“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.”
That was a line from a 1950s Air Force radio advertisement, looking for volunteers to join the Ground Observer Corps.
The GOC (and I refuse to believe anyone used that acronym in the 1950s) started in World War II when 1.5 million civilians volunteered to staff 14,000 observation posts along the U.S. coasts.
According to the Ground Observer Corps website: The “mission was to visually search the skies for enemy aircraft attempting to penetrate American airspace.”
The Corps disbanded in 1944, but was brought back to life in 1950, “with the belief that the Korean War served as a precursor to a possible Soviet attack.”
Here’s another commercial (thanks, Rudy), from 1954. Click on the “Will You Volunteer” link below to listen. The ad runs a bit more than one minute:
Here’s a transcript of the ad:
If you’re of teen age or up, a loyal American, male or female, your country needs you in the civilian Ground Observer Core.
You’ve heard the radio broadcasts, seen the television pictures. You know the facts. You know what a single H Bomb dropped in any metropolitan area could do. And today’s long range bombers have made intercontinental war possible. Enemy planes based on the other side of the world could reach the United States in a matter of hours. Radar can help detect them. But there are dangerous gaps through which low flying planes can penetrate without detection.
To fill out our detection system, civilian personel is [sic] needed, particularly along the east and west coast and in the northern states.
Sky watching is not a game. It’s a necessary precaution.
The Ground Observer Core is now operating on a 24 hour a day basis, and needs at least 200,000 volunteers to contribute a few hours of their spare time to this vital work.
Will you volunteer?
Get in touch with your local civilian defense center at once.
The campaign seems to have worked: “Eventually over 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts and seventy-three filter centers.”
A 2006 story in Air Force Magazine reported the Fate of GOC:
By the late 1950s, the need for volunteer sky watchers was diminishing. In July 1957, the main Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was declared technically ready. … That September, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was established.
By then, both the US and the Soviets had ICBMs capable of delivering atomic warheads to their adversaries’ homelands. Volunteer sky watchers, trained to spot aircraft when there still was time to intercept them, would be of little use against such weapons.
In January 1958, the Ground Observer Corps was reduced from 24-hour to ready-reserve status. A year later, it was inactivated. That same month, the first Semiautomatic Ground Environment (SAGE) division became operational in Syracuse.
Fifty years later, the wings and badges of the GOC observers and the airplane models used to train them in recognition are collector’s items enshrined in museums or sold on eBay. Many of the teenagers who helped man the ramshackle observation posts are drawing Social Security. Only a few of the towers from which they phoned their reports have survived as historic monuments…..
Whether keeping watch on the skies helped to head off a fatal attack on the US is debatable. There is no way to tell how things would have been different if the watchers and plotters had not been there.
Like the GOC members of World War II, however, those who served in the Cold War leave another legacy. For a brief period, thousands responded to the perceived threat and served alongside the uniformed services in defense of the country.
“The Cold War was starting to crank up,” noted Sutter. The Ground Observer Corps “had a feel-good element to it, where people felt they were doing something. Then, when word got out that there were actually people up there watching, it had a warm fuzzy feeling for other people who weren’t participating but knew that it was going on.”
The article closes a tad wistfully:
The US has not experienced anything quite like that kind of nationwide public participation with the military since the GOC disbanded.