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Burbank Ice Arena: Reading's Cold War Legacy

Beneath the surface of the Nelson S. Burbank Ice Arena, Reading's Cold War history lies buried.

The Reading High boys and girls hockey teams began play last week, and while the winter season is sure to bring more than a few tense showdowns to the frozen surface of Burbank Ice Arena, below the skates of these scholastic athletes the scars of an entirely more sinister standoff lie nearly forgotten.

In 1955, the area near Haverhill Street and what is today called Symonds Way would have been no place for games.

Known as site B-03—in conjunction with the control site between Bear Hill Road and today's Gazebo Circle—it was an integral piece of the Boston Defense Area, and housed type MiM-3 Ajax missiles. These were the world’s first line-of-sight surface-to-air missile, and widely deployed throughout the East Coast, and the entire country, to counter what was a perceived vulnerability to long-range Soviet jet bombers. Known as the “bomber gap,” the data collected following the development of the U-2 spy plane showed this weakness to be largely fictitious, but, nonetheless, missile installations went up in droves in the mid 1950s as Congress approved billions in air-defense spending.

Project Nike had its origins in the closing stages of the second world war and the development of jet-engined aircraft by the Nazis, such as the revolutionary Messerschmitt ME-262.

In 1944, the War Department demanded a new defense system to combat these new aircraft, as existing gun systems were unable to cope with the increased speeds and altitudes at which these new aircraft could operate.

Two proposals were accepted for development by the War Department. Project Nike, put forth by Bell Laboratories, and Project Thumper, developed by General Electric.

The first successful Nike test was in 1951, against a drone B-17 Flying Fortress, and the missiles began being deployed in 1953 at Fort Meade Maryland.

In June of 1955, the installations that would become part of the Boston Defense Area, and, later, the New England Defense Area, began to come online. Among the first of these was site B-03 in Reading.

Initially staffed by units from the Army Anti-Aircraft Command, the site was comprised of a launch area—which contained the physical missile—and a control site, from which Army personnel controlled the firing of the weapons.

Unfortunately, for the Ajax missile, the intense arms race that developed between east and west following the Korean War meant that by the time the Ajax batteries went operational, they were already on the cusp of becoming obsolete, as the more powerful and nuclear-capable Hercules missile was developed. The age of the Hercules spelled the end for the Ajax, and, as the same defense goals could be met with roughly half as many launch sites, due to the advanced range of the Hercules, the end for many of the Ajax sites as well—including Reading.

There were certain inherent risks to working on an Ajax site. Due to the newness of the technology, safety precautions were, perhaps, not what they could have been, and the way the missiles worked required the use of volatile and dangerous chemicals like Red Fuming Nitric Acid and Unsymmetrical Diethyl Hydrazine.

In 1959 the National Guard assumed control over site B-03, and in 1963, the site was officially decommissioned. 

The fire control site, located between Bear Hill Road and Gazebo Circle was initially abandoned, but later developed into condominiums, which remain to this day. The Water Tower at Gazebo Circle is the lone extant feature that ties the area to its Cold War past. The launcher area, where the actual missiles would have departed from, had the need arisen, became the Nelson S. Burbank Ice Arena in 1994.

Depending on your point of view, it’s either a testament to how far the world has come that schoolchildren now play games where missiles designed to kill Russian boys not much older formerly stood, or a grim reminder of just how far the science of death has advanced, that modern technology allows us to live without these instruments of destruction in our midst.

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