Town Beach at West Island
WW II Fire Control Tower
WW II Fire Control Tower
A Community Service provided by
Iconic Tower Guarded Buzzard's Bay in WW II
For Over 70 Years the Tower Stands as a Reminder of A War That Came Close to Our Doorstep
Located on the southeastern end of West Island overlooking Buzzards Bay is a 48ft concrete tower that has served as a reference point from land, sea and air at the Town Beach for over 70 years. The structure built by The Army Corps of Engineers in 1943, was part of an elaborate array of coastal defense networks up and down the East Coast of the US during WWII.
The primary mission was to identify and detect enemy shipping and submarine movements that sunk an average of a ship per week during the peak of the war in the mid 1940's. Nazi submarine "wolfpacks" of 7 subs or more would randomly attack American or Allied flagged vessels that jammed the busy shipping lanes with war supplies, troops and cargo en route to Europe. The newly formed strategy of convoys grouping ships together mitigated some losses, but the subs still had easy pickings for their prey especially upon the large slow moving cargo vessels such as the Liberty Ships. It was not uncommon to stroll along the beach on a quiet summer night and hear a deep thud in the distance followed by an orange glow on the horizon. This indicated the demise of another ship being struck by a torpedo and sent to the bottom. An aggressive project of Fire Control Towers quickly sprouted up along the coast to monitor an enemy that was getting closer to the US mainland at a startling rate.
The Coastal Defense Artillery Network had a group of observation towers that would report to a central command post to coordinate firing solutions at potential enemy targets at sea. The towers were manned around the clock and usually had a compliment of 2 dozen soldiers working in shifts. The US Army took over a parcel of land on the south end of West Island and erected Fire Control Tower #55. The island once a spot for grazing cattle and not much else was now a heavily guarded and restricted area. Before electricity was installed, a coal fired space heater provided warmth at the chilly shoreline post. A power generator was later placed in service and stored in a nearby well-pump house. A steel stair case linked the upper 2 floors.
A mess hall, very likely a Qounset Hut (above) - which was a prefabricated arched steel structure accommodated the contingent of soldiers. Another hut was located at Wilbur Point to house the off-duty soldiers, according to the late Helen Radcliffe whos family grew up there. Guards patrolled the beach on horseback. Buzzards Bay was dotted with similar structures which included gun batteries.
Some observation posts were installed inside barns, sheds, and lighthouses if the location met the criteria for height and good visibility, ideally 14 miles or more.
The tower at West Island had observers like this (US Goverment photo above). The primary instrument used was a DPF - or Depression Position Finder along with a spotting scope. The triangulated observations from several towers would then be transmitted to the Command Center Newport, RI. The enemy ships positions were then calculated for firing solutions from several gun emplacements that accompanied the tower structures throughout Buzzards Bay. The scope would also be used to observe splashes from shells near the target to vector in a more accurate bearing.
The War Came into New England's Waters
German Sub Attacked New Bedford Fishing Boat in WWII
A NAZI U-Boat similar to the one above attacked a New Bedford scalloper in August 1944. On a foggy night while dragging for scallops off Nantucket, the crew of The Friars spotted a periscope rising out of the murky water. The sub surfaced and began firing upon the fishing boat. Crew members donned their life jackets and prepared to abandon ship.
Photo above - The huge 8.8cm deck gun on a German U Boat - (Left) Crew members fire
They were not sure of the distance, but could see the flashes from the subs deck gun. 4 shells were fired at the Friars and then the sub quickly submerged. The Friars headed at full speed towards the north and then the Captain and crew decided to return the 74ft scalloper back to the fishing grounds a few hours later. They returned to port with the story of their ordeal and a "1,000" gallons of scallops. A rare 1939 photo (right) shows the Friars dockside at Pier 3 New Bedford, MA. An average of one ship per week was sunk by enemy submarines off the East Coast during the height of the war.
Standard-Times Headline August 18, 1944
The History of The Ground Observer Corps
The History of The Ground Observer Corps
The Ground Observer Corps (GOC) traced its roots to World War II when 1.5 million civilian volunteers were enrolled by the Army Air Forces to man 14,000 observation posts positioned along the nation's coasts. With limited radar detection capability, the GOC's mission was to visually search the skies for enemy aircraft attempting to penetrate American airspace. With the declining threat to America from German and Japanese air forces, the Army Air Forces disestablished the GOC in 1944.
