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The Myth of the Bomarc

Now that the City has removed the last physical reminder of the Cold War from Lee Park, it safe to examine the story of the Bomarc missile.
Now that the City has removed the last physical reminder of the Cold War from Lee Park, it safe to examine the story of the Bomarc missile. The name ‘Bomarc’ derives from Boeing and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Centre, not from the motel on highway near the former missile site. The airframe of the missile perched for many years atop a stand in Lee Park at the foot of the overpass in North Bay, was a simplistic-looking weapon of war that reminded residents that we were once at the forefront of the line of defence for North America. At least, that is what our political masters told us.

The idea behind the Bomarc missile was that the liquid fuelled rocket could launch at two minutes notice, ignite its ramjet engine and fly at supersonic speed towards a fleet of attacking Russian bombers and detonate a warhead, either a 1,000 pound conventional warhead or a 7-10 kiloton atomic bomb, in the proximity of the bombers, destroying them utterly. This, the Americans told Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was far superior to attacking the bombers with the Avro Arrow fighter-interceptor. Dief cancelled the Arrow and bought into the American plan. Except that Dief did not want nuclear warheads on any of the missiles in Canada. He had this mistaken idea that the fallout from nuclear explosions landing on Canadians was not a good thing.

JFK thought he could tell Canada what to do and if Dief would not heel, he would arrange for someone else to take orders north of the border. John Diefenbaker did not like threats from the US President who said he could have him removed from office in the next election. Dief lost, Pearson won and the 26 missiles at the North Bay site began receiving their nuclear warheads on the night of December 31, 1963. At first, the local politicians tried to deny the presence of nuclear warheads in our backyard but the truth was soon out and protesters picketed the missile base on Highway 11 north. The missile base, perched on the side of Highway 11, was neatly disguised as mounds of earth to fool the Russians.

When Pierre Trudeau replaced Pearson as Prime Minister, he cancelled the nuclear warhead program and sent the bombs back to the United States. This was just before the Americans admitted that the missile was useless against other missiles and dropped the program altogether. The rocket bodies stayed for a few years but then were gradually sent back to the States where they were used as target drones or dismantled.

The Bomarc missiles were never used in actual combat, and it was just as well. The initial liquid fuel that got the weapon airborne had range limitations and its radar that tracked the incoming bombers was primitive. Guided by the SAGE operation, the rockets may have been close enough for a proximity blast, assuming the Russians did not have jamming equipment that disrupted the radar. The missiles were eventually fitted with a solid fuel system that extended the range but any nuclear blast would still be over Canadian soil. Propaganda about the effectiveness of the Bomarc was wearing thin by the time the missiles were cancelled in 1971.

Ever since we began throwing and slinging things at each other, there has been a fascination with weaponry and indeed, there was some historic value in the idea of putting an old Bomarc missile on display in the city to show the part we played in the Cold War. Assured by the military and the City council that the airframe we would have perched on a cement stand, a few feet above the heads of our children in Lee Park, had never carried a nuclear warhead, but was a ‘spare’. We put the missile on display as part of our history.

Time, weather and pigeons eventually took their toll on the finish of the airframe and it was time for a fresh coat of paint on the missile. Some suspicious people still worried that the device might be radioactive and wanted it out of the city. Others wanted the symbol of the Cold War to remain on display. The inconvenient truth came out: there was a good chance the airframe was radioactive, not ‘they’ assured us from the nuclear warhead but from something called thoriated magnesium. This compound was used in welding the airframe and containing Thorianite, was indeed radioactive. We returned the ‘slightly’ radioactive display to the United States and the stand of spruce trees now hides nothing but our embarrassment.

There were several myths about the Bomarc missiles in North Bay. First that they were never armed with nuclear warheads, second that the one we had on display was ‘clean’. The third was the myth that the missile ever worked as the Americans claimed. Tests of the first model were ‘inconclusive’. The improved version was much better, or so military people told Americans, Canadians, and of course, the Russians. The lie convinced the Russians and I suppose that was the success of the Bomarc. These are the same folk who claimed the Patriot missiles in Gulf War I were shooting down Scuds when in fact their effective hit rate was about 3%. Now they tell us how accurate their modern missiles are in fighting the Taliban and reducing collateral damage. Perhaps what they say is true. Perhaps it is another Bomarc myth.

Myth or not, we scrapped the Arrow and ended up with a Voodoo fighter – a less than spectacular aircraft. That is the aircraft on the pedestal (in need of much refurbishing) which greets visitors at North Bay – the former home of Bomarc missiles.