HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
The Lacoochee Aircraft Warning Service Observation Post During World War II
By JIM ST. CLAIR
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, and WW II began, I was only 10 years old. But, I still remember the excitement and anger felt by the people in Lacoochee.
Many of the young men in Lacoochee and elsewhere in East Pasco County quickly volunteered to join the military and fight the war. Most of those early volunteers were gone for four years or more, enduring the hardships and danger that war entails. Some of them did not return.
Shortly after the attack, my father, Mark St. Clair, announced that he was going to join the Army Air Corps. He decided that his place in the war should be as a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber. He was short and slender and said that he could easily fit into the small turret where the tail gunner must sit. A few days later, he drove to Tampa to enlist, but was rejected and classified as 4F because he had a short leg due to a battle with polio when he was three years old. Reluctantly, he settled back into his role as principal of the Lacoochee Junior High School.
Then, soon after the war began, the War Department realized that the United States mainland was vulnerable to a surprise attack by enemy aircraft. Consequently, the War Department established the Aircraft Warning Service as part of the United States Army Ground Observation Corp. Its mission was to keep watch for enemy aircraft entering American airspace. Observation posts were needed all along the east coast from Maine to the tip of Florida and along the entire length of the west coast.
The U. S. Army staff selected the places where the observation posts would be built. One of the places the Army chose for an observation post was Lacoochee. They decided it should be on the hill where the Lacoochee water tower stood. They constructed a small enclosed room on poles about twelve feet above the ground to give it good visibility. The room had windows on all four sides and a deck around the outside. Observers would climb a ladder to reach the observation post.
The Army recruited civilian volunteers from East Pasco County to become members of the Aircraft Warning Service and to serve as observers in the observation post. The mission of the volunteer observers was to look for and listen for airplanes. When an airplane was detected, the observer made a telephone report to a Filter Center in Tampa. The report had to include: the number of airplanes detected, the type of plane if known, whether the planes had a single engine or multiple engines, whether the planes were seen or heard, whether they were at high, medium or low altitude, and which direction they were headed. The people in the Filter Center, on receiving reports from several observation posts, were able to determine where the aircraft were going and whether they were American aircraft or enemy aircraft.
The observers in the Lacoochee observation post were trained to recognize the type of airplane by sight and by sound. Army instructors used black plastic airplane models to show the observers what the airplane looked like from all angles. They left silhouettes of friendly and enemy aircraft on the wall for the volunteers to study.
My father was one of the volunteers to work in the Lacoochee observation station. Occasionally, I would stay with him during his day time or night time shifts at the post. I was fascinated by the black aircraft models and I studied the aircraft silhouettes on the walls of the building until I was confident that I could recognize any aircraft, friend or foe. When we saw or heard an airplane, I would readily offer my opinion as to what kind of airplane it was.
By 1944, the war had become totally offensive and there was very little chance that our enemies would have the resources to make an aircraft attack against the continental United States. Therefore, on May 29, 1944, the War Department disbanded the Aircraft Warning Service. The Secretary of War sent letters of appreciation to the Aircraft Warning Service volunteers who had given so much of their time and effort to help keep America safe from enemy attack. A year later the war was over.
As I was writing this story, I recalled those interesting and sometimes exciting times that I spent in the Lacoochee Observation Post during WW II. Maybe it was that experience that led to my career as a pilot in the United States Air Force. Who knows?