The 69th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA)
Gun Battalion (90mm)
arrives at Fort Tilden.
Updated: September 14, 2000
After the removal of the Coast Artillery guns in 1948, a new threat faced the US Army; the possibility of Soviet bombers attacking US cities. To protect New York City from this threat, Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) units with radar controlled guns were positioned at Fort Tilden and Fort Totten.
Charles Cox, a veteran of the 69th AAA Gun Battalion remembers the arrival of his unit in Queens, NY, the deployment of the gun batteries, and some related stories:
I was the Assistant Battalion S-3 of the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) at the time of the move, but I soon moved to one of the firing batteries. Both the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) and the 526th AAA Gun Bn (120mm) belonged to the 80th AAA Group at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and both were included on the First Army Movement Order 12-2 dated 19 Dec 1950. These orders directed all to go to Fort Totton.
The 69th arrived on the 29th of December 1950. Movement was by rail from Fort Devens, Mass. to a railroad off-loading point at Flushing, NY, and it was not until the units arrived at Flushing that the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) was informed it would be going on to Fort Tilden (Fort Tilden was classified as a "sub-post" to Fort Totton). The 526th AAA Gun Bn (120mm) went to Fort Totton and was still there as late as July 1950.
For the period January through July 1951, I have personal knowledge that the 69th was the only artillery battalion at Fort Tilden. The statement of strengths of each battalion being 1000 was a little high. Actually the strengths as shown on the First Army Movement Order were:
69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) - 29 Officers; 3 Warrant Officers; 574 EM
526th AAA Gun Bn (120mm) - 26 Officers; 1 Warrant Officer; 566 EM (at Fort Totton).
Your listing of Colonel Robert Connor as Commanding, 80th AAA Group is accurate. The Commanding Officer of the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) was Major Donald C. Sherrets. Lieutenant Colonel Allen D. Kerr assumed command before the end of January 1951; however, that lasted just over a month. At that time, Major Sherrets assumed command again.
Two minor mistakes with serious consequences occurred on the day the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) arrived by train at an unknown railroad siding in or near Flushing, a location that was apparently much more convenient to Fort Totton than to FortTilden.
Mistake number one:
The battalion personnel and baggage were to travel from Fort Devens, (Ayer, Massachusetts) in a train of regular coach passenger cars. A second train would follow reasonably close behind with flat cars loaded with all the battalion's vehicles loaded with the battalions equipment. The 69th was a "mobile" unit, and was required to be able to transport all organic equipment. The strategy of loading the "equipment" train was to use a siding at Fort Devens that had an earth filled ramp at the end of a railroad spur. This was so the vehicles could drive directly onto the flat car and then, using pieces of sheet metal or heavy boards to serve as small "bridges" to move from car to car, advance up the train as far as possible. The first vehicle on would move all the way to the front of the train, and other vehicles would follow until all vehicles were properly placed and lashed down, The important picture here is that all vehicles faced forward and all gun muzzles pointed toward the rear, meaning that, to detrain, the vehicles would have to move in the same direction, and drop to ground level by the use of another ramp. This turned out be a rather long train, with nothing but flat cars.
As I recall, the battalion "people" train got there without any significant event, and was unloaded so it could leave, leaving the impression the "equipment" train was close by getting ready to use the same track. This left about 500 plus people to find places to wait for the second train. It was outside and it was cold. Several hours passed and the battalion S-4 had been on the phone trying to find out why the equipment train was so late, but he couldn't get any information out of the railroad. The noise of the train was finally heard, and there were cheers from the men, who felt it wasn't too long before they would be with their assigned vehicle, and would be getting out of this place. The siding for the train led up to a nice ramp, as good as, if not better than the one at Devens. As the train came into view, so did the realization of the problem that was so obvious. The train was backing down the siding in the same position it had left Devens (muzzles pointed toward the ramp). The railroad crew had not reversed the train to place the locomotive on the other end so that the vehicles would be in position to be driven off. It was part of the S-4's responsibility to have instructed the train crew as to how the train was to be positioned at Flushing, [I later learned (but not necessarily from reliable sources) that when the S-4 tried to do this, the train conductor said something to the effect that he didn't need anybody wearing an army suit telling him how to run his train. With that the S-4 backed off.] The train crew was shown what was needed and why, and they took the train out to some place where there was appropriate tracks to allow them the reverse the train. That's no easy task, and it was several more hours before they got back. When it did return it was in perfect order and was placed firmly against the ramp and the vehicles all started and were able to drive off the train in the same order that they were loaded.
