These days our lives are often affected by preparations for and reactions to acts of terrorism – the threat of terrorists hijacking airplanes, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, armed gunmen walking into schools, businesses, and movie theaters. We are all vulnerable to these acts of violence – deadly and horrifying, but also localized in their effects. A recent, random comment from an e-mail correspondent reminded me of a much greater, more pervasive terror under which we Clarksonians have all lived, every day, for decades. Since the early 1950s, we have been vulnerable to attack by an enemy armed with nuclear weapons, and in the beginning the Village of Clarkson had a role in protecting the U.S. from this threat.
Imagine looking up into the 1950s skies and seeing a flight of Russian bombers, carrying atomic bombs, each capable of obliterating a city. Jetting in over the Arctic Circle, these enemy airplanes might drop their nuclear bombs on northern cities, potentially including Omaha, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, before they could be detected and stopped. In the 1950s that scenario was a real possibility, and the United States helped protect itself from a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack by expanding a program of civilian volunteers called the Ground Observer Corps (GOC).
The use of civilian observers to sound the alert about enemy aircraft goes back to WWI, when the British watched for German Zeppelins. Civilian ground observers really got cranked up during WWII, in England during the Blitz, and in coastal cities of the United States as an inexpensive and effective means of avoiding another Pearl Harbor. As the war wound down, so did the GOC ; it was dis-established in 1944. But it started up again in 1950, when Russia demonstrated that it possessed both a workable nuclear bomb and long-distance bombers to deliver it. One radio spot darkly announced “It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid…. Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today.” The Cold War GOC brought local Civil Defense agencies together with the military services. During the decade of the 1950s, more than 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts.
Clarkson was a proud participant in the GOC in the mid-1950s. Many citizens in town and countryside were involved, but it is so long ago that the memories of its organization and activities have faded. Synthesizing the bits and pieces of the observers’ recollections, our GOC program went something like this:
The Clarkson GOC was organized by the Clarkson Fire Department, and Lumir Prazak was the Fire Chief at that time. The adults who were involved took turns observing aircraft flying over the area only at night. They would gather at the new high school on the south end of Clarkson and lie on the lawn looking up at the night sky. Whenever a plane was observed, they would report the observation by telephone in the high school. A surprising number of aircraft were observed late at night, and the men reported the time and the direction of flights. Initially, the GOC was comprised of adult men – Al Dusatko, Lumir Prazak, Vince Prazak, Ron Vavrina, Slavy Vodehnal, Louis Pavel, Dick Moore, maybe Doc Odvarka were mentioned. There doesn’t seem to have been any adult women involved in watching the night skies.
Later, high school kids and even grade schoolers took their turns watching for enemy airplanes during daylight hours. Eleanor Sousek Loseke, Edie Kudrna Welch, Avis Studnicka Heithoff, Edith Novotny Nepper, Arlys Dolesh Wehrer, Robert Prazak, and Gene Cinfel were among the high school students who participated. Grade school observers included Bernice Studnicka Cada, Rich Neuhaus, Dennis Houfek, Tony Dusatko, and Bill Sixta. There were meetings at the school to give the students guidance and information. There was usually, but apparently not always, adult supervision of the juvenile GOC members.
Even the Girl Scouts got in on the action. Evelyn Zrust, troop leader of the Senior Girls Scouts, combined enemy plane identification (taught by Mike Hammond and Bob Jonas) with a first aid class. The girl scouts were given books for instruction and plane recognition; they met twice a month, and after passing a test they began observing, as a troop, on Sundays. At other times, the Girl Scouts were paired up and did 3 or 4-hour shifts on weekends.
