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Plane Spotting

Like anyone who has spent time hanging around the British or American homefronts of World War II, I am familiar with the concept of plane spotting.* Plane spotters were trained to look at planes on the horizon and  ask “How many?” “Where are they headed?” “Are they ours or the enemy’s?” It never dawned on me to ask how they learned to identify planes–or where they reported spotted planes. Which meant I didn’t know anything that mattered.

Last weekend My Own True Love and I took a road trip to the Grissom Air Museum,** where I learned enough about plane spotting in the United States to make me want to learn more.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the army aided by the American Legion, set up the Army Air Forces Ground Observer Corps (aka GOC): a force of 1,500,000 volunteers who manned observation posts along the coasts. Their purpose was to identify enemy aircraft in time to prevent future attacks.

Observation posts were staffed around the clock. They ranged from specially built structures to a host family’s front room. Observers needed a telephone, binoculars, a pad of flash message forms, and an official identification book with photographs and silhouette drawings of warplanes from Allied and Axis air forces. (My guess is they also needed a way to keep themselves awake in the long stretches of no action.) When planes were seen (or heard), the observer recorded as much information as possible and then called it in to an Army Filter Center,*** where sightings were plotted on a large map and checked against other reports and known flights. The system as a whole was known as the Aircraft Warning Service.

Volunteers ranged from Boy Scouts to little old ladies who brought their knitting along, but the corps didn’t take just anyone who showed up. Spotters had to pass a training course. One of the training devices–the one that set me off on my plane spotting quest–was model airplanes. Built to 1/72 scale and painted black, the models approximated the appearance of an airplane as seen on the horizon when seen from a distance of thirty feet. Official spotters had to be able to identify each type of plane from the back of their classroom. So many models were needed that the government put out a call for children and hobbyists to build 500,000 models for official use. That’s a lot of model airplanes.

Official spotters weren’t the only people to check the skies then they heard the sound of a plane. Young boys in particular served as an unofficial GOC auxiliary. Unofficial spotters learned to identify planes with decks of plane spotter cards or the charts that were printed in comic books, newspapers and magazines. Companies produced plane spotter premiums. Coca-Cola offered a popular manual called Know Your Planes for only ten cents. Wonder Bread offered an Aircraft Spotter Dial.

 

Few enemy planes reached the United States. In October, 1943, the Aircraft Warning Service was put in reserve as advances in radar technology made it obsolete. It was deactivated on the mainland in 1944. Posts remained active in Hawaii through the end of the war–for reasons that I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor only a few days away.

* Though now that I think about it, most of what I previously knew came from the 1964 film Father Goose with Cary Grant and Leslie Caron.
**The Grissom Air Museum is not for the general history buff. It is a small museum devoted to military aviation as seen through the filter of Bunker Hill Air Base (later Grissom Air Base). Like many small specialized museums it is chronically underfunded and run by fanatics for fanatics. Inside, the museum is both grimy and grim, but there are jewels of information buried in the exhibits for the patient visitor. Outside, the collection of vintage military airplanes is excellent.
***Often staffed by members of the Women’s Army Auxillary Corps (WAAC)–another subject that I keep stumbling across these days.

27 Comments

  1. Beth Hash on March 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    My mother was recently talking about being a newlywed in 1943, her husband got drafted and was sent to Wisconsin by the army to learn how to ski, he ended up in Belgium, Germany and France working with the 76th Infantry, Reconissance. While he was away, she became a “spotter” at the Chestnut Hill Rd., Bel Air, MD spotting tower. She explained how you had to call in all information about the plane. I found this to be a very interesting story and was searching more information on volunteer “spotters” during world war 2 when I came across this article. Very imformative.

    • pamela on March 25, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      Beth: Sounds like you have two interesting family connections to WWII. I’m fascinated by both the volunteer plane spotters and the army ski patrols.

  2. Gay Symmes on September 15, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    As a girl of 11 or 12 I was a plane spotter in rural central Texas. I rode horseback to a Texas New Mexico Pump Station which was located on our ranch. I took multiple shifts as I had nothing to do all summer. I had no training but counted the engines and told the air base in San Antonio in what direction the plane was flying. I don’t remember the years but it was my patriotic duty and I felt personally responsible for Hitler not invading us through Mexico.

    • pamela on September 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing this story. I love the idea of a young girl feeling that personal sense of responsibility–and perhaps pride?

  3. alice kelly on March 25, 2015 at 12:11 am

    I used to go with my mother to the playground on the edge of town and play there while she climbed up into a tower to do her volunteer shift as a plane spotter. When planes flew over she watched through binoculars and called a description into headquarters. They could tell by the description and location whether they were our own planes. I remember that she counted the motors on the plane.

    • pamela on March 25, 2015 at 2:16 am

      Alice: Thanks for sharing this memory. I’m growing increasingly fascinated by plane-spotting.

  4. Stillman Gates on March 5, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    In San Juan Capistrano CA a local water tower that was not used any more was converted to a spotter location. The water tank was removed and stairs for access and a spotter building were added in place of the tank. My father was a spotter and on week ends he would take me to watch with him. I have learned that they called in spotted airplanes to a center located on March Air Force base in CA. My father had a spotters arm band that represented 100 hours of spotting service and several pins that were given after multiple hundred hours of spotting service. We are searching for a picture of the converted spotting tower location.

