Dennis Poulakis of Port Charlotte, Fla. served in the U.S. Army’s North American Air Defense Command in the ’60s.
He was a computer programmer for a Nike-Hercules ground-to-air guided missile battery protecting the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. area from Soviet strategic bombers carrying hydrogen bombs to targets in the U.S. during the “Cold War.” Fortunately for all of us he was never called into action.
“Our missiles were a last-ditch attempt to stop a Soviet bomber attack and protect our cities,” the 73-year-old local resident explained. “Any Soviet bomber that made it through the ‘Dew Line,’ the radar network protecting us from enemy attackers flying into Alaska from Russia, we would have brought them down.
“What most civilians in the United States didn’t know at that time is that there were four Nike-Hercules missile batteries protecting most of this country’s major cities,” Poulakis said “The battery I was in was one of four protecting Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. area. My job was to send the computer information to the missile that would guide it to its target.
“My battery was in a van inside a massive concrete shelter with reinforced walls three or four feet thick. There was also a series of heavy, steel doors protecting us from an enemy hydrogen bomb. The bunker would withstand anything but a direct hit ,” he said.
“If a swarm of Soviet bombers got through to the United States we had the capability of firing a single missile that would take them all out with one shot. My computer would compute where the bombers were, fire a missile in front and above them and explode. The enemy bombers would fly into the impact area and it would take them all out at once.”
During the three years Poulakis served as the computer programmer for the missile battery the Spec-5 never had to put the defensive rockets to use. The closest he came was an annual training exercise in Texas.
“We actually fired the Nike-Hercules for practice at a drone. It was a sight to see when it went off. It was scary. Our shot brought down the drone,” he said. “Those missiles were extremely reliable and accurate.”
Although he never fired a missile for real, he took part in a number of practice runs with Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber pilots. The bombers would be the aggressors and Poulakis and his missile battery would try to shoot them down in mock attacks.
“The SAC bomber crews would conduct a mock bombing run over Minneapolis-St. Paul. The B-52 bomber crews would use all sorts of measures to try and fool our radar — aluminum chaff, or they might try to jam our RADAR.
“I’m happy to say none of these bombers ever got through. We shot them all down with our missiles, figuratively speaking,” he said. “When we had a ‘Hot Battery,’ during one of these mock missions, it was a hectic time. We would be at the controls all week-long, 24-7. If a missile was called for we had a short amount of time to get it out of its silo and ready to fire.
“I didn’t like the Army when I was in basic at Fort Jackson, but once I got to my duty station and became a missile programer I loved my job,” he said more than 50 years later. “It was the Army that got me out of the Pittsburgh area and away from the steel mills that were dying in the late ‘60s.
“When I got out of the service in ’67 the Vietnam War was going full bore. I joined the union and became a Teamster. I worked in the wholesale food industry. I was involved in shipping and receiving fresh food at a big warehouse in Minneapolis, “ he said. “It worked very well for me because it was a union job that paid well and had a retirement program.”
Poulakis retired to Port Charlotte in 2000. He has three grown children: John, Jeremy and Jeannette.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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