The Never Ending Vigil

Stockton is an industrial town. From the beginning of the city’s rise in the late nineteenth century, factories, manufacturing, and unions have been part of the community fabric. After the United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941, Stockton and San Joaquin County’s working people organized in a patriotic front to defend the town from the unlikely but possible air raid. The all-volunteer and largely working-class Ground Conservations Corps would go on throughout the war as a quiet but foundational element of Stockton’s community efforts during the war.

The Ground Conservation Corps was a statewide program organized in 1941 by the federal government to help communities prepare for a war-game scheduled for January of 1942. After Pearl Harbor, the organization was brought into real-life action. Walter Good, Stockton union man, gravel worker, and American Legionnaire, was selected as the Corps Director by the County managed San Joaquin Defense Council. By February of 1942, he had recruited 2,500 volunteers.

Thirty-three observation posts were selected across San Joaquin County, with 70-100 people assigned to any particular post. Serving two at a time, each person averaged four to six hours of observation each week. At each post, they were expected to identify every single plane that passed by, determine if the plane was military or civilian, friendly or hostile, and communicate via telephone to a military coordinating post in another city the plane’s specifications, disposition, and direction.

Photos from the July 11, 1942 edition of the Stockton Daily Evening Record, which featured the first local story on the AWS.

Observation posts varied. Factory roofs, tank houses, farmyards, labor cabins, and delta ditches all served as observation posts under Walter “Slim” Good’s command. Under Good served thirteen area supervisors, who doled out orders to thirty-three chief observers in charge of each post. The area directors were James Johnson, L.K. Marshall, Harold Angier, Neil Gordon, Kenneth Lane, Elmer Cady, Robert Ryburn, Carl Peterson, Beverly Castle, Allen Jensen, Bert Banta, Ralph Dewing, and Henry Foulkes.

Military Infrastructure

The Ground Conservation Corps was part of the Aircraft Warning Service, a critical piece of the American military plan for the war. The army maintained a large surplus of funds to help operate the program, and even published a special magazine for the Warning Service nation-wide, Eyes Aloft. It was reported that by creating a well-organized civilian defense observation program to scan the skies, the United States was able to divert over 45,000 soldiers to foreign combat zones, who would otherwise have had to be retained to accomplish the task of the Service. At the peak of the program, June 1944, there were 750,000 individuals across the United States participating as volunteers.

Data from observation posts across the country would be called in to “Information and Filter Centers,” or secret offices on both coasts who would use statuettes or actual people plotted out on huge regional plotting maps laid out across the floor of a room. Army officers would stand on ladders or balconies above the room and watched the statuettes or people, representing planes, move across the board. The majority of volunteers in these rooms, known as Aircraft Warning Corps, were women or elders who were not eligible to be drafted.

Through the program’s disbandment in the Spring of 1944, the Aircraft Warning Corps, organized as the Ground Observation Corps in San Joaquin County, was heavily advertised and promoted as a way for the non-draft eligible to participate in the war effort.

Copy from an ad in the Stockton Daily Evening Record on August 23, 1943.
The second piece of the August 2, 1943 ad in The Record. One can observe the local buy-in from companies such as H.C. Shaw and Donovan’s Smart Shop.

Mark Left on the County

The management of the Ground Observation Corps required the production of a large number of observation posts. Initially, observers crouched on the roof tops of factories, houses, and farm buildings, but as the war dragged on, community organizations came together to build observation towers.

One such example of this took place in Linden in April of 1943. The Future Farmers of America and carpentry programs at Linden High School, under the supervision of Elwood Jurgenson, built an observation post near the school. A photo of the post can be seen below.

From the Stockton Daily Evening Record, April 16, 1943.

Other posts had less inspiring stories. The observation post for the town of Holt from late 1942 onwards, had originally been used at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds by guards watching over Japanese internees at the Stockton Relocation Center – a Japanese Internment Camp used to unjustly incarcerate the Japanese communities of Stockton, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and East Contra Costa Counties before they were moved to Rohwer, Arkansas and Manzanar. The American Legion, Karl Ross Post purchased the tower and moved it to the town of Holt.

The Holt observation post, as seen in the August 13, 1943 edition of the Stockton Daily Evening Record.

The Aircraft Warning Service was disbanded on May 29, 1944, after Secretary of War Henry Stimson inactivated the Fighter Command in charge of the program. Only a week later, the allied invaded Europe at Normandy, greatly reducing the threat of a potential attack on US soil. The Commander of the Air Corps Col. Stweart Towle Jr. wrote the following in a letter to Defense Councils all over the country

“I want to express my personal appreciation and that of all the officers and men of this command to the volunteers who have served so loyally and efficiently with us in defense of the eastern seaboard. … Your country, the Army Air Force, and your fellow Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the members of the Aircraft Warning Service.”

The program was a critical and ever-present slice of life for Americans on the home-front during the war.

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  1. Nice piece…glad to see that women and “elders” are mentioned since they both were very important but often overlooked in articles.

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