Vern Mitchell, WB1CHU, Lawrence MA
August 8, 2007
On Friday morning January 20, 1961, John Harvey, an amateur radio operator (commonly referred to as “Hams”), was busy outside shoveling his driveway in Attleboro, Massachusetts. A classic nor’easter had created near “white out” conditions leaving him with several feet of snow to attempt to clear. To his astonishment, he witnessed two headlights heading up his street, eventually turning into his partially cleared driveway. Two women emerged from the vehicle, both seemingly distraught. The driver introduced herself as Mrs. Betty Goulet from Attleboro. She introduced her passenger as Mrs. Ozzie Caswell from Norton, Ma. Mrs. Goulet asked John if he was the ham who was in contact with the Texas Towers on a daily basis. He replied, “yes.” She proceeded to tell him how Mrs. Caswell had not heard from her husband, stationed on Tower #3, in three days and was hoping he could help contact him via his ham radio. John nodded, took both women inside and brought them into his “shack.”
The story continues on how John explained to both the women that, although he was an active member of the “Texas Tower Net”, the net did not start for about another 3 hours so he was going to have to be a little more creative. John called the Net Control Station, K1GAU/1 located on Cape Cod. Soon a call was placed to the ham station on Otis Air Force Base and shortly thereafter a phone patch call was placed to TT-3. Suddenly TT-3 came on the air and a short explanation was given to the operator on the reason of the phone patch. An intercom call was placed on the Tower and, miracle of miracles, there was Ozzie Caswell’s voice coming through, it had actually taken less than 45 minutes to accomplish the task. In the shack, the tears began to flow on all three participants. (Harvey 55) Thus another “family crisis” was solved compliments of the active members of The Texas Tower Net.
If you were in New England around the same period of time and you had that new device called a “television”, you would know of a meteorologist named Don Kent. Don Kent was the first weatherman in Boston and appeared regularly on WBZ-TV/Radio. He always seemed to have the upper hand over his fellow colleagues at the other competitive stations during his morning broadcasts. If you were there then, you would have witnessed Kent reading observations off of a paper and writing them down in black magic marker on a map of New England. No other station had this. Other stations relied on the “free” information supplied by the local weather bureau, the same weather bureau that would not completely release all of its accumulated data. Knowing this, Kent went above and beyond that point. You see as explained by Kent in an interview four years ago, “I paid a radio ham—he used to work the merchant marines—a couple dollars to get up for half an hour every morning about three o’clock and copy those numbers” (Pinder 1). Unknown to Kent, that ham was also an active member of the New England Weather Net (NEWN), a close cousin to the Texas Tower Net, each having several of the same members.
According to NEWN’s website, “The New England Weather Net was originated on December 13, 1955, by a very small group of amateur radio operators who were interested in exchanging weather observations each morning from different locations around New England.” (About NEWN 07/18/07) Upon learning that he was indirectly using the information collected on the net, Don Kent invited the members to his home in New Hampshire for an informal get together. The following year he would do the same at his TV/Radio studios in Boston, courtesy of WBZ. One of the founding members, Chet Crosby (W1BNW), had a brother on Texas Tower #2, so information collected also went out on the Texas Tower Net to the towers in the form of weather forecasts. The weather could, and would, raise havoc on the everyday operations on the towers, so prior notice of any impeding storms were of the utmost importance. NEWN not only proved to be vital to Don Kent’s weather forecasts but also a necessity to the everyday life on board the Texas Towers for which many believed it was originally created for.
With Pearl Harbor still fresh in their minds, the United States Air Force, during the Cold War, had to develop a plan to somehow push its long-range radar screen farther out to sea off of the east coast of the US. The new radar system was needed to cover an additional 300 – 500 easterly miles. It was decided to adapt, on a mammoth scale, the technique then being used in drilling for oil off the Texas coast. (Wylie 31) These oil rig platforms were to be radar stations in disguise and were elegantly named the “Texas Towers.” They would form an interlocking, early-warning perimeter stretching from Nova Scotia to New Jersey. This interlocked radar system could give an additional 30 minutes warning of any surprise air attack coming in from the east. During the early summer of 1952, The USAF approached the Judge Advocate on the plan’s legality being that the towers would be built out in international waters. In September of 1952, the Judge Advocate ruled there was no violation so the USAF went forward with its plan.
MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory had been diligently working on the current designs of the Texas oil platforms and their feasibility for adaptation for the USAF plan. MIT agreed the project could be successful and offered recommendations on where the five Texas Towers were to be installed. Thomas Ray describes in one of his history articles about The Towers, “The USAF approved the sites and designated them as follows: Cashes Ledge was named TT-1 (for Texas Tower 1); Georges Shoal, TT-2: Nantucket Shoal, TT-3; Unnamed Shoal, TT-4; and Burn’s Bank, TT-5.” (Ray 2) TT-2, 3 and 4 would be built within the next 3 years with 1 and 5, ultimately being scraped after the demise of TT-4 in January of 1961.
