Can General Old’s “Eyes” Guard America’s Heartland? (Oct, 1952)

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Can General Old’s “Eyes” Guard America’s Heartland?


Special from Anchorage, Alaska. Tonight the citizens of the American “heartland”—you Chicagoans and New Yorkers, the people of Detroit and Philadelphia—will prepare for bed, blissfully confident in tomorrow. Yet while you sleep, lights are burning late here in Alaska, particularly in the somber, sandbagged headquarters of the Alaskan Command at Elmendorf Field, just outside of Anchorage. This is a building which never sleeps. For here officers of the Alaskan Command are staying up nights worrying about you “heartland” Americans.

Here, near the top of the world, chill winds blow across the Bering from Arctic Siberia, which by jet bomber lies less than one hour’s flight away. And from Siberia, via the stratosphere, it is but 7% jet hours to Chicago, keystone of industrial America. That’s why the strategy-wise enemy sees in Alaska, its three major airfields and other military facilities, the logical stepping stone to the American “heartland.”

Tonight, radar stations along the bleak Arctic shore from Barter island in the far north, to the Aleutian chain, sweep the horizon. On the shores of the Bering, sharp-eyed Eskimo scouts, keep careful look-out for possible landing parties, and at the Alaskan airfields, jet interceptors are at the ready. One glance at the USAF Strategic Planning Chart of this area will show you the reason for this 24-hour vigil. For on this map and the plans it calls for may hang the survival of millions of “heartland” Americans.

This map shows just how vulnerable we actually are. A few scant hours by fast bomber north of the pole is the great land sweep of Russia, dominated by strategic airfields, any one of which is capable of launching over-the-Pole attacks. It is only 4000-4500 miles from the nearest Siberian bases to New York, an easy one-way jet bomber run. Soviet bombers, setting out from bases lying on scattered islands just over the Pole, could straddle longitude 85° and find themselves in the Midwest U. S. in something short of 7 hours. 1 Perhaps these are the reasons that Maj. Gen. Wm. D. Old, chief of our Alaskan Air Command, speaks like a man who fears he may one day lose his eyesight. By eyesight, Gen. Old means his radars. For without his radar screen, the general and his command would be blind, and terribly vulnerable. Gen. Old knows that his radar vision isn’t 20/20 even now. As both a flyer (with 9,000 hours) and a graduate electronics engineer, he knows that radar cannot see beyond the horizon; that it can be jammed; that it sometimes fails to operate properly because of ionospheric disturbances. But most important, Gen. Old also knows that enemy fighters could put out his radar eyes, one by one, and leave him open to later attack without warning. And while diversionary attacks hit Alaskan bases, the full fury of enemy bombers would be roaring high overhead, bound for the American heartland.

In an exclusive interview for Science and Mechanics, General Old put it this way: “If you were the enemy, what would you do first?”

“I’d put out your eyes—your radars—and blind you.”

The general nodded. “That’s exactly what I would do.” He moved to a map, a scaled-down replica of the Strategic Planning Chart. “This,” said Gen. Old, “is the way we’re looking at the world today.” He meant, of course, from the top down. When strategists think of our imperiled industrial heartland, they picture themselves standing on the North Pole and peering down over the edge of the globe, first toward the U. S., and then about-facing, toward the U. S. S. R. The closeness of the two, via the over-the-Pole route, has made many a strategist gape, for by the jet North Pole route, the once-isolating Arctic Ocean shrinks to pond-size.

Gen. Old swept a hand across the coastline of Alaska. “We have radars here,” he said, “but not enough, and anyway, they are open to attack.” The general admitted this even though he is aware that Alaskan-based F-94 pilots are standing by 24-hours a day, alert for the call that will order them airborne. And first warning would likely come from coastal radars.

According to General Old, we have now sunk some $295,000,000 into our radar net, and Alaska has come in for its share of this. It is a big net and a powerful one, but it is far from being fool-proof. The scores of isolated radar stations spotted along the barren Arctic coast are scantily defended; yet even without massive defenses, each cost upwards to $5,000,000. “In Alaska you have to figure everything three times normal continental U. S. costs,” continued the general. Despite this defensive expenditure, “our Alaskan radars are there for just two purposes: to warn of approaching unfriendly planes or ships; to direct ground-controlled interception. Our vast outlay for Alaskan radars has been spent to purchase the Alaskan Command and its troops just one precious hour of time. For 60-minutes’ warning is all the Command wants and expects from its radars. If commanders like Gen. Old get that one hour, the money will have been well invested. If they don’t . . .

Let’s fly north to a coastal radar—one of General Old’s “eyes”—to see just how vulnerable it is. This will be a composite picture, not any specific site. Outside it’s minus 50° as our plane climbs into the rarefied, brittle-cold arctic altitudes. The pilot points the ship’s nose north and somewhere over snow-capped ranges, past Fairbanks, the pilot announces, “we’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle.” Some hours later (we’re riding a slow, conventional-engined air-force transport) we let down on a bulldozered airstrip, and a few hundred feet from the strip’s squat operational hut stretches the Arctic Ocean.

Radar operating crews, anywhere from 10 to 400 men, live in a huddle of GI shacks around the airstrip. Twenty-four hours each day operators sit at the radar scopes, scanning this station’s assigned sector to the horizon. Except for Armed Forces Radio which still maintains a good station at Nome, about the only entertainment comes from Radio Moscow, which on occasion beams in loud and strong. Its music is fair; its propaganda revolting and ominous—the kind that makes these G.I.s know why they’re scanning the Arctic coast.

