By Anne Morrissy | Photos by Holly Leitner; historic photos courtesy of the Janesville Gazette
At 10:24 a.m. on October 25, 1952, Walworth County residents from Lake Geneva to Delavan and from Williams Bay to Elkhorn heard a loud explosion rip through the otherwise quiet air. At a farm near the intersection of Highway 67 and Palmer Road, north of Williams Bay, a woman looked out the window and saw “balls of fire floating to earth.” Just moments earlier, two military F-86 Sabrejets had been passing over her farm fields, flying low toward the northeast. But that day, with no outward warning, something went wrong with one of the jets. It exploded at an altitude of 400 feet, breaking apart into hundreds of pieces that fell across a mile-wide area, and crashed with such force that the ground shook. The pilot — Lt. George M. Lovas, age 24, of Campbell, Ohio — was killed instantly. His body, still strapped in his seat, was thrown from the explosion into a field on the John Finley farm.
According to neighbors at the scene of the crash, these flights over Williams Bay and Elkhorn had become a regular occurrence over the previous year, ever since the U.S. Air Force opened a new installation just east of Highway 67. The project was originally shrouded in secrecy, but a few months before the crash, in an attempt to strengthen community relationships, the military made their presence and their mission public. Known locally as the Williams Bay Radar Base, the installation was home to the United States Air Force’s 755th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, which operated large radar on the site. This information had been revealed to the public in May of 1952 under a headline in the Janesville Gazette, “Williams Bay Is Important Link in Nation’s Air Defense System.”
At the crash site that day, secrecy still prevailed. Military personnel armed with Thompson submachine guns confiscated and destroyed photos of the wreckage taken by local media and stunned spectators, closely guarding the site until U.S. Air Force crash investigators could arrive from Chicago’s O’Hare Field. The military later revealed that the planes had been participating in a radar tracking exercise, designed to test and train the site’s ground-control intercept and warning capabilities.
MILITARY BARRACKS BUILT IN FARMERS’ FIELDS
The Williams Bay Radar Base was one of 28 radar stations built as part of the military’s Air Defense Command (ADC) program, an expanded surveillance network approved by Congress in response to the fear of Soviet bomber attacks associated with the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950. Nationally, the ADC engaged thousands of radar operators, pilots and technicians in a common mission: “detection, identification and interception” of potential enemy aircraft.
According to newspaper reports, the Williams Bay Radar Base was built in 1950 at an estimated cost of $1.5 million on 30 acres of land purchased from local farmers, a location chosen for its high elevation. The base was staffed and operational by late 1951. More than 200 servicemen lived in dorm-style barracks, ate in a cafeteria-style mess hall and supported the operation of the large radome-covered radar antenna on the site.
Oscar Ortiz served as an Airman Second Class stationed at the Williams Bay Radar Base in 1958 and 1959, following his service as a radar operator in Korea during the war and then in Japan following the armistice agreement. “A lot of those guys from [the radar bases in] Korea came to the Williams Bay Radar Base after the war,” he remembers. In his role as a radar operator, he says that he “watched the [radar] scope and tracked the planes overhead,” including both civilian and military planes.
VIGILANTLY SCANNING THE SKIES FOR DANGER
Chris Sturdevant, Chairman of the Midwest Chapter of the Cold War Museum, says that radar bases like the one in Williams Bay were intended as an important line of detection defense in the case of enemy attack by air. “People were really scared, fresh off [of WWII],” he explains. “Russia successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949. There was a lot of fear that Communism was coming — movies were coming out in the late 1940s and early 1950s about the Soviets invading, and [Wisconsin Senator Joseph] McCarthy is out there drumming up fear of [the Soviets and] Communism.”
To defend the United States against this perceived threat of Soviet air attack, the U.S. military devised the ADC system of radar surveillance stations connected at first by telephone and then by an early, primitive computing system, with the intention of providing fast and automated coordination of ground- controlled interception of enemy aircraft — a program that eventually came to be known as the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system. The military patches issued to members of the 755th Radar Squadron in Williams Bay featured an image of a radar dish sending a signal out to the sky, positioned above the SAGE acronym.
