Rewind: May 1, 2024 – “With An Eye to the Sky”

Rewind:  May 1, 2024

With an Eye to the Sky

Warren County residents watch for Enemy Aircraft during WWII

by Dave Waite

It had likely been a typical afternoon at the fire tower atop Prospect Mountain that August 12, 1940, at least until observer Schermerhorn noticed three small dots coming towards him on the western horizon. After identifying what he saw as twin-motor army bombers, he picked up the telephone, gave the code word “Flash” in response to the operator’s greeting, and was immediately connected with Air Force personnel where he reported his sighting.

What occurred that day was a test of the newly established observation posts manned by civilian volunteers that were spread out across Warren County and much of the east and west coasts of the United States to give early warning of any enemy aircraft attempting to attack American soil.  The Aircraft Warning Service was established in response to the development by enemy forces of heavy bombers capable of reaching our shores. As the war progressed nearly 14,000 observation posts were established in the United States, each manned by the volunteers of the Ground Observers Corps, who keep watch for aircraft activity around the clock.

As the plans for setting up observation posts in the northeast continued, regional meetings were held on the importance of volunteer observers. One of these was a dinner held at the DeWitt Clinton Hotel in Albany that was detailed in the July 31, 1943, Glens Falls Post Star. Volunteers from across the area, including Warren County, heard Signal Corps officer Lt. Col.  William E. Whittington give this encouragement to the attendees:

“We cannot place too strong an emphasis on the importance of the work of these ground observers, it is on them that the First Fighter Command and the citizens of the United States depend for minute-by-minute coverage of the skies. The lonely man or woman sitting on a hilltop, beside a schoolhouse, or pacing a post in a field is the first and most important connection between aviation activity and our flying forces.”

 

Glens Falls Times, August 15, 1940

To assist in establishing and manning observation posts the U.S. Army enlisted the assistance of the American Legion, a World War Veterans organization with posts in nearly every community and over a million members. Leading the way for Warren County, the Lake George Legion Commander Stuart F. Hawley took charge of the observation post established at the Albert Smith farm, just south of Lake George. Other prominent community members were Deputy Sheriff George A. Webster, who maintained a post at his Ridge Road farm, and Grange officer Sidney VanDusen, who directed observations at Kattskill Bay, near Pilot Knob on the east shore of Lake George.

Other early observation sites were established in the summer of 1940 by the William J. Varney Post of the American Legion in Stony Creek with David Mann as the Chief Observer, with his wife as his deputy. They soon followed this by setting up posts in Lake Luzerne and Conklingville. The Lake Luzerne post was directed by Warren County native Jason Eugene Lindsay, a World War I veteran who served in the 52nd Pioneer Infantry. The Chief Observer at Conklingville was Clarence J. Salmon, a World War I veteran who saw combat in France while serving as a sergeant with the 105th Infantry.

Bolton Landing was the site of two more of the observation posts, the first was located near Hastings’ filling station on Main Street and the other at the Civilian Conservation Corp camp on Tongue Mountain. The construction of these posts was directed by Bolton native Asa Hastings, a World War I veteran who had served as a fireman 3rd Class on the minelayer USS Canandaigua. To man these observation posts a five-week Observer Recognition of Airplanes course was held at Bolton Central School in the summer of 1943. When the course concluded, First Lieutenant John E. Franson of the Ground Observers Corps presented diplomas as certified Ground Observers to thirty-two graduates.

The mountains of Warren County provided ideal locations for aircraft observation and the state Conservation Department took the lead in manning these posts. These observers were vital to cover the large areas of Warren County that were mostly uninhabited and lacked telephone communication. As every tower had a telephone that was used to report forest fires, direct communication with the Army Information Center was already available.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Prospect Mountain was manned by Orson Milton Schermerhorn, the forest fire observer on the mountain from 1934 to 1942. He returned to the mountain to man the fire tower as a night Ground Observer during the war. Observers on other mountains were Fred Lyng at Spruce Mountain; Henry Perrotte on Hadley Mountain; Fred Austin on Gore; John Stowell on Pharoah; Harley Damp, at Black Mountain; William Wood, at Crane Mountain, and Richard McCoy on Swede Mountain. At West Mountain, the observation post was manned by the Glens Falls post of the American Legion. This post, located on Kaplan’s property on the East side of the mountain, included a telephone line and a house that the observers could use while off duty. The chief observer was William J. Brown past commander of Glens Falls American Legion Post 233, another military veteran, who served in the Chemical Warfare Service in World War I. One of the first steps that Brown took to prepare the post to be manned was sending out a request for an oil heater so that the observers would have some measure of comfort between their watches.

With the collapse of the Axis powers in 1944 the need for aircraft observers ended and the Ground Observers Corps was disbanded. The countless hours of tireless observation by these volunteers were a vital part of our country’s defense during World War II, a service that was estimated to have freed up 100,000 of our military personnel for other work during the war.

 

Sources for this article include Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, The Southern Districts by Martin Podskoch, ancestry.com, fultonhistory.com, and nyhistoricnewspapers.org.

 

 

 

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