Texas Tower four victims remembered

By LYFORD M. MOORE
Courier-Post Staff

Copyright 2000 Courier-Post. 

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Note From Jack -- During the late fifties and early sixties the Air Force manned three offshore radar platforms called Texas Towers whose purpose was to provide early warnings of aircraft or missiles approaching the eastern seaboard. #4 collapsed during a storm in 1961. The crews of the remaining two platforms would be removed when warnings of heavy weather were received and Coast Guard Cutters would be assigned to standby the temporarily abandoned platforms to keep the Russians off of them. The Russians were operating fishing boats and factory ships off of our coasts at the time. This was a little known and long since forgotten patrol. While on the Escanaba, an Ocean Station Vessel out of New Bedford I had an opportunity to make a few of these unplanned for patrols between weather patrol stations. This was a great joy in particular when the storm didn't materialize and it was flat calm out.  

***

The call to his Cape May home came shortly before midnight on Jan. 14, 1961. Within two hours, Lt. Paul Yost and the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Aggassiz were motoring through 20-foot seas in a life-and-death race.

An Air Force radar tower with 28 men aboard was being battered by severe weather 75 miles east of Barnegat Inlet. Yost's orders: Get there as quickly as possible and stand by to help in any emergency.

"I remember going to sleep that night ... with the wind just howling and telling my wife, `I hope we don't get a call tonight,'" said Yost, now 71, who went on to become an admiral and Coast Guard commandant.

By 7:30 the next night, the Aggassiz was within an hour of the structure, but it was too late. The 6,000-ton tower - with a history of structural problems and under assault by a nor'easter - had fallen into the ocean minutes earlier.

Only two bodies were recovered, both by the Aggassiz. No trace was found of the other men on the structure, called Texas Tower 4.

Now a national organization is seeking to honor the memory of the men who died in that Cold War-era incident. The Texas Tower Association wants formal recognition from the federal government, such as military medals or presidential citations for the victims.

"It's about time the men were recognized by their own government," said Jeanette Laino, 62, of Edgewater Park, whose husband, Louis, died in the disaster. "They should be given Purple Hearts. It was hazardous duty out there, and they weren't even given hazardous-duty pay."

Texas Tower 4 was one of three Air Force radar sites installed in the North Atlantic in the 1950s to protect the United States from potential air attacks.

Each tower contained bunk rooms, recreational facilities, a library and a dining hall. Tower 4 rose 67 feet above the ocean surface on 12.5-foot-wide steel legs anchored in water 180 feet deep. The legs held fresh water and fuel.

Five towers were to have been built; Nos. 1 and 5 never went up.

The installations were dubbed "Texas towers" because they looked like oil-drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas Tower 4 also had another name: Old Shaky.

After the Air Force erected the $21 million tower in 1957, its occupants discovered that even the slightest motion from the waters below would cause it to tremble. Overnight visitors, as the story is told, were warned not to shave with straight razors for fear a sudden lurch would cause them to cut their throats.

The towers and crews experienced regular vibrations caused by the diesel generators that provided power and the rotation of the radar antenna. Adding to the discomfort, the tower footings and surrounding water transmitted distant sounds that grew louder as they traveled up the steel legs.

In the months leading up to the disaster, conditions worsened.

In August 1960, an underwater team discovered a number of pins and connections irreparably damaged. A month later, military divers found that Hurricane Donna had fractured the tower's water bracings, reducing its ability to resist the elements.

Until late 1960, the radar site was manned by 70 Air Force officers and enlisted men. A skeletal crew of 28 men - 14 airmen and 14 civilians - was directed to remain on board through the winter of 1960-61 and stabilize the tower by filling its three legs with sand and concrete.

Despite continued deterioration, the government refused to evacuate everyone for fear Russian "fishing" boats might capture the tower's sophisticated radar equipment.

"You don't just walk off and leave millions of dollars of radar equipment lying around unattended," a commander said.

Yost's Coast Guard ship went out early on Jan. 15 as a precaution during bad weather.

But at 3 p.m. that day, personnel aboard Tower 4 radioed Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass., and reported hearing a loud noise. They suspected an underwater brace had given way and asked to be evacuated. A similar request was made 15 minutes later when winds up to 80 mph assaulted Old Shaky.

But it wasn't until 4 p.m. that a decision was made to do so. By then, it was too late.

High winds, turbulent seas and a mix of ice and snow prevented Air Force and Coast Guard helicopters from reaching the tower.

At 6 p.m., the tower issued an unnerving radio message: " We are breaking up!"

At 7:20 p.m., the tower's image disappeared from radar screens. Tower 4 had collapsed into the ocean.

Two supports were discovered still standing but bent over, one 10 feet and the other 25 feet below the surface.

On Jan. 16, sonar equipment picked up tappings and a sound like a human voice from the sunken hulk, built of watertight compartments. But the signals - if they were signals - soon faded and died, dashing hopes some of the men might be alive.

Today, the top of Tower 4 is about 70 feet below the ocean' s surface, and it's not uncommon to spot large schools of tuna, whales, dolphins, turtles and an occasional shark swimming nearby. The wreckage is spread out over such a large area that it's been described as an "island of iron."

Loose wires and cable hang from the tower's three decks, and radar mounts and at least one crane remain as they were when the tower collapsed.

Over the years, the submerged wreckage has become a popular site for divers. Its latitude is 39 degrees, 48 minutes, 24 seconds north. Its longitude is 72 degrees, 40 minutes, 43 seconds west.

Chuck Zimmaro, 49, a research diver from Harleysville, Pa., has visited the site more than 100 times since 1974 and plans to lead another expedition in September.

"It's more than just a shipwreck," he said. "It's a story of national security and of botched design."

On July 14, 1999, Zimmaro and Donald Abbott of Malden, Mass., head of the Texas Towers Association, led two boats to the site from Point Pleasant, Ocean County.

One boat was filled with family members of the victims; the other with divers. The mission was to honor the tower's casualties by affixing a brass-plated plaque to one of the tower legs.

Before Zimmaro suited up, Abbott led a memorial service for the victims, who included his father, Dave, a welder. As each name was read, a bell was rung twice.

The plaque lists the names of all 28 men, as well as four others who died in accidents aboard Towers 2 and 3, which were off the coast of Massachusetts.

The plaque is fastened with stainless steel bolts to a ladder near the tower's "A" leg, a good spot for divers to view it.

"Perhaps they will pause for a moment or two, read the names and remember those brave men who still manned the tower," Zimmaro wrote in a report to the Texas Towers Association.

In the aftermath of the tower's collapse, the Air Force colonel responsible for day-to-day operation of the towers was court-martialed for dereliction of duty and for failing to keep closer watch of Texas Tower 4. He was acquitted.

A Senate subcommittee concluded that an unbroken chain of errors and mistakes in judgment was responsible.


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