A SECURE POINT OF DEFENSE
The security at the Radar Base reflected the importance of the work being done there. A barbed-wire fence enclosed the perimeter, and an Air Police guard station served as the site’s gatekeeper. According to a Janesville Gazette article from 1952,
“All traffic either in or out of the base is stopped at this point while the AP ascertains whether occupants of the car may be permitted to pass… If permitted to enter, [visitors] are met at the security office by another armed guard who guides him to his destination.”
Ortiz remembers: “We had guards at the gates, so you had the [outer] compound, and then you had another inner compound, and it was enclosed within the gates. Then you had a big, steel door that you had to go through to get into the room where the radar units were. Outside you had the big bubble that contained the radar equipment.” The tight security proved effective. Ortiz remembers that the closest the base came to a security breach during his time there was the night a cow from a neighboring farm met its demise when it wandered too close to the perimeter and startled the armed guards.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A RADAR BASE AIRMAN
Ortiz describes the Williams Bay Radar Base as “a good assignment.” As a radar operator, his primary role was to monitor the radar screens and record the activity he observed. “We particularly tracked certain military planes: where they went to and where they came from,” he explains. “It was a lot different than [the tracking we did in] Korea.” As Ortiz remembers it today, the hardest part of his duty in Williams Bay was pulling the dreaded “KP” — “kitchen patrol” duty that kept him on shift from early in the morning until late at night. Despite that, he says he always got “three good meals a day.”
A newspaper article from the Janesville Gazette in May of 1952 describes some of the modern amenities offered to the men stationed at the Williams Bay Radar Base: Coca-Cola vending machines, “modern steel-and-plastic furniture,” a TV set, a library, pinball machines, a juk box, a piano, athletic equipment and a small but well-stocked PX store that also contained a soda fountain.
Airmen from the Radar Base passed their off hours playing football and baseball (the Radar Base team was a formidable opponent to several local teams in the Central Wisconsin Southern Division), organizing a barbershop quartet singing group, marching in local parades and attending local church services. Ortiz says another favorite off-duty activity was dancing at a local club off the base called The Chateau, where the owners “were very nice to servicemen.” In fact, it was at The Chateau that Ortiz first met a Williams Bay High School senior named Joyce Johnson, who introduced him to her classmate Carol Stenstrom. Stenstrom and Ortiz were married three months later and recently celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.
The Williams Bay Radar Base remained operational from 1951 to 1959, by which time the Air Force opted to close several of the ADC radar sites. According to Sturdevant, the successful launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in October of 1957 shifted the U.S. military’s focus away from traditional air defense to long-range missile defense. That same year, realizing that technological advances had already made many of the ADC radar stations redundant, the Air Force began making plans to relocate the men of the 755th Radar Squadron from Williams Bay to the Arlington Heights Air Force Station.
The Air Force issued a closure notice for the Williams Bay Radar Base in October of 1959; by November 1, the site was home to just five “gap-filler” personnel before it was abandoned entirely. The Radar Base sat empty for a few years, but eventually the federal government sold the property to the State of Wisconsin for use as a prisoner re-release minimum security prison, a role it served from 1962 until 1972. The land was then sold to a local developer who converted it into an industrial park.
Today, a handful of the original buildings remain and are used primarily for storage. In order to ensure that the once vital Cold War-era installation is not forgotten, the Wisconsin Historical Society erected a commemorative plaque on the site, reminding visitors that “built on one of the highest elevations in the region, [the Williams Bay Radar Base’s] two radomes scanned the skies 24 hours a day… ready to provide instant communication about suspicious aircraft.”
The presence of the historical marker dovetails with a growing effort to commemorate and honor the veterans of the Cold War. In September, retired Col. Jennifer Pritzker and the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago announced plans to build a Cold War Veterans Memorial on 290 acres of prairie in Somers, Wis., in nearby western Kenosha County. An international design competition is currently under way and a winner will be announced in March, with construction of the interactive monument expected to take about three years.
“People tend to overlook the Cold War or call it a ‘bloodless war’,” explains Sturdevant. “But there were Cold War casualties, training accidents that happened.” In fact, due to the presence of the Williams Bay Radar Base, one of those training accidents happened over a farm between Williams Bay and Elkhorn on a clear October morning in 1952, Lt. George M. Lovas giving his life in service to his country so that our skies might remain forever free of enemy aircraft.