The Aircraft Warning Service: Oregon's First Line of Defense

Keep Your Eyes Aloft!

Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Oregonians were training their gazes skyward in search of enemy aircraft. American officials had seen the effectiveness of the British Aircraft Warning Service during the waves of aerial bombing by the German Luftwaffe over Britain and wanted to emulate the program. Officials noted that without a civilian program, up to 100,000 soldiers would be needed to provide the same services on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The system saved millions of dollars and freed up hundreds of airplanes for use on the battlefronts.

Program Overview and Process

Oregon's Aircraft Warning Service was up and running in July 1941 after federal military authorities made the request to state officials for assistance. The goal of the service was to track all aircraft within a predetermined area so military authorities would have advance notice of the presence of enemy aircraft before substantial damage could be inflicted.

Drawing of Lockheed Lightning plane from front, side and top.
A three-view drawing of a Lockheed Lightning P-38 airplane to help observer identification. (Image source: Footnote 9)
Putting the work in terms that Oregonians could easily grasp, Oregon State Defense Council Director of Information Robert Smith referred to the daring "Doolittle Raid" bombing run that struck at the heart of Japan and embarrassed its military leaders: "...Oregon men and women are at their stations on hilltop and in forest, on beach and mountain, scanning the skies for the sight or sound of airplanes in flight. This is Oregon's first line of defense against enemy bombing and it is this organization that keeps the Japs from hitting Oregon as Doolittle's boys hit Tokyo." Footnote 1

Oregon officials worked with the Army's Fourth Fighter Command to establish the system on a county basis throughout western Oregon. While staffed by civilians, the work of the service was supervised by military officials who also provided training. At its peak in Oregon, the service comprised over 500 observation posts staffed by over 28,000 trained male and female volunteers. Observation posts were manned 24 hours a day and the average volunteer worked one 4 to 6 hour shift a week. Elsewhere, female volunteers with telephone headsets staffed "filter" and control centers where they received reports from the observation posts about aircraft sightings, complete with the approximate speed, direction of travel and the type of plane.

Cartoon of man whistleing by phone, "Army defensive plans depend on alertness. An observation post that isn't alert is far worse than no post at all. Unreported planes are dangerous.
A cartoon reminds volunteers to stay alert. (Folder 2, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA)
Cartoon of woman looking at planes, "If we knew what things were going to happen we wouldn't need observation posts."
A cartoon encourages observers to scan the skies. (Folder 2, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA)
This information was then represented as symbols on giant maps of Oregon at control centers in Portland, Eugene and Roseburg. Monitoring the map were "representatives of every flying service-- the army, the navy, the transport and the civil aeronautics department." These officials compared the information on the map with what they expected to see based on mandatory flight plans. Anything out of the ordinary raised immediate flags: "If the stranger airplane can not be identified within a very short time, our own fighter planes are notified and guided toward the intruder." Further warnings could then be directed to civilian defense authorities to alert air raid wardens and protect key industries. Footnote 2

Forest Observation Posts

Forest workers also contributed to the program. Federal and state officials cooperated with the Army to operate lookout stations. In these often remote sites, two observers manned each post on alternate shifts of 12 hours each. These observers had to be of "unquestionable loyalty" and needed "vision equal to that demanded by forest [fire] lookouts...." Further stipulations said that "man and wife may be employed, provided the wife is used for lookout or interceptor duty only and is not required to perform manual labor. Two women will not be stationed on any one point." Footnote 3

Communication was critical at remote forest posts. As a Forest Service missive reminded: "The best observers in the world will not function well unless they have satisfactory communication for filing their reports." Those with radios were required to have full training and maintain their sets "in as nearly perfect condition as possible at all times." Stations with telephone connections required observers to patrol "every foot of line at regular intervals in order to pick up trouble before it develops to a point where communication is seriously affected." These patrols were to extend at least two or three miles from the station. Lines farther from the post would be maintained by other workers. Footnote 4 Besides the 24-hour coverage, the communication relied on clear, concise and quick descriptions to reduce misunderstandings and not clog up the lines.

