Radar base brought airmen to Baker

November 10, 2002 11:00 pm
The base was dismantled in the late 1960s. The radar dome, a five-story structure resembling a gigantic puffball mushroom, today serves as the gymnasium at the high school in Payette, Idaho. (Submitted photograph).
The base was dismantled in the late 1960s. The radar dome, a five-story structure resembling a gigantic puffball mushroom, today serves as the gymnasium at the high school in Payette, Idaho. (Submitted photograph).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

If not for a pair of pretty nasty dictators, Doug Humphress probably never would have discovered Baker City, and what he calls the "friendliest people in the world."

The time was the early 1960s.

The Cold War was boiling.

In the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khrushchev talked of burying the capitalist West.

Much closer to home, on the island of Cuba just 90 miles from Florida, dictator Fidel Castro, having thwarted a U.S.-backed coup attempt in 1961, shouted out similar slogans.

But these Communist brothers in arms were rattling weapons infinitely more dangerous than sabers — hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles, for example.

In that fearful atomic climate, when students in every public school in the country were taught to avoid nuclear holocaust by hiding under their desks, U.S. military officials figured they could never know too much about airborne objects, any one of which could have been the vanguard of armageddon.

Congress needed no prodding to put up billions of dollars to build hundreds of radar bases and other installations designed to provide the Pentagon ample warning of any enemy attack, whether mounted by aircraft or by intercontinental nuclear-tipped missiles.

One of the sites Air Force brass picked was Beaver Mountain, a bare-topped peak about 13 miles south of Baker City. Construction started in 1957.

Humphress, a native of Louisville, Ken., had joined the Air Force early in 1961.

Six months later, in July of that year, he was re-assigned from a base in Biloxi, Miss., to Baker City, home of the 821st Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron.

It was a city Humphress had never seen, nor even heard of.

He had not, in fact, ever been to the West.

But he had looked longingly in that direction.

"I actually put in for (the transfer to) the West," Humphress said.

When he arrived he was surprised to find his new home was not, as he expected, in some Wild West spot "50 miles from the nearest town on top of a mountain," but right there in Baker City, a modern city of 10,000.

The radar station was on Beaver Mountain, but headquarters for the 821st was in town, on H Street two blocks west of 10th Street. Today the former military buildings house the New Tribes Mission.

Forty years ago, though, the property was divided into barracks, a gym, a chow hall.

"It was a real nice complex," Humphress said.

Even nicer, however, were the people of Baker City.

Although Humphress was transferred to a base in Newfoundland in 1963, he never doubted he would return to Baker City and make it his permanent home.

"I fell in love with Baker," said Humphress, who joined the Baker City Police Department on New Year's Eve of 1964 and worked there for 33 years, the final 23 as chief.

"We were treated so well by the people of the town. It's a great place to live."

Baker's lure hard to ignore

But Humphress, who's 64, was hardly the only airman who fell hard for Baker City — so hard that even today, 34 years after the radar base closed, several are here still.

At one time at least 15 former radar base workers lived in Baker County, said Sam Bass, 60, who like Humphress first gazed across Baker Valley at the Elkhorn Mountains in the early summer of 1961.

Over the years some of those former airmen left. But Bass, like Humphress, is one of several Air Force veterans who stayed.

"There's just something about Baker that draws you," said Bass, who like his good friend Humphress worked as a radar operator.

"You can get mad at it and disgusted at it and leave — but you come back."

Bass and Humphress had reasons other than their military careers to sink roots in Baker City.

Like many of their fellow airmen, each met and married a local girl while stationed here.

In fact, Humphress said, "Sam Bass pulled KP duty so I could get married."

"He was one of the first people I met at the base, and we've been good friends ever since," Humphress said.

Not long after his own marriage, Humphress returned the favor by signing a document Bass needed to marry his wife, the former Nora Colton.

Bass was not yet 21, and although his parents had mailed him a permission slip, he still needed someone older than 21 to sign a form and seal the union.

Although marriage and family helped to convince many Air Force personnel to remain in Baker City, those same forces might well have subtracted as much from the city's population as they added, Humphress said.

"An awful lot of Baker girls married Air Force men and then moved away," he said.

Wild rides in the mountains

Bass was among those who stayed, but that's not the only thing he has in common with Humphress.

Bass also grew up in the South — North Carolina, to be specific.

He knew nothing about the West before he was assigned to Baker City, but unlike Humphress, he did not ask to be sent west after he finished radar training at Biloxi.

Bass hoped he would be sent to a base near his home in North Carolina.

Still, he had always enjoyed traveling, and so was not altogether dismayed when he learned his next stop was much closer to the Pacific Ocean than to the familiar Atlantic.

Yet Bass admits he was not overwhelmed with joy when the bus in which he traveled west pulled into Baker City.

It wasn't long, though, before he came to appreciate the eclectic natural setting of a valley snuggled against soaring mountains, of treeless sagebrush rangeland mingled with verdant forests.

Eastern Oregon could hardly have been more different from the plywood-flat coastal plains Bass was used to.

Like Humphress, he was surprised when the bus dropped him off at the barracks in Baker City.

"I was expecting to be on a mountain top, too," Bass said.

It turned out that the airmen's high-altitude expectations were not as far from reality as they had first thought, however.

