When Farmers Were Spotters: Farming the Homefront During World War II

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| June 2010

To borrow from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:   Hardly a man is now alive, who remembers ... the airplane spotters of early World War II.

During the early 1940s, U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) officers had seen how effective the British Aircraft Warning Service was against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and wanted to organize a similar program in this country. A volunteer civilian observer corps could not only save millions of dollars, but also free up military manpower for use on the battlefronts.

A 1942 field manual states that “the A.A.F. Ground Observer Corps (GOC) is an essential part of air defense” and “the volunteer civilian observers who staff the (GOC) are appointees of the Fighter Command of the Army Air Forces, reporting directly to the Army and under Army supervision.”

The mission of the GOC was to track all aircraft within a predetermined area so that the USAAF would have notice of enemy aircraft before substantial damage could be inflicted by bombing or strafing. Of course, it wasn’t enough to just spot aircraft: Each sighting needed to be identified as to number and type; single or multiple engine; bomber, fighter or transport; friendly or enemy; and include direction of travel and altitude, if possible.

Manning the observation post

When I was a kid, my grandfather owned two adjoining farms south of Darlington in western Pennsylvania. My family shared the larger farmhouse (which was built by my great-grandfather in 1850 to replace a log cabin) with my grandfather and grandmother. The Townsend family lived in the smaller house on the other farm and included my aunt, uncle and older cousin, Peg.

The GOC was organized by the USAAF before the Japanese attack on Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. Peg Townsend recorded in her diary on Oct. 4, 1941: “We had a meeting about the observation post. They said it is a sure thing that we will have bombings soon.”

The Townsends had volunteered to host an observation post (OP) and it was established in the front room of their home. The OP wasn’t elaborate, just a small table holding a telephone (on the party line, of course), a set of binoculars, a pad of “flash message forms” and a book full of instructions on identification of the various airplanes one might see overhead. This book contained both photographs and silhouette drawings of all known warplanes of U.S., British, German, Italian and Japanese air forces, and was fascinating to a small boy like myself.