Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Cold War & the Home Front: Owingsville's Air Force Station

There was a period in recent time when America lived in a state of constant readiness.  We lived under the assumption that one day, communist forces from the USSR and Cuba would attack The United States and spark the dreaded Third World War; a nuclear war that could obliterate our cities and lives.  At the end of World War II in 1945, the United States and USSR (Russia) dominated world affairs.  Berlin, Germany's capital city, was divided, with the United States and Allied Forces occupying the west, and the Russians occupying the east.   The US, British and French occupied the entire western and southern sections of Germany.  Russia's leader, Joseph Stalin, counted on the allies to vacate Germany within a couple of years, and there would be a total communist control over the country.  Tensions arose in 1948 when the Russians blocked the crucial transportation routes into Berlin and the region was once again at the brink of war.  Luckily, the blockade was resolved in May, 1949 and the region stabilized again.  Berlin was again at the center point of world affairs when in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed by the Russians, dividing the city for twenty-eight years.

As the 1950's dawned, the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was tested with the Korean War.  Communist forces under the direction Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, allegedly under the advisement of the Joseph Stalin.  The war was a brutal fight, ending in 1953 with over thirty three thousand United States deaths.  Tensions between the USSR and US continued, and by the 1960's, Cuba was a player in the field.  The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 nearly brought the world into an all out nuclear war.  A failed coup attempt to oust communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs resulted in the positioning of nuclear-armed missiles by Russia on the Cuban mainland; well within striking distance of the Untied States.  A tense stand off brought a nuclear war closer than it ever had, or has, been and was resolved diplomatically.

All the tensions, provocations and fear of war mobilized the United States into readiness mode.  The armed forces, particularly the Air Force, prepared for the anticipated event of war by bolstering air defenses on land and in space.  Intercontinental ballistic missiles could strike targets thousands of miles away by the push of a button, so early warning systems were designed to better protect us.  Powerful radar systems and a series of transmitters were strategically built nationwide, providing a web of protection against nuclear strikes.  In the meantime, everyday citizens of all ages were taught to 'duck and cover' and participated in drills in their homes, workplaces and schools.  No one appeared safe from the nuclear threat; large cities, military facilities and small town America was in harm's way.  Part of this readiness mode brought the Cold War right into Bath County.

The Air Defense Command was activated in 1946 by the United States Air Force to provide a blanket of defense from attacks by planes or missiles.  The Russians were building larger and better ranged bombers that could strike key targets and large municipalities, so early warning was integral.
A deployed mobile AN/TPS-1D radar system
Forty-four mobile radar stations were built nationwide to supplement the stationary radar sites, a kind of mobile-relay system.  Originally slated for full operation by 1952, budget limits, site changes and other factors delayed the implementation of the mobile sites and in 1954, the 809th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron was activated at the newly constructed Owingsville Air Station; officially designated as M-131.  Owingsville Station was part of the 4708th Air Defense Wing based out of Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clements, Michigan.  The barracks, mess hall, motor pool, support and personnel buildings were located off Kentucky Highway 36 West, just prior to Tunnel Hill Road.  A mobile AN/TPS-1D type radar was placed on the garrison site until the station was fully operational in 1956.  A tactical operations site was constructed a few miles north of the garrison site, on a hillside adjacent to Powers Branch Road.  The tactical site featured a few buildings and a stationary mounted radar that functioned as a Ground Control Intercept station.  The role of the station was to guide aircraft to intercept incoming, unidentified threats using the other radar systems within the links of the air defense chain.  The station was called a 'manned gap-filler' type site due to the relay capabilities.   Major Frank Smyth was the commander for the 809th AC&W Squadron, Second Lieutenant Robert Poline served as the Adjutant at the small garrison, and together with a small force of Airmen, they maintained a constant, watchful eye on the skies above and beyond.  Amenities at the station were modest; barracks lined one side of the facility, the motor pool where all the vehicles were parked was on the back side against Prickly Ash Creek, and a few other buildings rounded out the perimeter. 
Owingsville Air Force Station, 1957
The 809th Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron's tactical site
In March, 1956, the 809th Squadron was placed under the command of the 58th Air Division, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  The 58th Air Division yearbook from 1957 provides some great photographs and insight of the operations  that went on at the Owingsville Air Force Station. 
From the 58th ADD 1957 Yearbook
No major incidents were ever publicly revealed, mainly due to the intense secrecy that guarded our National safety.  Budget cuts across the armed forces caused the reduction or closure of many radar stations across the country, including the Owingsville Air Force Station in November, 1957.  The station was then operated as an unmanned radar annex controlled by the Snow Mountain Air Force Station located in Fort Knox, Kentucky.  The site on Powers Branch Road was slated to be upgraded to an AN/FPS-18 radar system, but the garrison on Kentucky 36 was abandoned and dismantled.  Site control was then transferred the Guthrie Air Force Station in West Virginia until sometime in the early 1960's before it was closed completely.  The larger AN/FPS-18 radar was never constructed.

The Cold War effectively ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the USSR consolidating, but threats till loom on a smaller scale.  Today, the 809th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron command and tactical stations are unrecognizable as places that once helped insure National security by watching our skies.  The garrison site is now home to the Kentucky Department of Transportation garage and the Powers Branch site is now privately owned land.
On this hill was the 809th
Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron's radar site.  Located on Powers Branch Road, off KY 36 West.

Owingsville Air Force Station command site, September 2014 (courtesy of Google Map)

It is highly unlikely that Bath County will ever host another gap-filler radar station for the United States Air Force.  Changes in technology and global security has made these small stations obsolete, but for a short time, Owingsville was an integral part of our nation's defense.



Google Maps 

The 58th Air Division archives

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