Pondering the Past, Tales Lost in Time: Cold War Ground Observers Corps

This meeting occurred in the home of Mr. Bert Emerson director of Marengo Civil Defense in the 1955.Left to right are Bert Emerson, Harold Hyde, US Air Force Sgt. Thompson, and John Gatenby. The men were discussing recruiting volunteers for Marengo’s Ground Observation Corps. Some of the best history resides inside of peoples’ heads. It’s the experiences and memories that we have, but don’t write down. Every day we go through life and perform tasks or participate in activities, and rarely are those experiences recorded. And why should we? It would take valuable time out of our already busy lives, and besides no one may be interested – that is until many years later when people try to understand the history of how things were in the days-gone-by. Recently after getting a haircut at Bill’s Barbershop downtown Marengo, the proprietor Bill Courier and I started chatting. I was looking out the window at the old buildings across the street, and asked him some questions about his memories of old-time Marengo. Bill was sorting through the information filed in the memory bank in his head, and asked me if I remembered the “ground observer” tower that was located in the vicinity of the current municipal parking lot. I answered no (because I wasn’t born yet), and Bill proceeded to tell me that as a child during the Cold War he was part of the ground observers that monitored the skies over Marengo for hostile Russian aircraft. I was intrigued and couldn’t get home fast enough to research the subject. The official name of the program was the Ground Observer Corps and it fell under the auspices of the United States Air Force. The program was initially active during World War II, and it’s estimated that 1.5 million volunteers scanned the American skies along the coasts for German and Japanese aircraft. As World War II came to a conclusion the program was moth balled. It wasn’t too long after World War II that the United States drifted into a Cold War with the Soviet Union. New fears of attack crept into the lives of Americans, and in February of 1950 Lt. General Ennis C. Whitehead of the Continental Air Command recommended that the Ground Observer Corps be reinstated. The first mention of a Ground Observer Corps in the Marengo-Union area appeared in the July 13, 1950, edition of the Marengo Republican-News. The simple ad for volunteers read, “Wanted Men and women in Union for U.S. Government ground observer corps – aircraft warning service. For information see or phone W.D. Force.” My research yielded no additional information on the Union program. According to Air Force Magazine by 1951 over 200,000 Americans volunteered for newly formed Ground Observer Corps. The Ground Observer Corps was organized to fill the then existing gaps in the electronic surveillance systems which were in the process of being developed. The first mention of the Ground Observer Corps in Marengo was in the July 15, 1954, edition of the Marengo Republican-News. The article that ran in that issue announced that Harold Hyde was seeking local citizens to become airplane spotters. The Ground Observer Corps in Marengo was a branch of the Marengo Civilian Defense. The article mentioned that nine people had already volunteered, but another twelve were needed. Recruiting continued into the following year. In November of 1955 the Marengo Republican-News reported that Sergeant Thompson of the Air Force attended an American Legion meeting and discussed the training of the Ground Observation Corps members. Films were shown, and any questions were referred to a Mrs. Hetty Leonard who was identified as the supervisor. The article reported that the age of the corps members varied from fourteen to eighty years old, and that the only qualifications were “eyesight and hearing.” The story also mentioned that nine boys from Explorer Troop 150 would participate in the corps. It appears that the program was up and running before the November 1955 meeting because at 6:55 a.m., on September 10, 1955, Chief Observer Harold Hyde was on duty at the ground observers post perched atop the VFW building when he spotted an unidentified flying object. Hyde immediately reported the suspicious aircraft to the Filter Center in Chicago, who quickly dispatched two waves of two military jets over the skies of Marengo. The trained pilots alleviated any concerns of a Soviet attack when they identified the object as a “scientific balloon.” The Marengo Republican-News described the balloon as “flying high wide and handsome and free in the sky overhead.” As the Cold War continued the US worked on bolstering its electronic defenses, and the observation posts and filtering centers were replaced by early warnings systems with names like the Pinetree Line and the DEW line. During its existence the Ground Observation Corps program mustered approximately 800,000 observers who monitored US skies from 16,000 observation posts. With all of the sophisticated monitoring systems that were are used to today we may chuckle at such a simplistic system, but according to the Air Force Magazine, “the US government and public took the threat seriously.” Thank you Bill for sharing a memory and helping to unearth some Marengo history!