In February 1950, Continental Air Command Commander General Ennis C. Whitehead proposed the formation of a 160,000 civilian volunteer GOC to operate 8,000 observation posts scattered in gaps between the proposed radar network sites. With the belief that the Korean War served as a precursor to a possible Soviet attack, ADC had little difficulty recruiting volunteers. In 1951, some 210,000 GOC volunteers manning 8,000 observation posts and twenty-six filter centers were tested for the first time in nationwide exercises. The time recorded for a sighting report to reach the Ground Control Interception centers through the filter centers in this and subsequent drills was unimpressive.
Subsequently, the scope of Whitehead's plan was expanded to recruit more volunteers to man more observation posts on a continuing basis. This revised GOC plan, dubbed "Operation SKYWATCH," was initiated on July 14, 1952. Eventually over 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts and seventy-three filter centers. The Air Force used a variety of means to recruit volunteers, including radio. One radio spot announced:
"It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid.... Won't you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today."
Source: Schaffel, Emerging Shield, pp. 158 - 159.
By the late 1950s, deployment of the short-range AN/FPS-14 radar resolved the problem of detecting low-flying planes. Dozens of AN/FPS-14s and the follow-on model AN/FPS-18s were deployed at sites between the long range permanent and mobile radar statsions. As a result of this technological improvement, the ADC disestablished the Ground Observer Corps on January 31, 1959.
Ground Observer Aircraft Warning Service, 1944
Ground Observer Aircraft Warning Service, 1944
contributed by John E. Clements
During World War II, the Ground Observer Corps, Aircraft Warning Service was established by the War Department. This document describes some early experiences with that service. Also included are War Department letters announcing the discontinuance of the service in 1944, and a certificate of service.
Memory of the Ground Observer Corps
By John Clements
My memory has dimmed over the years so some of this may not be correct but no one is left that can help as most of the people that took an active part in our post as they were called, have passed away.
As I recall in early 1942 the U.S army rep came to see my father, Charles M. Clements, to ask him if he would be an observation post chief observer in the town of Swanville, Maine. Agreeing to do so, the next step was to set up a post. Far the present my fathers garage would fit the mold. But, being too noisy and busy another more suitable location was needed.
Tom Nickerson generously donated a building that he used for a logging camp to serve as the observation post. The next step was to get the cabin moved next to my fathers garage and filling station. Since patriotism ran high, volunteers were easy to come by and with the aid of a few skids and Russell Littlefields Mack Jr. truck, the 8 by 16 building was moved out of the woods and put on a proper resting place next to my fathers garage. The cabin was wired to put in a few lights and a plug in or two with the electricity coming from the garage.
There was also a stove and a few chairs in the building that were donated and a telephone with the party line # 254W4 that was put in by the telephone company. Over the next few weeks there was another addition to the building, a cot. This way pairs with night shift could take turns standing watch and sleeping. A table followed so that we could now play cribbage or any other card game to pass some time.
After the initial request of a post and volunteers were met, the army came and ran a school of instructing. It was a one night session held at the Grange Hall. After that day of schooling everything was all set to go!
Being a small town with not many people there was a limited number of volunteers. It turned out though, that with night shift you only had a shift every two weeks or so. Everyone did all they could to help out and even traded shifts if necessary. My father, being chief observer had the task of creating a schedule. Father, few of the elderly men and the neighborly women along with my brother Nicholas and I ( when we were not in school ) did most of the day shifts.
Nicholas and I each received a medal for serving 500 hours and my father received one for over 1,000 hours! I couldn't tell you where that is right now it must have gotten lost over the past 55 years. We were each given a lapel pin for our service. The were arm bands available to be worn while on duty.
The army provided us with identification books and flash cards to help in identifying the difterent types of U.S, German, Japanese, and Italian planes. My brother an I got very proficient in our knowledge of the flash cards.
We called in the sighting to a Filter Center located in Bangor, Maine. This was before the dial telephone in our area was readily used, so the calls were all operator assisted. When she asked "number please? our response was, "Army Flash 254W4." which told her to connect us to the Filter Center at Bangor. It gave her the number of who to charge the call to.
As I recall our post code number was "X-Ray 461" and later became "Gimble 23". When the Filter Center answered you would identify the post buy saying, "post code number X-Ray 461". Then you would read from a sheet which was provided which covered the following items ( which may not be in order ):
- Number of Aircraft
- Identify if it is know or unknown
- Single or multiple engines
- Seen or Heard
- How far from post
- Direction headed
- Altitude: High, Med., Or Low
- Speed: Slow, Fast, Or Very Fast
The Filter Center would thank you and say that was all for now then every once in a while they would call you back to verify something. (Number of aircraft, or altitude, not who was winning the cribbage game.)
