As a young boy boating around Charleston Harbor in the 1960′s, I had to be careful to watch for the wakes of departing and returning Polaris missile submarines, called by the Navy… Fleet Ballistic Submarines or FBMs. The Cold War would change life in Charleston, South Carolina. New facilities for nuclear submarines at the Charleston Navy Base and a new facility for the storage of nuclear weapons and missiles.
The construction of a Polaris missile assembly facility near Charleston, South Carolina was approved on 30 September 1958. The missile was shipped there, assembled, checked out, and outloaded on FBMs or stored for future outloading. The facility was near Charleston, South Carolina, some 17 miles up the Cooper River from the Atlantic Ocean. The largely undeveloped pine forest and marsh site had been an Army ordnance depot during World War II. Being on the Cooper River provided access to direct loading of missiles on SSBNs. Some 36 magazines built by the Army during the 1940′s were modified and updated, and a large handling crane was installed at Pier Bravo of the Naval Ammunition Depot. The facility became known as the Naval Weapons Annex, and it was commissioned on 29 March 1960.
In July of the same year, the USS George Washington (SSBN-598), the first ballistic missile submarine, successfully launched two POLARIS A1 missiles while cruising submerged off Cape Canaveral. These were the first missiles that had been assembled and tested at the Naval Weapons Annex and then shipped to the Cape for loading aboard the USS George Washington (SSBN-598).
On 3 November 1960, the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) steamed into Charleston, South Carolina, and tied up at Naval Ammunition Depot’s Pier Bravo. At 5:15 p.m. that afternoon, the first tactical POLARIS A1 missile was loaded aboard the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) “without complications.” By 7 November 1960, all 16 missiles were in the submarine’s launch tubes, and the crew had begun initial checks of their newly-acquired “birds.”
As scheduled, the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) slipped from her berth about noon on 15 November 1960 and headed down the Cooper River channel to the Atlantic Ocean. The Naval Weapons Annex had passed its first boat-load test with flying colors.
Here is a video of a submarine launched Polaris.
Here is a Cold War newsreel of President Kennedy watching a launch of the Polaris missile and gives you a taste or look back at tensions with the Soviets in the early 1960′s. This newsreel aired two weeks before JFK’s assassination in Dallas.