The Towers were to house the manpower of 27 crewmen to perform day to day duties. As technology advances were being made during installation of equipment, the needs for normal housekeeping chores realized coupled with specialists needed with electrical and plumbing credentials, the USAF had to raise the total manpower in excess of 50. This would include 6 officers and at least 48 crewmen. Just to be safe, in case of more future needs for manpower, the final design of the towers ultimately could house a total of 72 crewmen. According to a recent email interview with retired crewman of TT-4, Robert Greaney, “We were transported to the towers by helicopter from Otis Air Force Base or by AKL 17 from New Bedford. This was operated by MSTS. It was a Navy ship but was operated by civilians. We were aboard the towers for 45 days and on land for 15, at least that was the plan (Personal communication 07/16/07). TT-2 would be declared partially operational on December 2, 1955, some eleven days before the “birth” of the New England Weather Net.
Texas Tower 2 was built by Bethlehem Steel in the Quincy Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Tower took almost one full year to complete and measured some 200 plus feet in a triangular format. It would provide over half an acre of surface space to house the monstrous radar system. The tower was floated out to its new location, approximately 110 miles east of Cape Cod. There it was assembled and placed upon a tripod of hollow legs measuring 160 feet apiece. The first 48 feet being securely anchored into the ocean’s bottom and the last 12 feet being above the ocean’s surface supporting the 20 foot high platform. Two of the legs would then be filled with diesel fuel and the last was filled with seawater to be later converted to fresh. This all being done while being watched by the curious eyes of neighboring Russian fishing vessels.
The amount of Russian “trawlers” in the area of TT-2 became more and more congested. The Tower project was, of course, of total secrecy. The Russians had no clue. Soon ships that looked like porcupines started to show up everywhere. These ships had every antenna imaginable as the Russians tried to eavesdrop on every available military frequency to try to establish exactly what these towers were for. According to Robert Greaney, “If you could see a picture of a Russian Fishing Ship, you would have to use all your fingers and toes to count all the different antennas sticking out of her. We referred to her as the “Mother Ship” (Personal communication 07/18/07). Communications were extremely limited to the men housed on the towers in fear of detection. Not so for the ham bands. The men were allowed to contact families and talk openly on the ham bands as long as the ham radio operators on the towers did not see an antenna on the Russian ships that could be used for the Tower Net frequency. This would be quite simple because an antenna for the 3.935 MHz frequency would have to be a wire, almost 160 feet long, stretching from the bow to stern on the fishing vessels. One was never spotted during the entire Texas Tower campaign. The Tower Net would meet daily at 1 p.m. for the full six years of the towers’ existence. On January 15, 1961, TT-4 would flounder during a nor’easter, the same nor’easter that John Harvey was trying to clear his driveway of when the wives in distress first approached him. In the next few weeks, TT-2 and TT-3 would eventually become decommissioned. Coupled with the promise of increased off-shore radar coverage by coastal Air Control and Warning Squadrons in the vicinity of where the TT-2, TT-3 and TT-4 were placed. (Ray 4) The horrendous project would finally be over but at the expense of 14 civilians and 14 military personnel that were lost when TT-4 slid beneath the ocean’s surface. Two other military personal would die, one on each of the remaining towers before they were finally dismantled.
TT-4 had become an engineering nightmare, unlike TT-2 and TT-3, which were anchored into a rocky ocean bottom at depths of 50 and 80 feet of water, respectively. TT-4 was assembled at a depth of 180 feet into soft mud and because of the higher extreme of tides and waves; 70 feet above the surface compare to only 12 the other two were positioned. The New Jersey SCUBA Diving websites best describes the atmosphere as being: “Battered by storms, combined with the soft mud and sand, soon began to take their toll on TT #4. It would be under constant repair and eventually would earn the nickname of ‘Old Shaky’” (Texas Tower Site 07/18/07).
In the fall of 1960, “Old Shaky” weathered two severe hurricanes. The later being “Donna” which did the most damage. Crewman aboard swore they had heard metal crumpling and snapping. After Donna had cleared the area, the Air Force dispatched diving teams to the tower to access the damage. It was not good. The dive teams confirmed that leg braces had snapped off and one leg had actually bent slightly. The Air Force determined TT-4 unsuitable for operation and made appropriate plans to repair it. The Air Force evacuated all crewmen, including Robert Greaney, and replaced them with 14 military repair specialists and 14 civilian technicians. The repairs were expected to last approximately 6 months but the tower never made it that long.
