A Front Line of Defense: The 758th Radar Squadron and the Makah Air Force Station, Neah Bay, Washington, 1950-1988

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

“Last Pass at Makah” by Michael J. Machat. US Air Force Collection (National Archives ID 6436075).

The United States Government has had a long association with Neah Bay, Washington and its inhabitants, mostly members of the Makah Tribe. Neah Bay, located on the Makah Reservation, is located on the Olympic Peninsula, at the most northwestern point on mainland United States, bordered on the north by the Strait of San Juan De Fuca and on the west by Cape Flattery and the Pacific Ocean. The population has numbered from 800 to 1,000 during the past 100 hundred years. During the summer fishing season the population increases somewhat. It is a rainy place, with an average of over 150 rainy days a year and an annual rainfall of 77 inches. The largest nearest community is Port Angeles, some 71 miles from Neah Bay; a one hour, forty minute automobile ride. In short, Neah Bay is an isolated, rainy locale, frequently blanketed with low-hanging clouds.

The government interest in Neah Bay goes back to the middle of the 19th century when an 1852 survey selected Tatoosh Island, just off Cape Flattery, as the site for a lighthouse. The Cape Flattery Lighthouse was put into operation December 28, 1857. During World War II a radio intercept station was set up on the island and operated to the close of the war at which time LORAN equipment (short for long range navigation, a hyperbolic radio navigation system), was installed. In 1977, the lighthouse and LORAN station were automated which eliminated the need for personnel on the island. The United States Coast Guard has maintained a facility at Neah Bay for over one hundred years, as discussed in a previous post (Assignment: Neah Bay, Washington, 1909; The United States Revenue-Cutter Service and the USRC Snohomish).

In 1942, the United States Army leased 4,024 acres from the Makah Tribe for the purpose of constructing a coastal battery. Plans were to build four concrete batteries; two 6-inch and two 16- inch, one at Koitlah point and the other three at Cape Flattery. Land was cleared and roads were started in preparation for the construction of the concrete bunkers. By the next year the progress of the war doomed the project and all work was stopped. Guns were never installed. The lease was terminated in 1945 and all land returned to the tribe with the exception of 10 acres on the 1,400 foot Bahokus Peak. The Bahokus Peak lease expired in 1949 only to be renewed in the early 1950’s.

A 1943 lease for 28 acres was made by the Seattle Air Defense Wing with the tribe. The site was on Bahobobosh Point near where the Sooes River empties into the ocean. A later lease was made for an additional 54 acres. Construction of living quarters and a radar unit was started that same year. This unit functioned at this location into the late 1940’s. In 1950, the Air Force initiated a Lashup Radar Network for air defense surveillance. Neah Bay was selected as a location as part of the network, and Bendix AN/FPS-3 Radar equipment was installed at Neah Bay late in 1950.

Prompted by the start of the Korean War on July 11, 1950, the Secretary of the Air Force asked the Secretary of Defense for approval to expedite construction of the permanent Air Defense network. Receiving the Defense Secretary’s approval on July 21, the Air Force directed the Corps of Engineers to proceed with construction. The land for a site at Neah Bay was leased from the Makah Tribe. The radar unit for the site was constituted as the 758th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron (AC&WS) on November 14, 1950, and activated at Bohokus Peak, on November 27, 1950. On the latter date, the squadron was assigned to the 505th Aircraft Control and Warning Group. This organization had been established on May 21, 1947 by the Air Defense Command (ADC). It was stationed at McChord Field, Washington and became the first post-World War II aircraft control and working unit in the ADC.

Assuming coverage from lashup site L-34 at Neah Bay, the 758th AC&WS started operating an AN/FPS-3 long-range search radar and an AN/CPS-4 height-finder radar at this site in January 1952. The operational area commanded the 10 acre Bahokus Peak. The new cantonment area, leased from the Makah Tribe, was located near the mouth of the Waatch River and was connected to the operations site at Bahokus Peak by a one way unpaved road.  

Initially the radar station functioned as a Ground-Control Intercept (GCI) and warning station. As a GCI station, the squadron’s role was to guide, using voice commands via ground-to-air radio, interceptor aircraft toward unidentified intruders picked up on the unit’s radar scopes. Over the years, the equipment at the station was upgraded or modified to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the information gathered by the radars. 

Makah AFS Main Site, USAF Photo, retrieved from: http://www.fortwiki.com/File:Makah_Main_Site.png

The 505th Aircraft Control and Warning Group was inactivated on February 6, 1952. The 758th AC&WS, beginning February 6, 1952, thereafter reported to the 25th Air Division, located at McChord Air Force Base (renamed from McChord Field after the establishment of the Air Force). For a short time, January 1, 1953-October 7, 1954, the 758th AC&WS reported to the 4704th Defense Wing. It reverted to control of the 25th Air Division on October 8, 1954. During the Cold War era, the 25th Air Division equipped, administered, trained and provided air defense combat ready forces within the northwestern United States. It exercised command jurisdiction over assigned units, installations, and facilities and provided and maintained facilities for the Air Division control center.

