Growing Up In Waterford, PA


Ground Observer Corps (GOC)
by the late Herb Walden

Fort LeBoeuf Class of 1956

The 1950's were strange times and a little scary, too. I was in the process of being a teenager, which is a little strange in itself no matter what the decade. The scary parts were communism, the cold war, the Korean conflict, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

Nuclear war was the biggest worry as far as we kids were concerned. The U.S. and the Soviets were testing atomic bombs all over the place, and we were just beginning to learn the long-term dangers of radioactive fallout.

This, then, was also the era of the fallout shelter. In case of a nuclear attack, folks throughout the country were building or installing shelters and stocking them with water, nonperishable foods, and other necessities --- enough to last a couple of weeks or until it was safe to come out. Other folks said, "Come out to what?", and trusted to luck instead of a shelter.

Radar was not developed to the point that it is today, and low-flying airplanes could sneak under it. The worry in our area was that airplanes carrying atomic bombs might come in low over Lake Erie from Canada to strike major manufacturing centers like Pittsburgh. (I have no idea how these nuclear weapon planes were supposed to get into Canada in the first place, but that didn't concern me at the time).

The U.S. Air Force developed a program using civilian aircraft spotters to fill in the gaps left by radar, (similar to what was done in World War II). The organization was the Ground Observer Corps (G.O.C.).

Erie's G.O.C. post was located on the roof of the old Richford Hotel. Tom Hart belonged to this group, which was fitting --- Tom loved airplanes and, I think, had been spotting them all his life, airborne and on the ground. One night when Tom was on duty, Ted Barton and I drove over to observe the observer. I was enthralled with the whole idea and was absolutely thrilled when an airplane went over and Tom logged it and called it in! It was also great fun to run around on the hotel roof. That, however, is beside the point.

Not long afterward, (in 1954), a G.O.C. post was established in Waterford. A few other kids and I joined right away. Our observation post was an 8-foot-by-8 foot building located in a cornfield on the very crest of Brickyard Hill. One or two of us would man the post for a couple hours at a time.

The actual duty went something like this: When an airplane was spotted, it was entered in a log. The entry included type of plane, (single or multi engine or jet), altitude (high, low, etc.), direction of travel, and time. Then we went to the telephone and dialed the operator, and when she answered, we said the magic words: "AIRCRAFT FLASH!"

The operator connected us to the Pittsburgh Filter Center. We'd read our log entry, and the worker there would locate our aircraft on a huge tabletop map. Our code name for the location of our post was "Lima Metro Zero Five Black." I know that sounds like classified information, but it couldn't have been --- they would never have told me!

If a reported aircraft did not match up with a filed flight plan, the Pittsburgh people would notify the air base at Youngstown, Ohio, and fighter jets would be scrambled to identify the airplane in question.

This happened with one of our reports, or at least, we think it did.

We spotted and called in what, at the time, we thought was a routine report. However, the Pittsburgh center asked us to repeat the report. We did. And again. We did. This was very unusual. Then we were asked to stay on the line. In a couple of minutes, a man came on saying he was General So-and-So or Colonel So-and-So or something important, and asked for our report again. He hung up abruptly.

It wasn't long before two fighter jets, F-86's, (I think), came over our post. Holy Cow! Gee Whiz! And other expletives!

It may have been coincidence, but it certainly made for a stimulating afternoon. We never heard of any enemy planes being shot down over Kearsarge or Union City or anywhere like that, so I guess it turned out alright.

We had a small problem at Brickyard Hill: Our telephone was on a party line. We had been told by the air force Sargent who oversaw our territory that if the line was busy when we needed to call Pittsburgh, we were to interrupt by saying "aircraft flash" and politely ask for the line. This worked well for a while. The other folks on the line were very courteous. But as time went on, and they got tired of being interrupted, they became less courteous. Even when we tried to explain that we could be saving them from the experience of seeing a mushroom cloud forming on their patio thanks to that little Cessna up there, well, they got downright nasty!

We finally quit breaking in on the line, and would wait until it was free, reporting so many minutes delay.

The factor that contributed mostly to this situation was that every airplane flying anywhere east of the Mississippi flew over Waterford. Or so it seemed. Add to that our proximity of the Erie airport, from which came at least a million Piper Cubs every weekend, and, well, we were on the phone a lot! Eventually, the air force told us to ignore all single engine, prop-driven aircraft. I guess they figured the Russians would not be likely to use one of those Piper Cubs to deliver an A-bomb. Made sense to me.

Our problem was solved in a rather unique way. In April 1955, we had a terrific wind storm in and around Waterford. Our little G.O.C. post was blown over and rolled around in the cornfield where it stood. Had stood. Had standed. Used to be.

By this time, I had worked my way up to "Post Supervisor," and somehow I managed to get permission from a whole bunch of people to reallocate the post. So one Saturday, Bud Owens and I disassembled the little building, which was still upside down in the cornfield. We loaded the whole thing into my old Pontiac coupe, which we converted into a truck of sorts by removing the backseat, Through the trunk, it was a straight shot all the way to the front seat.

The building was reassembled next to the water tank on Cherry Street. And when our new telephone was installed, it was on a private line!

Our post was manned entirely by teenagers, I guess the adults thought the G.O.C. was a kid organization, like the Boy Scouts or something. Anyway, none ever applied. Our kids did a good job, too. Oh, there were lots of horseplay and fooling around and probably something I never knew about, (or wanted to), but when an airplane came overhead, it was all business. And when we could go on a 24-hour alert, (a practice drill), our post was always one of the top rated.

In the autumn of 1955, I got too busy being a senior at the brand new Fort LeBoeuf High School, and gradually dropped out of the Ground Observer Corps. But I did earn my wings and 500-hours award. A few years later, radar improved, and the G.O.C. was no longer needed.

You know, it sometimes seems like a dream, those turbulent days in the fifties. Thankfully, it's a good dream. It could have been a nightmare!

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