Monday, September 28, 2015

Cold War: When Locals Watched The Sky For Russians

01SkywatchRecruitStickerIn the 1950s northern New Yorkers had war on their minds. Thousands of average citizens put television, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Corvettes aside over concerns about World War III. Fresh on everyone’s minds was World War II, but the U.S. was right back into a mess in 1950 in Korea, where a three-year fight became one of the building blocks of the Cold War. On it’s ground floor were the everyday North Country folks who joined Operation Skywatch.

The program was an offshoot of a civilian defense system, the Ground Observer Corps, itself a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thousands of towns and villages hosted observation posts where citizens manned elevated locations to watch for invading German or Japanese airplanes.

The post-war years emphasized defensive readiness, supported by radar networks based on the latest technology. But gaps existed in the coverage, allowing low-flying aircraft to enter the U.S. undetected. To limit the chances of that happening, Operation Skywatch was established in 1952 in coastal and northern states, with a focus on the Canadian border, putting the Adirondack region at ground zero.

The plan was for thousands of posts manned by volunteers, each working two hours a week, or even just two hours a month, with a goal of coverage 24/7. None other than President Harry Truman himself kicked off the program as “a common-sense precaution in which Americans can serve proudly… Our greatest hopes for peace lie in being so strong and well prepared that our enemies will not dare attack.”

Supporting the President’s statement was an ominous radio spot that either encouraged or scared people into participating: “It may not be a very cheerful thought, but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers quite capable of destroying 89 cities in one raid… Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children?”

What caused the pressing need for such a system? Russia had “the bomb,” as it was called, and America was the obvious target. The 50s may have been fabulous, but they were also filled with fear.

An Albany staff sergeant urged Keeseville folks to step up and protect their country: “There is but one thought in the minds of the higher echelon of Russian government, and that is to bend free countries to their will… The little observation station next to Guy Beardsley’s home on Clinton Street could well be the source of throwing a monkey wrench into an invasion. Our government needs its operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

02 1956SkywatchAdADEThe first requirement for Operation Skywatch was elevated locations. Some towers from the World War II program were used, as were existing tall buildings like the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake, and the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, both of which hosted Skywatch stations on their roofs. Weather could be a detriment at sites like CVPH, where there was no protection from the elements.

Franklin County had nineteen posts, which were exposed to sometimes brutal weather conditions. Among the new posts constructed was a 28-foot tower built by volunteers on Lake Street in Saranac Lake. During a 1952 inspection, it was cited for the best record in the state among Skywatch sites. Folks there enjoyed comforts not available to most watchers, for according to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, “When finished, it will have rest quarters for workers, plate glass windows on all sides, and a skylight in the roof for unobstructed observation.”

In contrast, some rural locations featured ladders leading up to small, bare platforms of rough wood. Skywatchers at Turin in Lewis County temporarily used a volunteer’s porch while they constructed an observation tower. Enrollment from Turin and nearby Lyons Falls totaled 120, representing more than ten percent of their overall populations.

Those joining Operation Skywatch – housewives, laborers, community leaders, children – were provided instructions and sometimes equipped with binoculars to watch for aircraft. Sightings, including altitude, direction, and type of plane, were called in to one of several Air Defense Filter Centers (one was located at Albany). The information was assessed, and whenever deemed necessary, a jet was scrambled to check it out. Air Force interceptors were maintained on three-minute ready status.

Imagine the power placed in the hands of everyday civilians, providing information that could generate the launch of defensive aircraft. That capability filtered down to some North Country Boy Scout troops that participated in the program.

03 GroundObserversCorpsPin1950sSome places managed only intermittent coverage, while others, like Ticonderoga, operated continuously for more than five years. In many towns, hundreds of citizens signed up, surrendering family time to man outposts and watch for communist invaders. To encourage participation and recognize loyal volunteers, award ceremonies were held where training certificates and silver wings were bestowed, sometimes by a representative from one of New York’s filter centers. Through patriotism and participation, the program fostered a strong sense of community.

Operation Skywatch was gradually phased out in the late 1950s when improved technology precluded the need for human eyes on the skies. It was officially disbanded in January 1959.

Photos: A Skywatch recruiting sticker; advertisement, Adirondack Daily Enterprise (1956); Ground Observer’s Pin.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    Mr. Gooley, Thanks for that interesting article. I was away at college and working in my first jobs in those.days, and was unaware of that effort. But during World War II I remember watching for aircraft in Schroon Lake. There was a gazebo on top of Whitney Hill at the north end of the village. A phone line had been run up there and we were to report the direction and appearance of any planes flying over. Adults may have been involved as watchers but my memory is of doing it with fellow students from Schroon Lake Central School. I don’t recall ever seeing any airplanes.

  2. Tim Hubbard says:

    Thanks for that Lawrence. Never participated in that as I was too young (b. 1951). But it did bring back memories of traveling salesmen who would stop at our house and try to sell bomb shelters (taking advantage of that Cold War fear). That was real enough for me! We lived in a big brick house about halfway between Westport & Port Henry on 9N.

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