Where the hell is Minot, North Dakota?

I had never heard of Minot, North Dakota, and barely knew where North Dakota was until one day in late May or early June, 1957 while still at Radar Maintenance school at Keesler AFB. I can still see the headlines in the Biloxi, MS newspaper, something like "Killer Tornado Rips Fargo, North Dakota". This stuck in my mind so clearly because a barracks buddy a couple weeks ahead of me in school, by the name of Ray Pintz, had just gotten orders to Fargo (actually to the AC&W site in the eastern part of North Dakota, near Fargo, but I can't remember the site's name). We laid it on pretty heavily on poor old Ray, "look where they’re sending you!" I was certain I was going to be staying at Keesler as an instructor. My school grades were very high, second in my class by about half a percentage point, and I had several instructor friends trying to help me out.

A week or so later, I was devastated with a set of orders posting me to the 786th AC&W Squadron, Minot, North Dakota, wherever in hell that was! Ray had his turn to laugh then. But at least I didn’t see headlines about tornadoes in Minot while at Biloxi.

A few weeks later, after graduation and a short leave at home, while driving to Minot, I passed through Fargo and had the opportunity to see some of the devastation there, albeit pretty well cleaned up. I remember a strip that looked as if it was bulldozed down through Fargo.

I reported to the 786th in July, 1957. I was a brand-new 30332 Ground Radar Maintenance Technician, and a nearly brand-new A2C, E-3, two-striper. My training was on the AN/FPS-14 "Gap Filler" radar system. Upon my arrival at Minot, the -14 had not yet been installed, but the site at Niobe, near Kenmare in the northwest part of the state was being prepared. I was assigned to SSgt. Richard "Ed" Baake, the Gap Filler crew chief, who in turned reported to TSgt Holland McPherson, Radar Maintenance NCOIC.

Some few months after I arrived, Jim Benning, the Bendix tech rep arrived, and under Jim and Ed's direction, we got the gap filler installed and finally on line. The -14 site at Niobe sat on an acre or so leased from a farmer, who, for the first time in his life had an all-weather road to his property, thanks to the Air Force and the gap filler radar. The AN/FPS-14 was an S-band (2700MHz, if I remember correctly) powered by a magnetron. The rotating antenna sat on a tower about 30 or so feet high, and was exposed to the elements, with no radome. The electronics were housed in a concrete block building, along with a diesel generator. A chain link fence topped with barbed wire, about 8 feet high, enclosed the site.

Early trips to the Niobe gap-filler site were fun, because of the vehicle we had. Apparently (I've forgotten why, for sure), it was written that since these radars were in remote locations, that a four-wheel drive vehicle was required to get to them. In the very early days of the Niobe gap-filler construction, before I got there, this was likely true. In any event, the only four-wheel drive vehicle we had was an ambulance, so that's what we drove. This was in the days when the Salk polio vaccine was first being given. When we'd stop in Kenmare for coffee on the way to the site, we invariably had townsfolk asking us if we were there to administer the vaccine. We'd politely tell them "no." They always seemed disappointed with that.

Later on we got our own "official" gap-filler vehicle, a 1953 Reo-Studebaker 6x6 ("6-by") van; a huge beast. Top speed was about 40 miles per hour, and it got about three miles per gallon of gasoline. The only gas station in Kenmare loved us, because we'd have to refuel before heading back to the 786th, and took on about 30 gallons of fuel. This vehicle was equipped with a generator, which I never had the occasion to start or hear run; sleeping area; emergency rations; a cookstove; a couple weapons, .30M1 Carbines, I think; just in case we got stranded someplace. Neat vehicle, noisy, fun to drive - if you weren't in a hurry!

The gap-filler radar data was "slowed down" to a speed which could be sent over normal phone lines, and was sent to the 786th via both a microwave system and phone system.

The AN/FPS-14 was beset by a number of minor problems, which nagged us all the time I worked on the system. The doppler Moving Target Indicator (MTI) wouldn't stay locked on, and continually drifted. Without the MTI, ground clutter made the radar data displayed in the 786th Operations room appear noisy with many permanent echoes or "PE"s. The generator was supposed to start automatically when power failed, but never did to my knowledge. We had diesel maintenance crews on site for months, and it just didn't get any better.

The site at Niobe was about an 85 mile drive from the 786th, and typically took about two hours to get there. We did a lot of overnight stays in the hotel at Kenmare, because is just wasn't practical to drive four hours total and get anything realistic done at the site.

The equipment back at the 786th home site included an AN/FSA-10 radar data converter and television display system. This was a clever device which painted the gap filler's radar display on a small Plan Position Indicator (PPI) scope, of which there were several so that one A-10 could be used for a number of gap fillers. Then a television camera whose sweep was set to the rotation of the main GCI radar antenna took a video picture of this PPI, which was adjusted to be in the correct location relative to the main GCI system and combined the image with the main GCI radar returns and displayed it on the Operations PPIs as a single display. If the -14 MTI worked as it should have, aircraft passing in the gap filler's coverage area would appear on the GCI PPI display as though the GCI system picked it up. Well, anyway, that was the theory.

The AN/FPS-14 system was one of the very early parts of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) radar system.

The radars on the 786th radar site included a AN/TPS-10D X-band height-finder radar, which I had little to do with; an AN/FPS-6 S-band height finder; an AN/FPS-3 L-band search radar backed up by an AN/FPS-8. I eventually cross-trained on the AN/FPS-6, and AN/FPS-3. Later on, the AN/FPS-3 was replaced with a AN/FPS-20.

As time wore on, I got to liking the small, everyone-knows-everyone nature of the 786th, and other small radar sites like it. There was never more than 120 or so military stationed there, with only a few civilian support troops. When I first arrived at Minot, the 786th was the only military installation around. The "big base" had yet to be built. The 30,000 people of Minot seemed to treat most of us as sons, and we were generally very well liked by the townsfolk. Later, when Minot AFB was built, and some 5500 troops moved in, the townsfolk had second thoughts about us. A city of only 30,000 people had trouble absorbing over 5000 troops without friction, and much of the charm of Minot became lost.

I left the 786th for a tour "overseas" in Canada, at the 639th Squadron at Lowther, Ontario. I and at least one other from the 639th came back to Minot to finish our enlistments at the 786th. My last commanding officer was Major Israel D. "Snake" Seigel. Of the commanders and other officers I knew, he stands apart as an outstanding commander and friend to enlisted men.

I separated from the Air Force in August, 1960, and returned to my home in Ohio. Looking back over the years, I was never much of a "military man", I wasn't the gung-ho military type, and seldom spit-shined. I did develop into a pretty good radar technician, and my Air Force tour began a love affair with radar in particular, and electronics in general that lasted for many years.

After leaving Minot and the Air Force, I worked for a few months at North American Aviation, as an electronics tech on the ground test equipment for the A3J (later RA5) "Vigilante" Navy attack bomber. I lasted there about 4 months, until I had a belly full of the UAW union. I went to work for RCA Service Company, headquarted at Riverton, New Jersey, and went to Thule, Greenland to work on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). This was a job I've never forgotten, working on the most magnificent electronic and mechanical equipment you can imagine. For an equipment junkie like me, it was paradise (even at Thule). The link (above) goes to a short essay I wrote about this, in case anybody is interested. I came home from there after 18 months, married a girl I'd known since I was about 10 years old, and have been happily married for 35 years. The Thule experience was my last radar experience. My later work was with ICBM guidance systems, and finally as a computer programmer. I retired from the Defense Department at the end of December, 1994, and presently have a small, one-man Internet consulting company.

Gene McManus

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