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.