Wednesday, August 22, 2018

World War II: Maynard's Observation Tower

World War II observation tower built atop Summer Hill, Maynard, MA.
Staffed initially by volunteers from American Legion, replaced by
U.S. Coast Guard. Abandoned after war, and burned October 31, 1951.

Once the war commenced in Europe, Maynard appointed Guyer W. Fowler as Chief Air Raid Warden. Women were trained as volunteer air raid wardens. The American Legion – veterans of service in the U.S. armed forces – took it upon themselves to use the hose-drying tower at the fire station on Nason Street to serve as an airplane watch tower. Then, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Maynard’s Selectmen declared a “state of emergency.” A decision was made to build an observation tower atop Summer Hill. Louis Boeske donated the gravel for an access road – the same road used to service the town’s water tanks today – and townspeople, including many high school students, provided the labor. The tower became operational January 12, 1942. An open house event was conducted on March 1, 1942, attended by 500 people! The tower was staffed around the clock.

The concept of civilian observers was loosely modeled on the Royal Observer Corps, Great Britain’s civilian spare-time volunteers, who provided invaluable enemy plane observations to the Royal Air Force during World War II. The ROC started out as untrained civilians with binoculars. It evolved to a uniformed corps of men and women, still civilian, deeply involved in guiding RAF planes during the Battle of Britain, and then for the Normandy invasion, ROC men were stationed on Allied ships to help them avoid firing at their own planes.

Here in Maynard, the operation of the observation tower remained in civilian hands until January 1943, when staffing was taken over by the 605th U.S. Coast Guard Artillery. Maynard was a valid strategic target. The mill was making blankets for the U.S. Army. A quarter of Maynard land on the south side had been taken by eminent domain in April 1942 to create a munitions storage and transfer facility called the Maynard Ordnance Supply Depot. Gunpowder was being manufactured on the Maynard/Acton border at the American Powder Company.  

In retrospect, the creation of the observation tower on Summer Hill, complemented by formation of a committee to implement blackout drills, and having the streets department filling with sand any buckets or other containers people placed outside their homes, for purpose of extinguishing fires started by bombs, was all moot. Germany had no aircraft carriers. German battleships never operated in the western parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Plans for German long-range bombers were initiated, but never came to fruition. The only serious reach of the Axis forces across the North Atlantic was the operation of submarines up and down the coast (and into the Gulf of Mexico), which sank hundreds of ships, some within sight of major cities.

The U.S. Army constructed concrete watch towers along the east coast, including sites in Massachusetts such as Marblehead Neck, but the intended purpose was to scan the ocean for submarines. Back then, submarines spent most or the time on the surface because that allowed propulsion from diesel engines. Once submerged, all power came from batteries. Underwater, the boats were slower, and time underwater was limited. Coastal watchtowers made sense. Inland, not so much.

Reservoirs on top of Summer Hill. Old tank (left), built 1888,
concrete, roof added after this photo taken. New tank (right)
was steel construction, built 1972. Gravity provides water
pressure for town's water system (and fire hydrants).
Combined capacity approximately 4.6 million gallons,
the equivalent of a 4-6 day water supply for the town. 
After the war ended, Maynard’s observation tower was obsolete. The government returned it to the town. It deteriorated. In 1947 the tower was turned over to Maynard’s Boy Scout Troop. The night of October 30, 1951, the tower was completely destroyed by fire. Paul Boothroyd, lifelong resident of Maynard, mentioned that his father put in time at the observation tower, and said that the location was where Maynard’s second water reservoir tank was built in 1972.

CODA: There are rumors of German POWs working at the woolen mill during the war. This is not true. While there were scores of prison camps scattered across the United States to hold some 400,000+ prisoners, only a few camps were in Massachusetts, and no POWs were assigned to work in the mill. The closest prison camp was Fort Devens, host to 3,100 “Anti-Nazi” prisoners. These were men who had been in the German Army, but opposed Nazi government and philosophy. (Many were socialists or communists.) There were segregated from other German prisoners for their own safety.

1 comment:

  1. As a youngster I was able to go up in the watch tower.