Pythons, Mysteries And Missiles: Fundraiser Celebrates Hidden Everglades History

Feb 17, 2017

A hidden military base. Python catchers from India. Galápagos tortoises and a world-renowned herpetologist. It sounds like an Indiana Jones movie.

But it's all tied to a mystery of the Everglades -- one that will be on display during an event in Homestead on Saturday, Feb. 25.

A 1968 photograph of radar towers at the A Battery missile base in Everglades National Park.
Credit National Parks Service, via Flickr

The event is a benefit for the Alpha Battery missile base site in Everglades National Park. That base was built to defend the United States against possible attacks by the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the Alpha Battery missile base is open for tours, but the park needs money to keep those tours going. So on Feb. 25, the public will have the chance to tour the base and to meet some big names in the reptile world -- all in order to raise funds.

"It’s going to be one of the most unique, amazing events that we’ve ever organized," said Wayne Rassner, chairman of the board of the South Florida National Parks Trust. "The cause is wonderful -- keeping history alive, hopefully, so we can learn what to avoid in the future."

What to avoid, meaning, the tensions of the Cold War years that led to the base's construction. 

Completed in 1964, the Alpha Battery base was one of four bases built in South Florida to launch "Nike Hercules" anti-aircraft missiles if Russia were to attack the U.S. from Cuba. The others were at what's now the Krome Detention Center, and in Miramar and Key Largo. At the time, South Florida residents -- including Rassner, who was born and raised in Coral Gables -- were largely unaware of the bases' purpose.

"I knew there was something out there," Rassner said, recalling trips into the Everglades with his father, brother and Boy Scout troop, "but I didn't think of asking what it was.

"People had no idea we had a missile base sitting in the middle of Everglades National Park."

In this 1965 photograph, soldiers load a Nike anti-aircraft missile onto rails.
Credit U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal Archive via Flickr

At the event, the public will be able to hear from veterans who were stationed at South Florida's four Nike missile bases. One of those veterans is Joe Wasilewski, who served as a sentry. Today, Wasilewski is a world-renowned herpetologist who's opening his private reptile collection in Homestead for the fundraiser.

The event has two parts: a tour of the base beginning at 9 a.m., and a gathering at Wasilewski's house that starts at 1 p.m. and features tortoises, snakes and a Eurasian eagle owl. Guests include members of the Irula tribe from India, who are in South Florida for two months to hunt pythons in the Everglades.

Tickets start at $75 for kids and $125 for adults, and include drinks and food truck fare. Proceeds go to the missile base tour program and to cover the costs of missile base veterans in attendance.

Details and reservations are available at www.nikemissile.eventbrite.com or by calling 305-665-4769.

This post has been edited to include the correct date of the fundraiser: it is Saturday, Feb. 25.