built to intercept long-range Soviet bombers laden with nuclear weapons.  The missile sites were located in what was then the countryside, since the goal was to shoot down any planes before they reached densely populated areas.   The locations of these missile sites are well documented, and information about them can be found easily online.

Nike Hercules (front) and Ajax (back) missiles.  Did we have these in Four Corners?  Photo from Robert Sullivan on Flickr.

When I first heard that there may have been a missile site or another type of anti-aircraft battery in Four Corners, I was skeptical.  As stated, the missile sites that comprised Project Nike are well documented, and in some places there are historic markers denoting their locations (the Lorton site has one such marker).  Also, most Nike missile sites were much farther from the city than Four Corners.  The closest documented missile site to Washington D.C. was in Upper Marlboro, about 16 miles from the Capitol building (Four Corners is only 9 miles from the Capitol).

I was fairly certain there was no missile site here, but multiple people had said that there was some kind of anti aircraft battery in Four Corners, so I knew there had to be something there.  To investigate, I decided to take a closer look at a 1957 aerial photo of the area which I own, and I found something very interesting.

1957 view of the Northwood neighborhood depicting a small military base.  University Boulevard is the road running from bottom center to top left.  Northwood High School is at the very top of the image (a portion of the track is visible at top right).       

The above photo shows suburban development growing around a military installation that is either active, or very recently decommissioned.  When I initially glanced at this image I assumed it just an old farm or something, but upon closer inspection, there are several clues that give it away as a military base.     

First of all, the multiple buildings lined up in a row perpendicular to University Boulevard have a very military look.  These buildings were probably temporary barracks, made of wood or simple block construction.  These structures may have even been tents, since this base did not exist for a very long period of time.  There are several other small military-like buildings stood farther off the road near the east side of the base, which probably served as offices and storage areas.    

Another clue to the military presence are the "deuce and a half" trucks that can be seen parked on southeast corner of the base.  These trucks are likely M35 cargo/troop transports, and they can be found at nearly every military installation.  There are several other smaller vehicles in the parking lot next to the trucks, and they appear to be green jeeps or military cars.         

A closer view of the barracks and vehicle storage area.  Multiple M35 cargo trucks can be seen lined up in the parking lot, along with smaller jeeps and cars.  

On the north end of the base, just south of the newly built Caddington Avenue, sits the most interesting part of the base.  When I saw the circular thing, an I strongly suspected it was an anti-aircraft gun emplacement.  I showed the picture to my dad, who was an intelligence analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and he confirmed that it is definitely some type of gun battery.  Apparently, putting four or more anti-aircraft guns in a circular configuration was a common practice for air defense batteries.  This configuration allowed the emplacement to defend from threats in every direction, while minimizing the amount of time needed to acquire the target(s).    

Closer view of the emplacement.  The four dark shapes around the circle are the guns, which appear to be mounted on concrete.  The middle of the circle may have been used for ammunition storage, but it is tough to tell.  There appears to be a berm surrounding the area, presumably to protect the surrounding buildings in the base from an explosion.  
Once I knew there was an anti aircraft emplacement here, I was curious to know why it only existed for a short period of time.  I checked a 1951 aerial image of the area, and the base did not exist at the time of that 1951 image.  But in the 1957 image above, the base appears to be nearing the end of its lifespan, with suburban development encroaching around it on all sides.  I was also curious as to why guns were used at all, since I thought missiles and jets had rendered anti-aircraft guns obsolete by the 1950's. 

I did some more research, and I believe I know which type of guns were installed at this base here in Four Corners, and why they only existed for a few years before being decommissioned. 

The anti-aircraft guns used at Northwood were likely M51 Skysweepers.  The Skysweeper was one of the earliest radar guided anti-aircraft guns, and it was used by the Army National Guard in the U.S. and overseas.  It was an intermediate range gun designed to be effective against jet aircraft, covering areas which early slower missiles could not reach.  The weapon had a 75mm gun with an effective range of 6.3 kilometers, and a maximum range of 13.5 kilometers (meaning the guns in Four Corners could hit anything from Potomac to Laurel, and from Olney to Bladensburg).      

