Eyewitness 1954: Civil Defense officials seek more to scan skies

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Sixty years ago a Civil Defense supervisor named Joseph Mushinsky pleaded for more Pittsburgh residents to keep their eyes peeled for the approach of Soviet warplanes.

"As I write this letter, I am looking out over the City of Pittsburgh," Mushinsky said in a letter published Feb. 19, 1954, in The Pittsburgh Press. From his perch he could see industrial plants, refineries and electrical substations belonging to Koppers Co., Jones & Laughlin, Gulf Oil and Duquesne Light.

Think "of what a group of enemy bombers would do if they came upon such a prize as this," he wrote. He urged residents to join the "Ground Observer Corps," the Cold War successor to a similar volunteer organization whose members had scanned the skies above the city during World War II.

His request was heard. "Citizens Watch Over Pittsburgh" was the headline on a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story that appeared July 16, 1956.

Almost 1,700 volunteers were observing the sky above Pittsburgh by then, the newspaper story said. Working from isolated "skywatch" towers, they phoned in information on "the progress of every plane in district air space on a giant map board at the downtown Filter Center in Sherwyn Hotel." The Sherwyn Hotel, located at the Boulevard of the Allies and Wood Street, is now Point Park University's Lawrence Hall.

Volunteers working around-the-clock shifts had put in an estimated 35,000 hours of observation since July 1952, Post-Gazette reporter Albert W. Bloom wrote. "Their mission [was to use] human sight alongside radar's electronic finger-eyes to protect us all against attack."

On the night that Bloom and photographer George Bower visited the Filter Center the volunteers on duty included Angela Kaczon, a 22-year-old immigrant from Poland. The story cited her as an example of "new Americans with a motivation and dedication to [their] country's service that can't be matched by folks who take their citizenship for granted."

She had been 5 years old in 1939 when Soviet forces overran eastern Poland. She and her family were exiled to Siberia. "I think that anyone who is a Communist in this country should be sent to Siberia for one week without any food, just like we were sent," she said.

The end of World War II was followed by reduced emphasis on civil defense. That situation changed with the Soviet development of an atomic bomb in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

City leaders saw Pittsburgh as vulnerable to sabotage and attack from the air.

"The steel city of America is reportedly listed in Moscow as the number one target of Russian aerial invasion," Judge Michael A. Musmanno wrote in his 1954 biography, "Across the Street From the Courthouse." An attack on Pittsburgh would not only hit the steel industry but "the huge Westinghouse and other electrical plants [that] manufacture the delicate equipment and machinery for submarines, radar and air engines."

The Post-Gazette story appeared as the Filter Center was getting an upgrade. A tabletop map for marking the positions of aircraft above Pittsburgh was being replaced by a "new vertical plotting system using big plexi-glass plotting boards," Air Force Capt. Lloyd W. Brown told the newspaper.

Even as the Filter Center's plotting system was going higher tech, the need for the Ground Observer Corps was ending. In 1958 the Defense Department shut down the human eyes-on-the-skies program as the Air Force assembled a network of giant IBM computers that could gather aircraft data far better than human volunteers.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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