WWII Enemy Watchtowers

Watching for Enemy Aircraft in Marquette in World War II

Written by Frank Richardson, GHS 1938

Ten months after the shock and anger over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 a small wooden building was built on top of the “Penthouse”, which is a large room a few steps above the third floor of Graveraet High School directly above the Front street entrance.  It was the highest point in the city at that time.  This building was to house the volunteer spotters who would be looking for enemy aircraft during World War II.

During the days immediately after Pearl Harbor there were long lines of young men waiting to enlist in all branches of the armed services.  This was especially true in the big cities.  Pearl Harbor in Hawaii is more than two thousand miles from the west coast of the United States but the west coast was especially apprehensive.  The American navy in the Pacific had been severely crippled during the attack and citizens of the western coastal states thought the Japanese were coming their way and the U.S. navy would be unable to give much help.

All along the west coast there were rumors of approaching Japanese submarines.  Sandbags were stacked against public buildings in anticipation of an attack.  Some citizens glued black paper to their windows for blackout protection.  People driving on coastal highways at night crept along without headlights.  Some schools were closed and there were frequent air raid alarms and students were sent home to seek shelter.  There were some who went to the beaches with b.b. guns and 22 rifles waiting for the Japanese to come ashore.  Some citizens watched from rooftops and bluffs trying to sight the enemy.  It was a time of unrest.  From June 4-6 in 1942 the naval and air battle of Midway took place.  Four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk in the battle and they lost a major part of their air arm which ended any threat of invasion to the west coast.

Two days after Pearl Harbor, Michigan’s Governor, Murray D. Van Wagoner directed the Michigan State Police to guard the ore docks in Marquette and Escanaba until such time as private guards could be hired to take over.  On December 16 a meeting was held at Graveraet High School to outline a Home Defense plan which was adopted and on December 22, residents registered for civilian defense duties.  More than 100 people attended this meeting at Graveraet with Marquette mayor, Lou Biegler, presiding.  Also present were John Courtney, Postmaster, sheriff, Howard Treado and Don Mc Cormick, Chief of police.

On December 28, sixty five persons attended an air raid warden’s school in Marquette and in May of 1942 a blackout was held in Marquette.  The Mining Journal reported, “At 10 tonight the city will be plunged into darkness – vehicles will pull to the side of the road and remain there for 15 minutes without lights.”  The first test blackout was authorized by the U.S. Army, 6th Corps Headquarters in Chicago and every resident is required by law to cooperate.

So, Marquette, like the rest of America, entered a wartime existence.  There were food stamps and gasoline rationing.  Automobile production was halted and no new automobile tires were being made.  There were many bond and scrap metal drives plus a large victory garden program.  Some will remember the slogan, “Lucky Strike Green has Gone to War,”  The green on the Lucky Strike cigarette packages was given to the armed services for uniform dyeing!

The aircraft warning service was set up in Marquette at the request of the U.S. Army.  Ralph Eldredge was the chief observer, William F. Armstrong, first assistant, and Mrs. R. T. Young, second assistant.  There were 300 men and women signed up for this duty – the duty was to watch the skies for any aircraft and if any were spotted – to report the sighting to army headquarters at Fort Brady in Sault Ste. Marie.

The observation “shack” was built and paid for by the City of Marquette.  Stairs were built to access the area and the building was about ten feet square with windows on all sides.  A telephone was installed and electricity was available for lighting and heating. There were 900 spotter stations in Michigan during the war and about 6000 nationwide with about two and a half million citizens looking skyward for planes.   There was a spotter station in Harvey at the Marquette Branch Prison Honor Camp.  The station was built on top of a corn silo and manned by honor camp inmates.  Some spotter stations in the eastern coastal areas closed their operations due to the many army and air force installations in the east which made identification of aircraft very difficult due to the large volume of plane traffic.  When they ceased operations they relied on the eastern coastal aircraft defense to assume the watch.  Later in the war with advancing improvements in radar, other stations were closed.

At the Graveraet spotter station there were two observers on duty at all times, or 24/7 as we say now.  Each observer worked a three hour shift every two weeks.  The service was begun at 7 a.m.,Saturday, September 4, 1942.  Standing watch for the first “trick” were Mrs. E.A. Moore and Miss Sadie Thompson.  Army authorities at Fort Brady were notified that the post was functioning and would be manned until the end of the war (it was).  Ralph Eldredge, chief observer, thought the Marquette post was the first in the area to begin operation.