Although they usually bunked in the Baker City barracks, they spent much of their working hours in the heart of the 821st's operation, the $25 million Beaver Mountain radar station where airmen actually scanned the skies for trouble.

That station is the last stop on a 25-mile drive over what was then, and still is, one of Baker County's twistiest roads: the Dooley Mountain highway.

Forty years later, Bass still shudders slightly when he remembers riding in a bus as a young airman from California, a neophyte who might never have seen snow much less driven in it, tried to guide the lumbering vehicle down the mountain's steep, snow-slickened grades.

"We had some wild rides coming off that mountain," Bass said.

Getting to the mountain was no casual stroll, either.

Chuck Risley, 62, another Easterner who landed in Baker City as an airman four decades ago and still is here, drove the rotary snow blower and grader that kept the gravel road open between the paved highway and the radar station.

A lot of snow could pile up along those few miles, said Risley, who remembers sharing many a cup of hot coffee with the state workers who plowed snow from the highway.

Sometimes, Risley recalls, he was busy even when snow wasn't falling from the sky.

"The wind would drift in the road even when it didn't snow," Risley said. "It was cold, it was windy, it was miserable up there, believe me."

And yet Risley, who grew up in Springfield, Penn., and came to Baker City from an air base in South Carolina, stayed.

Love — and not just for Eastern Oregon — was one reason.

Like Humphress and Bass, Risley married a Baker County girl.

But he also shared with his fellow airmen an affinity for this place that at first seemed foreign and bleak.

"I liked the hunting and fishing, and I liked camping out," Risley said.

He also relishes the slow pace of small town life; although when Risley arrived in Baker City in 1962 he thought the pace might be a bit too slow.

Where's the town?

Unlike Humphress and Bass, Risley's first sight of the city was from the air rather than the ground.

It was a November night, and for a time the pilot flying Risley's plane thought he had bypassed Baker City altogether.

There were lights below, but not enough, it seemed to both the pilot and to Risley, to mark a city of 10,000.

"The pilot said to me, ‘There's no town down there,' " Risley remembers.

Forty years later that nighttime aerial view is quite different, brightened immeasurably by the addition of hundreds of homes and outbuildings between Baker City and the Elkhorns.

Boredom in a fearful time

Although the job assigned to the airmen sounds frightening — no one, after all, wants to announce what might be the start of World War III — in reality the task spawned many more minutes of boredom than fear, Humphress said.

"There were not a lot of planes," he said.

Humphress was on duty at Beaver Mountain on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The airmen increased their alert status, but nothing dramatic happened, Humphress remembers.

Bass, who like Humphress was trained as a radar operator, agrees with his former colleague that the job was more monotonous than manic.

Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union crept closer to nuclear war than they ever were before or have been since, the Baker airmen did not drastically change their routines, Bass said.

"I took the call the day they put us on Defcon 3 (a heightened precaution level)," he said. "We knew everything was tense, but it didn't really affect us.

"There wasn't much we could do."

More memorable to Bass is the rule that required airmen to never stray more than 15 minutes away from the base in Baker City.

Sometimes that regulation prevented Bass from visiting his future wife.

"It was too far, and my jalopy might not make it back in time," he said.

Baker's base closed down

Time and technology eventually caught up with the Baker Air Force station.

By 1968, improvements in radar had rendered the Baker station obsolete, Bass said.

On March 30 and 31 of that year, the Air Force invited the public to tour the mountain-top base before it was dismantled.

According to a report in the Baker Democrat-Herald, small numbers of people showed up March 30, a Saturday, to examine the site's two radar domes — the larger of which located planes, the smaller used to determine their altitude, speed and direction.

But the next day crowds were so large that visitors had to wait as long as an hour for traffic to clear.

Although the Air Force removed most parts of the Beaver Mountain installation, little was wasted.

The larger radar dome, a five-story structure resembling a gigantic puffball mushroom, today serves as the gymnasium at the high school in Payette, Idaho.

Bass said the metal power plant building, which enclosed the radar station's four massive diesel engines, was moved to David Eccles Road in south Baker City, where for many years it housed Carter Logging.

More recently, the Powder River Correctional Facility leased the structure as a work center for inmates. Earlier this fall a California company announced that it plans to assemble custom cabinets in the building.

People still visit Beaver Mountain, but now they scan the skies for interesting clouds rather than Russian bombers.

The only signs of human activity, besides the road, are an array of antennas.

The ones still here

The Air Force left Baker City, but the airmen stayed.

Humphress returned as soon as he was discharged in 1964. By the end of that year he had embarked on his career with the Baker City Police Department.

Bass was transferred to a base in Alaska in 1963, but his wife and daughter, Sharon, remained in Baker City.

He, too, was discharged in 1964, and he moved his family to his native North Carolina.

But Bass knew he would return, and in April 1970 he brought his family back to Baker City, this time for good.

Bass never forgot how the city's residents welcomed he and his fellow airmen with heart-warming hospitality, and he always has tried to repay those gestures, most noticeably with his award-winning holiday decorations that have delighted thousands of wide-eyed children who drive past his home on 19th Street.

Like Humphress, Risley returned to Baker City immediately upon his discharge.

Risley said he is not surprised so many airmen did the same.

"A lot of people that went in the service were from big cities, and when they found a small town like this that kind of drew them," he said. "Baker's always been friendly."