A Cold War outpost

Radar installation was part of North American defense system scanning for sneak attacks.

Source: http://www.timesleader.com/mld/timesleader/news/special_packages/look_back/13156595.htm

By RON BARTIZEK rbartizek@leader.net

RED ROCK – Today, terrorists wearing backpacks on a subway train or secreting a dirty bomb into a busy harbor are America’s most-feared enemies. But 50 years ago, the threat was in the sky, and the Benton Air Force Station was a frontline defender of national security.

The Cold War was just heating up in 1949 when the 648th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron was formed at Fort Indiantown Gap. Soldiers from that barracks rotated duty manning the new radar equipment installed at “Mud Pond,” as the station was nicknamed because of a small body of water on the 98-acre site at the top of Red Rock Mountain, near Ricketts Glen State Park. Construction began in 1950 on the installation, and Benton became fully operational on Sept. 21, 1951.

By then, several barracks had been constructed, and two AN/CPS-6B radar scanners were up and running. Paul Beaton was stationed at Benton as a supply officer from 1953 to 1957, and estimates 200-250 troops were assigned there at the time. The radar operators – “scope dopes,” Beaton said they were dubbed – worked around the clock.

“Our squadron could scramble fighter jets out of New York or New Jersey; our purpose was to insure the safety of areas of the East Coast from attack,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Anyone who grew up in those years knows how seriously taken was the threat of an attack by Soviet bombers or missiles. School children were taught to “duck and cover” in the event of an attack, and fallout shelters were designated in communities across the nation.

According to a fact booklet published for Armed Forces Day in 1958, “This station is involved in the air defense of some 44 million Americans in nine eastern states. It is a unit of the Continental Air Defense Command … that command charged with the air defense of the entire Continental United States.”

Benton’s radar scanned the skies from Massachusetts to southern Virginia, and as far out to sea as possible. In 1958, with installation of upgraded radar units, it became part of the Semi-Automated Ground Environment, or SAGE, system, the first large computer-based military command and control system. The SAGE system connected dozens of long-range radar stations to control centers by sending data over telephone lines. The heart of the command center was a powerful digital computer, the largest in existence at the time, which processed the incoming information and then sent it back to tracking stations as images on cathode-ray tubes.

Raymond Garber Jr. was assigned to P-30 (the station’s Air Force designation) in the early 1960s as a radar maintenance technician. When he arrived, a new AN/FPS-35 radar was being installed atop a five-story structure that still stands, while two “height-finder” radars also were operating.

Two outlying “gap filler” sites, needed because of the region’s hilly terrain, fed data into the station’s computer.

“These sites were not manned and could be remotely controlled from P-30,” Garber said. Part of his job was to maintain and calibrate the equipment, one at Ulysses near the New York border in Potter County and the other at Joliett, southwest of Pottsville.

The new radar unit was one of the first of its kind to be deployed. Huge – the antenna weighed 70 tons – it was painted in a garish red/white checkerboard pattern. It must have been quite a sight as it rotated five times a minute.

“Your (station) was probably one of, if not the best, state-of-the-art installation anywhere in the Lower 48,” Garber said.

Garber, who now lives in Pekin, Ill., has many memories of his time at Red Rock, some funny and others frightening. The scariest one comes from the fall of 1962, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were locked in a tense struggle now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“That was the only time I was at P-30 when both the inner gate and the outer gates were closed,” Garber said. “It was a time when a lot of us thought World War III was on its way. There was only one more upgrade to the DEFCON rating, and the war was on.” DEFCON is military shorthand for defense condition and is numbered to indicate the degree of readiness for action counting down from 5 for normal to 1 for maximum readiness.

While it was powerful, the FPS-35 was not foolproof. Once, officials from the government and Sperry, the manufacturer, descended upon Red Rock to investigate jamming of the radar signal, which was thought to be impossible. “Most every morning, for about one-half hour, the scopes would light up like light bulbs,” Garber recalled. “No way could a target be picked out of all the light when this occurred.”

The FBI questioned drivers along Route 487, which passed outside the station, and Federal Communications Commission staff brought direction-finding equipment.

Eventually the cause turned out to be a bad UHF tuner in a television set in the housing area, Garber said. “The lady of the house sometimes watched a soap on one of the local channels, which also are UHF. The fix was easy. They replaced the tuner and isolated housing power from tech power. No more jamming.”

While the Air Force described the site as “picturesque” and touted the activities available both on- and off-base, Beaton, who now lives in Jefferson, N.H., said that was true only in the summer. “In the winter was the worst. It could get pretty lonely as it was treacherous going up and down Red Rock Mountain.”

Some comfort could be found at the NCO Club in the special services building, which contained a small gym, game tables, a library and even a makeshift theater where films were shown three times a week, according to the 1958 press release.

The bachelor officers quarters and enlisted men’s barracks were two-story buildings with a lounge and game room.

Family housing was built for key personnel in the late 1950s, so that “in case of an all-out emergency, these people can be reached and will not have far to travel on short notice.”

And what would a radar station be without UFO sightings? Garber said there were several reports, of varying quality. “Some were obviously folks at a bar calling in, as I could hear the music and glasses clanking and laughter in the background.”

Others were less certain. One night the image of a very fast, very high-flying aircraft appeared intermittently on the screens. “At the time, the only thing we knew we had that could fly that high was the U2, but it could not fly that fast,” Garber said.

Later, they learned of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane – the fastest jet aircraft ever built – and while Garber never was told what the image was, he suspects that was it.

After more than a quarter century of faithful service, the Benton Air Force Station was deactivated in June 1975. It had become a joint-use site with the Federal Aviation Administration in 1963, and that function continues today, as an auxiliary to the FAA tower at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. The radar dome can be glimpsed from Route 487.

The rest of the facility is now the Red Rock Jobs Corps Center, which was established on the site in 1978.

During the early 1960s, Soviet Union scientists and engineers worked feverishly to design and build ballistic missile submarines capable of launching missiles from relatively short distances off America’s coastlines. When United States officials sought the capability to detect incoming missiles to prevent the specter of an atomic sneak attack, they turned to AN/FPS-35 search radars located at Benton and Manassas, Va.

The two systems received modifications and began to be tested during the summer of 1962, a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis of that October.

During these tests, both radars attempted to track Polaris, Minuteman, Titan, and the Thor-Delta missile launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The tests revealed that the AN/FPS-35 had only marginal ability to detect missile launches.

1949: The 648th Air Force Squadron is formed at Fort Indiantown Gap.

1950: Construction begins on the station at “Mud Pond” atop Red Rock Mountain.

1951: The Benton station becomes fully operational. At its height, 300 personnel are deployed there, about half living on the base.

1958: Two AN/FPS-6B radars replace the original “height finder” units. Benton begins providing information to the SAGE system.

1961: An AN/FPS-35 search radar, one of only 12 ever built, is installed.

1963: Two additional radar units are installed. The station begins joint use as a Federal Aviation Administration site, tracking commercial aircraft.

1974: The AN/FPS-35 is replaced by an AN/FPS-67B search radar unit. The FAA continues to use that unit, which is located inside a dome.

1975: The 648th Radar Squadron is deactivated.

1978: The site and buildings begin use as the Red Rock Job Corps Center.

To read previous Look Back stories, go to www.timesleader.com

Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business writer, may be reached at 970-7157.