Tag Archives: Aircraft Warning Service

Relic Recall: Aircraft Warning Service

4 Nov
What is it: Aircraft Warning Service armband, lapel pin, and identification, from World War II. Donated to the Goochland County Historical Society in 1991.

In today’s world, we take for granted an Air Traffic Control System that monitors all aspects of the thousands of flights that are in the air above us at any given time. What most of us do not realize is that, prior to World War II, there was little in place to handle this. Radar was a new technology and its use was almost non-existent. Pilots were on their own to get from one place to another and no one was there to monitor where the planes were or where they were going. An air attack along the coasts from the sea, similar to Pearl Harbor, would have never been detected.

The Army Air Corps, recognizing the need for an air defense system, established the Ground Observer Corps in the months leading up to the start of the war. They used airmen to man a limited number of observation posts in critical areas. Pearl Harbor changed all of that. It became necessary to greatly expand the air defense system but, at the same time, all able bodied airmen were needed in job more important than sitting in an observation post.

The Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) was created using an all civilian volunteer force to man over 14,000 observation posts were right here in Goochland County.

One such volunteer was Dorothy Rebecca Henley. The Henley family farm, located next to Luck Stone in Manakin was one of the observation posts. Dorothy Henley, a life-long Goochland resident, was born in 1903 and died in 2002 at the age of 99. She was 38 when se became a volunteer in the AWS. Volunteers had to go through extensive training to be able to identify any and all aircraft, both domestic and foreign. Along with Dorothy Henley’s AWS identification items, the donated items also include the training booklet, a set of aircraft identification flash cards, and a special dial device that could quickly identify any aircraft.

Margaret Walker was Dorothy Henley’s niece. She still lives in Manakin and, like her aunt, was also a volunteer in the AWS as a teen. She remembers going to her grandparent’s farm to man her scheduled post duties. The bluff behind the house overlooked the James River valley and provided a perfect spot to watch a large area of the sky. While it would seem that, in 1941, one would not see many planes in the skies over Goochland, Mrs. Walker says that was not the case. The Army Air Corps base was located at Byrd Field and training flights would fly up the river and use the islands located in the James in Goochland as targets for simulated bombing runs and attack missions. Upon spotting a plane, the observer would have to log information noting the time, identifying the type of plane, the direction it was seen, and the direction it was traveling. This was then called in by code to a special phone number in Richmond and then in turn was sent to a logistics center down in Hampton Roads, all manned by civilian volunteers. The information, usually coming from multiple observations, was triangulated and kept updated on a large map in the center. This process kept the observers on their toes and provided a built-in testing of each observer’s accuracy and effectiveness. Awards were given for those who received the highest ratings.

With the advent of radar installations along the coasts and the turn of the war to being more offensive instead of defensive, the volunteer system was deemed unnecessary and deactivated in May 1944.

Relic Recall is contributed by Phil Harris of the Goochland County Historical Society.