Lookout Tower Was Re-Dedicated in 1956
Lookout Tower Was Re-Dedicated in 1956
July 27, 1956 - Standard-Times Article:
West Island Post Begins Operations Location for Civilian plane spotting was activated today at the official lookout tower on West Island. State county, and town Civil Defense leaders, town officials and military men participated in the ceremonies.
The tower built by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers during World War II, was taken over by Fairhaven when the town purchased the beach at West Island two years ago in 1954.
Army Corps of Engineers map of the observation installment at West Island, 1943, provided by Chris Wiles, U.S. Coast Artillery Photos
"To Serve All Humanity"
"This tower is dedicated to serve all humanity," Albert E. Stanton, Chairman of The Board of Selectmen, said during the brief ceremony. Also taking part in the dedication were Major general Robert G. Ervin (USAF Retired), Executive Officer of the Manchester, NH GOC, Major FranklinG. Woodward, State GOC Co-ordinator, 1st Lieutenant Claude F. Owens, operation officer of the Manchester, NH GOC filter center, and Sergeant Chauncy Yurchis, area field officer of the GOC. Others were Louis F. Saba, CD Sector 2 Director, Arthur J. Mullen, Fairhaven CD Director, William Davis, sector 2A CD Director, Wendell T Eldridge, Chief Observer for the Fairhaven Civil Defense.
Approximately 20 of the 70 observers of the Fairhaven GOC also were on hand. Mrs. Rose Lawton, executive director of the Fairhaven organization, placed the first call in the Manchester filter center at 2:55 p.m. reporting the opening aircraft flash.
The tower is the towns first observation post since World War II, when a lookout station was established. Civilian ground observers work two hours weekly on a volunteer basis, but 168 volunteers are maintain lookout 24 hours, seven days a week.
Reports from radars and Ground Observer Corps lookouts were fed into information centers. These photos (above) show the filter boards and command table of the New York Information Center. (Photo courtesy Air Force History Support Office)
Lookout Tower May Have Had a Secret Gun Emplacement
Lookout Tower May Have Had a Secret Gun Emplacement
WEST ISLAND: Although gun emplacements were a standard part of the design type and layout of US Army observation towers like the one at West Island, no confirmation of a gun battery has been found.
However, evidence suggests that on the northeast corner of the island, (above) that an existing man-made 6x6 ft concrete foundation deep in the woods out of no-where, very well could have been part of a gun emplacement. There were confirmed gun batteries throughout Buzzards Bay. (Location info below)
Its strategic location close to shore in thick brush and trees would certainly have been made for an ideal spot. The lack of any reference to this location from a military stand point during the war probably would have been classified.
This also could explain the origin of the trail-path carved out of the brush headed towards the site from Fir St. Keep in mind the island wasn't developed until the late 40's and early 50's. but a trail is clearly visible in a 1946 aerial photograph (below) taken just after the war. (A) on the left marks possible gun emplacement. (B) on the right marks dump site cavity.
This path would later be referred to as the "dump road" for new island inhabitants who needed a place to discard their trash, including broke down household appliances, tires etc. As the population increased, so did the trash. At one point a small bulldozer was used to pack in the refuse into what became a deepening cavity of about a 100 foot circumference down the bend in the trail on the right side.
The bulldozer was stored in a garage next to the oldest house on the island at 38 Causeway Rd on the corner of Fir St. The town began trash pick-up to the island in the late 60's, but some dumping continued into the late 70's. The cavity of this site is visible by satellite to this day.
Areal photo taken about 2006: (A) on the left marks possible gun emplacement. (B) on the right marks dump site cavity still visible.
THERE WAS ALSO AN OBSERVATION POST AT FORT PHOENIX
Fort Phoenix also had a civilian observation post (sponsored by The American Legion Post 166) during the war. In January of 1942, Eldred E. Besse, Fairhaven's chief air raid warden was recognized for his efforts along with other volunteers who had constructed an enclosed tower at no cost for it's spotters.
On January 31st, 1942 The Standard-Times "Takes Off It's Hat To..." section at the end of every month recognized Eldred E. Besse. Mr. Besse organized the co-operative effort which has given aircraft spotters at Fort Phoenix, Fairhaven's observation station the first watch tower shelter to be erected for any observer corps in this vicinity. He and a patriotic crew of volunteers of carpenters and other craftsmen hope to complete tomorrow the structure they raised last Sunday. It will have been erected wholly without cost to the Fairhaven American Legion Post, sponsor of the station. Mr. Besse, a member of the post, chief air raid warden and master mechanic at the Wamsutta Mills, obtained the building materials without charge from interested acquaintances. Now Fairhaven watchers need not be exposed constantly to wind and weather while on duty, as are the men and women who staff similar posts night and day on the out-skirts of New Bedford. Mr. Besse held Captain's rank in the first World War as an anti-aircraft ordinance officer.
