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LA-29: Rocky Stovall's story

By Rocky Stovall SFC Retired

2017

I lived most of my life in the San Gabriel Valley. Many of those years were in South El Monte. We moved a lot, and then my parents bought a two-story house on San Gabriel River Parkway/ Parkway Dr. on the shores of the San Gabriel River. I don't think my parents could have found a better place for a young boy. My friends and I rode our bikes all over the valley, including areas that would be a very big part of my early military life, the Puente Hills. Turnbull Canyon or Azusa Canyon, it made no difference, we went where our bikes would take us. When the San Gabriel river was flowing, and many times when it was dry, you would find us there or going to the Whittier Narrows Dam. I remember that, as I grew older, I would pass the Nike Site on my bike going to the Narrows Dam. In 1958 I moved to La Puente.  In May 1961 I joined the Army and went to Ft. Ord for basic training and then to Ft. Bliss. At Bliss I trained in the IFC area but when I arrived at my duty station at D-4-6 Balesfeld, Germany (Neuheilenbach) I was assigned to the Launcher area and never had anything to do with the IFC area again.

IFC AREA LA-29
                              
LA-29 Admin/Launcher area 1963.      Courtesy of Rocky Stovall

The IFC for LA-14 and the IFC for LA-29 were 8 miles apart in a straight line, both were in the Puente Hills, and both figured in my life.  In late Jan 1963, I was assigned to A-1-56 Brea, California LA-29. It began in 1958 as a Nike Ajax site and was converted to a Hercules site in 1960-1961. In Germany we had both Ajax and Hercules. I call LA-29 the sister site to LA-14 in So. El Monte, CA. The LA-14 Launcher Area was in my neighborhood. It was at the end of Potrero Ave. I would pass it on my way to the Whittier Narrows. I could see the missiles on the pads. When I was assigned to the 1st Msl Bn in Pasadena I was given my choice of units to go to. I asked for El Monte but was told it had been closed, which I didn't know because I was in Germany.  LA-14 was a Nike Ajax site and was closed in 1961. So I chose LA-29 at Brea, an area I knew well. It was on top of the Puente hills. From the IFC area you can see Los Angeles, the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Orange County. From the valley the radar domes could be seen at the top of the hills. A friend, Juan Tejeda – stationed at LA-04 D-1-56 Mt Gleason/ Palmdale, above the Los Angeles basin, put it this way: “The Radar Dome could be seen from anywhere in the Los Angeles basin. It looked like a golf ball on top of the mountain.” He was right- they did look like golf balls. From LA-29, I was close to my mother’s house. In fact, when I looked down into La Puente, I could see her street. I can't tell you about the IFC area, but you have to pass it to get to main compound. I will add this, the IFC boys were a good bunch- it was a pleasure to serve with them.

As you entered the main gate to the LA-29 Launcher area, the road forked. The right leg went down the hill to the warhead building on the left, then the Generator building on left, as the road makes a long curve to the left you passed the missile assembly building, also on the left. About half way into the turn you would pass the dog kennels on the right, then the road proceeded left to the back gate. This gate was used to bring the missiles and equipment into the launcher area.

Going straight through the main gate, the first Building on the left contained the orderly room, supply, armory, barber shop and POV parking across the road. The building behind the orderly room was the barracks for admin and IFC, the day-room, and small PX. There was a patio between the day-room/PX and the mess hall and the back entrance to the Launcher barracks. This patio was named in memory of PFC Cody Blair who died while driving the very dangerous site road in 1962. Gary Conlon, who worked in the engineering section, told me about the patio. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know it. I didn’t spend much time there; is that an excuse? No, it isn’t.

Next, the mess hall. They served good food there and I pulled plenty of KP there also. The next building was the barracks for the launcher crewmen, along with motor pool, missile assembly crews, and the BOQ/NCO billets. Behind was the basketball court. The road bends to the right and drops toward the launcher area. Next on the left was the motor pool, then the LCT left on the hill, and then the launcher area.   As you approached the launcher area, there was a cinder block building on the right (just before the launcher gate) that was our break area. Just past it was the dog handler shack on the right and then concrete stairs leading to the missile assembly area. The guard shack was straight ahead- one guard was always on duty. He would admit us to the launcher sections. The sections were designated as Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie sections. I was in Bravo section. They were offset to the left as you came into the area. We would go around to the right to get to our sections.

