Not all the Airmen who contributed directly to Scott missions were on the base in the 1950s. The buildings that made up the Belleville Air Force Station, informally called “Turkey Hill” were positioned in the rolling outskirts of Belleville.
The location of the 798th Radar Squadron was chosen in 1949 for its high elevation in the region. The Airmen that worked there were radar operators, maintainers and support staff; many of them just out of technical school. This radar station was one of many facilities under the Air Defense Command, which was one of three commands when the Air Force was established as a separate branch of the military services. The squadron was first known as the 798th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, which was indicative of their first mission.
“Our job was to detect, track, and identify aircraft in our area of responsibility from known flight plans of friendly planes,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Frank Ball, who was assigned at Turkey Hill from 1951-56. “When a plane could not be so accounted for, the direction center flashed the alert hangar and tower at Scott AFB. Within five minutes, often less, of the bogie’s first appearance on the screen, fighters are airborne and at the controller’s command.”
The controller had to create accurate air intelligence based off the blips on his radar screen to guide the 85th Fighter Interceptor Squadron’s pilots flying F-86 Sabrejets to the potential adversary in the air.
The radar station itself consisted of 21 buildings and in 1957, 18 family homes were built on the site, in addition to the already existing dormitories. Dave Creamer, a radar operator at Turkey Hill from 1951-54, assembled a 2003 book about the mission and lives of his colleagues and friends, called Belleville Air Force Station, The History of Turkey Hill and Tales of the Men Who Served.
“The site became an independent and relatively self-sufficient community of 200-250 officers and Airmen,” Creamer said. “Support personnel handled administrative, medical, security, supply, and recreational needs, while electricians, plumbers, and carpenters saw to the repair and general upkeep of the buildings. A small bus provided troops with transportation to downtown Belleville.”
By May 1952, the station was fully operational after working out the complexities of the radar systems, and the station was monitoring the skies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Overnight shift work and standby included operational personnel and support staff, such as the mess hall cooks who would produce midnight chow for hungry shift workers. 24-hour readiness support also included the pilots and crewmen of the 85th FIS at Scott AFB, awaiting alert from the radar station to investigate potential threats within the region.
Almost daily, ground control interceptors would run exercises with the 85th FIS, whether a regional exercise or national. As time went on, potential threat capabilities would change their face, and Air Force Airmen would have to adapt. By 1957, the North American Air Defense Command was established in league with the Royal Canadian Air Force Air Defense Command to protect North America from a manned bomber strike, intercontinental ballistic missiles and space threats.
This transition under NORAD brought on changes for the 798th AC & W Squadron. Army personnel were assigned to the radar station and an Army Air Defense Command Post was established at Scott AFB. The 85th FIS was inactivated and the first line of local defense became the Nike, Ajax and Hercules missiles positioned in the region.
By the 1960s, the station was becoming a Semi-Automatic Ground Environment surveillance station.
This SAGE system was an upgrade that sent information from Turkey Hill over telephone lines and used large scale computers to process aircraft tracking and identification. The radar, radio, and ground control interceptor Airmen needed to be retrained as electronic and communication specialists.
Radar technology advanced and eventually signaled the closure of the radar station in 1968, as the technology became obsolete.
Thank you to the St. Clair County Historical Society for their expertise and bountiful research material and to Dave Creamer for his dedication to ensuring the Belleville Air Force Station’s history and the stories of its Airmen can be shared.