In January of 1961, yet another storm struck the tower. Repairs had advanced to the point that the hollow legs were just starting to be filled with cement to increase stability so the last phase of repairs could be started. Everything was to be completed by early spring but Mother Nature had other ideas. The nor’easter that did not have experts worried because the tower had survived two hurricanes, did indeed deliver the final fatal blow.
As if the unstable legs were not enough of an issue, top heaviness aggravated the situation as explained in an article that appeared in Sea Classics. “The weather during the week of 8 January 1961 had been too harsh to mix and pump the concrete aggregate down the legs. So, all this material was still stacked on pallets on the Tower’s main deck. This extra topside weight put additional strain on the already weak legs.” (Zimmaro 13) Rescue was impossible. All the pallets of concrete disallowed any helicopter to land and the rough seas made it impossible for any ship to get close enough fearing a gust of wind or large wave would mean imminent collision with the Tower. At 6 p.m. the Tower sent out its first SOS. At 7:20 TT-4 disappeared from radar screens.
TT-4’s demise sent shockwaves throughout the Air Force, especially with the upper command. Almost immediately, the decision was made to decommission the towers as attention focused more on the long range radar that was now aboard every USAF aircraft. It would eventually take nine months to successfully retrieve all the equipment off of both towers before finally evacuating for the last time. Scavenging companies stood by to strip the remaining skeletons for its copper, iron and steel. The Russian trawlers went back to their normal fishing routines as their Mother Ships headed back to their homeland. The Texas Tower Net would cease to exist in August of 1961.
The year two thousand and five, saw the 50th anniversary of The New England Weather Net. Members gathered at their annual banquet reminiscing about the past and past members that were no longer amongst them. Many had their own version on why the net was created but it always would come down to two things, Don Kent or the Texas Towers. Research has shown both theories to be incorrect. Don Kent, in his own words, was not aware of NEWN until its second year of existence; he accidentally found it one morning “while eavesdropping on airplane conversations between Boston and New York” (An Interview with Meteorologist Don Kent 08/03/07). Don Kent was a driving force for the continued existence of NEWN but was far from being a founder.
Neither was the Texas Towers the reason for the origin of NEWN. The Towers did not have active hams or an active net till the following spring after NEWN had started to meet. The common bond between the two will simply be that one of the original founders, Chet Crosby, desired to stay in contact with his brother on TT-2 and each had a vested interest in the weather, while one was his hobby the other was his livelihood.
It is now 2007; Don Kent has long since retired though he still does a morning weather show on a few stations near his summer home on Cape Cod. The Texas Towers are but a vivid memory in some minds, still nightmarish in others. The wreck of TT-4, only 70 feet below the ocean’s surface, is still a “scuba-diving hotspot.” Gone also is the Texas Tower Net which served its purpose to the fullest extent, but the New England Weather Net still lives on. A recent email from a fellow member summed it up the best, “Hats off to Don Kent and the Original Weather Watchers of the New England Weather Net for the ideal marriage of both hobbies, weather observing and amateur radio. The New England Weather Net which started in 1955, may be the longest running Public Service Amateur Radio Weather Net in the country.” (Personal communication 07/18/07)
Harvey, John. “The Texas Tower Net.” WORLDRADIO May 2000: 54-55.Lane, Jeff. “About NEWN.” The New England Weather Net. 17 July 2007. NEWN. 3 Aug 2007 <http://Newn.org/about_newn.asp>.Moore, Lyford. “Texas Tower 4 victims remembered.” San Diego Courier-Post 27 August 2000 11-11A. 18 July 2007 <http://radomes.org/museum/documents/TexasTowerNo4Unnam…>.Pinder, Eric. “An Interview with Meteorologist Don Kent.” ericpinder.com. 01 July 2007. Books by Eric Pinder. 3 Aug 2007 <http://www.ericpinder.com/html/donkent.html>.Ray, Thomas. “A History of Texas Towers in Air Defense.” USAF TexasTower.com. March 1965. Texas Tower Association. 18 Jul 2007 <http://www.texastower.com/a_history_in_texas_towers_air_defense.htm>.Wagner, Tracey. “Texas Tower #4.” New Jersey Scuba Diver. 07 May 2007. NJScuba. 18 Jul 2007 <http://njscuba.net/sites/site_texas_tower.html>.Wylie, Evan. “Farewell to the Iron Bastards.” Life Magazine June 1963: 31-32.Zimmaro, Chuck. “Mayday! Mayday!: Part One.” Sea Classics Nov 2004 8-14. 18 July 2007 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi qa4442/is 200411/ai n16057480/pg 8>.