Most of the people living below LA-29 didn't know what was up there. They knew there were missiles, and most figured we were there to protect them from Soviet planes that might be carrying nuclear bombs, and they were right. What very few knew was that we had nuclear warheads on the missiles. Imagine how people would have felt if they knew there were several nuclear bombs in their backyards. We were always conscious about what we did and didn’t talk about it. When we dated, we spent a lot of our time at the 300 Bowl in La Habra. It was a great place to go even when the girls weren’t with us. They had a great cafe, good service and very good food.  Some of our guys, including two of my best friends, married girls from La Habra. I was best man at one of the weddings. They were nice communities with hospitable people. I dated a wonderful girl from Brea. Her dad was a minister. On one Sunday he held services in our mess hall. I had guard duty and couldn’t attend and missed seeing my girl, and, yes, most of my pals rubbed it in.

When I was assigned to A-1-56 Brea, Ca, I was excited because it was close to home. The reason for the assignment I didn't like at all- it was because my Dad was dying. And I had to adjust to state side procedures. I often said stateside duty was boring and really that was unfair to the men who had worked hard to be the best at their jobs. It's just that I came from a unit that was considered mobile. A mobile site had a lot more equipment, so we had a lot more to maintain. LA-29 had a window van, a pick-up and one 2-1/2-ton truck with an automatic transmission. The launcher area had two 1000 kw generators and each section had one power inverter. Also, each section had an elevator with a launcher on it. This elevator would lift a missile to the surface and back down. I don’t know what the IFC had.

There were a lot of things I liked about serving here. One was the food and where we would eat our meals. Our barracks, admin and launcher area were in the same compound and that meant that when we were on hot status we would eat in the mess hall- that was a plus over my unit in Germany. In Germany when we pulled 24 hour duty, we were billeted in the launcher compound.  Food was sent down in mermite containers. And another thing LA-29 had over D-4-6 was that, with the barracks being in the same compound, on hot status we slept in our own bunks. As we passed the guard shack to the launcher area we had to hand the guard our lighters and he put them in one of the slots on the wall. He also had an ADT security system he had to turn off. We would pass Alpha section to arrive at the underground personnel entrance to Bravo section. The entrance to the underground magazine is a double steel blast door. They lead about 20 feet down to a single blast door on the left.

Personnel doors to magazine
stairs descending to the storage magazine
stairs ascending from the magazine
Left door goes to stairs. Right goes to hallway
Hallway to panel room

When you descended the stairs and entered through the door, you saw an overwhelming spectacle: six of the deadliest projectiles in the world.  Believe me when I say it was awesome. As you entered the magazine, there was a blast door on the left. That door opened to a corridor that turned right to another blast door and ended at another blast door. This door was to the panel room. In this room was the Launcher Control Panel, and this room was where the crew was when the missiles were fired (Fortunately, the missiles were never fired from here or anywhere else in the continental U.S., except for testing.) In the panel room there was a vertical steel ladder that lead up to an access hatch at the surface.  

escape hatch
ladder in panel room to escape hatch
both blast doors to panel room

When the siren sounded, time was of the utmost importance. We would sleep in our fatigues and some slept with their boots on while others had them staged to where they slipped their feet in the boots and took a pull on the strings, tied them off, and ran to the section, about 200 yards. The guard would have the gate open and we would rush through and put our lighters on the counter. No hold up at the gate. As we entered the storage room I would go to the panel room and get the squib tester, then go back topside and put the tester next to launcher 4. Then I would help take the first missile off the elevator and move it to launcher 4, then go back to the elevator to get the next missile and move it to launcher 3 and then we would take one to Launcher 1, then I would go back to 4 and start my checks. After I plugged the cable in, I would go to Launcher 3 then 1 then 2 on the elevator. Then back to the panel room, where I put the tester on the shelf and became a spectator.

