After Pearl Harbor, volunteers scanned Washington’s skies

Dec 7, 2022, 8:12 AM | Updated: 8:38 am
The Silver Star Lookout near Vancouver, Washington was used by spotters searching for enemy and friendly aircraft. (Courtesy Eric Willhite)
(Courtesy Eric Willhite)

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in December 2017.

When the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor was marked 80 years ago this week, Seattleites observed a minute of silence that morning to honor those who died.  They also launched a US Navy destroyer in the afternoon, and took part in an elaborate region-wide air-raid drill that evening.

Around dinnertime throughout the western United States, radio listeners were able to tune in a special wartime broadcast, part of which originated from Seattle.

Eyes Aloft

The half-hour show, called “Eyes Aloft,” was produced each week for members of the Aircraft Warning Service, a corps of volunteer observers and clerical workers who donated their time to keep vigil over the sky, and keep track of all aircraft, along the West Coast.

Because the show was broadcast by NBC on Mondays, the one-year anniversary of the Sunday morning attack – which fell on a Monday in 1942 – provided an opportunity to mark the occasion with a special episode. “Eyes Aloft” was broadcast locally by KOMO, which was an NBC affiliate from the 1920s to the 1950s.  It was also carried by KHQ in Spokane and KGW in Portland, as well as other NBC radio stations farther south along the coast serving Oregon and California.

For the Seattle portion of the show, a local volunteer named Mrs. Negley F. England – also known as Jane Russell England – took part in a scripted, and somewhat stilted, dialog with a military officer.

Mrs. England

MRS. ENGLAND: Remember the morning of December 8, Colonel?

COLONEL: Will I ever forget it! 

MRS. ENGLAND: I mean, the way our volunteers reported for duty, many without being called.  Remember the speed and efficiency with which they took their places in the Filter and Information Center?

COLONEL: The great thing about it all, Mrs. England, is that the same spirit has carried on these last 12 months without a waver.

MRS. ENGLAND: And we’re all going to carry on for the duration.

Mrs. England had been serving as a volunteer in the “Filter and Information Center” or an office where reports of volunteer aircraft observers were compiled and shared.  The location of this office was a secret, but it may have been in what’s now the Armory at Seattle Center.

By the time of the December 7, 1942 broadcast, Mrs. England had already contributed nearly 4,000 volunteer hours to the Aircraft Warning Service, and she would go on to be one of the most decorated World War II volunteers in the Pacific Northwest.  A search of newspaper records indicates that the England family left Seattle sometime in the 1950s, and Mr. Negley F. England, Jane’s husband, died in 2007 at age 96.

Along with Mrs. England, the exploits of the Aircraft Warning Service are also mostly forgotten these days.  But at least two Washington men are doing what they can to honor and preserve a very tangible part of the story.

A local mountaineer and stay-at-home dad (and former forester) named Eric Willhite maintains a website devoted to the history of the rural and sometimes remote locations where volunteer observers watched and listened for aircraft.

Aircraft Warning Service

“[The Aircraft Warning Service] put people on the ground, sometimes on mountain tops, sometimes in valleys where they had a big view of the sky above them, and they would just station there 24 hours a day,” Willhite told KIRO Newsradio in 2017. “And if they heard any sort of aircraft, they had to jump out of their little houses or huts they were living in and look up in the sky and then immediately report that they spotted an airplane.”

“It didn’t matter if it was an enemy or not, they reported every single airplane,” Willhite said.

As Willhite describes it, the volunteer spotters and clerical staff formed a sort of early air traffic control system, albeit an analog one.

“There were command centers at strategic places in the United States where all the phone calls would come in, and so they could literally plot and follow every single plane that was in the air at any given moment,” Willhite said.  “All these people would report in, and so they’d get one report here, and then five miles away another person [would report] the same plane. They could know where the planes were coming from.  They were just really concerned that there was going to be an attack on the mainland.”

Willhite says that during 1942 – when the Aircraft Warning Service was most active – there were more than 700 locations around Washington where aircraft observers scanned the skies.  Many of these were existing forest fire lookouts, but some stations were built specifically for the war effort.  Willhite, who lives in Edgewood, has visited nearly 400 of the sites in Western Washington, and aims to visit the remaining 300 or so on the list – mostly in the northeastern part of the state – sometime over the next three years.

Fire Lookout Museum

Meanwhile, near Spokane, retired forester and fire fighter Ray Kresek has created the Fire Lookout Museum and has amassed a huge collection of artifacts and memorabilia, with a portion of it devoted to the role of lookouts during World War II.

Kresek is in his 80s, and he remembers the sacrifices both of his parents made as volunteers during the war, and the scarcity of material comforts during those years of conflict.

Did that time affect his worldview and who he is today?

“You bet it did,” Kresek told KIRO Newsradio in 2017. “It made us really value our freedom, and it made us value what we had. And you don’t waste.  To this day, I’m frugal and it was a result of what we went through in the war when we didn’t have.”

Kresek says that the crunch year for the Aircraft Warning Service was 1942, and that early radar systems eventually replaced most of the human observers by sometime in 1943.  “Eyes Aloft” was aired until November 1943.

Eric Willhite says that about 92 fire lookout structures remain standing in Washington, with several of these now being preserved by the organizations or agencies that own them.  For those who’d like to visit a fire lookout that also served as an aircraft observation post, Willhite recommends one off of State Route 410.

“The easiest one probably would be Suntop Mountain, and that would be just going out to Enumclaw and go out as if you were going to Crystal Mountain Ski Area or over Chinook Pass,” Willhite said. “Once you get past Greenwater, there’s a road that snakes up to Suntop Lookout, and pretty much any vehicle can get there.”

Willhite says that a visit by car to Suntop Mountain is definitely a summer activity, since the snow typically only melts in July.

“You can just drive right up to the top and see a nice lookout structure,” Willhite said.  “It’s just sitting on the ground on the summit.  They didn’t have to build a tower for that one.”

The dedication of Eric Willhite and Ray Kresek to devote their volunteer time to a cause is not unlike what the members of the Aircraft Warning Service did during World War II, though the stakes were higher for those volunteers of 80 years ago, and their official work included an “Oath of Allegiance.”

As that “Eyes Aloft” broadcast of December 7, 1942 came to a close, the program ended with a rousing recital of the oath.  It was led by a US Army officer, with a large gathering of volunteers in California joining in.

“And those of you volunteers listening in at your radios wherever you may be we ask that you too repeat the pledge with us,” the officer said. “Would all volunteers of the Pacific Coast please rise [for] the 4th Fighter Command Oath of Allegiance.”

“I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, and to the 4th Fighter Command of the United States Army Air Forces.  And to the mission with which it is charged, the protection of the Pacific Coast and of the nation from invasion by enemy aircraft.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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After Pearl Harbor, volunteers scanned Washington’s skies