Ground Observer Corps... Most Americans alive today likely have never heard of this organization, also known as GOC. It was modeled after the British civilian observers mobilized in WWII, and the goal of it was to search the skies for enemy aircraft. In the earlier days of WWII, there was no radar – so visual observation was the only practical way to spot and identify an aircraft. More information about the GOC can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
When the U.S. joined the war in December 1941, my mom was just nine years old. At the end of the war with Germany, in 1945, she was almost thirteen. Despite her young age, she volunteered for the Ground Observer Corps – which was mainly composed of women, children, and men too old or physically unable to fight. She joined it when she was ten years old, and she wasn't the youngest volunteer by a long shot.
I first learned about mom's participation in the GOC in the mid-'80s, when she saw a structure in California that reminded her of the watch tower she knew from her GOC days, and she mentioned it. After that we had several long conversations about her experiences in the GOC, and WWII in general.
The particular GOC group she was part of kept two observers on station 24x7 in a concrete tower (around 20' high) located above the ocean beach just east of Plum Island, which itself is just south of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Like most of the observers there, she bicycled from home to the tower for each of her watches. She stood four hour watches, five times a week. Her group was responsible not only for spotting German aircraft, but also German submarines. These occasionally prowled along the American east coast, and they were especially prevalent near large ports. The tower where mom stood watches was close to two of America's largest cargo ports: New York and Newark.
Mom never saw a German aircraft, though her group did report a few “unknowns” – aircraft that they could not identify. All of them turned out to be experimental aircraft flying from one of the many military air bases in the area. She did spot two German submarines, both times at night, and both times with no running lights (as was usual for German submarines operating in U.S. waters). Like the other observers who spotted submarines, she spotted them by their silhouettes when they were backlit by the moon or more distant (and lit up) ships. She could still recall her fear and excitement at calling in the report – by getting the operator on a standard telephone and saying the magic phrase “Army flash.” That caused the operator to connect her to an Army center where these reports were collected, verified, and perhaps acted upon. The two subs my mom spotted submerged again before they could be attacked; so far as she knows, her reports didn't result in any military action.
Of interest to me was how the Army managed to make use of kids like my mom for this effort. When she started, the only “equipment” she got was a set of flash cards with photos and silhouettes of the aircraft and submarines she was supposed to identify (both friendly and enemy). She spent hours studying and practicing with these cards, and was only allowed to man the observation tower when she passed a test administered by the Army liaison officer to her group. She was tremendously proud of the fact that she passed that test on her first attempt, about a month after she got the set of flash cards. This was, perhaps, another example of her powers of memory.
Later in the war, the observation tower got two pairs of WWI-era binoculars – far from the top-of-the-line, but a heck of a lot better than having nothing at all. Only after they had the binoculars could mom see well enough to actually identify a submarine from its silhouette.
My mom's partner on watch was one of three people (in a rotation): a young woman a few years older than her, a WWI destroyer veteran, and a older lady around 50 years old. She remembered long conversations with these three people, all of whom she became very friendly with. The veteran, in particular, fascinated her because of his understanding of how to stand a watch: how to preserve your best eyesight (by staying in total darkness), how to stay awake and alert, and on the importance of avoiding false alarms. That fellow made a big impression on her, and was also responsible for expanding her four-letter word vocabulary :)
In my conversations with mom about the GOC, it seemed to me that the most important thing about it for her was that it gave her a sense of actually helping the war effort in a tangible way. She, like most others not actually at war, was filled with the sense of the existential danger facing the country – and she desperately wanted to contribute to winning. The only other thing she did that gave her a similar sense of participation were the drives to collect metal (especially aluminum) that she spent a lot of time doing in 1943 and 1944. But the watches she stood for the GOC gave her an especially direct sense of helping in a way that was as close to being a soldier as it was possible for her to do.
Something I've thought about often, since then, is just how young she was at the time she volunteered for the GOC. I don't have many clear memories of any kind at just ten or twelve years old, but I certainly wasn't doing anything that could be even remotely construed as helping a war effort! Mom was then about the same age that I was when President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember that event clearly enough – but only a few isolated vignettes. I couldn't tell you much about the context I was in; I was just a kid, consumed with the things that most kids in those days were consumed with. None of that was particularly memorable. My mom, at the same age, was keenly aware of the country being at war. She followed the war news avidly, as did everyone she knew who was still stateside. She was aware of the setbacks and victories, and she remembered them all still, forty years later when I had those conversations with her. For instance, she recalled vividly the sense of joy and hope she had (as did those around her) upon hearing about Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in April 1942, when she was just nine years old. Her memories of those years seemed to me to be more like the memories of an adult's experience, not those of a child. But child she was.
I've read several history books that covered the GOC, including one that was entirely dedicated to it. All of them conclude that from a military standpoint, the GOC was actually a net negative – about 90% of the GOC's reports of enemy aircraft or ships were judged to be false, and quite a bit of military resource was spent chasing them down. But in one sense, at least, the GOC was a resounding success. My mom's sense of wartime participation was far from unique. The GOC was a huge morale booster for its volunteers (over a million civilians!), and even at the time the leadership of it recognized the value of that. During the war there were several efforts by military commanders to shut the GOC down, but those efforts were always shot down by senior commanders who understood that the GOC was about more than spotting airplanes.
Somehow I'm certain that my mom would agree with that...