LA-29 Launcher area. It looks like the sections were on different levels (cascading), but they weren’t. It’s an optical illusion.
Looking down at a missile on the elevator platform. (SF-88)

For most Operational Readiness Checks we just loaded one missile, on Launcher 4, and I would perform my checks and when done go back to the panel room.

I liked it in Germany. I loved the duty, most of it anyways and I loved going back to Germany several times, but I never made it back to D-4-6. At LA-29 everything was better. There were things that were common to both units. I had my problems, but fortunately most of the personnel and especially my closes friends made it easier and made me work harder to achieve a better outcome. They made me a better soldier, and we had each other’s back. Still, I didn’t get along with a few in our section; I just couldn’t make friends with them. But we had to get along because of what we had to do, and to therefore, as I said, we had each other’s back.

We all took our jobs seriously. We knew how dangerous our work was and how quickly it could all go sour if one of us didn't do his job properly. In Germany, I was one of the guys who found a few thousand volts going through the rails in the storage building (BARN). We were all ordered to evacuate immediately, and we did. Another time, during during an OPT's check drill, I had approximately 4 volts reading on my squib tester, so I called cease fire (Boy, that felt good). Then we started troubleshooting, the SOP was to try another squib tester. The backup tester was brought to me and I performed the test again, but this time not only was the evaluater looking over my shoulder, so was my section Sgt, the senior evaluater and it seemed like the whole world. The reading was good, and it turned out that the first squib tester was faulty. I used the backup and we went on with the drill.

Occasionally, something strange would take place, like the TTR locking on to the moon (Ft. Bliss), locking on a steel pot moving through the launcher area, the roving guard (Germany), a bolt of lightning hitting the power pole at the back entrance of LA-29. Or the one I like best - the coning tower of a submarine entering Long Beach Naval Base (LA-29). I don’t know how they confirmed that one. Can’t tell what those TTR boys would have to use as a training aid.

We were in the sections when a storm arrived. There was so much lightning, we all stayed in the panel room. One guy climbed the escape latter and opened the hatch just as the lightning hit our inverter. This really happened. Every one of us suddenly froze in place and our hairs went up on end, just for a moment. When it passed, I think we all looked up at the same time. I was expecting to find him dead, we all did. He wasn’t, he said as he opened the hatch he felt electricity go through him and he froze in mid-step. Then we all had a good laugh and were thankful the missiles hadn’t ignited.

We got a call on the land line wanting to know if we were OK. That’s when we found out that bolt of lightning hit every section’s converters and the LCT. We left the section and on the way to the barracks three of us stopped at the LCT and asked the operator if it really hit the van– he said yes, he was sitting on the right side of the van when it entered the west side of the van and out the east side. Back at the barracks there were a few guys standing around. Two of them saw what happened. They said they saw a bolt of lightning hit the siren on top of the orderly room and it sounded momentarily but the bolt continued on to the LCT it seemed to pass through and kept going from the trailer to Alpha’s converter, then Bravo’s and Charlie’s converters then to the power pole outside the restricted area.  

It seemed like if we weren’t stripping paint and repainting, applying WD-40, wrapping cables with asbestos, applying grease impregnated with graphite to rubber seals, or pulling guard and KP, we would have an ORI, ORE or an Opts check.  We passed everyone one of them with no marks or as much as one gig. We were good. The one gig was against me; my evaluator didn’t keep up with me and didn’t see me check the launcher power cables.

The elevator had to be maintained just like every piece of equipment in the Army.  That was my job. When it wasn’t in use I would raise it with a missile on the launcher, but it was not my responsibility to raise the launcher, so I didn’t. There was a separate control box in the elevator pit, so when someone was working down there he could cut the power and no one could lower the elevator and trap him under it. The pit was about 8 feet deep so it wouldn’t crush him, and the elevator would hit its stops long before it could go that far, but if he didn’t duck his head he’d have one hell of a headache.

Safety was practiced 24/7, 365 days each year. Nothing that might cause a spark was allowed in the launcher area. The magazines were constructed with reinforced concrete walls that were (I was told) three feet thick. Still I felt if one section blew all three would go. We did not bring the missiles topside in bad weather.  In Germany, the Ajax was always outside and normally two Hercules, one HE and one Nuke. That meant we always had three missiles on launchers at all times except when we were performing maintenance on the launchers. The Hercules can operate in weather ranging from -40 to +125 degrees, and in steady surface winds up to 60 MPH and gusts to 75 MPH. It can operate in rain, snow, dust, sand, and salt, and with the improved Nike Hercules ground guidance equipment with anti-jam display facilities can operate in the presence of severe jamming.  

