Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Town

September 6, 2010

Air Force base celebrates 60 years

EMPIRE —— Bill Earnest clearly remembers his first assignment upon reporting for duty at the former Empire Air Force Radar Station in December 1950.

"There were 16 fire hydrants, and my job was to keep a three-foot diameter shoveled around each of them," said Earnest, of North Aurora, Ill., who toured the facility during a reunion of veterans celebrating the 60th anniversary of the base last week.

Earnest, a radar operator who served there until 1954, said he arrived on base five months before it was up and operational, so snow removal was his first task.

"I was the 22nd man on base, but it wasn't long before we had more than 250 men here, and we got to the real work," Earnest said.

"We were taught to believe that the Russians were going to push the button at any time. Our job was to detect, identify and destroy," he said.

The base, located just south of Empire, functioned primarily to protect the northern skies of the United States from military threats during the height of the Cold War. The property, and many of the original buildings, have been operated by the National Park Service since 1979 and as a park maintenance facility since 1986.

"It is wonderful that this group could come out here and share their knowledge of the history of the place with us," said Andy Lovlien, of the National Park Service, who conducted the tour.

"What remains of this place is a historical site, this was truly the pointy end of the spear when they were serving our country here," Lovlien said.

While Earnest and his fellow veterans reminisced about life on the base, many of their stories brought smiles and laughter.

"If it wasn't for having some fun we would have all gone crazy here," said Earnest, who revealed the secret spot where beer once was brewed and remembered playing more than a few tricks on the officers.

Memories for retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Messer, who served in Empire from 1952-57, were bittersweet.

"I met the most wonderful girl in the world while I was here," said Messer, of Waynesville, N.C. The 26-year veteran was married to Traverse City native Marlene Mikula for 56 years before her death last year.

Jack Mixon, a former personnel officer who served at the facility from 1969-72, said it was like deja vu as he walked the road to the area where the original radar towers once stood.

"I haven't been here in 40 years, it was like a boom coming up the hill, the memories are unbelievable," said Mixon, after showing his wife, Carol, his former living quarters.

"It is fun to see him relive it, definitely worth the trip," she said.

In addition to touring the radar facility, veterans from as far away as Washington state were part of a dedication ceremony for the Empire Air Force Station Memorial located at the Empire Historical Museum. The veterans also visited the museum's exhibit devoted to the base, shared dinners and caught up with old friends.

"This has been wonderful, remembering this place. I guess we did a good job, we were never attacked," Messer said.

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