The Army’s forgotten WWII force

By on January 10, 2018

History program at Lititz Public Library

About a year ago, Brett Snyder, a long-time collector of and dealer in old magazines, bought a copy of a log book for the Gap post of the Aircraft Warning Service.

As vice president of the Salisbury Historical Association, Snyder is always looking for things that are old and unusual. Like most of us, he was not familiar with the AWS, a volunteer organization allied with the Army Air Forces during World War II. He bought the book and, in just a year, amassed a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia, anecdotes and printed materials on the subject of the AWS.

On Saturday afternoon, Snyder shared his collection and his enthusiasm with members of the Lititz Historical Foundation and guests, who filled just about every seat in the large community room of the Lititz Public Library.

From its beginning in 1941 until it was disbanded as WWII was drawing to a close, the AWS grew to include 15,000 observation posts. They were concentrated on the East and West Coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes.

There were 1,114 posts in Pennsylvania, including 28 in Lancaster County. They were manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Snyder’s log book contains a list of 215 volunteer names, mostly from the Gap area, but some volunteers who drove there from Lancaster and elsewhere.

The entire U.S. AWS force numbered 1.5 million at its height, Snyder said, with volunteers serving two-hour or longer shifts. Shifts at the Gap post were seven hours long, and during the time the post was active its volunteers logged 5,840 sightings of planes as they flew overhead. Snyder said the Army paid for nothing. And the most amazing thing about one of the most massive volunteer efforts in American history is that nobody has ever written a book about it.

The American Legion was the prime mover in organizing the AWS, and most of the organization’s leaders and many of the active volunteers were World War I veterans.

Volunteers went through an extensive training program before being assigned to their posts. And plane spotting became something of a hobby for both the volunteers and their untrained friends and neighbors.

When Snyder asked his audience for a show of hands from people who’d either served in the AWS, or whose parents had served, about a dozen hands went up. John Smith, a Lititz native and currently a Moravian Manor resident, brought a photo of himself as a 13-year-old Boy Scout volunteer serving his shift at the Lexington observation post just north of Lititz. He’s grasping a handle that’s attached to a kind of reverse megaphone on the roof of the building. Radar at the time was in its infancy, so one of the best ways to detect an airplane was with acoustic sound detectors.

An unusual feature of the Lititz operation was the use of a tube-powered amplifier to enhance the sound captured by the detector on the roof. The system was designed by two Lititz men, Atwood Kreider and D. Bremmer. No word on whether or not either was related to the Clair Brothers, who also made a name for themselves in the world of sound.

When a plane watcher spotted an aircraft, he or she (many wives, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and girlfriends also served) phoned the sighting to a filter center, where other volunteers tracked its progress with reports from other observers. From its behavior — direction, speed, height, shape and size — the AWS system was designed to ascertain whether any given aircraft was a U.S. plane or an enemy war machine.

The Army felt the need to identify airplanes in flight as a precaution against transatlantic crossings by German bombers. It was only recently that both the Germans and the U.S. had developed the capacity to build heavy bombers capable of thousand-mile flights, and therefore able to deliver payloads onto enemy territory.

The giant American effort that was the AWS proved its capabilities when a German plane was spotted flying over West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1943. It was the only enemy aircraft to penetrate U.S. airspace during the war. But it turned out to be a German airplane that had been captured in Europe, then flown here so U.S. engineers could take it apart.

Brett Snyder has uncovered a lot of the AWS history, but he’s eager to find out more. He urged his audience and Record Express readers to contact him if they have any stories or memorabilia about the AWS. His phone number is 717-442-1277, and his email address is sales@pastpaper.com.

Dick Wanner is a staff writer and photographer for the Record Express. He welcomes reader feedback at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com.

 

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