Mistake number two:
It was getting pretty late in the afternoon by this time, and we still had to get to Fort Tilden. (The knowledge that we were slated to go Fort Tilden was something different than what we thought when we left Fort Devens.) The good news was that we had a guide that had been furnished from Fort Totton to show us the way to Fort Tilden. The bad news was that we had only one guide. This equated to us having only one convoy. You don't have to count very long before you realize that a battalion strength convoy, with all the tactical vehicles and all the administrative vehicles, would soon be a very long convoy.
The convoy was formed, the battalion commander's jeep with the guide led the way, and we moved out. It was a mess, being just at the start of rush hour and already getting dark. Anyway, somehow (probably due to the experience and common sense of the regular army NCOs more than anything else) we seemed to progress southward passing onto Rockaway much to the east of Fort Tilden. The convoy moved west on the main road on the north side of Rockaway. I don't know what kind of traffic circle exists today at the south end of the Marine Parkway Bridge, but in 1950 it was little more than an arrangement that required all vehicles to circle to the right and exit whenever. Changing lanes seemed to require a mutual understanding between drivers, but picture a slow lumbering convoy of army vehicles crossing in front of the oncoming traffic coming off of the bridge, trying to exit the traffic circle just beyond where the traffic was coming off the Marine Parkway Bridge.
Here, things went from bad to worse. The lead vehicle failed to get into the right-most lane due to heavy and fast traffic coming offthe bridge. Not being in the right lane there was no way our convoy could exit at the road leading on to Fort Tilden. Stopping didn't seem to be a very safe thing to do, so the lead vehicle kept going around the circle until it had made a full loop and had met the convoy at the convoy's input to the circle. I didn't see any of this as I was much further back in the convoy, but I was led to believe that the vehicle that was "met" by the lead vehicle stopped and stayed put until the part of the convey in front of him and completed their loop. This was part of the convoy with several guns (with their full tracked prime movers) and they started forcing their way over so that the vehicles could make the turn off into the road leading to Tilden. All this doing created one big traffic backup on the bridge. I don't think the basic field manual for convoys covers going around traffic circles at rush hour. For some reason we had no police assistance in traffic, but this incident surprisingly resulted in no known mishaps.
Emplacing the Guns
The 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm), consisted of HQ & HQ Btry, and four firing batteries, A, B, C, & D. Each firing battery had four towed 90mm guns M2, a trailer-mounted SCR-584 radar, a trailer-mounted M9 fire control system, and other smaller pieces of equipment.
As far as the location of the guns, looking down on Fort Tilden from the Atlantic Ocean side, Fort Tilden forms a rectangle with the long side running almost east to west. If you can visualize that rectangle being marked roughly into quarters, the eastern most quarter would be the garrison area and the western three quarters would be the "tactical" area. The only entrance to the fort entered the garrison area from a street passing on the north side of the post. The tactical area (after allowing for the explosive ordnance safety distances from any place a civilian may properly be) was roughly divided down the middle and across the middle, making four quadrants or sectors. Battery A had the NE sector; Battery C had the SW sector; and Battery B and Battery D had the other two sectors, but I don't recall which had what. Within the designated sector, a battery would locate its four guns in a square with the fire control section off to one side, depending on the terrain. The guns were fully emplaced (bogies removed and the guns placed on the ground). Revetments were constructed and sand bags built up all around the guns and the fire control equipment. (One learns quickly that gun section sergeants are very serious about trying to have the best prepared gun position in the battalion, It's a real competition that I had not been exposed to before).
Looking down, the four firing batteries, with guns and fire control equipment, would be positioned in a 2 X 2 block on the west side of the fort. The quad .50 cal machine gun turrets were positioned (I think by headquarters battery) to protect from any ground approach problems (much concern was given to possible boat landings for sabotage), and for local defense in general. I recall one quad MG mount was placed on the high bunker that was close to the center of the tactical area. These units were easy to move and as I recall, they were rearranged quite frequently.
After the gun positions had been constructed and sand bagged in, some live ammunition was stored at each gun site. Don't recall just how many rounds. It wasn't much, but additional ammo was close by. I don't recall anything except having the routine HE-frag round with a time fuze. (You may recall that the 90mm had an automatic fuze setter that used data from the FCS).
