Veteran Stories: Lt Col Michael C. Yon

Veteran Stories: Lt Col Michael C. Yon

Kyle Robert Kary asked me if I would be interested in writing something up for September 30, 2023, which is the date 35 years after Calumet Air Force Station, Michigan “turned off” its radar for the final time in 1988.

As the last commander of Calumet AFS, to do justice to that final moment, I believe you must understand the history and the meaning of what the 665th Radar Squadron and Calumet AFS were and what it meant to so many military service members and their families over the years.  It would take pages to do it right, but - -  with the squadron’s activation in November 1950 and becoming fully operational in April of 1951, the unit and Calumet Air Force Station started its 38 years of service to our country.  The unit’s history of achievements is made even more impressive considering the remote location on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This Air Force Station location was operationally of critical importance to provide THE most northern radar station in the continental United States to be on guard 24/7, 365 days a year with a long range radar and support height-finder antenna for identification of Cold War adversaries that would try to attack the United States from a northern approach.

From its beginning in 1951, with little support for the military service members assigned and a lack of physical facilities, Calumet AFS grew over the years to provide dormitories, officers quarters, base housing, a dining hall, a bowling alley (two lanes), BX, commissary, gas station, club facility, gym, library, racket ball and tennis courts, a ball diamond, a chapel, MWR equipment, and a mail room.  To the many service members and their families, over those 38 years that made the station their home, it was an assignment that was very isolated.  It was where people helped people out of necessity, made new friends and worked and played together.  The station being remote meant limited outside contact and the need to assist each other when the need a rose as it snowed for 10 or 11 months each year. Averaging 244 inches of snow fall yearly.  For many, Calumet and the other radar stations across the northern frontier of the United States became a way of life.  Many service members enjoyed the remote way of life and extended their tours or moved onto other radar stations only to return to Calumet on later tours.

The 665th Radar Squadron was responsible for training personnel to maintain its radar surveillance and IFF/SIF equipment and data along with the squadron’s long-range radar, while feeding that information to the Northeast Sector Operations Control Center for the air defense of North America.  As a CONUS-isolated unit, the squadron performed most of the support functions normally accomplished by several different squadrons at a large base.  This meant that the squadron had its own security police, assigned medical personnel, food service personnel, MWR managers, water/sanitation and electrical utilities facilities.  Local personnel from the Keweenaw area were hired to work civil engineering issues to maintain the total station, from fixing plumbing to providing steam heat – everywhere!  The civilian workforce was endlessly responsible for the quality and maintenance of Calumet’s facilities and the day-to-day upkeep from painting to grass cutting and snow removal.  They were a very integral part of the station’s team.

After Calumet Air Force Station closure plans were announced and delayed through Congressional action two times, causing uncertainty amongst the unit’s members and local communities, the last two years of 1987 and 1988 were challenging to say the least.  The station personnel were reduced to the bare minimum with only 154 personnel and family members assigned to the installation during that period.  At the same time, it was one of those defining moments that lead up to that final day in September 1988.  With the unit’s operational readiness rate of around 88 to 90 percent, the squadron section leaders came together in July of 1987 and looked at what could be done to increase its unit’s readiness rate and provide the remaining personnel with a sense of pride, as they all rode the roller coaster ride of downsizing and working toward the final closure date.

A team was asked to review the processes involved with working on the radar and other operational assets and make procedural changes within the Air Force guidelines.  The end result was more than anyone had envisioned.  The unit was able to attain and maintained an exceptionally high operationally mission ready rate of 99 percent with aging equipment and under extreme environmental conditions for fourteen months straight.  Everyone contributed and everyone was part of the plan.  One example would be: when the radar had an issue, instead of trying to find a needed military member, who may not have been on duty at the time, the unit members hooked up an alarm that sounded all over the Station when the need arose.  Unit personnel would literally run from all over the Station to their duty location to help in any way to keep or get the system back online. This was the attitude of unit pride and morale, the enthusiasm, the discipline of a person to want to achieve something for the last 14 months the 665th Radar Squadron was operational.

During those last fourteen months, the unit developed a closure plan along with a tracking system to insure that deactivation actions were completed on a timely basis. This plan served as a model for other site closures and possessed the flexibility to remain viable under changing conditions.  With a series of commander’s calls, the unit members and local community were kept informed on the status of base closure actions and other volatile issues.  And with a monthly base paper, personnel were informed about assignments and other squadron activities.  Personnel assignments were of the utmost importance, and each squadron member’s next duty station was personally and individually worked with AFMPC to insure that the member attained his or her desired move.

Major General Jimmie Adams, Commander First Air Force, stated when he visited Calumet during this closure time period, that he was impressed with the pride of the people, appearance of the facilities, and the dedication of everyone to mission accomplishment.  It was also during this period that the squadron was awarded the well deserved Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

So, that set the stage for those last months and days prior to the closure of Calumet on September 30, 1988.  The last months were filled with personnel leaving, equipment movement and facilities being closed and boarded up.  But even as members left, those that remained always stepped in and up to insure the pride and mission’s operational readiness rate remained at that 99%.  A task that was nothing less than phenomenal! Those that remained on site, for that last day in September, approached the day with happiness and sadness.  It was a time to move on.  A way of life was ending, not just at Calumet AFS, but at all other radar sites, as well, across the United States northern CONUS border, that were scheduled for closing.  The small contingent of personnel at Calumet gathered at the headquarters building after having dinner and swapping stories of the things they remembered about Calumet and their assignments.  As the hour approached (2000 hrs) the assembled group started the walk up the hill to the radar tower and the control center, in the cold and darkness of that fall night.   A call was put into the Northeast Sector Operations Control Center at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. The line was acknowledged by the commanders, and the final order to shut down the mission was given.  With a count down in seconds to the twenty hundred hours called out by everyone in the control room, the main circuit-switch was thrown, and the spinning radar and the huge height-finder antennas started to slow, and then swung around for a final time.  It was an eerie, quiet moment for all present.

After 38 years, September 30, 1988 marked the end of a way of life.   Now, 35 years later - on September 30, 2023 - we celebrate Calumet Air Station and the 665th Radar Squadron and all those who served over the years - those who called Calumet Air Force Station home and maintained the mission.