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Off the Northway: Cold War history lies at Stillwater site

Saturday, September 15, 2012
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In the 1950s, when Tom Wood was a boy, military jets sometimes screamed in low over the farm fields east of Saratoga Springs. It was said they were testing whether the Air Force radar station in Stillwater could detect low-flying incoming planes.

But nobody was sure back in those Cold War days, and answers were hard to come by. “It was all kind of secretive,” recalled Wood, now the Saratoga town supervisor.

Sometimes, fun-loving young radar maintenance technicians would juice things up, too.

“People would tell us there were missile silos out there, and we’d say we landed airplanes there, that the mountain opened right up,” said John Fullam, who was a technician at the hilltop station near Ketchums Corners just before it closed in the mid-1970s.

In the 1950s, when Tom Wood was a boy, military jets sometimes screamed in low over the farm fields east of Saratoga Springs. It was said they were testing whether the Air Force radar station in Stillwater could detect low-flying incoming planes.

But nobody was sure back in those Cold War days, and answers were hard to come by. “It was all kind of secretive,” recalled Wood, now the Saratoga town supervisor.

Sometimes, fun-loving young radar maintenance technicians would juice things up, too.

“People would tell us there were missile silos out there, and we’d say we landed airplanes there, that the mountain opened right up,” said John Fullam, who was a technician at the hilltop station near Ketchums Corners just before it closed in the mid-1970s.

Fullam, who now lives near Abilene, Texas, was one of about 100 old Cold Warriors and their spouses visiting Saratoga Springs last week for the first reunion of the 656th Radar Squadron, men who look back on their Cold War duty with nostalgia.

The Saratoga Springs Air Force Station, as it was officially known, isn’t forgotten. It’s still called “the old radar site,” and it’s still visible for miles around. Cellphone and microwave communications towers have replaced the four military radar towers, but what’s there can still be seen as far away as Saratoga Lake.

It’s still behind a heavy security fence, too, though the 50-acre site is now privately owned. These days, the headquarters, recreation center, non-commissioned officers club and support buildings are all critter-infested and rotting away amid waist-high weeds.

But from 1952 to 1977, the desolate spot a howitzer’s lob from where the Battles of Saratoga were fought was part of the North American Air Defense Command’s early warning system. The NORAD line stretched from coast to coast, to provide a first warning in the event Soviet strategic bombers might come over the North Pole (and the Arctic and Canadian radar stations hadn’t noticed, presumedly).

It’s a little hard to keep a straight face about it now — with the mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics 23 years in the rearview mirror — but it’s what the Air Force was prepared for, with overlapping radar fields and jet fighters ready to intercept.

One night in the early 1950s when he was the only maintenance technician on duty, Jack Taff was told by a lieutenant to “target simulate” two planes coming in from Canada. The next time he went back to the control room, a red alert light was on. Two interceptor jets were being scrambled from Newburgh, but they didn’t find anything.

“It was training, but I think the lieutenant just wanted to see what would happen,” recalled Taff, now an 82-year-old funeral director in Helena, Ala. “They called him in the next morning.”

Perhaps that lieutenant’s next assignment was in the Aleutian Islands. Someone’s had to be.

“Some of the stations were hell-holes. This was one of the good ones,” Fullam recalled.

A lot of the 656th’s enlisted men lived in Saratoga Springs, since the only base housing was for officers and maybe some senior NCOs. The base had 200 or more personnel at its height and a staff of almost entirely young men; Skidmore College at the time was entirely young women. But there were other perks, too.

“If you were in uniform, you walked into a place and they gave you a discount. You got into the track for free,” Taff remembered.

Dave Fielder of Bensalem, Pa., was a headquarters clerk from 1965-67 before being sent to Vietnam. He offered some historical perspective.

“These are all really relics of the Cold War,” he said. “In those days, it was bombers more than missiles we were looking for. The idea was you’d be able to detect them first. There were a lot more Air Force bases, too, for sending out interceptors.”

By the 1970s, satellites were making early-detection radar stations like Stillwater’s obsolete.

The military closed it in 1977, but it remained a Federal Aviation Administration radar site for a while longer, tracking commercial flights between New York City and European cities.

With the leaves changing, Fullam said it was about this time of year that technicians became a lot more hesitant about climbing the radar towers.

“Local hunters would use the towers to sight in on,” he said. “You’d be up there and you’d hear a 30-06 round whiz by.”

The Saratoga Springs Air Force Station, as it was officially known, isn’t forgotten. It’s still called “the old radar site,” and it’s still visible for miles around. Cellphone and microwave communications towers have replaced the four military radar towers, but what’s there can still be seen as far away as Saratoga Lake.

It’s still behind a heavy security fence, too, though the 50-acre site is now privately owned. These days, the headquarters, recreation center, non-commissioned officers club and support buildings are all critter-infested and rotting away amid waist-high weeds.

But from 1952 to 1977, the desolate spot a howitzer’s lob from where the Battles of Saratoga were fought was part of the North American Air Defense Command’s early warning system. The NORAD line stretched from coast to coast, to provide a first warning in the event Soviet strategic bombers might come over the North Pole (and the Arctic and Canadian radar stations hadn’t noticed, presumedly).

It’s a little hard to keep a straight face about it now — with the mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics 23 years in the rearview mirror — but it’s what the Air Force was prepared for, with overlapping radar fields and jet fighters ready to intercept.

One night in the early 1950s when he was the only maintenance technician on duty, Jack Taff was told by a lieutenant to “target simulate” two planes coming in from Canada. The next time he went back to the control room, a red alert light was on. Two interceptor jets were being scrambled from Newburgh, but they didn’t find anything.

“It was training, but I think the lieutenant just wanted to see what would happen,” recalled Taff, now an 82-year-old funeral director in Helena, Ala. “They called him in the next morning.”

Perhaps that lieutenant’s next assignment was in the Aleutian Islands. Someone’s had to be.

“Some of the stations were hell-holes. This was one of the good ones,” Fullam recalled.

A lot of the 656th’s enlisted men lived in Saratoga Springs, since the only base housing was for officers and maybe some senior NCOs. The base had 200 or more personnel at its height and a staff of almost entirely young men; Skidmore College at the time was entirely young women. But there were other perks, too.

“If you were in uniform, you walked into a place and they gave you a discount. You got into the track for free,” Taff remembered.

Dave Fielder of Bensalem, Pa., was a headquarters clerk from 1965-67 before being sent to Vietnam. He offered some historical perspective.

“These are all really relics of the Cold War,” he said. “In those days, it was bombers more than missiles we were looking for. The idea was you’d be able to detect them first. There were a lot more Air Force bases, too, for sending out interceptors.”

By the 1970s, satellites were making early-detection radar stations like Stillwater’s obsolete.

The military closed it in 1977, but it remained a Federal Aviation Administration radar site for a while longer, tracking commercial flights between New York City and European cities.

With the leaves changing, Fullam said it was about this time of year that technicians became a lot more hesitant about climbing the radar towers.

“Local hunters would use the towers to sight in on,” he said. “You’d be up there and you’d hear a 30-06 round whiz by.”

 
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