 Two Mining Journal articles are noted as follows: “April 26, 1943, Miss Catherine Hawes and Miss Elizabeth Morhman on duty at the airplane observation tower atop Graveraet high school…sighted a plane at 11:52 a.m. and immediately ‘flashed’ the report by telephone to army officers at Fort Brady, Sault Ste. Marie.  The observers said the plane would not have been visible except through binoculars they were using at the time.  It was flying low over the lake and was heading south and southeast.”

The Mining Journal also reported a sighting at the prison honor camp tower.  “A plane was spotted and they immediately called Fort Brady – the whole episode took only 30 seconds.”

 In talking with Bob Moore a marine fighter pilot who flew Corsairs in combat during the war – I asked him how long it would take enemy aircraft to fly from Marquette to the Soo locks.  He said the planes of that era could get there in 25 minutes.  He said they could not fly with the throttle open for too long without damaging their  engines so that 25 minutes would be a good guess.   However, if planes were spotted and reported immediately to Fort Brady that they were headed toward the Soo, the fighter aircraft based there were on full alert at all times and could be in the air in under three minutes ready to intercept them.  In addition to the fighter aircraft at Fort Brady there were also anti aircraft guns and barrage balloons at the locks.

In May of 1943 there was a ceremony held in the Kaufman Auditorium attended by about 300 persons.  The purpose of the meeting was to honor the air spotters who observed from the roof of the Graveraet school.  Captain Lewis B. Maier, U.S. Army air corps from the Soo military area presented army pins to 63 spotters.  A list of those receiving pins is available.  There was also a plea for more volunteers as some spotters were now in the service and others had dropped out for various reasons.   During the latter part of the war, high school students supplemented the adult observers.  I was fortunate enough to locate two of the students who volunteered as spotters – Dorothy Brown Zerbel and Bruce Anderson.  Both of them said they did not remember a great deal about their experience.   Bruce, however, did his spotting during the Cold (War – 1945-63 – Joseph Stalin and the Iron Curtain) remembered that it was a “lark” for him –  on top of the Graveraet roof with top notch binoculars watching for airplanes. Bruce said that they were to report any sightings to the Marquette Coast Guard station.

All stations had an official handbook which outlined proper procedures for notifying authorities if planes were spotted.  It also had pictures of enemy aircraft along with other organizational information.  In checking with the Marquette History Museum, Peter White Library, N.M.U. archives and Graveraet school, no handbook could be found.  There was probably a log of some sort  with information on assignments, shift times, weather, planes spotted, etc.  One can wonder how spotting could be done on a winter night during a blizzard – and did they stand watch during these conditions?  During the winter storm periods, several  Marquette citizens donated warm coats to be worn while on watch.  Mrs.  A.B. Roberts donated a long raccoon coat; Mrs. Carroll Paul, an Alaskan fur-trimmed parka, and D.M Hackney, a fur-lined overcoat.  The City of Marquette provided two sou’westers.

On May 29, 1943 the Mining Journal wrote that more volunteers were needed for the tower.  Some had joined the service and others had quit for various reasons.  Persons interested in volunteering were to call the Chief of Police, Don McCormick or the assistant chief observer, Mrs. R. T. Young.  The Mining Journal also wrote, “it has reached the point where it is almost impossible to keep the post properly manned…”One woman was on the tower last week from 1 until 8:30 because of difficulty in finding a substitute.”   However, they persevered, and it was about this time that they began to use some high school students as watchers.

And, back to the spotter station on top of the Graveraet School.  The spotters persevered for three years, maintaining their watch which certainly was difficult especially during the winter months.   However, the citizens of Marquette can be proud of their dedication to their effort in World War 2.  The office of Civilian Defense ordered all wartime activity to cease on September 2, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender ceremony.

Afterwards, in the absence of any log or official handbook there were probably some personnel changes during the three years they were in operation.  I have seen some pictures of Milton Gustafson in some pictures of the “shack” and I think he had some part in the latter years of the venture.  Glenn (Freck) Wilson’s name was mentioned and there were probably other.

Getting to the spotter shack wasn’t easy. You took the stairs  to the third floor of Graveraet – walked up another dozen or so stairs to the entrance of the “penthouse”then you had to go up another short set of stairs and through a narrow opening to get on the roof –and again, up more stairs to the spotting shack.  It must have been an adventure during the night in a blizzard!  Hats off to the citizens of Marquette who participated in this patriotic venture during World War 2.

Frank Richardson – 2009
Graveraet HS class of 1938