Apathy, Morale and Discipline Problems

Cartoon man on phone, "Observation post reports enable headquarters to guage the speed route and altitude of every plane in the air"
A cartoon encourages observers to scan the skies. (Folder 2, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA)
"This is a U.S. Army Observation Post. When on duty...Stop Talking, Look Constantly, Listen Carefully"
A poster reminds volunteers of the key responsibilities of their job. (Oversize Records, Defense Council Records, OSA)
Officials struggled to ward off apathy among volunteers. While fears of attack remained vivid in the months after Pearl Harbor, concerns diminished over time, especially when the tide began to turn against the Japanese navy in the Pacific. Thus, military officials distributed circulars and bulletins to observers reminding them of the stakes and acknowledging that "it is a hard task, staying on watch through long hours and days of waiting. But it is well to remember that IF THE OBSERVERS SHOULD FAIL, all the rest of the Civilian Defense effort would be jeopardized, because without the observers there might be no warning to send out to the wardens and firemen and police and all the others -- at least, not any warning that would reach them in time." Officials cautioned that "the first line of defense against a treacherous and clever enemy, is the band of loyal watchers of the Aircraft Warning Service. REMEMBER --The observers and plotters in Britain waited a whole year for the first attack, but they were ready when it finally came, and they didn't miss!" Circular, June 1942 Footnote 5

Octagonal shape building.
This newly built observation post was described as "the very attractive and efficient post in Silverton." (Image source: Footnote 9)
Morale problems also challenged the system. Many observers spent long hours in cold, damp, dark and cramped observation posts. Some were broken down trailer houses, others were makeshift towers, and still others offered little or no shelter whatsoever. For a sizable number of observers, the long hours left the question: "Why are we doing this?" Some volunteers simply groused among themselves.

Small shack
The Footes Creek post in Jackson County was little more than a shed. (Image source: Footnote 9)
Others registered complaints with defense council or military staff who could summarize: "They go something like this: The Observation Posts and the Air Craft Warning Service are a lot of hooey! The Air Craft Warning System is falling down and doesn't work! All of the Observation Posts are quitting all around you! Some of the Observation Posts are getting pay, but you are not! If the Army wants this thing set up why don't they put soldiers on the Observation Posts?" Officials took a hard line with the carping and with rumors about large numbers of people quitting: "A person who carries and exaggerates a rumor is helping the subversive activities, and if you have any such person in your midst this office will welcome hearing from you in regards to it." Portland Region Bulletin explanation Footnote 6

Discipline lapses gave military officials headaches too. Many observation posts used telephones in private homes. While authorities appreciated that the private phones had been made available for observation posts, they lamented the problems caused by the excessive number of personal calls: "Gossiping on the Observation Post telephone, or 'listening in' on a party line seriously detracts from the efficiency of the Observer's efforts. Unnecessary calls must be restricted." Other discipline problems included the presence of too many visitors at the observation posts as a Portland Region bulletin noted:

The End of the Civilian Service

Military officials put the civilian component of the Aircraft Warning Service on reserve status on Oct. 16, 1943, effectively demobilizing that portion of the program. Many observers saw this action as further contributing to growing public apathy about the war effort. State Defense Council officials, such as Acting Coordinator Jack Hayes, argued that the move eroded their efforts to keep issues of civilian defense foremost in the minds of Oregonians:

Related Documents

"Eyes and Ears of the Air Corps," Radio Transcript, Oregon on Guard Radio Program of the Oregon State Defense Council, circa June 1942. Page 1, Folder 19, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
"How Good an Observer Are You?" Quiz with Answers, Portland Filter Area Ground Observer Corps, circa June 1942. Page 1, Folder 9, Box 7, Forestry Dept. Records, OSA.
Observation Post Visibility Chart for Necanicum, Aircraft Warning Service, April 27, 1943. Folder 8, Box 7, Forestry Dept. Records, OSA.
Small Plane Identification Drawings, Headquarters Portland Air Defense Region Bulletin, circa June 1942. Folder 9, Box 7, Forestry Dept. Records, OSA.
U.S. Forest Service Memorandum on the Aircraft Warning Service, March 1942. Folder 9, Box 7, Forestry Department Records, OSA.

Notes

  1. "Eyes and Ears of the Air Corps," Radio Transcript, Oregon on Guard Radio Program of the Oregon State Defense Council, circa June 1942. Page 1, Folder 19, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  2. Ibid., Pages 1-2.
  3. U.S. Forest Service Memorandum on the Aircraft Warning Service, March 1942. Page 3, Folder 9, Box 7, Forestry Department Records, OSA.
  4. Ibid., Page 7.
  5. Circular No. 1, Army Headquarters Second Interceptor Command, Seattle, circa June 1942. Folder 4, Box 26, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  6. Portland Region Bulletin, Army Fourth Fighter Command, June 19, 1942. Folder 3, Box 26, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  7. Portland Region Bulletin, Army Fourth Fighter Command, June 5, 1942. Folder 3, Box 26, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  8. Letter from Jack Hayes to Coos County Judge Louis Felsheim, June 10, 1944. Folder 14, Box 12, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  9. "Eyes Aloft" Newspaper, Western Flying Publisher, April 1943. Vol. 2, No. 1, Folder 9, Box 26, Defense Council Records, OSA.