Each battery had a true deployment site already fixed up with communications, etc. I don't remember where our's was located (other than in Brooklyn), but I do remember going there one day with a group of officers (in uniform) and we were not sure where it was even when we got to the address. A young kid ran over and asked us if we were looking for the "army place". (It was supposed to have been a secret). He took us straight to the pole where the communication boxes were located.
Tracking Civilian Aircraft for Training
Anything flying was tracked for training purposes.Radar operators had received little on-the-job-training on reporting tracks by grid coordinates to the Anti Aircraft Artillery Operations Center (AAAOC) and receiving instructions from the AAAOC as to what to do with the track. The AAAOC had to coordinate the handover of tracks from one battery's sector to another battery as the target moved on. Tracking under the overall management of the AAAOC is not a textbook subject. It is different from minute to minute. We had no Identification Friend or Foe (IFF). The Air Force was responsible for identifying aircraft and passing authority to the Army if there was ever going to be one fired upon. Tracking was by radar only. Also tracking in conjunction with the AAAOC proofs out the accuracy of the grid placement on the radar screens by letting the AAAOC have two radars track the same plane and both report grid coordinates (these should be the same regardless of where the two radars were located). The guns played no part in "tracking targets". The AAA Operations Center was operated by the 504th AAA Operations Detachment (AAAOD) at Headquarters, 34th AAA Brigade, located at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, NY.
I had been previously assigned to the 504th at Fort Bliss and moved with them to Fort Devens where I stayed with them through October. So, upon moving into Fort Wadsworth, and the 504th having to establish all the maps with gun site locations, status boards, plotting boards, etc, as well as working 24 hour days, receiving and processing tracks from the Air Force (I seem to remember the name of Miller Field. Could that be correct?) Having had an Operations Officer MOS I was fully qualified and knowledgeable with their operation. It wasn't long before I was on orders for 10 days TDY to help them get up to speed.
We had many alerts usually initiated at group or battalion level. As would be expected, at first they were full of unanticipated problems, but as these were worked out, the frequency of alerts gradually decreased. An alert would be called at a random time and evaluated based on the time required for a battery to report that it is on the air and ready to be assigned a target. As I recall, in the evening and night hours, the minimum manning requirement consisted of two full strength batteries being on call (all required personnel being present on post). Under an "alert" both were expected to report ready within 10 minutes.
Personnel of the other two batteries (most of whom lived on post, but a considerable number of NCOs and Officers, and a few EM, living off-post) would be expected to report to their positions ASAP upon being notified by a telephone routine worked out by the battalion S-3. This consisted of the battery duty NCO on duty calling just a short list of persons in the battery, with each of those persons (about 3-5) calling 3-5 others, and so on until the full battery had been called. Each then had not more than 30 (as I remember it) minutes to report to their duty position. Of course there were some bodies more critical than others and they had to be tracked more closely as to where they would be at all times. This general function soon proved to be a real headache.
Anyway, on one occasion, while these phone calls were being made (usually all that was said was "Red Alert. Report immediately", a local telephone operator happened to listen in on a call and heard the Red Alert part. Without asking any questions, she took it on her own to contact the office responsible for all the Civil Defense functions of the New York area. This caused much confusion with people taking posts all over town, etc. Needless to say, there was a change in procedures and message formulation. A short period after it was over, it was funny, but for a while it was a "who can we blame" game.
Tactical Field Exercise:
On 15 June 1951, the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) participated in a Joint Army-Navy-Air Force Tactical Field Exercise (Joint TFX), scheduled to last 10 days. Three of the four batteries of this battalion moved to and occupied their assigned tactical positions. The fourth battery (mine) stayed at Fort Tilden because the tactical communications at the site had deficiencies that had not been corrected. This required all members of the battery to remain on post around the clock every day for the full ten days.
The exercise emphasized top level inter-service coordination. Being in a firing battery at the time, I was too far down the food chain to have access to the Exercise Operations Plan, so I have no knowledge of what points of concern was to be emphasized, or what priorities were set. Our role was to respond when targets were assigned, and to perform the simulated engagement just as we did every day in our routine training.
As I have mentioned before, the USAF had (and still has) primary responsibility for the air defense of the CONUS. So they assumed the most significant role in the exercise. The USAF was not familiar with Army AAA capabilities and how to apply our participation in the exercise was an unknown factor in the equation.
