The Ground Observers
- Not a single Russian bomber made it past Claflin
During my high school years in Claflin, Kansas the U.S. Air Force came to town to recruit volunteers for the Ground Observer Corps. What was the Ground Observer Corps? Here is the how Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia, describes it:
The Ground Observer Corps (GOC) was a series of Civil Defense programs in the United States to protect against air attack. First begun in World War II by the Army Air Corps, the 1.5 million civilian observers at 14,000 coastal observation posts used naked eye and binocular searches to find invading German and Japanese aircraft. The program ended in 1944.
In early 1950, the Continental Air Command formed a new 8,000 post civilian GOC to supplement what would become the North American Air Defense (NORAD) system. Over 200,000 volunteers participated in nationwide drills, telephoning dozens of coordination centers which in turn relayed information to the Air Defense Command (ADC) ground control interception centers.
By 1952 the program was expanded with a new organizational plan named Operation Skywatch with over three-quarters of a million volunteers taking shifts at over 16 thousand posts and 75 relay centers. Due to dramatic technological improvements provided by new radar systems, the Air Force canceled the Ground Observer Corps program in 1959.
The Air Force sent an NCO to Claflin, and I suppose other small towns in Barton and Rice Counties to recruit and train volunteers. My Dad ended up as the overall coordinator for Claflin. His job included signing up volunteers, maintaining a watch list, and keeping records. The Air Force built a tower behind the city jail and firehouse that was probably about 40 feet tall with a small house atop it, a staircase, and a walkway on all four sides. The house had electricity, with desks and shelves built in, and there was a telephone hot line for calling aircraft sightings into our coordination center, which was in Hutchinson, about 60 miles to the southeast. There was a small electric heater for the winter months. There were numerous aircraft recognition manuals that had the silhouettes of every American and Soviet military aircraft. We called the Soviets "Rooshuns" in those days…mostly a German population with lingering old country accents abounding. The NCO provided training in aircraft recognition and procedures for calling in sightings. We were to call in all aircraft sightings, to include civilian planes. In those days there were three Strategic Air Command bases in Kansas; Smoky Hill in Salina, Forbes in Topeka, and McConnell in Wichita. The bombers, mostly B-47s, were often sighted in the skies over Kansas, so we had stuff to call in to Hutch. Never saw a single Russian, but I did see some UFOs south of town once. I didn’t report the UFOs. You’re hearing it here for the first time. I didn’t want folks to think I was nuts. I had enough of a reputation in town as it was.
B-47 Stratojet SAC Bomber
Dad was successful in signing up a good number of volunteers to stand watches in the GOC Tower, as we came to call it. A good number of the volunteers were high school and junior high kids…mostly boys. Girls didn’t do much of that kind of stuff in the 1950s. Watches were stood during daylight hours only, and if I remember correctly, lasted for two hours each. I think that we stood GOC tower watches steadily for about two years, and then something happened that slowly and inexorably altered the watch schedule. One of the volunteers was Heiny Grosshardt, the village idiot of previous Claflin tales. Heiny loved standing GOC tower watches. He would gladly take other people’s watches. He would spend hours in the GOC tower. He spent so many hours on watch that the Air Force gave him special recognition and awards.
I try to imagine what his contact report phone calls to the coordination center in Hutchinson sounded like, and what the reaction of the operator on the receiving end was like. His conversations and verbal gymnastics always left the recipient scratching his head, and he had this disturbing habit of talking to himself. The trouble was you never quite knew if he was talking to you or to himself. You will recall that Heiny was very resistant to baths and changing clothes. He always smelled like the north end of a southbound skunk. And that was giving the skunk the benefit of the doubt. His prolonged presence in the tower house caused it to gradually develop an aroma of its own. Heiny furnished the tower house, bringing up an easy chair, a shortwave radio and various other comforts of home. The odor finally became so pervasive that nobody else would stand watches. Heiny essentially moved permanently into the GOC tower and lived there. This had all occurred by September 1956, the beginning of my senior year in high school.
And then in the early fall of that year the Battle between Heiny Grosshardt and the Boys of CHS took place. I can tell this story with impunity now, because the statute of limitations has long ago expired, and Heiny has crossed the river and now resides in the Happy Hunting Grounds. One night myself, Richard Stickney, a junior, and Paul Kukula, a sophomore, were screwing around in town and found ourselves in the alley underneath the GOC tower. The lights were on and Heiny was home. There was a pile of broken up bricks beside the alley nearby, and we thought we’d mess with Heiny a little bit. We chucked a piece of brick at the GOC tower house, and it bounced off the roof. Nothing happened. We threw another. Nothing. We tossed a third. This got Heiny out of the house and onto the walkway that surrounded it. He hollered "You kids knock that off!"
BLAM! Another brick off the roof.
Heiny…"I told you to stop throwing rocks!"
KLUNK! One more time.
And then finally…"One more shot and I’ll call the Marshall!"
That did it! We all picked up pieces of brick and bombarded the GOC tower. It sounded like a rock slide hitting the place. After that fusillade we all ran up the alley, over to Main Street, and made our way into the Claflin Inn café on the corner of the main intersection of town. We all ordered a cup of coffee and caught our breath. Tangle-Eyed Tom Porter, the Marshall, was sitting in the café drinking coffee as well. About five minutes later Heiny walks in. He goes straight to Tangle-Eyed Tom and says, "Some damn kids were throwing rocks at the GOC tower. One of them hit me in the chest. Really hurt. Almost made me cry." We couldn’t hold it in. We all started laughing hysterically and got up and hot-footed it out of the café. Nothing came of it for Stickney and me, but Howard Kukula, Paul’s dad, took a dim view of the whole thing and grounded Paul for a week or so. Why Stickney and I skated I have no idea. I usually suffered for things like this. Maybe it was because I was a "hot-shot" senior. It’s real easy to be a "hot-shot" senior when there are 20 kids in your class and 100 kids in the whole high school. Most likely it’s because my old man never found out about it.
So much for Heiny vs. the Boys of CHS and the Ground Observer Corps. We might have stopped a Russian bomber onslaught except that Heiny single handedly shut down the Ground Observer Corps in Claflin by making the GOC tower uninhabitable. Fortunately for the town, the Air Force canceled the program in 1959, two years after I left. When I returned to spend my graduation leave from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963 the tower was gone, and is now nothing more than a memory in the village’s storied history. But you know, in spite of it all not a single Russian bomber ever made it past Claflin.
Thus ends some more of the adventures experienced during my wayward youth.
Dirck Praeger sends