Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Plane spotters kept eyes to skies back in the '50s

The current posturing over the use of nuclear weapons does bring back memories from the 1950s.

I vividly recall the air raid drills in Pittsfield grade schools. We learned how to duck under our desks and at times file into the hallway and sit against the walls. Following World War II, the country remained on alert for many years for the possibility of foreign invasions and nuclear warfare.

Another related memory I have of postwar vigilance is on numerous occasions I remember seeing a wooden two-story tower on Pittsfield's Victory Hill in the housing development that was replaced by Morningside Heights. My parents explained this structure was used for people to spot enemy airplanes. The tower was managed by the Ground Observer Corps under the leadership of the Army Air Force. The Ground Observer Corps started during WWII and trained over 1.5 million civilians to man 14,000 posts. Volunteers used binoculars or naked eyes to spot potential invading German or Japanese planes. This program ended in 1944 with those countries no longer being a threat.

However, five years later the Air Force revived the corps as our country now had strained relations with the Soviet Union. By 1950, radar systems were introduced for the detection of aircraft.

But radar was not able to detect low-flying planes very well, and there was really no substitute for the human eye. In just a few years the country had over 16,000 observation posts including ones in Lee, Great Barrington, Hinsdale, North Adams and Pittsfield.

Pittsfield's Victory Hill site began in October 1950. The first meeting of new volunteers was held in the Victory Hill Clubhouse. Maj. Carmen Massimiano presented a slide program on identifying planes to a gathering of 36 eager volunteers. Donald E. Farr headed up the Pittsfield spotters, who typically put in two- to six-hour shifts.

The training included the use of estimation templates that were printed on transparent sheets. With these sheets, a volunteer spotter could gauge the type of aircraft, its altitude and its distance.

The government established a complex system to communicate between towers and with "filter" centers within regions to support the spotters' work. Volunteers recorded and relayed information about any planes spotted or heard. In 1950 and again in 1951, the Air Force, Navy and National Guard provided a simulation exercise for spotters using 200 planes.

In addition, 1,000 Civil Air Patrol aircraft were also used to simulate enemy aircraft. Volunteer spotters in all the New England states and eight other states took part watching for and reporting the aircraft that included commercial planes. At one point over 400,000 volunteers were plane spotters in the early 1950s.

By the mid-1950s, the Ground Observer Corps had trouble recruiting enthusiastic volunteers. People felt somewhat safer then and were more distracted by the greater postwar prosperity. In 1952 Pittsfield tried to recruit 150 volunteers to man its tower in shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but had to settle for a third of that number.

As time passed, confidence in the program dwindled and the Air Force found coordinating the volunteers, equipping the stations and providing the communication to be far too costly. As radar systems became more advanced, the need for civilian manned sites was less important.

Also the higher flying and faster jets made the human eye a less effective method for spotting planes. The Ground Observer Corps came to an end in 1958.

The threat of enemy attack was still somewhat prevalent as some people had constructed and stocked fallout shelters in the Berkshires. However the volunteer plane spotter with binoculars and a telephone to report an enemy plane was no longer practical. The unique tower on Victory Hill remained for a while unused before being dismantled along with all of the housing on Victory Hill that was razed or relocated in 1965.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.

Sketch of the Victory Hill plane spotting tower next to the community house

Hinsdale's plane spotting tower

Plane spotting identification chart


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