It’s easy for us to look back on some of the practices of the early Atomic Age as both foolish and futile. Even the bomb shelter, which many homeowners in the 50’s and 60’s built in their basements, would be all but useless in the face of a full-scale nuclear exchange.

Skywatch Tower in Tippecanoe County

Less than ten miles from Purdue University, the Cairo Skywatch Tower in Tippecanoe County was far from foolish. In fact, in its day and age, the watchtower made perfect sense. Long before satellites and even before the United States had a national radar system, the government established the Ground Observer Corps. This civil defense organization was a sort of primitive early warning system crowdsourced to citizen volunteers.

The Ground Observer Corps was originally a civil defense measure utilized during World War II. However, the Corps saw expanded use at the dawn of the Cold War, when the US radar systems were in their infancy.

Ground Observer Corps: Simple But Effective

Three-quarters of a million volunteers watched the skies, trained to identify Soviet aircraft. Such a threat was plausible. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by a single, high-flying bomber buzzing miles in the sky. Suspecting Soviets might try a similar tactic was prudent, although it luckily never occurred.

The Cairo Skywatch Tower wasn’t haphazardly located in Tippecanoe County. It was located along well-lit cities and towns that, to an approaching bomber, would be like a directional arrow for a Soviet attack on Chicago.

Businesses in Battle Ground and Lafayette donated the supplies to build the 40-foot tall tower. Starting in 1952, thousands of Operation Skywatch volunteers cycled around the clock in two-hour shifts for the next two years. Thin walls with wide windows protected observers from the wind and a phone in the tower went straight to the Air Force base in South Bend. Just in case.

Indiana’s Nike Missiles Eclipse Operation Skywatch

In 1954, the US military established a national radar net and decommissioned the watchtower. Soon batteries of anti-aircraft Nike missiles joined the radar defenses. Indiana housed several of these Nike missile installations, mostly in Northwest Indiana. These are now repurposed or abandoned places in Indiana. 

These strategic missile batteries were on hand to protect against enemy aircraft approaching Chicago or the industrial belt of steel mills along Lake Michigan. The days of long-range nuclear bombers are gone. Those Nike missiles are equally obsolete, replaced by the subterranean horrors of ICBMs.

The importance of the Cairo Skywatch Tower, both as a relic of the Cold War and as a symbol of American civil defense, led to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Nearby is a limestone statue honoring the numerous volunteers of Operation Skywatch, who looked to the skies…

And, thankfully, never saw anything.