In the beginning there was no building available; volunteers lay in the grassy area on the south side of the new high school (before it became a parking lot), and if they saw anything notable would go into the high school to phone it in. Later, a building was dragged or erected near the high school to house the observers. Initially, an old, windowless, cob-shed type of building was used that was perhaps 6’ X 8’ in size. It was propped up on the front to level it out, with a handrail across the front; there may have been a porch. Later a deer stand sort of building on stilts was constructed, elevated one story above the ground. Steps went up from the west side and there were lots of windows. The building was unheated, but it had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it protected observers from the elements. The buildings had their own dedicated telephone for dialing up (what they believed was) Offutt Air Force Base/Strategic Air Command Headquarters, or perhaps the Civil Defense Office in Omaha. In fact, the calls went to one of 73 “filter centers,” where yet more civilian volunteers collected the data, plotted trajectories of aircraft that had been called in, and made judgments about the significance of the observations (Clymer 2013).
The dedication of Clarkson’s youth to fighting the Cold War was not absolute. By one account, most of the time the kids did not stay in the building, but could be found goofing around outside waiting for a plane to fly over. For example, Bernice Cada wrote: “My most vivid memory from this world-saving practice included Bill Sixta. Several of us started collecting ears of corn from the neighboring field. We had a corn kernel fight. I placed one throw perfectly into Bill’s ear canal. As we tried to remove it, it just wedged tighter! He had to go visit Dr. O’Neil to get the kernel removed. I was scared and embarrassed. Thought I would lose my volunteer job! But those Russians never made it past our watchful eyes.”
In fact, Clarkson’s young were not the only ones to occasionally let their “eternal vigilance” slip. Public participation in the GOC never reached the levels hoped for, owing to skepticism about government’s warnings of the imminence of a Russian attack and optimism about the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to detect and intercept enemy planes before they got to the continental U.S. “By all indications, even the Soviet Union’s possession of an H-bomb [in August 1953] did not stir much desire to volunteer for the GOC. Recruitment remained a chronic problem. An Air Force report noted that, absent an emergency, the vast majority of Americans would rather play bridge [or taroks?], watch television, or go to bed. By mid-1954, … a major problem had developed with attrition of volunteers who faced disparagement of friends or acquaintances.” (Clymer 2013).
There were posters on the walls of the observation building to provide information about friendly and unfriendly airplanes, and a book of silhouettes of planes was used to help in identifying what they were seeing. Binoculars, pen and paper were used to make note of types of planes and estimates of speed, direction of travel, altitude, and identifying markings, which were entered in a log book. A sign-in sheet logged the names and hours of the participants.
One of the purposes of logging in the hours spent watching the sky was to amass enough volunteer hours to be awarded a cool blue and silver lapel pin – the winged GOC pin. Lumir Prazak would turn in the names and hours of the observers. Obviously this lapel pin was a desirable prize – many of the participants still have theirs.
As the Cold War wound on, offensive weapons and defensive systems were improved. In the late 1950s the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar-based early warning system in Canada, became operational, and eventually the slow-flying bombers were replaced by intercontinental ballistic missiles. The value of civilian airplane observers was diminished, and on January 31, 1959 the Ground Observer Corps Program was shut down.
In retrospect, it seems pretty unlikely that Russian bombers could have flown all the way to Nebraska without being detected somewhere in Canada or the Dakotas, but you never know, eh? Let the record reflect that there was not a single bombing of the U.S. mainland during the existence of GOC.
Thanks to Dennis Houfek (who first told me about the GOC in Clarkson), Rich Neuhaus, Bernice Cada, Tony Dusatko, Ele Loseke, Edie Welch, Ron Vavrina, Edith Nepper, Arlys Wehrer, and Robert Prazak for their memories of (and membership in) Clarkson’s Ground Observer Corps.
An excellent history of the U.S. GOC is provided by: Clymer, K. 2013. The Ground Observer Corps – Public Relations and the Cold War in the 1950s. Journal of Cold War Studies. 15(1):34-52.
Ground Observer Corps, Hurray!
Protects our Nation every day.
Protects our flag, Red, White, and Blue,
They Protect everyone, even you.
Always on guard with Watchful eyes,
Never tiring they search the skies.
From now to eternity we shall be free,
America’s guarded by the G.O.C.