Rising from the airstrip, and lashed by polar winds up to 100 mph, is a steep mountain. High on a pinnacle, with its back to sheer ice walls, stands the radar. Its antenna, marking it as a World War II model with 1952 improvements, sweeps back and forth, over a 180° arc. A 1/4 mile down the beach stands an apparatus looking something like a ski- tow. One by one we’re hauled up on this tow to the radar site, along 3000 feet of swaying, ice-sheathed cable. That’s how every stick of supply and every timber that went into building this radar shack got there. No wonder each station costs $5,000,000.

Inside the semi-darkness of the radar shack, operators bend over their scopes, watching as the antennas pick up distant objects, which appear on the scope as little “pips.” Most of the “pips” represent ice-ridges. But operators are always looking for the unidentified pip that moves. When stations pick up a flight of these one day, you “heartland” Americans will know about it—quick!

A radar mechanic explains how the terrible Arctic cold freezes lubricating oil in the radar’s antenna gearing; how a single night without heat in the shack puts the radar off the air—maybe for good. He goes on to tell how antenna supports, crystallized by cold, suddenly snap. As he talks, I recall how, as a radar maintenance man myself during World War II, we’d had our hands full staying on the air, and that had been in temperate climates. Today’s radars are vastly refined over the 1942-46 models, but they still have “bugs” and they still go unexpectedly out of whack.

“Suppose it’s the crucial day, and you’re broken down?” I asked. The radar mechanic shrugs. That is answer enough. There are holes in the radar screen, and there always will be as long as mechanical probability enters the picture.

Military security won’t allow mention of defenses at this composite unit. But this much is sure, whether a unit has one or a dozen radar-controlled anti-air-craft guns, enemy hit-and-run raiders of sufficient strength could get through if aircraft fatalities were considered unimportant by the enemy. This means that every radar unit ringing Alaska—everyone of these “eyes” guarding the American heartland—could be put out of action with a single 500 lb. bomb accurately dropped from low altitudes. And out of 10 planes sweeping inland from the misty reaches of the Arctic horizons, Gen. Old believes “we’ll have to expect a minimum of 10% break-through.” In other words, for any enemy with a vast air armada, the blinding of Gen. Old’s radar eyes, while a costly job plane-wise, would not be particularly difficult.

All this probability has made Gen. Old a hard-rocked realist. “We have to assume,” he said, “that the enemy—any enemy—can do anything we can do. I’m not saying better, mind you. But to assume an enemy can’t, for instance, refuel in mid-air is being dangerously foolish. And mid-air refueling, once our radars were out of the way, would make over-the-Pole attack feasible.” He meant, of course, over-the-Pole and down to Chicago, New York and Washington.

Long stretches of the low-lying Alaskan coast, especially sectors immediately adjacent to the Seward peninsula, whose off-shore Little Diomede island is but 2-1/2 miles from Russian-held Big Diomede, are flat and difficult to camouflage. Radar units in this area are most vulnerable.

“General,” I said, “I realize that the location of these units is secret, or supposed to be. But I’ve talked to a couple of construction workers here in Anchorage. You know, just casual conversation over a couple of beers. One of these guys apparently helped build some radar sites. Without much coaxing he told me exactly where they were, even what type of unit. A 5th rate spy could blunder into a notebook full of strategic information simply by buying a loose-tongued guy like that a few beers.”

Gen. Old nodded. “You can’t have security when a hundred or so men, maybe even a thousand, work on a site. People talk carelessly, or maybe intentionally. Talk like that puts our backs to the wall, practically defeats our radar screen before it’s even in operation.” Gen. Old thinks American civilian workers who divulge confidential information are betraying not only themselves and their families at home, but also their country. And spies are everywhere.

Meanwhile, the gamble goes on. The Alaskan Command, its commander-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Wm. E. Kepner (USAF) and his men are counting on that one hour warning to get interceptor jets into the air. But even if the radars are knocked out, Gen. Kepner has declared that the troops defending Alaska can absorb the first punch, and beat the enemy to the second. Gen. Kepner’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Nathan Twining, however, did not share this view. He termed Alaska “a one-shot deal; we won’t have a second chance.”

But while Gen. Kepner is wary, he isn’t overawed by the Soviet legions camped a few hours’ flight from his headquarters. Recently he told the Anchorage Lions Club, “the Russians get into their pants exactly like you and I do—one leg at a time.”

While I was in the Alaskan Command headquarters, one of Elmendorf Field’s periodic practice alerts was on. Everyone there wears full battle dress, including side-arms. Passwords in and out of Command headquarters change twice each day. And at some undisclosed moment— day or night—Gen. Kepner would press a button setting off sirens signalling a full-dress alert. The entire headquarters staff took to the field to meet the attacking “Blue” force which had been on the winter-hard road from Fairbanks for several days prior to the “attack.” A few nights before while driving into Anchorage, we’d met hundreds of white-parkaed GI’s trudging silently (and without a single light or signal) into the Arctic night. And it was minus 30 degrees.

These are some of the facts of very real and apparent danger which hangs over heads of every “heartland” American. Despite the tactical aircraft, the radar screen and the scouting Eskimos, our Alaskan situation is far from stabilized or secure. For today’s strategy is anchored to the North Pole. And across the Pole from Soviet Europe, or from Siberia’s Chukotskiy peninsula, it’s but 7-1/2 jet-screeching hours to Chicago’s Wabash Avenue, to 42nd Street or to Pennsylvania Avenue and the Pentagon.

  1. Hirudinea says: August 7, 20123:36 pm

    Nothing about the D.E.W. line or the Pine Tree line? When did those go up anyway?

  2. Stephen says: August 8, 20126:23 am

    The Pinetree Line was mostly complete by 1957:…
    and the Polar DEW line was running in April 1957:…
    The direct replacement seems to have been the North Warning System, but once missiles replaced bombers as the chief nuclear bugbear new radar systems were required which could see all the way into space. This led to the extraordinary structures at Fylingdales Moor in Northern England, among others.

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