Minot became a major player in the defense of the continental United States in the Cold war era. When Russia built atomic bombs in 1949, U.S. military leaders prepared to defend against an atomic bomber attack. The first idea was to establish radar stations as a basic foundation of air defense.
Minot, located along the northern boundary of the forty-eight states, became one of the important sites in the “Pine Tree Line” radar network in 1951. In April that year, the Minot skywatch base became operational on a “bald hilltop in a lonely part of Ward County.”
Located 14 miles south of Minot, just to the west of U.S. Highway 83 on the way south to Bismarck, the radar base became a part of the Cold War landscape of North Dakota. Sometimes called the Velva radar base or the South Prairie radar station, its real name was the Minot Radar Station.
On this date in 1954, the Ward County Independent newspaper published a story about life at the radar dome. From 1951 to 1952, the U.S. Air Force built the base, complete with houses, barracks, mess hall and recreation hall just down the hill from the radar dome.
The radar personnel worked together with jet fighter pilots to identify all aircraft in the region and to investigate any bogies – aircraft that were not in the right air space. The antenna of the long-range radar whirled constantly under a thin rubber dome, a recent invention that solved a problem with ice and snow on unprotected radars. Infrared lights inside the dome melted away any ice accumulations.
Radar personnel of the 786th Aircraft and Control Warning squadron could choose to live either on the base itself or in Minot, fourteen miles away, or in nearby Max or Velva.
The radar operators watched their fluorescent screens faithfully from 1952 until the Air Force shut it down in 1979. The Minot radar base never tracked a Russian long-range bomber flying into North Dakota airspace, but they were always ready to do that.
However, one of the unique legacies of the Minot radar base was one of love and marriage, for in its first three years, “from 36 to 40 of the men stationed at the base . . . married girls” from the local area – young ladies who had come across their personal radar screens.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Sources:“They Watch the Northern Air,” Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], January 14, 1954, p. 1.
Steven R. Hoffbeck and Keith Strom, A Fortieth Anniversary History of the Minot Air Force Base, Minot, North Dakota (Minot: Minot Air Force Base, 1995), p. 2.
David R. Winkler, Searching the Skies: The Legacy of the United States Cold War Defense Radar Program (Langley Air Force Base, VA: U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, 1997), p. 145.
“Canadian Aircraft Fence Joins American Skywatch,” Bismarck Tribune, October 6, 1956, p. 3.
“Radar Net Installed,” New York Times, October 11, 1951, p. 24.
“Radar Defense Net Nearly Completed,” New York Times, August 22, 1957, p. 1.