Mount Umunhum: Why Veterans Want Radar Tower to Remain

Often called 'the box' or 'the cube' by those unaware of its origin, the gray radar tower on the summit of Mt. U is valued by some as being a vital part of American history.

In any discussion of Mt. Umunhum and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's nine-year, $13.1 million project, one is bound to stumble over a key talking point: the iconic radar tower.

The Almaden Air Force Station, which was active atop Mt. Umunhum from 1957-1980 and whose motto was "vigilance and prudence," was part of the vast defense network called North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD.

“No one else knows but us radar guys what it was like during the Cold War,” says G. Pittenger, who served at the station from 1974-75. “We didn't fight with guns. We fought with scopes and meters. We fought with our intelligence ... Our country depended on us—and we came through.”

At a public meeting about the project in December, local residents were quick to give their opinions on the fate of the tower. To some, it was an emotional stand; many veterans were in attendance to show their solidarity with the idea that any construction of public amenities should incorporate or acknowledge a respect for the history of the mountain and the AFS.

Basim Jaber, a civil engineer and part-time photographer who has become a historian and archivist for the Almaden Air Force Station (AFS), has organized several veteran reunions, some of which had more than 100 attendees from all over the country.

"Imagine looking at blips on a screen for 10 hours a day," says Jaber, "and not knowing if what you're seeing is friend or foe. ... people either underestimate [that history] or have no idea. They just see a building on a hill."

In October 2008, he established a private Yahoo group for AFS vets that now has more than 100 members. He says it is very rewarding to see old friends reconnect and share memories.

Jaber personally continues to collect what he calls "priceless artifacts" that have been mailed to him by grateful veterans—memorabilia, such as flags, small pieces of the radar antenna/sail and old photos.

J. Smith, whose father was the station medic, lived on the site at age 14. “I am hoping that the tower will remain," he says. "I truly believe that there is really only a handful of people in the greater San Jose area who are pushing for it to be removed.”

He says those who were stationed at AFS share a common love for the place. "Although visits to the mountain are bittersweet due to its present state of disrepair, it always conjures up wonderful memories of a special time in my life."

Jaber says he hopes to raise money for the veterans association as well as publish a book with a collection of AFS photography.

“My intentions are not for self-advancement,” he says, “[but] just to make sure people learn about, understand and remember a key piece of Bay Area military history—and the people who were involved in it—which is about to be demolished and removed forever.”

At this point, the fate of the radar tower has yet to be decided, but the costs are estimated at $700,000 to secure and maintain the site and $300,000 to demolish it.

"I know why it's so hard for that tower to stay," says Jaber. "In this economy, can you see someone wanting to throw that much money at it?" He says the legacy of the AFS is more important to protect than the physical remains, and he hopes there will be a cultural and historical resource available to the public included in the structures being planned by the district.

“For me, it was small-town America on a mountaintop,” says Smith. “It was paradise.”

As Pittenger put it, “The 682nd was our home. We are still there in spirit. We protected our country so that others could live. We are not forgotten.”

If you are a veteran or know someone who is, you may contact Basim Jaber at bjaber@jaber.net; to learn more about the USAF 682nd Radar Squadron Veterans Association  visit AlmadenAFS.org.

Jim Ault March 04, 2011 at 02:50 PM
I am a veteran of Almaden AFS and I was a radar tech on the height finder radars. After I was discharged from the Air Force, I lived in the Santa Clara Valley for another 21 years. The radar tower was visible from just about everywhere in the valley and I considered it a landmark. It always brought back the memories of my time on that beautiful mountain top. Jim Ault Almaden AFS 1971-1975
Sheila Sanchez (Editor) March 04, 2011 at 03:02 PM
The question is ... should the "cube" be destroyed or preserved and why?
Jim Ault March 04, 2011 at 05:07 PM
I don't understand where the "cube" came from. Air Force people never called it a "cube", it was always a radar "tower".
Henry Shaw March 04, 2011 at 07:28 PM
Brad, Your comment states you were never in the military and probably a flower child from San Francisco. LOL
Michael Sherback May 05, 2011 at 07:50 AM
Veterans are not the only ones who want the tower to remain. The tower was part of the SAGE system, which was very influential in computer technology. It is a good way to stimulate thought about the huge amounts of money thrown around during the Cold War, whether SAGE would have worked, and what path computer technology would have taken without the Cold War. It is both of broad interest, and special local interest.
G. B. Clark November 26, 2012 at 09:03 AM
I served in the U.S. Air Force from 2-19-1962 to 01-07-1966. I was stationed at the NORAD facility at Malmstrom A.F.B. in Great Falls, Montana. I worked as an interceptor controller in the SAGE system. I am very familiar with the workings of the radars (search and height) used at that time. My hometown was Saratoga, and I attended Los Gatos High School. The 682nd Radar Squadron was a visible fixture for most of Santa Clara Valley. I can recall that all of the churches and other "speaker systems" had an "audible blip," every time the radar passed, and how that drove people nuts. In 1961, a forest fire threatened the radar site. I was a firefighter with the California Division of Forestry at the time. The first afternoon of the fire, it was small and grew to about 1.500 acres. By nightfall, the fire had spread to about 6,000 acres, due to the wind. My truck was called to the radar site to protect it at all costs. It was really something to see the fire spread at night, and how strong the wind became as the fire grew in size. The views from the radar site were spectacular as the fire eventually, consumed about 17,000 acres of brush and forest, and many homes and outbuildings. Much is written about the history of the radar site, but nothing mentions this fire. Myself and hundreds of firefighters worked on that fire for about three days. Forestry fire engines, came from San Diego and Eureka to work on that fire, plus fire engines from nearby departments.
John LeBlanc October 18, 2013 at 05:16 PM
I was also stationed at the 682nd. I remember it being refered to as the Site. Was there from 1971-1975. Was a cook, new Jimmy Ault and G. Piitenger. Lots of fond memories. We were family. John LeBlanc


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