Julie McDonald Commentary: Eighty Years Ago, World War II Spotters Looked for Enemy Aircraft


As Russian President Vladimir Putin rattles his nation’s sabers on the Ukrainian border, I keep thinking about the civilians living in the Eastern European country.

Do they see their newfound freedom, only three decades old, flashing before them with the threat of a return to a satellite of the Russian empire? Do parents fear for the safety of their children? Do those who lived under the reign of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics worry about a return to a subservient nation status?

How fortunate we’ve been in the United States to live without fear of invasion from neighboring nations? The closest we came to facing such threats took place 80 years ago, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and people in West Coast states blacked out windows to prevent light from guiding possible enemy airplanes to targets.

Vic Kucera, my friend and fellow history writer, recalled those days with a post late last week on the Mossyrock Area Historical Society (https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=mossyrock%20area%20historical%20society) asking which high point local civilian “spotters” climbed to search for enemy aircraft. I’m not sure his question was answered, but people responded with interesting stories they’d heard from parents and grandparents.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II, and Lewis County did its part. Centralia Junior College offered classes for civilian pilot training and provided training for radio technicians, assisted by KELA radio station. Red Cross workers trained volunteers in making bandages for field hospitals, and people bought war stamps and bonds. To keep up with the demand for aircraft, the Boeing Co. opened six branch plants, including one in a former Chehalis garage to build wings for B-17s.

Blackout rules urged citizens to drive as little as possible, and at night only with headlights and taillights masked or disconnected, and no faster than 20 miles an hour. People were told to check windows from the outside of their homes to make sure they were completely blacked out. The Chehalis Advocate newspaper advised citizens how to respond during an air raid: Keep calm, stay home, put out lights, lie down, stay away from windows and don’t telephone.

With a world war raging overseas, the U.S. Army Ground Observer Corps in May 1941 created the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS), which enlisted and trained civilian volunteers — many of them women — to watch for enemy aircraft in American skies. They provided books and posters identifying different aircraft, which spotters logged so they could report them to the nearest Army Filter Center. Washington had confidential filter centers in Bellingham, Seattle, Olympia and Port Angeles.

“Eyes Aloft” became a common mantra, and Coca-Cola provided a 10-cent manual for plane spotters entitled “Know Your Planes.”

Kucera said his grandmother, Mary Johnson, of Silver Creek, participated in the AWS and kept an armband designating her role as an airplane spotter who served more than a hundred hours. “Lewis County’s volunteer Aircraft Warning Service was formed soon after the Pearl Harbor attack,” he said, “due to fears enemy planes could come from the northwest via a carrier or secret base, then use the Cascade Mountain foothills and valleys as a southern, better-hidden path to bomb Puget Sound shipping and Boeing.”

Responses to Kucera’s Facebook post mentioned observation posts in Mossyrock near the Meade home and a two-story wooden tower in Salkum near the post office. At Centralia Junior College, in the middle of Noble Field, volunteer spotters who received about 10 hours of training climbed a ladder through a hole into a watchtower to search the skies.

It wasn’t paranoia.

Japanese submarines patrolled the Pacific Northwest waters seeking U.S. Navy vessels going to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

On June 20, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired shells and torpedoes at a new coal-burning Canadian freighter, the SS Fort Camosun, off Washington’s coast at Cape Flattery near Neah Bay, forcing the crew to abandon ship. Nobody died, and rescuers towed the ship to Neah Bay before it could sink.

That day, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the submarine also shelled the lighthouse at Estevan Point.

The next evening, June 21, 1942, a long-range Japanese submarine lobbed shells at Fort Stevens on the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon, but caused little damage. One soldier cut his head running to his station.

Nearly three months later, on Sept. 9, 1942, a Japanese pilot in a seaplane was catapulted from a submarine off the Southern Oregon Coast. He headed for Mount Emily outside of Brookings to drop an incendiary bomb in hopes of sparking a massive wildfire in the Siskiyou National Forest. However, firefighters and a damp forest prevented flames from spreading. The bomb left a small crater and scattered blazing fragments over a radius of a hundred feet that charred nearby trees, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. A second seaplane launched another attack in late September with similar results.

And, in November 1944, the Japanese launched 9,000 high-altitude balloon bombs carrying explosives and incendiary bombs that drifted over the western United States and Canada, hoping to spark forest fires and create havoc. On May 5, 1945, a pastor and his wife took five neighborhood children with them for a picnic in the woods east of Bly, Oregon. While Rev. Archie Mitchell parked the car, his wife, Elyse, and the children found a balloon bomb that exploded, killing all but the pastor and scattering their bodies around a three-foot-wide crater. They were the only American civilians killed on the mainland United States during the war.

On the East Coast, AWS spotters in West Palm Beach in Florida reported seeing a German aircraft, which had in fact been captured and flown to the United States for examination.

Altogether, some 750,000 volunteers served as spotters during the war. The military put the civilian AWS on reserve status Oct. 16, 1943, and disbanded it May 29, 1944.

A full-scale invasion never hit the mainland United States during World War II, and my generation saw no direct attacks on American soil until Sept. 11, 2001, our generation’s Pearl Harbor, which launched the War on Terror.

Still, we can be grateful that, unlike people living in Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic States and many other European countries, we’ve so far never needed to defend our borders from armed attacks by foreign forces.

We are lucky.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.