    • pamela on March 6, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      Thank you for sharing this. I’m collecting memories about plane-spotting.

  5. Thomas Fletcher on May 5, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    Iam now 89 years old and while in High School (1943-44) I was an aircraft spotter in Lewistown, PA. Still recall our Identification Location as “Kendrick 17”.. Amazing how we remember little tidbits. Have tried many web sites in PA (including the PA government in Harrisburg) but can find “nothing” that I can immediately relate-to. Would like to have “any” old history on that specfic location “or others”. Can you advise? Also, after High School Graduation, served in the “Old Brown-Shoe” Army Air Force as a Radiotelegraph operator. Many good memories!

    • pamela on May 9, 2016 at 4:05 pm

      Mr. Fletcher: I don’t have any immediate info to suggest, but I’m actively working on this topic in a low grade way. I will share what I find.

  6. Priscilla Newell on September 28, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    I am 2 months shy of 88 and was a WWII plane spotter, along with my mother and sister, in Leesburg, FL. We kept watch from a small shack built on top of the tallest building in town – the four story bank building! We each took four hour shifts and had to be able to recognize the planes from a large printed poster on the wall. We would then call it in on a phone provided. it made us very proud to be involved as well as collect tinfoil and scrap metal, knit wool caps for sailors and send care packages to servicemen and family living in England. Today in Groton, CT I took a ride in a restored B25 bomber, one of the planes I used to identify. I got a real feel for what many of my high school classmates must have gone through starting off on a mission.

    • pamela on September 29, 2016 at 4:08 am

      Dear Ms. Newell: Thank you so much for sharing this. And how thrilling to get to go up in a B25!

      I am fascinated by plane spotting and interested in learning everything I can.

    • pat Loken on November 13, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      Dear Priscilla Newell – I am also a Priscilla and will be 88 in 6 weeks. I, too, was a spotter in the Quincy, MA, area and went through the training. Had the armband which disappeared in all the traveling we did after that. We served at the top of an old water tower and there were always 2 on duty. Have been involved in flying most of my life since. Best wishes, Pris

  7. rachel weinstock on November 1, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    If you would like to read the recollections of a high school aged plane spotter, below is the link to my daughter’s oral history report about her grandfather’s experiences during World War II.

    • pamela on November 1, 2016 at 8:55 pm

      Many thanks! That is exactly the kind of first-person info I’ve been looking for. (And your daughter did a very nice job!)

  8. Belinda Garey on November 5, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    I found out not too long ago that my late grandmother was a plane spotter in Redding, CT during the war. She would take my late dad with her and they climbed the many, many stairs of the fire tower in town to watch. I’ve never found out where she would have called in her observations however. Like you, I wish I had more details! Keep digging and I’ll check back!

    • pamela on November 6, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      Evidently I’m not the only person fascinated by plane-spotters! I don’t even have the excuse of a personal connection.

  9. Shirley blair on November 9, 2016 at 1:46 am

    I was a15yr girl and was an airplane spotter in Pitman,nj. My older brother,my mother and my grandmother were also spotters.my brother and I would climb to the top of the borough hall to call in the direction and no. Aircraft before we went to school.we had the cards and the models. I still have the arm band we were given to wear.i am now 89.

    • pamela on November 9, 2016 at 1:56 am

      Than you so much for sharing this. I really am going to have to write this book. And sooner rather than later.

  10. Frances LaRoche on July 13, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    This is so interesting, Pamela. My mother in law was a spotter on the coast of ChRleston, SC. She always talked about an award pin she received, but she didn’t know where it was. She died (at 102) a few years ago, but we have just found an “Air Force” pin among her belongings and are anxious to know if it is the pin in question. Do you know how we can get it identified?

  11. Judy Stubleski on July 14, 2017 at 5:16 am

    My mom just turned 98. She had been a plane spotter on the “night shift” in Tawas City Michigan. She was in her first year of teaching high school at the time. Now she is wondering what happened to that tower? If it’s still there or if there are any photos of it? I’ve tried searches, but with no luck. Any thoughts?

  12. Carole Colby on July 16, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    I was an observer (spotter) in Mount Kisco, NY in the 50’s and have 2 pins awarded for United States Air Force GOC Observer. The local historical society was unable to give me information on this tower and appeared to not know of it’s existence. I thought that unusual.

    • pamela on July 16, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      I didn’t know that spotters continued into the 50s!

      I surprised/sad to hear that the local historical society didn’t know anything about the tower. That’s always my first stop for this kind of info.

  13. Rose E. Rinaldi on November 1, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    A family member thinks I dreamed this, so I’m wondering if anyone else can verify this:

    A few years ago I saw a television show (it might have been a segment of “Brain Games,”) about an unusual way in which some Americans were trained to become plane spotters. They spent time watching efficient spotters and gradually their sub-conscious minds learned to spot planes efficiently.

    • pamela on November 2, 2017 at 6:53 pm

      I’m not familiar with this, but someone else might be. Anyone?

  14. Sue WeislerSmith on January 19, 2018 at 12:09 am

    My mother, 96, was a plane spotter on the North Shore of Long Island, NY. She and my father took different shifts with a friend in Bayville in 1950. My brother and sister would play on the beach while my mother and her friend took their shift. My dad would take a night shift. They had no formal training, but felt they should do their share to support our country.

    • pamela on January 19, 2018 at 3:24 am

      Thank you for sharing this story.

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