Access to the site was about five miles of a winding, narrow road with many cut back curves which made it a very dangerous trek for a car, not to mention a truck. One night the guard at the IFC gate called down to the orderly room to say that an 18-wheeler was at the gate. He was instructed to send the truck to the main gate. I was in the barracks when the CQ runner said they needed some men to watch a couple of civilians. As we were walking toward the orderly room, we could see a semi-truck slowly coming down the road and stop at the main gate. One of the MPs escorted the truck with one driver to the warhead building. The driver left his truck there and was escorted to the mess hall to join his co-driver. I was one of three assigned to guard the two drivers in the mess hall. As we talked it was plain they had no idea what they were carrying. What they had was two nuclear warheads they had picked up in New York State, though they didn’t name a city and we didn’t tell them what their payload was. They figured it was something to do with the missiles but didn't know for sure.

The summer of ‘63 we had an invasion of rattle snakes. It was a very scary time: we didn’t know when or where one of use would come upon one. When we did the MPs would shoot them.  That lasted about a week and no one was bitten. We also had tarantulas, not many and they were not deadly but their bite would hurt. One day the medic caught one and we would take a lead pencil and put it between his fangs. He would sink them in half way through the pencil.  

Guard duty was easier then Germany, but it was still guard duty. I didn’t mind pulling gate guard at LA-29. I mentioned the ADT security system we had: at times it was a headache. When the wind blew up there it could be a very heavy wind, and being heavy, it would shake the blast doors to the sections and if they shake enough the alarm would go off and the SGT of the Guard, with an escort, would check it out and the guard would reset the alarm. Sometimes this would happen several times a night.

There usually was not much happening during guard duty. If suddenly we had a ORI or OPS check, as the crew came running down to the launch area I would turn off the alarm to the hot section and stand at the door to the launcher area. I then had to clear each person as he came into the guard shack. We had one roving guard, and that was around the launcher area only. The MPs and their dogs watched the rest. As I walked the perimeter, I would look out over the hills. We were always vigilante to fire. One of my memories as a kid was the family camping in the San Gabriel Mountains. On one outing my Dad saw some smoke coming from the Crystal Lake area. With no hesitation, Dad told us “pack up, we’re leaving,” so we set a record striking camp. As we headed down the canyon towards Azusa we kept an eye on the fire. That was when I learned how fast a fire would spread. What Dad saw was a little more than a wisp of smoke. We were the next to last car out. So, when I walked guard I would watch the hills for smoke, plus I enjoyed looking across the valley. The MPs with their dogs would have the roving guard at night.  

In ‘63 our Platoon Sergeant said they were going to create a security force that would take over the guard duty. That freed us up to perform out duties in the sections without having to leave for guard. On one of the last times I was on gate guard, President Kennedy was shot. All I remember of the next few days is the shooting of Oswald and the President’s funeral.

The USO put on a couple of shows for us. The first one was a blast. It was comedy routines. They interacted with the audience, and it was one laugh after another. The second show presented the Flower Drum Song. I enjoyed it immensely. It was well put on and they were talented.

LA-29 was an outstanding unit. At least I thought so. We passed inspection after inspection, and there wasn’t one ORI, ORE or OPTS check we didn’t pass. Our people knew their jobs and knew them well.

Things were getting better. We were hoping for more USO shows and we were starting to get involved with the community. The local church would have Sunday services for those who were on duty and couldn’t make it down the hill. They had Sunrise service on Easter. The graduating class of ‘63 from Brea had a photo day at the unit and was allowed to enter the sections for some pictures. Later that year I started dating a girl from Brea. As I said, things were improving, then it stopped. We were being deactivated as a unit. The California National Guard was taking over the site.

