Wadena 739th Air Control Squadron
A brief history of the local air base
In the Pioneer Journal of July 7, 1949 is the first mention of any interest in constructing a radar station in Wadena county. The location selected was locally known as Bell Hill, the highest point in the area, owned by Elmer Erickson, in Section 9, Leaf River township, 36 acres in the southwest quarter of the southwest quarter. This was a portion of Mr. Erickson’s farm and was purchased for $3,600.
There is no further mention in the newspaper of the air base until late in 1951 when an article entitled “Now It Can Be Told” appears. It states that the Wadena Radar Station, was started a little over two years ago and is part of the system established by the Air Defense Command of the U. S. Air Force, to protect the continental United States from enemy attack. This was a part of a joint project by the Canadian and United States to form a protective ring of radar warning stations against foreign attack. This consisted of the Dew Line in northern Canada and Alaska, the Mid Canada line in central Canada and the Pine Tree Line of which Wadena was a part. It further states that “Our Job involves warning of enemy planes which might attack this area, through the use of radar.”
It also stated that while the secret is out, and publicity restrictions are off, the base continues to be a restricted area for civilians, and only Air Force personnel are allowed on the grounds.
The Wadena Air Force Station was activated on May 20, 1950 as the 132nd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron of the Minnesota National Guard, with 16 officers and 109 enlisted personnel authorized.
On February 1, 1953, the 132nd was deactivated with the 739th AC & W Squadron being activated.
On January 15, 1960, the 739th became the 739th Radar Squadron as the unit moved from a manual to semi-automatic environment.
During these years the radar system was continually upgraded and expanded. Old timers remember three radar units or balloon units set atop of the hill on the west side of the area. I am told that one of these units was for distance detection, one for height finding and the third for back up in the event of a failure.
The 739th Radar Squadron (SAGE) was deactivated in September of 1970. At this time it was part of the 29th Air Division (SAGE).
Although there is no mention of it in the newspaper there was at least a portion of the construction contract awarded to the Frank Bass Construction Company of Minneapolis, as the Company opened a charge account with the Wadena Hardware Company and was a wonderful account during the construction period. The contract was for cost plus ten percent and there was an incident where supposedly a semi load of asphalt tile cement froze and was ruined.
Getting back to the function and operation of the base. The area included the following: An orderly room with base finance office, operations building which controlled the three silos, recreation hall, including a library, Special Services office, a mailroom, a base exchange with a wide stock of merchandise for sale, a movie theater offering movies three evenings a week, a dining or mess hall, an officer’s club, an Airmen’s or NCO club, a medical dispensary of three rooms and a dental office. In addition a monthly newspaper, the Antenna was published, intramural sports were played and they had a tennis court. Also base teams in baseball, softball and basketball were formed to play area teams.
The purpose of the Base was to locate and report all aircraft coming into the area. This was accomplished by the work of an operations officer heading a group of enlisted men consisting of three groups of enlisted men of approximately 6 members each working three days of 8 a. m. to 4 p. m.; three days 4 p. m to midnight; and three days of midnight to 8 a. m. and then three days off. I find conflicting views on the number of men involved with each crew running from six to fifteen men. This group consisted of a crew chief and assistant crew chief and radar scope operators with necessary back up. Upon the discovery of unidentified aircraft this information was immediately relayed to Grand Forks or Duluth for evaluation and necessary action.
In a brochure published by the Base for the benefit of incoming Airmen it also describes the many features and benefits of the city of Wadena.
Housing for families of officers and enlisted personnel was accomplished when twenty seven houses, with two or three bedrooms, were built on land purchased from Archie Gilbert, south of the base, and across 200th Street in Section 16. Nine being built in 1954 and the balance in 1958. Of these as near as I can determine, were three for officers and twenty four for enlisted personnel. After the squadron was deactivated the houses were sold off with only three remaining in 2008. One of these homes, a three bedroom rambler sold to Lyle Walz for $10,600 in 1986 and moved to a location in northeast Wadena.
The relationship of the air base and its personnel with Wadena and the surrounding territory was very good. The base marching unit took part in many parades and events in Wadena. They held many social affairs and dances at the Pine Cove Inn and Memorial Auditorium for base personnel and the general public. These included a Leap Year Dance, Annual Military Ball featuring the St. Paul Symphony Dance Band with KWAD doing a portion of the program, a Christmas Military Ball and a Thanksgiving Dance and basketball game. The relations between base personnel and locals must have been good because of many marriages between base men and Wadena women.
A few other projects reported in the Pioneer Journal were: 1952 they held an open house to demonstrate to the public how air defense works.
In 1953 the air base baseball team was in the Lake & Pine League play off. I never did find out who won that.
In 1961 an NCO Wives club was formed.
In 1963 the air base personnel donated 146 pints of blood to the Red Cross. I am sure that this was a continuing thing as was an Annual Field Day for military and civilian personnel.
In 1968 the Station held a formal retreat formation, an annual event marking the beginning of the summer season. Also that year the Station mess hall was first runner up in the Headquarters, Tenth Air Force mess hall competition.
In 1969 Judge Hugh G. Parker, Judge of Probate in Wadena presented Staff Sergeant and Mrs. Philip Marquez a plaque for their service to the children of Wadena county for the past three and one half years.
Some, but probably not all of the commanding officers at the base were Captain Charles Denham, Major Martin Lee, Lt. Col. Thomas Witt, Major Robert Evers, Captain John Frahm, Major Benjamin Gildart, Major I. D. Siegel, Major Frank S. Puente, Captain Frederick Bongard, Major John A. Bosseler, Lt. Colonel Merton J. Frankie, Major Marvin S. Heller, Major Russell H. Hanson, Major Russell J. Swanson, Captain Burl Coursey and Lt. William Altenhoffen.
Unfortunately in March of 1970 word was received that the 739th Radar Squadron would be deactivated by September 30th. This affected 120 military and 14 civilian personnel.
It was stated that world wide there would be 371 bases closed, 93,900 jobs affected and a savings to the government of $1,323 billion dollars.
It was reported in April of that year that a local committee was seeking uses for the abandoned base. Among the suggested uses was housing for students of two entire T. O. W. regions. Dr. Robert Boyd, a retired college professor, a Wadena boy, was appointed as representative to acquire the radar site for the School District.
Nothing came of these discussions and the place sat vacant, under caretaker Dale Carr of Verndale, until October of 1973 when the ownership was turned over to Wadena County by the Federal government with the proviso that it be used for some type of health care. Thus at that time the Multi County Health Center came into being. In late 1978 the name was changed to Bell Hill Recovery Center.
The director in 2008 is Ross Olson and they have room for 93 patients with the average patient load at about 80 people, with the average stay about 90 days. Patients are from any county in the state of Minnesota and are primarily for treatment of alcoholism.
Jimmie White of Wadena has prepared an article discussing the technical aspects of the radar base which is on file at the Wadena County Historical Society. Information for this article was gathered from former enlisted personnel of the Base.
He also advises that they will be having their second annual reunion of Air Base personnel September 19, 20 and 21. This will headquarter out of the VFW club room.