Topsham Air Force Station, Maine and Its Role in the “Cold War”
Main Gate to Topsham Air Force Station, Topsham, Maine, July 1969
“The Cold War is a term commonly used to refer to a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc. Historians do not fully agree on its starting and ending points, but the period is generally considered to span from the announcement of the Truman Doctrine on 12 March 1947 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991.” Click here for more information on the Cold war.
“The Truman Doctrine is an American foreign policy that originated with the primary goal of containing Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War. It was announced to Congress by President Harry S. Truman on March 12, 1947.” Click here for more info on the Truman Doctrine.
The previous statements set the beginning reason and basis for “The Topsham Air Force Station Cold War Story”. Click here for more detailed information on the Topsham Air Force Station , and here for information about the SAGE system.
The story of Topsham and the construction of the and the establishment of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system (shown above) is best explained by looking through the historical lens of what was taking place in the US in the 1950s and documented in the following You Tube documentaries:
Main campus of Topsham Air Force Station, around 1969, before base closure.
Command Post at Topsham AFS. A Canadian Air Force Officer and U.S. Navy Officer are viewing one of the 100 system consoles connected to the AN/FSQ-7 IBM computer system which, during the cold war, was used to analyze radar data, in real time, for targeting Soviet bombers. Click here for more detailed information.
The following excerpt was taken from the book Command and Control authored by Eric Schlosser, 2013 Penguin Group, pages 152-153:
“At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers concluded that the Whirlwind computer, originally built for the Navy as a flight simulator, could be used to automate air defense and early- warning tasks. Unlike computers that took days or weeks to perform calculations, the Whirlwind had been designed to operate in real time. After extensive testing by the Air Force, an updated version of the Whirlwind was chosen to serve as the heart of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE)---a centralized command-and-control system that linked early-warning radars directly to antiaircraft missiles and fighter-interceptors, that not only processed information in real time but also transmitted it, that replaced manpower with technology on a scale reminiscent of pulp science fiction. It was the first computer network.
Built during roughly the same years as the DEW Line, SAGE consisted of twenty-four “direction centers” and three “combat centers” scattered throughout the United States. The direction centers were enormous four-story, windowless blockhouses that housed a pair of AN/FSQ-7 computers, the first mainframes produced by IBM. They were the largest, fastest, and most expensive computers in the world. Each of them contained about 25,000 vacuum tubes and covered about half an acre of floor space.
Analog signals from early-warning radar sites were converted into digital bits and sent via AT&T’s telephone lines to SAGE direction centers, where the huge computers decided whether an aircraft was friend or foe. If it appeared to be an enemy bomber, the computers automatically sent details about its flight path to the nearest missile batteries and fighter planes. Those details were also sent to NORAD headquarters. Human beings would decide whether or not to shoot down the plane. But that decision would be based on information gathered, sorted, and analyzed by machines. In many respects SAGE created the template for the modern computer industry, introducing technologies that would later become commonplace: analog to digital conversion, data transmission over telephone lines, video monitors, graphic displays, magnetic core memory, duplexing, multiprocessing, large-scale software programming, and the light gun, a handheld early version of the mouse. The attempt to create a defense against Soviet bombers helped to launch a technological revolution.”
The following is a personal story by Steven P. Kovach regarding an incident involving three Russian Bear bombers being escorted out of US/Canadian air space by US Air Force F-106 fighter interceptors from Loring AFB, Limestone, Maine.
"In May 1969, I was approached by the Intelligence Officer at the Topsham AFS who possessed a negative of a photo, from which he wanted to have copies made. He briefly explained that the negative was of a Russian Bear bomber that was intercepted off the coast of Maine and being escorted out of US/Canadian air space. He mentioned that I should not share this information with anyone. One of my duties beyond being one of the station’s photographers and photo lab technician, was to attend daily international security briefings and operate visual slide and overhead projectors covering Soviet troop movements in Europe and Soviet submarine activity in the Atlantic. The photo of the Russian Bear was intended to be used in the next day’s security briefing. I complied with the officer’s request not to mention the negative and the request for photos of the Russian Bear bomber.
Russian Bear Bomber 13 May 1969, approximately 150 miles off the Labrador coast of Canada.
In February 2021, I purchased the book, “World’s Fastest Single-Engine Jet Aircraft, The Story of Convair’s F-106 Delta Dart Interceptor” by Doug Barbier LtCol., USAF (Ret.) 2017 published by Specialty Press, Forest Lake, MN.
On page 125, it states: “On 13 May 1969”, the 22nd NORAD Region at North Bay, Ontario, scrambled two of the Loring Air Force Base, Maine 27th FIS F-106s. These planes were ordered to intercept the Russian Bear bombers operating off the Labrador coast. “Not expecting a reaction from NORAD, the Bears turned and ran eastbound once they realized that the Sixes had been scrambled against them. After cruising in minimum afterburner and a speed of about Mach 1.25 for a good 15 to 20 minutes chasing the retreating targets, the two F-106s caught up with the ‘unknowns’ 150 miles offshore and proceeded to escort them for another 15 to 20 minutes before returning to Goose Bay. “This was the first successful intercept of Soviet aircraft completed by interceptors based in the continental United States.” My assumption is that one of the pilots of the two F-106s took the photo of the Russian Bear Bomber that was sent onto the Intelligence Officer at Topsham AFS."
On 30 September 1969. Topsham Air Force Station was officially closed. The SAGE DC blockhouse was demolished in August 1985 and is now a recreation field. Is this the end for Topsham Air Force Station? I say no because Topsham Air Force Station is like one of the old ghost towns in the deserts of the southwest. Topsham Air Force Station, like those old ghost towns, remains in the memory of those who live in the town of Topsham and the veterans who were stationed there in service to their country.
The author, Steven P. Kovach, PhD, is a former Staff Sergeant and Audio-Visual Specialist who was based at the Topsham Air Force Station from 1968-1969. In September 1969, he left Topsham Air Force Station when the Station was closed. He was transferred to Fort Lee Air Force Station in Virginia, where there was another SAGE DC blockhouse. He remained there until January 1970 when he was honorably discharged from the US Air Force. He currently is retired and resides in the retirement community of Sun City West, Arizona and is a member of The American Legion Mary Ellen Piotrowski Post 94 and serves on the Post’s Honor Guard, participating in funerals at the Arizona National Cemetery in Phoenix.