November 14, 1999
TC had key role in secret WWII project
Navy's pilotless 'drones' tested hereBy KEITH MATHENY
Record-Eagle staff writer
TRAVERSE CITY - It was like something out of Flash Gordon to the sailors involved in a top-secret, World War II Naval air project: Remote-controlled aircraft loaded with bombs, guided from a control plane as far as 50 miles away.
They were controlled with joysticks and video cameras and televisions, long before the public had even heard of such things. American kamikazes, without sacrificing pilots as the Japanese did.
How secret was the project? It operated out of Traverse City for months without the community ever knowing.
Surviving members of Special Task Air Group One of the Navy's Special Air Task Force (or STAG-1/SATFOR) met in Pensacola, Fla., this week for their annual reunion. Most attending the reunion are now in their 70s and 80s, but in STAG 1's heyday they were among the Navy's best and brightest, some only in their teens, working with cutting edge radio, radar, and electronic technology.
The idea of remote-control or "drone" aircraft had its roots as far back as 1936, when the Navy began experimenting with the concept. The idea was simple: to soften entrenched enemy targets without incurring casualties.
Two STAG groups were formed by SATFOR in 1943, as some of the Navy's best pilots, radio and electronics men were selected for the top-secret project. They went to remote Clinton, Okla., to begin training.
Project members eventually developed a working drone aircraft, a sleek, twin-engine, low-wing bomber made of laminated plywood. The craft was manufactured by the Wurlitzer company in Illinois, known for its organs and pianos, as the company was converted to supplying the U.S. war effort like so many factories during World War II.
Loaded with radio control equipment - and a one-ton bomb - the drone would take off in tandem with a control plane. Behind the pilot of the control plane would sit the drone controller, hunched over a six-inch television screen receiving a video feed from a camera mounted in the nose of the drone. Using a joystick, the drone controller could manipulate the drone aircraft to enemy targets.
James "J.J." Hall, now 74 and of Titusville, Fla., was a 17-year-old aviation radioman who controlled the drone planes on some missions.
"Those were real pioneering days," he said. "Here was this new, cutting-edge technology, and it wasn't even electronics at that point, it was all relays and hydraulics and vacuum tubes. They were the earliest guided missiles, comparable to the things in use today."
Traverse City's role in the top secret STAG-1 project was to take the drone planes that had been proven to work from the Oklahoma tests and determine if they could be launched from aircraft carriers.
From August to November 1943, the STAG-1 group flew dozens of test flights per day, both from the local airport that the Navy had taken over - what is now Cherry Capital Airport - and from the aircraft training carrier Wolverine that was anchored in West Grand Traverse Bay. Tests included catapult launchings of drone aircraft loaded with the typical bomb and fuel weights they would encounter on actual missions.
"The people of Traverse City saw a lot of our planes flying over town and over the bay in those months, but I don't think any of them ever realized that one of the planes didn't have a pilot in it," said Robert Bothfeld, then a Navy ensign in charge of STAG-1's group of enlisted men in Traverse City. Bothfeld, 79, now lives in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
"We made runs on various designated targets on northern Lake Michigan; and did a lot of night-flying," recalled Ray Woolrich, a STAG-1 pilot, now 80 and living in Houston. "We were so super-secret, crew members arriving by train from Oklahoma arrived in the middle of the night, and the train was stopped by the base so the men could get off and walk. The local natives were not even aware of what we were doing as we were doing it."
The hundreds of service men involved in the project stayed in rented houses, apartments and spare rooms throughout the Traverse City area. Officers and wives were headquartered at the Park Place Hotel, Bothfeld said.
"I loved it. It was great. I've been back several times since," Bothfeld said of Traverse City. "We used to go to a restaurant downtown that advertised fish 'that slept last night in Grand Traverse Bay.' It was delicious.
"Our outfit took a lot of women out of there. We married quite a few young girls from Traverse City."
Hall also has fond memories of the region.
"Traverse City is one of the key places I really remember, because the people there were so friendly," he said.
The drone project couldn't help but raise some eyebrows from time to time, Woolrich said.
"When one of our drones ditched in Lake Michigan, the natives were really appalled that no one went out to rescue the occupants," he said.
Bothfeld recalled one day when a drone sitting on the runway simply dropped its spare fuel tank. Eventually it was determined that the radio from another drone test plane operating on the same frequency had given the signal.
"We didn't have the equipment or technology at that time, so we developed it. You have to start somewhere," he said. "There were things that happened that we weren't used to electronically. It was interesting."
When cold weather began to descend on northern Michigan in November, the drone project shifted to Monterey, Calif.
"It had been practiced in Traverse City, and the concept worked," Hall said.
In September and October of 1944, the project was put into wartime action in the South Pacific. A total of 46 drone missions were launched on Japanese strongholds in the Shortland, Bougainvillea and Rabaul islands. Twenty-one were direct hits. They were the first successful use of guided missiles by the United States in time of war.
Most importantly no U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded, and no significant U.S. military equipment was lost, Woolrich said.
"We proved this robotic type of warfare could save thousands of lives, that it's not necessary to put huge numbers of our men and women in harm's way," he said.
Despite the drone project's initial successes, the SATFOR group was broken up by the Navy in December 1944 for reasons that remain unclear to this day. But the technology was eventually expanded upon and combined with rocket programs in what eventually became the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and other smart-bomb weaponry the U.S. military so heavily relies upon today.
STAG-1's important role in U.S. military history was finally recognized in 1990, when Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III sent members a letter applauding their contributions.
"The vision, determination and dedication with which you performed your secret duties during World War II laid the groundwork for today's modern cruise missile," Garrett wrote.
Hall said he looks no further than the 1991 Gulf War to point out the importance of STAG-1's work. The U.S. lost only 130 soldiers in the war. Fighting the Iraqis using the conventional war tactics of World War II would probably have meant thousands of U.S. lives lost, Hall said.
"As far as I'm concerned, we were the pioneers that enabled all of the stuff that you see now," he said.