Thursday, October 09, 2008
By Paul Rogers
Article Launched: 10/04/2008 07:13:58 PM PDT
Courtesy New Almaden Museum/Kitty Monahan. A historic photo of the former Almaden Air Force Base early detection radar station. The station was operated from 1958 until its closure in 1980.
See a Mount Umunhum slide show
During the height of the Cold War, while Silicon Valley was being born in the flatlands below, dozens of Air Force technicians sat in front of radar screens on top of Mount Umunhum on San Jose's southern flanks, scanning the skies for Russian bombers.
Their job at the Almaden Air Force Station was vital to America's defense from 1957 until the site closed in 1980. But few people in the Bay Area knew who they were.
On Saturday, they returned.
In a rare reunion that highlighted the area's unique history and offered new promise for a long-stalled effort to finally open the site to public use as a park, more than 100 people, including about 35 Almaden station veterans and their families, visited the shuttered station.
They came from as far away as Texas, North Carolina and New England. Some came in wheelchairs, or with grandchildren. All came with memories of a different era.
"Our job was to prevent an attack from the Russians. If there was a mishap or mistake, it could have been a nuclear holocaust,'' said Chuck Jeronimo, 72, of Livermore, who served as a radar operator in 1959 and 1960 there.
"It wasn't a hot war. But it was a mental war. We were always aware that if there was a war, we'd be the first thing to go. Russian subs would take us out with missiles in five minutes."
A 3,486-foot peak that towers above South San Jose and Los Gatos on the chaparral ridges near Almaden Quicksilver County park, Mount Umunhum is
Until a generation ago, radar operators watched screens in dimly lit rooms on its summit, monitoring the airspace out to 250 miles off California's coast.
"Every aircraft had to be identified within two minutes. If you couldn't do that they'd scramble fighters to go look at it," said Charles Aftosmis, who was commanding officer at Almaden from 1974 to 1976 and visited from East Falmouth, Mass.
There were false alarms several times a month from TWA or Pan Am flights bound from Hawaii. Or from weather balloons. The attacks never came. The station was closed in 1980 after new technology, including satellites, made it obsolete.
But a community emerged during the 23 years it was open. There were tidy homes, a bowling alley, a swimming pool and movies on Saturday night for the 120 Air Force employees and their families.
"Every one of us took pride in it. Everybody took their jobs seriously. But it was also a fun group of people,'' said Aftosmis.
Frozen in time
As misty clouds poured in Saturday, the veterans and their families walked through the crumbling station, a community frozen in time. Doors hung from hinges, linoleum floors peeled up, and grass grew through the roads. The station's pool had grown thick with bulrushes and cattails.
"It would be neat to turn it into a park. People in San Jose really don't know what's up here," said Bruce Mann of San Jose, a radio technician there from 1964-1966. "And it's a lot easier to drive up here than to the top of Mount Hamilton."
The reunion was organized by Basim Jaber, a 38-year-old San Jose sales engineer.
Jaber has no family connection with the site. But growing up in San Jose, he was always curious about the big square building on the southern skyline. A few years ago, he began looking at it on Google Earth software, and became hooked. He posted photos to his Web site (www.jaber.net/umunhum) and dozens of former Almaden station residents contacted him.
"This is a way to pay homage to them. They protected me as a kid. They worked in wind, cold and snow," Jaber said. "It is a very important, very rich part of our history. They were heroes."
Jaber and many of the others who turned out Saturday say it is long overdue that the padlocked base — with breathtaking views of both Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay — be opened to the public.
In 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a public agency based in Los Altos, purchased the summit for $260,000. But it has remained off limits because its 84 abandoned buildings are a crumbling ghost town contaminated with asbestos and lead paint. They must be demolished and hauled away. The district patrols the site, and trespassers can face fines of $300 or more.
For 22 years the district has insisted that the Defense Department pay for a cleanup. But the Pentagon has done little, largely because the base is in a remote location, with little political pressure.
"We want the Defense Department to clean it up as soon as possible so people can enjoy this inspiring place. This is one of the most scenic views in the Bay Area," said Rudy Jurgensen, a spokesman for the open space district.
New push by district
Rather than clean the site up and repave the road itself — a job now it now estimates will cost $11 million — the district has spent its money, raised from property taxes on San Mateo and Santa Clara county residents, buying land. It has spent $52 million buying up 17,400 acres around Mount Umunhum — an area 17 times the size of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco — and named the area Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve.
In 2002, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, announced he would push for federal funding to clean up the site and open it to the public, creating a South Bay park on par with Mount Tamalpais in Marin County or Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. But he's had no luck. Honda's request for $4 million this year died in committee. He is now working to organize a meeting with Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Anna Eshoo, D-San Mateo, and John Paul Woodley, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
"It is a priority for him. He's been trying multi-pronged approaches,'' said Jose Parra, a spokesman for Honda.
Jurgensen noted the open space district has given the project a new push, recently hiring a lobbyist to seek Defense Department funding.
A longtime feud between former open space General Manager Craig Britton and Loren "Mac" McQueen, whose family owns 800 acres near the summit, also stalled progress. But Britton retired this year and McQueen died in 2007.
On Saturday, McQueen's son, Scott, said he supports allowing the public to drive to the top, and likes ideas such as stargazing programs and a visitor center.
"Times are different," he said. "If the open space district keeps the road safe, I don't mind."
Contact Paul Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5045.