A ground mounted Skysweeper on a concrete pad, just like the ones used in Four Corners.  Photo from Daniel DeCristo on Flickr.

The Skysweeper was only in service during the early to late 50's (a time frame that corresponds well with the existence of this base), as it was quickly replaced by better, more maneuverable missile systems.  During its relativity short lifespan, it was deployed in over 800 locations around major cities across the U.S., and I am fairly certain Four Corners was one of them.  See the video below of a Skysweeper in action from a classic 1950's propaganda film.

It's scary to think that a weapon like this was deployed in Four Corners, since it means that the military expected Soviet war planes to be flying over our community en route to bomb D.C.  The Cold War was a tense conflict, and a gun battery like this reminded Four Corners residents of that fact everyday during the mid 50's.  It must have been very eerie.

The site of this gun battery is just off Caddington Avenue on Whittington Terrace, and it is now occupied by the street itself and several homes.  No trace of the military base or the gun emplacement remains (although if you dug in the ground, I'm sure you could find some evidence of the base).

While there may not have been any Nike missiles in Four Corners, we played our small part in the Cold War with some anti-aircraft guns.    


  1. Good research, Sean Emerson. I moved to Forest Knolls with my wife and daughter in 1957 and I was aware that there had been an anti-aircraft site near Caddington Ave and University Blvd. It did not seem unusual at the time. It was an era when several large office buildings in Washington had cans of water and perhaps emergency food rations in basements that would be bomb shelters if the United States was attacked. A few years earlier, I think, school children had been taught to crawl under their desks in the event of an air raid.

  2. It looks like part of the military site encompasses where Forest Knolls elementary is now. I've been told by a neighbor who moved here to South Four Corners in 1958 that our house lots (which have some odd angles and shapes) mirror the positions of the army barracks that were here during WWII.

  3. From an old 2008e-mail from an Army Historian:

    "There were three phases in the Air Defense of Washington by the Army. In the first phase AAA guns were used (90-mm or 120-mm). In the second phase the Nike Ajax missile was used. In the third phase Nike Hercules was the missile."

    "Each of these weapons systems were improvements on the previous in the area of range. This effected the sites. The AAA guns were placed in a circle roughly ten miles from the center of DC. The short range of this system required many sites. Its replacement Nike Ajax were placed in a circle 25 miles out. It required fewer sites. None of the Washington AAA sites became Nike Ajax sites because they were too close to the city. When Hercules came in new sites were placed between 30-50 miles from city centers. However, as a thrift measure, the Army reused Ajax sites, simply having fewer overall sites."

    "Locals often confuse the AAA sites with the successor Nike sites (even though almost all AAA sites except a few in coastal forts did not become
    Nike sites) because originally the AAA gun site program was considered a secret and the sites got a very low profile while they were operational."

    The AAA site you have discussed was called Woodmoor and had the address of 10815 Old Bladensburg Blvd (before being renamed University). In total there were 27 AAA sites around DC ---roughly the route of the Beltway in the Montgomery County area. Other nearby locations included Rosemary Hills, Hyattsville, College Park and north Bethesda. The Dec 3, 1956 Post has an article about an open house at AAA (Ack-Ack) site in Hillandale. The AAA sites were deactivated in 1957-58.

  4. Terrific research! Thanks!

  5. U.S. Army, Seventieth Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion, Position 68, Battery B, out of Fort Meade - in operation ca. 1953-55.
    Ken H

  6. I live at the bottom of Whittington, as a kid I was charged with digging up a buried asphalt road that runs through our back yard, between my house and Forest Knolls Ele.
    We could only remove a very small amount. Go figure
    We still have piles of removed asphalt in the back yard.
    When it rains hard enough you can see the "River" as we call it. The river is where the road is buried, and the water doesn't soak in. If anyone wants some asphalt souvenirs
    I'll be happy to give you some.

  7. Good article Sean. The cold war years were difficult ones filled with well founded distrust. Frankly; I'm surprised there weren't more missile and anti aircraft sites around DC. Those who were alive through the Cuban Missile crisis know the fear that existed in the area. I remember the concern on my parents faces when the news was on.

  8. Really? Hey, do you know the map of us military bases has made finding bases so quick and helpful! Isn't it amazing?

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