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.
When an observer saw or heard an airplane, he recorded as much information as could be ascertained about the craft on a flash message form. This included the number of planes, the model (if it could be determined), number of engines, altitude, whether actually seen or just heard, OP code name, direction of plane and distance from the OP, and direction the plane was headed. Thus, a typical message might read: 3 B-17s, high, seen, Code N, SW, 1, E.
That information was immediately phoned to an Army Filter Center, where it was plotted on a big board containing a map of the area. The information was compared to other reports and the plotted flight path was checked against known Army, Navy and civilian flights. The officer in charge then determined if the flight was friendly or enemy and, if the latter, ordered a response in fighter planes or anti-aircraft fire.
Filter centers were run by the Army Air Forces and staffed by both military personnel and civilian volunteers. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) provided many of the military plotters. OPs and filter centers were known as the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS), a loose alliance of the local civil defense authorities and the military.
Breaking into the party line
In our case, we didn’t have dial phones, so the first order of business was to see if the party line was clear and if not, to break into the conversation with the information that this was an emergency call. When the operator answered, the caller said, “Army Flash,” and gave his phone number, upon which the operator connected to the tracking center (which was probably in Pittsburgh, although I don’t know for certain). They answered with “Army, go ahead please,” and the observer said, “Flash,” read the message and the job was done. I remember one day when my aunt allowed me to phone in a sighting: Boy, was I proud!
In a diary entry dated June 26, 1942, Peg wrote: “Today we received word by mail that our O.P. must go on 24-hour duty at 8 a.m. on Monday, June 29.” Then, on June 29, she noted: “We went on O.P. duty at 8 sharp this morning.”
Of course, our two families couldn’t keep up a 24-hour watch for long, so several neighbors were recruited to take turns manning the binoculars. On Jan. 3, 1943, Peg recorded: “Sunday. Two neighbors came as observers. Got 25 armbands for observers yesterday.”
Blue armbands with embroidered gold wings supporting a white round Aircraft Warning Service insignia were issued to each observer. Small, silver wing pins and merit badges were issued as well.
Although the AWS may have had a certain feeling of make-believe in western Pennsylvania, most of the observers seem to have taken their duties seriously, at least at first. It was even more important on the West Coast and in Hawaii, where there was real threat from Japanese planes.
Actually, even in the West, there were very few enemy air raids against the U.S.: Enemy planes just didn’t have the range necessary to reach our shores. In October 1943, the GOC and the filter centers were taken off 24-hour basis and put into reserve, being activated after that only occasionally for tests and training, and completely deactivated on the continent in 1944 (I believe they continued on the Hawaiian islands until V-J Day).
The GOC had a song based on the Army Song, but all I remember of it is the line: “For it’s one bi high, and another we will spy, and call in our numbers loud and strong. …” There was a prayer, as well, that went: “Oh Lord, give us the ears to hear, the eyes to see, that Zero if he tries to hide among the clouds. And if he does come, give us the heart to forgive the poor misguided soul who holds the phone for insignificant gossip while we try in vain to get the warning through. Forgive the man whose time is all absorbed with pleasure, who can not find time to help us keep the watch, who sleeps complacently in the wee small hours of the morn while we must stand in the icy wind and rain on guard that he may sleep. Please find a way to give us just one more cup of coffee, just a little piece of meat or just another gallon of gas, but if there isn’t enough to go around, then give it all to our fighting men and just pass us the beans. We, too, can take it.”
The GOC was a good example of how nearly everyone was involved in the war effort in some way during World War II. My father was an air raid warden, and we kids collected tin foil and scrap metal and, in the fall, milkweed pods for kapok life jackets, and nearly everyone bought War Savings Bonds or Stamps. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.