Aircraft Warning Service saw few enemies, but saved many friends
Although Oregon turned out to be harder for the Japanese navy to reach than folks thought, historian Bill McCash estimates the civilian plane-spotting service likely saved as many as 100 American aviators from dying in plane crashes.
By Finn J.D. John — May 7, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in September 2009, which you’ll find here.
One day, if you’re lucky, you might stumble across an interesting little item in the toy section while browsing through a thrift shop: a small hard-rubber toy airplane.
This airplane will have no paint or trim of any kind, and no details like windows and landing gear. But if you know your World War II airplanes, you’ll recognize it right away. It will be a perfect likeness of a Dornier Do.17, or maybe a Mitsubishi G4M.
Before you toss it back on the shelf and move on, take a second look. You’re holding in your hand an artifact of the Aircraft Warning Service, the U.S. Army operation staffed with civilian volunteers who watched the skies for enemy aircraft 24 hours a day throughout most of the Second World War.
The “toy” planes were made to help observers recognize incoming aircraft from their wing shapes. Along with such three-dimensional models, observers had charts and flashcards to bone up on their aircraft recognition skills — and, on long shifts spent watching the skies for enemy bombers, they had plenty of time to get good at it.
The Aircraft Warning Service got started about six months before Pearl Harbor. The idea was to draw volunteers from the civilian population — people who were too young, too old, or too female for combat service in the Army — and train them to watch the sky and recognize the aircraft that flew overhead, be they American or foreign. Army officials, by that time, were all but certain that the U.S. would end up involved in the war soon. When that happened, they wanted to have some defenses in place. The Germans, who were not much of a naval power, were less worrisome than the Japanese — who very much were.
It's not much remembered today what a uniquely alarming threat the Japanese were at the outset of the war. Every country in the world that used aircraft carriers, at that time, stocked them with second-rate aircraft. Every country, that is, except Japan, whose carriers were crammed with Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes — arguably the best all-around fighter plane in the world at the time, and certainly the most long-legged. Zeroes had a range of nearly 2,000 miles, so they could accompany bombers all the way to any target within a 10-million-square-mile area around their home carriers. As late as 1942, no country in the world, not even Nazi Germany and certainly not the U.S., could project half as much force half as far afield as Imperial Japan.
The Army brass might not have been aware of all this in July of 1941 when it was forming the AWS. But it certainly became aware of it five months later, when Japan used that force-projection capability to come out of nowhere and hit Pearl Harbor harder than anyone had dreamed was possible.
Immediately after that, the entire West Coast realized it was on the front lines. Sure, the Nazis might come up with some new secret weapon that would make it possible to strike East Coast American cities; that was why AWS watchers were on the East Coast, just in case. But nothing the Nazis were flying in 1941 could reach American soil, not even on a one-way mission.
Japan was another matter. If a handful of Japanese carriers should slip up unnoticed to within 750 miles of, say, Astoria, or Newport, or even San Francisco —
Many people on the West Coast, perhaps most of them, fully expected something like that to actually happen. They of course did not know that the U.S. had cracked the Japanese military code, which almost totally negated that force-projection advantage. They only knew that the Japanese had appeared out of nowhere and left Pearl Harbor a smoking ruin, and seemed eager to do it again. The West Coast seemed like a logical next target.
So the AWS volunteers in Oregon and Washington took their duties particularly seriously as the Second World War got under way.
Not that it was all grim determination and studious scanning of the horizon, of course.
“Several instances have recently been called to our attention where observers have been ‘partying’ while on duty,” the Portland regional AWS bulletin noted in summer 1942. “The noise and distraction prevent the efficient operation of the post … It is very undesirable to have more than two people on a post at one time.”
This admonition was probably unnecessary in 1942, when the wolf was still very much at the door. That was the year when, in early September, AWS volunteers in Curry County became the only watchers in the country to actually spot an enemy warplane. A tiny seaplane, launched from the Imperial Japanese submarine I-25, had come to the Brookings area to try to start a forest fire with a pair of 170-pound bombs. It was the only wartime air attack on the mainland United States in history, before or since.
But by the following year, the thrill was gone for many of the AWS watchers. It was becoming increasingly clear that Japan was not going to win, and the U.S. Navy was keeping the little island country’s remaining aircraft carriers very busy far away in places like Midway and the Marshall Islands. No Japanese strike force would be coming, and with each passing day it seemed more and more clear that no AWS observer was going to see another Japanese airplane flying over Oregon soil.
That knowledge was one thing on a fine sunny day, when a person might enjoy sitting out under the shade of a tree overlooking the sea, idly scanning the horizon for aircraft. It was quite another on a blustery November night, shivering in an unheated shed with the window open to listen for planes.
Still, the real value of the AWS did not fade with the fortunes of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In fact, it grew.
As America’s eyes on the ground, watching the sky and reporting every sighting with telephones and radios, the AWS became a lifesaver for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of distressed American aviators.
Remember, this was before navigation aids like LORAN. Pilots generally had to rely on landmarks to guide themselves in flight. A pilot caught in sudden bad weather, or in one of the Central Oregon Coast’s notoriously fickle fog banks, could get hopelessly lost; and radio communication was of limited value if Ground Control didn’t know where the pilot was.
However, if an AWS observer had spotted and reported the plane and its location and direction of flight earlier in the day, the tower staff could plot out its likely location on a map and tell the pilot exactly where to go to find a safe landing.
Corvallis historian Bill McCash estimates that at least 100 American lives were saved in just this way.
And then there were the more dramatic cases, in which an AWS observer saw an aircraft in obvious distress. In one particularly notable case, an AWS volunteer reported an American bomber ditching in the ocean off Seaside. The Navy got there in time to rescue one of the two surviving crew members (the other swam to shore).
Rather like the Coast Guard “Sand Pounder” beach patrol, the AWS is not much remembered today when historians start talking about the Second World War. But like the beach patrol, its contribution was more significant than most people realize.
(Sources: McCash, Bill. Bombs Over Brookings. Bend: Maverick, 2005; McCash, Bill. “The Aircraft Warning Service in World War II,” Waterways. Coos County Historical Society, Sept. 2007; “Life on the Home Front: Oregon Responds to World War II,” Oregon State Archives, http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us)
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