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What is Operation Skywatch?

It’s easy for us to look back on some of the practices of the early Atomic Age as both foolish and futile. One good example is Operation Skywatch. What did it do, and why was it unsuccessful? 

In the early 50s, before the national radar system and satellites, the US monitored the skies with Operation Skywatch. Civilian volunteers stationed in rickety towers equipped with binoculars and a phone kept a lookout for Soviet bombers.

What is Operation Skywatch?

Before the dawn of electric sensors, satellite warning systems, and aircrafts equipped with instruments for identification, the US had the Ground Observe Corps (GOC). 

The GOC was established following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. 

In February 1950, six months after the Soviet Union conducted its first A-bomb test, Lieutenant General Ennis C. Whitehead of the Continental Air Command resurrected the civilian group. (Source: Air Space Magazine)

The commencement of the Korean War in June bolstered recruitment efforts, and within a few months, over 200,000 people had enlisted. They were children, women, and adults who were seeing and plotting airplane movements.

Numerous members gathered on grassy knolls, abandoned shacks, YMCA rooftops, and any other location with a clear view. The only prerequisites were binoculars, a phone, and a patriotic volunteer. The instructions were straightforward: Run to the nearest phone and alert the filtration center if a hostile aircraft is sighted.

Each local outpost was telephone-connected to one of 26 filter centers staffed by a combination of civilian and Air Force personnel.

To assist in identifying aircraft, the Air Force created training booklets, guidelines, and videos. The group was educated to recognize the distinction between commercial and military aircraft and military aircraft types and their distinguishing insignia.

The instruction focused on memorizing the shapes of each aircraft’s wings, tail, engine, fuselage, and overall structure. They were even provided photographs of allied and axis airplanes. (Source: DVIDS)

Following a few hours of training in aircraft identification and report filing, observers were assigned to one of 8,000 observation stations located along the coast and in the north.

Skywatch observation locations were operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Volunteers received a pair of ceremonial wings and a patch and might earn citations for accumulating long hours in service. By the mid-1950s, there were 400,000 volunteers assigned to 16,000 outposts.

By the late 50s, the Operation was abandoned.

The Dissolution of Operation Skywatch

President Eisenhower wrote letters to each volunteer in July 1956. It read:

The Ground Observer Corps has been a vital factor in maintaining the strenght that has assured the peace we enjoy. Your constant and selfless vigilance has earned you the admiration of all Americans. On their behalf, I salute you on this occassion. I hope many others will join you in this important work of strengthening our air defenses.

However, the radar stations, called the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW), went online the following year. The Air Force ceased collaboration with the Ad Council, and after months of deliberation, the White House announced the GOC’s dissolution on January 31, 1959.

The president then wrote another letter in which he expressed gratitude to the greatest citizen volunteer peacetime defense group this country has ever known. (Source: Timeline)

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