Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Sunday

August 26, 2012

Empire radar base played role in Cold War effort

TRAVERSE CITY — For little Empire, a village situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Cold War wasn’t an abstraction.

For years, a nearby U.S. Air Force station put it at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to protect against a Soviet sneak attack. The Empire Air Force Station was established in 1950 and functioned as a radar site that brought large numbers of airmen to run the high-tech, top-secret operation.

“When we were kids we thought ... this was the first base that they’ll bomb,” recalled Dave Taghon, who as a boy lived on Front Street in Empire next to a house frequently rented by commanding officers. “It was a reality. You could see it everyday.”

Empire, of course, never was attacked, but the station made its own big impact. Some who served at the station stuck around, and quite a few men met their wives. Now, they’re getting together again. Those who served at the site will gather for a Sept. 19-23 reunion.

“(We’ve) got to get together and revisit some of these memories,” said Harry Elletson, who served there from 1958 to 1960 as an Air Force dentist and who is helping to plan the gathering.

Elletson spends winters in Arizona and also has a place on Spider Lake. He’s among the estimated 200 or more Air Force men who married local ladies; his wife is from Kingsley. The group gathers regularly for reunions, he said, and to reminisce about their time in the tiny town and fun nights out in Traverse City’s dance halls.

The station is an important part of Empire’s history. Taghon, who runs the Empire Area Museum, divides Empire’s history into distinct periods following settlement. The station’s influence is major, just like the lumbering and agriculture eras and the arrival of the National Park Service, he said.

News services carried word of the station’s arrival in 1950. It would be a $1 million facility, a headline said. But its purpose? “Secret,” said a news agency. That was considered classified information, not divulged in a decades-old news story about its construction.

Even Elletson didn’t know all the details of what went on. He remembers a superior reprimanding other men for talking about a new facility in front of him.

“Doc ... doesn’t have secret clearance,” Elletson recalled someone saying, even though a Time Magazine story detailed related military activity.

Radar sites such as the Empire station were built across the states, creating a patchwork of posts intended to detect and intercept Russian bombers. The U.S. figured its enemy was most likely to attack from the north, and the Empire station provided communication signals and directions during test missions. The need for the facility waned as the Cold War became less of a threat, but the competition to create better equipment led to “state-of-the-art” technology, Elletson said.

“It was (a) constantly changing battle between us and the Russians — who could get the best system,” he said.

In 1965, the Federal Aviation Administration took over the search radar set and shared information with the Air Force. Many changes occurred in the following years, including the National Park Service’s acquisition of the property in 1983.

At its peak, the site on a hill high above Empire included dormitories, towers, officer quarters and even a two-lane bowling alley and rec room where movies screened.

The airmen found plenty of ways to stay entertained. Taghon, who would grow up to enter the Air Force himself, recalled the airmen’s snowball fights and wooing of local women.

“It seemed like all these guys had an accent when you first ran into them,” he said. “Then they’d stumble into some little cutie.”

Playing sports was a popular pastime. The station had a boxing club, softball field, a competitive basketball team that played in a local league and access to Glen Lake.

“We didn’t have a pool, but we did have 200 feet of Glen Lake frontage that someone leased to the air base,” said Otto Belovich.

Waterskiing and swimming were favorite activities.

“It was like a country club,” said Belovich, who worked in the communications center during his stint at the station from 1963 to 1965.

Elletson recalled with fondness the food, purchased from places such as Deering’s. Those stationed there loved the steak and pork chops, and it benefited area businesses, he said.

Belovich married a local woman and made his home in northern Michigan. He owns auto dealerships in Traverse City and said the Air Force taught him discipline and motivation. He attended previous Empire reunions and will try to make it to the one next month. Those who served at the station share a camaraderie and a unique bond.

“We all have something in common,” he said.

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