Days of glory: North Truro air station helped fight the Cold War

CAPE COD TIMES - The Cold War is a hot ticket on the Outer Cape. 

By Eric Williams - November 9, 2021

NORTH TRURO - A program produced by the Payomet Performing Arts Center, “Remembrances of the North Truro Air Force Radar Station,” has been boffo at the box office, with several sellouts in recent months, including a show scheduled this week at Preservation Hall in Wellfleet.

"It took us by storm," said Payomet's executive artistic director Kevin Rice. "The Preservation Hall show sold out in two days." Responding to the demand, Rice just booked the Truro Community Center for an additional program at 5 p.m. on Dec. 10.

Courtesy Cape Cod Times

Rice thinks there are two main reasons for the show's popularity: the significant number of veterans who served at the station over the years and folks in the community who remember those busy days. "They loved being there," he said. "It was a special place."

The program features a showing of Rebecca M. Alvin's documentary film, "Out of Service: A Cold War Memory." Special guests include airmen who were stationed on the base and family members who grew up there.

History of the North Truro Air Force station
According to a Cape Cod National Seashore history of the base, "civilian and military personnel at North Truro swelled to over 500 people" when it was in operation. The first airmen arrived in December 1950 and the station was deactivated in 1985. The mission of the base was to “Detect, Identify, Intercept and Destroy” hostile aircraft, according to the Seashore history — and radar was the chief tool.

This was the era of deep concern over the Soviet Union's development of the nuclear bomb, and the North Truro station was a part of the country's efforts to bolster air defense systems. The work also extended seaward. North Truro was the support base for radar towers on Georges Shoal, about 110 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.Courtesy Cape Cod Times

According to the Seashore history: "During their 30-day rotations onboard the tower, airmen and officers would read 'Tower Topics,' the Tower’s newsletter, enjoy Sunday newspapers dropped from low flying Navy blimps and barter the tower’s ice cream for fresh lobster brought by fishing boats."

CCBL North Truro Blue Sox
Sure, protecting the USA from possible Soviet aggression was hard work, but there was some downtime. The station fielded a team in the Cape Cod Baseball League, the North Truro Blue Sox, and young men from the base mingled with young women from the community at dances and parties. Sometimes, romance bloomed, folks got married and later settled in the area.

"It was like its own little town," said Audrey Sherwin Parent, of Wellfleet. "Families lived in houses on the base and they had a bowling alley and a movie theater." Parent's father, John Sherwin, was commander of the base for a time and she remembers helping her mom put up Christmas decorations at the station.

Highlands Center at Cape Cod National Seashore 
The Cape Cod National Seashore acquired the 110-acre station site in 1994 and helped create the Highlands Center, which aims to build a community of scientists, educators and artists. Several of the buildings have been reused and some have been demolished. There is also a Seashore trail, the Woods Walk, that gives visitors a good feel for the military history in the area.

Perhaps the most visible presence at the site is the Payomet Performing Arts Center, home to many cultural events in recent years. Payomet's Rice is hoping to create a small museum near the arts center to celebrate the air station's past glory.

Rice has worked at the center for about 14 years and said he often encounters veterans coming back to see the place where they served.

"They come from across the country," he said. "There's a lot of interest in this place."