When American Citizens Watched the Skies
The Ground Observer Corps was the U.S. military’s first early warning system
The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed America forever. The entire population went to war. Millions of men went overseas to fight, families back home grew victory gardens and bought war bonds, Rosie the Riveter took over manufacturing, the mafia protected the ports and more than a million Americans watched the skies.
These millions of men, women, children and even a few dogs were part of the Ground Observer Corps — a volunteer branch of the U.S. Army Air Forces tasked with watching the skies and keeping America safe.
From the outbreak of World War II until the advent of advanced radar and communication technology in 1959, ordinary citizens waited, watched and reported on everything they saw above them. Their numbers waxed and waned over the years — GOC had 1.5 million members at its height and slightly more than 200,000 when it ended — but the citizens always took the job seriously.
Sometimes, too seriously. The GOC was responsible for more false alarms than actual threat detections. But it made ordinary citizens feel part of the war effort and had a surprising impact on popular culture.
“This is the story of the Ground Observer Corps of the aircraft early warning service,” the woman says. The camera zooms in on her face. She looks like your mother and she’s deadly serious.
“It may be a long story or it may be a short one. That depends on how soon we lick ‘em. We hope it’ll be a short one. But if it’s long, we’ll be in it at the end. Just as we were at the beginning.”
This is the opening scene from a U.S. Army propaganda film from 1943 called Eyes Aloft! — a short film featuring the brave men and women of the GOC. The camera cuts across the whole of America, depicting farmers, businessman, children, couples and bachelors watching the skies.
Some sit atop buildings in cities while others climb poles in the desert, all while the narrator explains the situation in her homespun, matter-of-fact tone. Eyes Aloft! is great, not only for its campy nostalgic appeal, but for its insight into how the Corps actually worked.
The U.S. Army Air Forces trained its 1.5 million volunteers to identify enemy planes by look and sound. The Corps’ members would then sit somewhere with an open view of the sky and wait to see something.
When they did, they’d pick up the phone and say “army flash,” and an operator would put them through to a “filler center.”
“After a ground observer picks up his phone, says army flash and tells his story to a woman in the filter center, his job is done,” the film reel explains. The footage lingers on the filter center, a large room filled with women smoking, answering phones and moving models around on a map.
“Of course, the job down there is just starting. It’s a big room with a map of a whole area, a lot of telephones, target stands and plenty of fast, precise work … every airplane in the air is tracked on that board.”
This is how the Ground Observer Corps worked during its almost two-decade run. See something strange flying through the sky? Call the filter center. The filter center would try to predict the object’s flight path and report its location to the military.
The military would look through flight plans, records and lists of training exercises. If it couldn’t match what the observers saw with its records, it scrambled fighters. Finally, while the military’s planes flew toward the target, GOC fed them information about the path of the foreign object.
The constant stream of information between civilians and the military kept America safe during the years before advanced radar techniques. “Nobody flies up there that we don’t know about,” the narrator says. For a time, she was right.
The threat of another attack on American soil waned as the Allies beat back the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific. In 1944, the U.S. Army Air Forces shut down the Ground Observer Corps. Just a few years later, a different kind of war revived them.
The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949. The United States was no longer the only country with a nuclear weapon. Radar technology and infrastructure still wasn’t capable of watching over every inch of American sky.
People worried that Moscow would nuke Washington at any moment.
The now-independent U.S. Air Force revived the Ground Observer Corps in 1950, and citizens once again took to their roofs to watch the skies for strange lights and sounds. Pres. Harry Truman authorized Operation Skywatch in 1952, which further funded and expanded the group.
“We will need every minute and every second of warning that our Skywatchers can give us,” Truman said.
But the citizenry of the ’50s was not like that of the ’40s. Many Americans were tired of war, and opinions on the Soviet Union and the threat it posed were more divided and nuanced than popular culture has depicted.
The Corps had trouble getting and keeping members. At its height in 1956, 380,000 people worked in 17,000 outposts scattered coast to coast. The Air Force ran more than 40 filter centers to collect the incoming calls. A far cry from the million-plus Americans who watched during World War II.
The numbers varied wildly depending on the time of the year and level of tension with Moscow. Summer was good to the Corps. Teen and preteen boys filled the ranks of the skywatchers when school let out, and people were more likely to sit up late, watching the sky when the weather was warmer.
To convince people to join the Corps and watch the skies, Washington pumped money into propaganda. It produced film reels such as Eyes Aloft!, posters, pamphlets and a magazine called The Aircraft Flash. Corps members could earn medals and ribbons based on their time in the service.
The popular radio show Fibber McGee & Molly even ran a few episodes centered around the characters visiting with Corps volunteers. In the story, Molly volunteers to watch the skies — as a good American should, of course. Fibber McGee, her loveable goof of a husband, wants to go fishing.
“I’m not against the airplane watching you’re doing, kiddo,” he says. “I just merely don’t know what you … can do that the United States Air Force can’t do. And do better.”
The Aircraft Flash was something special. Reading them, “one enters a time warp to the heart of the Cold War,” W. Patrick McCray wrote in Keep Watching the Skies!, a book which recounts the history of the project.
“Magazine covers sported attractive women spotters or military hardware with photos inside showing fundraisers, parade floats and young winners of beauty contests all sponsored by the Ground Observer Corps.”
Many of the articles profiled the citizens who spent their days heroically watching the skies. A warden in North Carolina even forced his inmates to work for the Corps. Families pressed their pets into service.
“One person trained the family dog to bark when planes flew overhead,” McCray wrote. “While another spotter owned a goose that could honk a similar alert. Even blind Americans gave their time by working at filter centers or, in some cases, putting their ‘keen sense of hearing’ to work during times of bad weather and poor visibility.”
With all these people — an animals — watching the skies and not much except American planes flying overhead, false alarms and strange sightings skyrocketed.
The Air Force shut down the Ground Observer Corps in 1959 — radar and communication tech had advanced a lot in a decade. The Pentagon built ballistic missile early warning systems and other radar arrays on America’s coasts, in its waters and on the soil of its allies.
No one needed the Corps anymore.
But some Americans kept watching the skies. Sightings of UFOs spiked in the ’60s, and the mix of past training and Cold War paranoia led to a fear of little green men that found expression in movies, comics and films.
The Corps also inspired another joint venture between Washington and its people — Operation Moonwatch. It was a joint venture of amateur scientists, telescope enthusiasts and the military working together to track satellites.