Throughout the exercise, the 69th Bn actually had little participation, and, from where I was positioned, it did us little or no good. Actually, the Air Force's position is understandable. The Air Force, with primary responsibility, probably would have been the first US force to engage attacking enemy bombers. They would naturally want to demonstrate that their fighter interceptors were fully capable to deter any attack. However, if the Air Force needed to volunteer (or admit) they couldn't handle the job, and felt obligated to call upon a sister service, they would first call upon the Navy's air arm, and after that would call upon the Army's AAA. If the latter was done, the Army AAA would be given "guns free" and the Air Force and Navy aircraft would be expected to disengage The old joke was that the Army AAA would shoot down anything in the air, and do the sorting on the ground. I think the Air Force still believes that.
I would expect that the decision by an Air Force Commander to withdraw USAF assets from a primary USAF responsibility, and let the Army AAA take over, would be a hard decision to make.
The net result, from a battery officer's point of view, is that we learned very little from the exercise. The AAAOC at Wadsworth probably had some interface with the exercise, but for us, it amounted to very little. But, again, I never had access to any After Action Report, so I have viewed the exercise from a very biased view.
As I recall, in 1951 we were still having problems with the AF in some very basic elements of communication of data. One element I remember is something as simple as the height of a target. At the time this was expressed in yards by the army and feet by the AF. (We were not into metrics yet.) But the interface between the AF Operations and Army Operations was not coordinated, and, indeed, the equipments used compounded this problem.
In summary, at battery level, we didn't get very involved, and could have spent the 10 days doing other things. I hope that the exposition of the interservice problem resulted in someone realizing and doing something to improve things. If anything came from the exercise I wasn't there to realize it.
Annual Service Practice at Montauk Point:
Having been alerted we would be going to Montauk Point for our Annual Service Practice (live firings), a group of four of us traveled to Montauk Point (by private auto) on 31 January 1951 to reconnoiter the route and site. We expected that two batteries (one being mine) would be towing their guns out on or about Friday, 2 February, taking a day or two for site preparation and getting everything in order (safety always put a drag on everything but that was the way it was), and would be ready to fire the following week. We fully expected to return to Tilden no later than 10 February. So much for plans.
On the morning of 2 February 1951, at the very last moment, we were informed that New York State officials had ruled that the guns with their tracked prime movers could not cross several bridges along the way due to weight limitations of those bridges. The battalion had to arrange rail transportation for the guns and tractors. We moved all but the guns on 5 February. It was a very cold day, in the teens, and I was in a jeep without any side curtains to break the wind. (All of our winter gear had been turned in and shipped to Korea, a fight the US wasn't ready for.) I don't ever want to be that cold again. The guns arrived on 6 February 1951 and the guns were set up, some in about 8 inches of snow. After periods of delays due to cold weather, some snow, and much tow-target problems (I believe we had an USAF NG unit helping us here.), we were able to fire on 15 and 16 February 1951 and were ready to head back to Tilden. To save the cost of rail transportation, the two batteries (8 guns) emplaced at the point were left there for the next two batteries to use for their ASP. You wouldn't believe how much this bothered the troops. No body wanted others to be using their guns; and no one wanted to be using other unit's guns. I don't recall how the second cycle progressed or when they returned, but we all survived.
Small Arms Qualification:
During the latter part of May 1951, the battalion shuttled batteries to Fort Dix, NJ, to qualify the troops with the Carbine M2, on the rifle range. We bivouacked in the field, using tents, trying to act like infantry, but like any good artillery unit, we rode wherever we went.
Demonstration at Headquarters First Army at Fort Jay:
On 18 May 1951, the 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) provided a detachment to demonstrate, on behalf of the First Army, the latest AAA techniques and equipment to the Armed Forces Advisory Committee Day Program at Governors Island. Of special interest was the demonstration of the remotely controlled guns being pointed to a point computed by the fire control equipment. In this case all we could use was the optical tracker since the radar was too much of a problem to get over to Fort Jay. The 526th was there also, doing the same thing.
NOTE: This activity required taking the gun, with its prime mover (a heavy tracked vehicle) on the Governors Island Ferry. (Did I mention that I had been selected to command this detachment for this function?) Anyway, as we boarded the ferry, my jeep was directed to the right hand lane, and the heavy equipment was directed to remain in the center lane. As the gun was moving into position to my left, I observed that the tractor had placed itself immediately behind an army sedan such that the tractor's front bumper markings were all that could be seen out the sedan's rear window. The weight of the equipment had caused the ferry to rock and it was still rocking. This caused the occupant of the sedan to look back to see what was going on. Obviously he saw the markings and looking around he spotted me and waved a friendly (definitely non-military) wave to me. At the time I had no idea who he was, but I later was in position to see a tag on the sedan that read "Commanding General, First Army", which was Major General I. D. White, my host for the next two days.