TOWN HANDED OVER GOVERNMENT MILITARY SITE
In 1953 The US Army relinquished control of the beach property and signed the land over to The Town of Fairhaven.,eventually becoming the Town Beach. In July of 1956 the tower was re-dedicated as a civilian aircraft observation post during the cold-war era. The Ground Observer Corps was a civilian branch of the US Air Force. Reports from radars and Ground Observer Corps lookouts were fed into information centers located in New York. With all the excitement and activity of WW II and the Cold-War that followed the site has remained neutral since 1959.
Today the 70 year old tower (which was only designed to last 10 years) quietly oversees the peaceful waters of Buzzards Bay in constant vigil to a threat that has long since past. It remains a prominent landmark that has seen generations of families and beach goers and has provided many a concrete pallette for vandals. An identical tower is located at Gooseberry Island in Westport, MA
The tower was re-dedicated again by The West Island Improvement Association in 2001 for its role in WWII.
On November 10, 2013 Long-time resident Terry Perreira submitted an interesting comment on this tower story with historical significance. "Always happy to read "stuff" on the tower. Worked..many moons ago at Morse Twist Drill as Secretary in Engineering Dept. to an engineer named Harold "Buck" Herlihy from NB who said at the beginning of the war came down to Tower by horse . When we did dedication of Tower in 2001 our guest was Mr. Joe Britto from SouthEnd of NB who worked on building this tower. Very happy the West Island Imp. Assoc. took this project on with DPW n town officials. Great piece of history right in own West Island backyard. Thanks ML . Good Job as usual my friend... Terry"
¤¤ HARBOR DEFENSES of NEW BEDFORD and BUZZARD'S BAY
¤¤ Butler Point Military Reservation
(1943 - 1946), East Marion
Batteries here were AMTB Battery 934 (1943 - 1946) one mount buried, which replaced a two-gun 155mm battery (1942 - 1943) Panama mounts remain.
¤¤ Fort Rodman
(1857 - 1892, 1898 - 1947), New Bedford
A stone hexagon-shaped fort was built here beginning in 1857, called Fort at Clark's Point. A six-gun earthwork battery (locally named Fort Taber) was built in 1863 because the unnamed stone fort was not yet completed or armed. The entire military reservation, with the new coast defense batteries, was formally named Fort Rodman in 1898. Batteries here are Battery Milliken (1924 - 1946), Battery Walcott (1899 - 1942), Battery Barton (1899 - 1942), Battery Cross (1902 - 1920), Battery Craig (1902 - 1920) one emplacement modified into AA battery for World War II, Battery Gaston(1902 - 1920), and a two-gun 155mm battery (1940's).
(some info provided by Steve Crossley and Chris McDonald of the Fort Taber - Fort Rodman Historical Association.)
¤¤ Mishaum Point Military Reservation
(1943 - 1947), near Salters Point
Batteries here were Battery 210 (1945 - 1947) which is built over, and an unnamed two-gun 155mm examination battery, which is covered. A Harbor Entrance Contol Post and a radar tower were also here
¤¤ Barneys Joy Point Military Reservation
(1943 - 1946), near Slocums Corner
Located on the opposite side of the Slocums River from Mishaum Point was AMTB Battery 931 (1943 - 1946) one mount covered.
¤¤ Elizabeth Islands Military Reservation
(1943 - 1946), Cuttyhunk
Batteries here were AMTB Battery 932 (1943 - 1946) on the north tip of Cuttyhunk Island (private property), and AMTB Battery 933 (1943 - 1946) (mounts remain) at Fox Point on Nashawena Island (private property). Cuttyhunk also had a radar tower (removed) and two fire-control towers (still standing). Three additional FC towers are still here for the Harbor Defenses of Narragansett Bay. Naushon Island has three fire-control stations still remaining, two on the north end, and one on the south end (private property).
Located nearby, a 37mm AMTB battery was located at Wood's Hole, and two FC towers are still located at Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, one is partially buried (for HD Narragansett Bay), and the other has been destroyed in the surf.
Courtesy : NORTHAMERICANFORTS.COM