By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - In October 1962, as fears of mushroom clouds and radioactive fallout gripped the United States in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, a battery of anti-ballistic missiles near Miami stood as the nation's first line of defense against nuclear attack.
Half a century later, the missile base is still there, in the middle of the marshy Everglades, but the missiles are long gone.
Now, to mark the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis, students at a Miami aviation school are restoring one of the original Nike Hercules missiles once tipped with a nuclear warhead and aimed at Cuba.
The United States and Cuba remain ideological foes to this day, and Florida is home to tens of thousands of Cubans who fled the island after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, but tensions have cooled down considerably as memories fade.
The students realize the decommissioned missile was once part of a historic event, but confess to knowing little about one of the momentous episodes of the Cold War.
"I just know it was part of the Cuban missile crisis, but I haven't researched it," said Abraham Hidalgo, 17, one of the students at George T. Baker Aviation School.
The 41-foot (12.5-metre), surface-to-air Nike Hercules missile was previously stored in a U.S. Army depot in Alabama, covered in dust and spider webs. A flatbed truck hauled it down Interstate-95 to the school next to Miami International Airport.
For the last two months, students have been working to restore the 5-ton missile to near-original condition; sanding wings, replacing sheet metal and repainting the U.S. Army markings. Its final destination is Everglades National Park, where it will be installed at an abandoned Nike missile base.
The 13-day missile crisis began on October 16, 1962, when then-President John F. Kennedy first learned the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba, barely 90 miles off the Florida coast.
After secret negotiations between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the United States agreed not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles from the island.
'HEARD SOMETHING ABOUT CHE'
"The irony is a lot of these kids are Cuban," said George T. Baker principal Sean Gallagan. "And if this missile was used as it was intended, a lot of these kids wouldn't be here."
Samuel Robles, 16, said he did not know a lot about the incident but "heard something about Che Guevara on the History Channel," referring to the Argentine-born revolutionary who fought in the 1959 revolution.
In 1962, there were four Nike missile bases in south Florida, each armed with 18 Hercules missiles ready to intercept a Soviet attack from Cuba, recalled Charles Carter, 66, an Army veteran who served at the bases for three years in the 1960s.
"We were the first line of defense the Russians would have had to take out before they could attack the rest of the country," said Carter, who has spent 10 years working on the restoration project with the help of Everglades park officials.
Military use of the Everglades site ended in 1979 and the facility, known as HM69 Nike Missile Base, was turned over to the National Park Service, which offers visitor tours in the winter months.
Since the site lies within a national park, the base is almost unchanged since its closure, including the three missile "barns," a missile assembly building, barracks and a guard dog kennel.
The refurbished Nike Hercules is due to be housed in one of the barns and will be officially unveiled on October 20. Carter hopes to restore some of the buildings as well, including the missile Control Room and the radar towers that kept watch for an attack.
During the Cold War, the United States was dotted with Nike sites - named after the Greek goddess of victory - strategically located near cities as part of a national air defense system.
Most have disappeared or been converted into other public uses, including an immigration detention facility in Florida, a golf course in Illinois and an elementary school in Kansas.
Commemoration events marking the anniversary are scheduled across the country, including an exhibition at the National Archives in Washington titled "To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," featuring secretly recorded White House tapes of Kennedy and his advisers as they sought to avert a nuclear war.
One of the reasons those anniversaries are important is that "they serve as a flashpoint" for people who do not remember or were not alive, said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
A handful of events are taking place across Miami - an exile home to many of the Cubans who fled communist rule on the island - including a panel discussion at the local history museum and the University of Miami.
"I think there was more fear and frenzy here than anywhere because we were so close to it," said Paul George, a professor at Miami Dade College and historian at the HistoryMiami museum.
But the "Kennedy years for students are kind of a dim thing. ... I teach history and I see it every day," he added.
(Additional reporting and editing by David Adams; Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Cooney)