Ceremony for Gen. MacArthur at City Hall
The 69th AAA Gun Bn (90mm) was provided VIP seats at the 20 April 1951 ceremony at the New York City Hall, honoring General Douglas MacArthur following his ticker tape parade. About 60,000 people were in attendance at City Hall to hear the general's speech and to see him presented a gold medal by the city.
Early April 1951 (exact date not known), the 34th AAA Brigade, Fort Wadsworth, the next higher level of command over the 80th AAA Group, was assigned to Europe and was replaced by the 102nd AAA Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William M. Hamilton.
Life at Fort Tilden
Did I live on post or off post? The answer has to be "both". I had my wife with me, and after the initial problems calmed down we found an apartment available on Beach 119th Street in Rockaway Park. We were lucky that the landlady had decided not to rent to summer tenants at the very high rent she usually got during the summer months because she was having health problems and didn't want to go through all that. Because of our alert duties and other reasons, I was required to be on post at least half of the nights.
All officers were assigned BOQ quarters (a private room), so I had some of my stuff at the apartment and some at the BOQ. It became a ritual for the wives and children to come to the fort to have dinner in the Officers' Mess, located in the BOQ building (We had good meals.) After dinner, some of those not on alert assignment would go home, and those on alert duty would spend time usually together at the club (where one of those "new" TVs could be watched), and later, there was a general movement to the movie on post. Later when things got warmer, the beach became the place for the families to meet early in the afternoon, and there they would enjoy the beach until we working people came by to join them. (This kind of arrangement brought the families into a closer group than I observed at any other time or place during my military experience.)
The families would leave at a reasonable hour and go to their respective homes. The next day would be about the same routine but with a change in roles of who stayed and who went. Our duty was rough on the wives and kids and sometimes I felt that they really had it worse then we did. Many of the NCOs and a lesser number of the EM did much like the officers. Feeding their families in the battery mess was rather inexpensive as well as being beneficial considering the good meal served in the evening back then.
The beach was patrolled so that no outside civilians could pass onto the beach at the fort. We had essentially a private beach. Other officers in the area that belonged to the Officers' Club were authorized to use the beach, but they didn't seem to want to come during the week. The Officers' Club was established and in operation when we arrived, having catered primarily to active reserve officers in the area. We would chat with them when they showed on weekends, but I never met one that actually had their reserve meetings at Tilden.
As I can recall, I am sure of two sets of officers' quarters on post and one was assigned to our battalion commander and one was assigned to the senior officer of the permanent party. The house for the battalion commander was just inside the gate and on the right as you enter (That is assuming that the gate has not been relocated.) The second set of quarters was located about a block further in the post and about a block to the left, across the street and south from the parade ground. I seem to want to think that a second house was located next to the first one mentioned above but I cannot be sure. Memory fails me.
Our battalion headquarters was across the street on the north side of the parade ground, and the Officers' Club was across the street on the east side of the parade ground. Just east of the Officers' Club was the perimeter fence, and beyond the fence was Jacob Riis Park. We had athletic fields when the troops wanted them and would prepare them. I don't remember a chapel, nor do I remember seeing a Chaplain at the post except on rare occasions. We had a PX stocking the minimum essentials and that's all. The sand on post didn't bother us. We had worse in west Texas. Blowing sand was nothing new.
Departing Fort Tilden
About the time of my departure in late July 1951, the 69th was in the early process of changing over to a new fire control system called the Fire Control System M33. This was a much improved FCS system over the SCR-584 stuff.
I left on Fort Tilden on 27 July 1951 and went to Fort Bliss to attend the 32 week Guided Missile Officer Course. After that my assignment was directed towards being the operations officer of the Nike cadre that would convert the fourth deployed AAA battalion to a tactically deployed NIKE battalion. This was done in March 1954 at Detroit.
Nike Missiles in Detroit
Having finished up our Nike firings at Red Canyon Range Camp in March of 1954, Nike Package No. 5, (the fourth Nike package to be deployed) departed with our four Nike Systems to report to the 516th AAA Missile Battalion in Detroit. After leaving El Paso, I went to Daytona Beach, FL, where my wife was staying with her parents, for some well-earned leave. Laaving Daytona Beach, I went to Atlanta to visit my parents and then on to Detroit. I arrived Detroit in April and joined the Battalion S-3 Section, and shortly I was elevated to the position of Battalion S-3.
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