Cold War, Colder Architecture at The McGuire Air Force Base

In 1957, one of the most sophisticated computers in the world could be found at the McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County.

Photo courtesy of Andreas Feininger/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Cold War was at its height in 1957 when the Defense Department installed what was then one of the most sophisticated computers in the world at McGuire Air Force Base. The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense system was intended to give early warning of any Soviet attack.

“They put it in a huge concrete structure, maybe four stories high, that was like an above-ground bunker,” says McGuire base historian John Murphy. Data from various military sources was fed to the computer. “It had to be as secure as possible.”

From 1948 through the 1960s, McGuire was an East Coast home to all sorts of air command and defense systems. Through many of those years, several flight-interceptor wings operated out of the base in Burlington County. As they did their training exercises, mostly intercepting B-50 Superfortresses and other aircraft simulating Soviet Tupolev bombers, the planes roared over nearby towns, sometimes breaking the sound barrier. The sonic booms were ominous reminders that the Cold War could become hot at any moment.

In the late 1950s, the Defense Department sponsored a huge air show and military display at McGuire on the third Saturday in May in celebration of the newly created Armed Forces Day. As many as 400,000 people came to the base to watch, says Murphy.

As the Cold War wound down, McGuire’s role changed. For the last two decades, it has been a major Air Force refueling and airlift base on the East Coast, handling cargo, mail and personnel. In 2006, McGuire housed more than 1,800 Lebanese-American evacuees from the 2006 war in Lebanon; it supported relief efforts for hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012.

The SAGE computer was decommissioned in the 1960s, but, says Murphy, the concrete bunker is still there—just in case.

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