In Feb ‘64, I went to Ft. MacArthur to get a GED, for I was a high school dropout. I was there for four weeks. The California National Guard was going to take over the site. So, in late March I started processing out. I went back to Ft. Mac, and then returned to LA-29 for my last two weeks in the regular Army. During this time my secret security clearance was removed. I was given detail after detail because we were preparing for an IG inspection, my last.

My Platoon Sergeant and I had a disagreement about how long my hair should be. He said I needed it shorter and I told him my hair was fine. He said it would not pass inspection. I told him that I will pass inspection, but he will not. Well, I made a boast and I should not have done that, but it was said.  To my surprise the Inspecting General said some unpleasant things to him and I was the only one congratulated by the IG- a very small feather in my hat.

I worked with the California National Guard and got to know many of them.  I had decided to apply for a position with the guard and eventually it came through and I was back on the hill doing the same job as I did in the army. Things were much more relaxed in the Guard, but we still took our jobs seriously. I loved it, but while waiting for a job with the Guard to come through, I went to work for a local landscaper, and that is where I met the girl I would marry.

There are stories of fires and explosions on the hill, but while writing this story I could not confirm any of it. A reliable source told me there was a fire in one of the Fire Control vans in the IFC area in October of ’62. The vans are made of magnesium, and that van burned for two days. This happened during the Cuban Crisis. With the unit down, the crews went to other units in the BN as relief personnel. Do I believe this happened? Absolutely, I do. One reason is that I was told about a fire in the IFC area the year before I arrived and they didn't go into specifics- again, it's hearsay. But I haven't found anything about it yet, still looking. There was a small brush fire about 75 yards outside the launcher area outer fence, it burned about 50 yards but that was in 1968.

Just recently I read an account from a man who lived in Roland Heights then who wrote that as kids they would hike up to LA-29. He said the “Air Force” personnel would let them in and they’d play pool in the day-room. In fact, if kids hiked up there we would let them in the Admin area and take them to the day room and give them refreshments, but we were ARMY, NOT AIR FORCE.

I read a story from an officer that contends the siren was never used for unannounced drills and only one time, at any place and at any time was Battle Stations ever sounded and that was in the Yom Kipper war in Oct ‘73. He was wrong on both accounts.  On many occasions both in Germany and stateside the siren would announce an unannounced Ops check, and believe me, there was many a siren wake-up in the middle of the night. Also in Germany there was a Battle Stations (“Blazing Skies, this is not a drill”) announced. There was a Russian plane in our area and we were to shoot it down. The reason we didn’t is another story. I will say this, the higher commands wanted to know why we didn’t. I didn’t hear any more about it. But I know it happened and so do my fellow crewmen, for we lived it.

A-1-56 Brea, California, on top of the Puente Hills, was the unit I chose to work at. It had been invaded by rattle snakes, tarantulas and Japanese beetles. We were always vigilant for fires. There was wind, rain, fog, heat, cold. There were cowboys rounding up cattle and there was a wonderful view of the San Gabriel Valley. It was a very peaceful place to be. Really, even on duty days, I always thought it was kind of easy going.

I loved Germany, but it didn’t hold a candle to LA-29. It is very sad to think LA-29 had a glorious existence and very few knew it was there. When that siren wailed, we answered and never failed.

I would like to thank the following people and organizations for their help and information:

  • Gary Colon LA-29 A-1-56
  • Alvin (Butch) Ball LA-29 A-1-56
  • Juan “TJ” Tejeda  LA-04 D-1-56
  • Pharraoh  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebx-w2pH1r4&t=330s
  • Mauricio Alanis  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZL_-b7ntNQU
  • Cold War:LA http://www.coldwarla.com/
  • The Civil Defense Museum in Allen, Texas  for giving me permission to use their pictures of the Nike Site in Denton, Texas
  • Mark Morgan for letting us use his report of LA-29
  • The Historic California Post, Camp, Stations and Airfields for making information available online to the general public.
  • More about site LA-29:

    SITE VISITMark Morgan takes a walk up the hill to site LA-29

    ABOUT LA-29A brief history of the acquisition of land for site LA-29 and the disposition of the site after decomissioning

    ROCKY STOVALLRocky Stovall tells more stories and describes experiences that differ from statements found elsewhere on NikeMissile.org