By Alec Dubro
It’s time for my personal Cold War confession: I was a child soldier in the Cold War.
In a nearly forgotten corner of that global war, thousands of American civilians of all ages volunteered for to work in a nationwide network of sky surveillance. Enough years have elapsed that I can now admit that I was one of them. It was a bellicose, paranoid time and although I’m a little hesitant to admit it, I more than willingly spent time on the front lines against Soviet Communism.
From 1956 to 1957, I worked in plain clothes for the US Air Force. More precisely, for the Ground Observer Corps. I have a feeling even my hard-left friends will forgive me, though, because at the time I was 11 or 12 years old.
I volunteered to scan the skies for intruding Soviet bombers, but I don’t think I’m pretty sure I never actually saw one. Instead, as we were instructed to do, I noted all overhead aircraft and called them in. I’d like to think that if a Soviet Bison or Bear bomber appeared I would have had the presence of mind to report it. But I never got the chance.
But I wasn’t alone in my frustration. According to a February 2006 article in Air Force Magazine by Bruce D. Callander:
They were teenagers and housewives, manning search towers and bare rooftops, equipped only with binoculars. Through the war years and most of the1950s, GOC members spotted and plotted the movements of potentially hostile aircraft. These almost always turned out to be friendly, but they might well have been intruders bent on mounting a surprise attack.
I had no idea there were so many of us, though. Said Callander, “Over the years of the Cold War, more than 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts and 73 filter centers.”
My own search tower was a hastily built, uninsulated two-story observation post on the grounds of Weller Road Elementary School in Wheaton, Maryland. The school is still there, renovated and blissfully unaware of its role in civilian spying.
But in the fifties it was a time of excitement and great self-importance. When we saw a plane, we called the operator and said, “Aircraft Flash, Whitehall 7–5808!” (always with an exclamation point). When connected to the right operator, we told her (always her) how many engines it had, if we could see it well enough and its location and direction. I remember that many operators were confused and some were annoyed to hear a child yelling Aircraft Flash, but I had my orders.
The commander of the operation was a bluff, hard drinker named Captain Griggs. I got the job through connections; Mrs. Griggs was my fifth grade teacher. I got whatever shift I wanted, but then, probably others did, too. So innocent was that time that I remember signing up for a 6 a.m. shift and leaving the house alone to walk in the dark to the tower. Apparently, my politically liberal parents were intimidated enough sharing a town with Senator McCarthy that they thought a communist-fighter in the house was good insurance. Or at least they didn’t stop me.
The attraction of the Ground Observer Corps, besides targeting Soviet invaders, was having a clubhouse where I could go with my friends. I don’t remember us talking about the Cold War, mostly about what was going on in the school that lay a hundred feet away. Captain Griggs encouraged us in this regard. One time he told us confidentially that we could bring girls up to the post and, “I don’t care if you screw them.” Not bloody likely, since none of us were over 13 and this was the mid-50s.
Whether the post closed while I was still in the corps or I simply lost interest I don’t remember. I know that we were put out of business by the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and other high-tech improvements. But those didn’t rally the civilians to the cause.
Anyway, it was over. When I left, all I had was my silver Air Force wings I received after 25 hours of service. I don’t know what I did with them, but I noticed they’re available on eBay for $4.99.
Don’t ever say the Cold War wasn’t fun.
Alec Dubro is a Washington-based free-lance writer whose career spans from sixties rock to organized labor.