Throughout its existence, the radar station was manned by about 16 officers, 179 enlisted personnel, and 20 civilians, many from the Makah tribe. While some military and civilian technical representatives worked shifts at the radar site at Bahokus Peak, the personnel were billeted at the lower cantonment area. This area had its own sewer system and sewage treatment plant, water supply, heating system, and electrical distribution system. The station had enlisted barracks, bachelor officer’s quarters, an orderly room, a mess hall, a motor pool, a recreation hall, and other support buildings. The late 1950’s saw vast improvements in the housing conditions for personnel with seven new quarters for officers and thirty eight units for enlisted ranks. In addition, a trailer park with 22 spaces was developed a short distance from the cantonment area. 

In the image, showing the Waatch River flowing into the Pacific Ocean, the town of Neah Bay can be seen in top background; the Makah Air Force Station in the center, and the station’s family housing at the bottom left. The Hobuck Beach is seen at the bottom of the image. Makah Nation and Waatch River, taken on Feb. 18 2008, Sam Beebe/Ecotrust. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waatch_River#/media/File:Makah_Nation_and_Waatch_River_-_panoramio.jpg

The radar station site was renamed Neah Bay Air Force Station on December 1, 1953, and renamed Makah Air Force Station on March 25, 1958.

Beginning on January 1, 1958, the Seattle Air Defense Sector, which came under the 25th Air Division on January 8, 1958, organized the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Data Center at McCord AFB. SAGE was a system of large computers and associated networking equipment that coordinated data from many radar sites and processed it to produce a single unified image of the airspace over a wide area. 

On September 1, the Portland Air Defense Sector with its SAGE Direction Center at Adair Air Force Station (Corvallis, Oregon), came under control of the 25th Air Division. Shortly thereafter other SAGE sector operations came under control of the 25th Air Division. In February 1960 the SAGE system was in place and data was fed to the Seattle Defense Sector Center, In May 1960, SAGE Combat Center Number 3 became operational at McCord, bringing the separate Direction Centers under a unified center under the 25th Air Division. 

The 758th AC&WS, at Makah Air Force Station, was assigned on March 1, 1960, to the Seattle Air Defense Sector, and  was redesignated 758th Radar Squadron (SAGE) on  April 1, 1960. The radar squadron provided information around-the-clock to the SAGE Direction Center where it was analyzed to determine range, direction altitude speed and whether or not aircraft were friendly or hostile. 

The 1960’s and 70’s saw the installation of advanced radars and systems. By 1963, the 758th Radar Squadron (SAGE) operated an AN/FPS7A search radar and AN/FPS-90 and AN/FPS-26A height-finder radars. In the 1970s, the AN/FPS7A was modified to an AN/FPS-107V1. Circa 1977 the AN/FPS-90 height-finder radar was modified to an AN/FPS-116.

The 758th Radar Squadron (SAGE) was redesignated the 758th Radar Squadron on February 1, 1974.

Emblem of the 758th Radar Squadron, Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:758th_Radar_Squadron_-_Emblem.png

On October 1, 1979, the Aerospace Defense Command (the successor to the Air Defense Command in 1968) was inactivated, and its Regular Air Force and Air National Guard fighter-interceptors; ground-based warning radars; and associated bases and personnel) were subsequently transferred to Tactical Air Command (TAC) under a sub-entity named Air Defense Tactical Air Command (ADTAC). Thus, the 758th Radar Squadron was then under the jurisdiction of the TAC.

During the 1980s, the radar equipment at the Makah Air Force Station continued to be updated. Around 1980 the AN/FPS107V1 was replaced with an AN/FPS-91A search set, with an AN/TPS-43E search radar temporarily operating atop the old AN/FPS-26A tower during the radar change-over.

On June 15, 1988 the 758th Radar Squadron was inactivated and the Air Force reduced its presence at Makah Air Force Station, closing most facilities, as the air force station was inactivated on June 30. The radar site was turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Air Force personnel left in 1988, but seven civil servants stayed on as caretakers until June 30, 1989. Thereafter, for a while, a small detachment from McChord Air force Base was assigned to maintain the radars. The AN/FPS-116 was retired c. 1988. In 1995 the FAA operated an AN/FPS-91A search set at this site. In the latter 1990s the AN/FPS-91A was replaced by an FAA-operated ARSR-4 radar, and subsequently by an ARSR-4 3D radar. The FAA now operates the radar at the site as part of the Joint Surveillance System, a joint United States Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration system for the atmospheric air defense of North America. It replaced the SAGE system in 1983.

The Makah Air Force Station cantonment area and housing area were turned back to the Makah Tribe and are now administered by the Makah Tribal Council. Many of the AFS structures remain being repurposed for tribal uses.

For the thousands of Air Force personnel assigned to Neah Bay, they lived a somewhat lonely and boring, but rewarding, existence. They knew the important role they played as part of the front line defense of the United States. 


Sources Used:

Lloyd H. Cornet and Mildred W. Johnson, A Handbook of Aerospace Defense Organization 1946-1980 (Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado: Office of History, Aerospace Defense Center, 1980)

David M. Dornbusch and Company, “Makah Air Force Station Re-Use Plan,” Office of Economic Adjustment, Department of Defense, February 1988

Kenneth Schaffel, The Emerging Shield: The Air Force and the Evolution of Continental Air Defense 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1991)

David F. Winkler, “Searching the Skies: The Legacy of the United States Cold War Defense Radar Program,” for the United States Air Force Air Combat Command, June 1997 https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/airdef/searching_the_skies.htm