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Operation Skywatch, 1952


The 1950s has been called the “Decade of Fear,” for in the time of the Cold War, the worst fear was of “ the Bomb” – the atomic bomb.

In 1949, Russia tested its first atomic bomb, and defense experts feared the Soviets would launch a sneak attack on the U-S. To guard against such an attack, the Air Force began installing a line of radar stations. Unfortunately, the radars of that era could not accurately detect low-flying aircraft. Accordingly, the Defense Department issued a nationwide call for volunteers to scan the skies for hostile aircraft, night and day.

These volunteers were known as the Ground Observer Corps, and on this date in 1952, the sky-watchers in North Dakota and 26 other states were told to get ready for around-the-clock duty, twenty-four-hours-a-day.

Bismarck was one of two North Dakota reporting stations for the Ground Observer Corps, responsible for 130 observation posts across western North Dakota. Fargo was the other center, responsible for the eastern half of the state.

Trained skywatchers in each observation post would take a two-hour shift, looking through binoculars for all aircraft in their zone. Each observer then wrote up a description of the plane and gave the information by telephone to the Bismarck and Fargo Filter Centers.

The Filter Centers, each manned by Air Force personnel, kept track of all aircraft, keeping charts on all scheduled commercial and private flights.

The Bismarck filter-center commander, Major Raymond Mial, explained the need for vigilance, saying the U.S.S.R had the capability of delivering a surprise attack with 400 bombers. He said the observer reports were vital to stopping the “ruthless” Russians from bombing strategic targets by flying over the North Pole.

President Harry Truman praised the civilian observers in what became known as “Operation Skywatch,” saying they helped make “America so strong, that no enemy would dare attack.”

And so, from 1952 to 1959, hundreds of North Dakotans climbed up observation posts and tracked incoming airplanes, night and day, in two-hour or four-hour shifts, without pay and largely without thanks, watching for a nuclear attack, that, thankfully, never happened. Doubtless, the time spent scanning the horizon formed unforgettable Cold-War-memories for North Dakota’s Operation Skywatch volunteers.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Filter Center Workers To Go On 24-Hour Duty,” Bismarck Tribune, April 24, 1952, p. 4.

“Air Filter Center to Go On 24-Hour Alert Monday,” Bismarck Tribune, July 12, 1952, p. 1.

Bruce D. Callender, “The Ground Observer Corps,” Air Force Magazine: The Online Journal of the Air Force Association, February, 2006, "http://www.airforcema.com" www.airforcema.com , accessed on April 10, 2014.

“Air Raid Filter Center Are Ears of Nation’s Air-Defense Set-Up,” Bismarck Tribune, March 25, 1952, p. 4.

“8 Burleigh Communities Join ‘Operation Skywatch,’” Bismarck Tribune, July 22, 1952, p. 4.

“GOC to Be Needed Until ‘Dew’ Line Work Completed,” Bismarck Tribune, July 3, 1956, p. 14.

“24-Hour Air Alert Set by Spotters After U.S. Warning on Soviet Raids,” New York Times, June 17, 1952, p. 1.

“Skywatch Two Years Old,” New York Times, July 15, 1954, p. 11.

“Plane Observers Hailed By Truman,” New York Times, July 13, 1952, p. 9.

“202. Statement by the President on the Ground Observer Corps’ ‘Operation Skywatch,’” Public Papers of the Presidents, Harry S. Truman, 1945-1953, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, "http://www.trumanlibrary.org" www.trumanlibrary.org , accessed on April 10, 2014.