- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

ANTIGO, Wis. (AP) - The radar base is abandoned, overgrown with weeds. Buildings with broken windows and sagging walls are almost completely obscured behind trees and bushes. The platform that once served as the base for the search radar is now the home to a hopeful sapling.

In a rural area near Antigo, the base is easily missed, the USA Today Network-Wisconsin (https://wdhne.ws/2e0LQNt ) reported. Its driveway is nearly a quarter-mile long and has been patched over and over, making for a bumpy drive. The small single-level houses in front of the base have been kept up, all 12 of them still filled by renters. But the base behind has grown into a jungle; the only signs of the past are the buildings that poke up above the weeds and shrubs.

The 676th Radar Squadron was decommissioned in 1977 and has sat abandoned ever since. Today the empty Air Force base stands as a haunting reminder of the Cold War, those days of underground shelters and nuclear fallout drills when U.S.- Soviet tensions could break out into full-blown nuclear war. Although fallout signs still hang near the entrances to local buildings, they no longer carry the same meaning that they once did. Today, they serve mainly as mementos.

It was those fading yellow-and-black signs that led USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin to look back at the Cold War’s quite-real effects on central and northern Wisconsin. In Marathon County, shelters still lie beneath churches and in the backyards of homes, and those who lived through the Cold War - especially folks who experienced the Cuban missile crisis - remember just how scary it was to go through every day with a gnawing fear of the Soviets.

A knock on the door of one of the small houses was the culmination of a month of research into the base by a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter.

The house was one of about a dozen on the former base, arranged in neat little rows. The tiny residences once served as housing for officers who staffed the 676th Radar Squadron, a minute’s drive away. During the height of the Cold War, the base served as a state-of-the-art warning system, searching for Communist planes or missiles. Today, the base stands empty, owned by civilian Roy Kleisch.

Kleisch is a 65-year-old man with a large smile and an interest in the history of the base. He bought the property about 15 years ago, hoping that he could reuse the buildings to create a source of renewable energy. When he bought the base it had been decommissioned for years, and all the buildings had been stripped of metals and other valuable remnants. His dreams have yet to be achieved, but in the meantime, he was happy to show a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter around the base and reveal some of the history of property.

Curtains still hang in the windows of the barracks, tattered and weather-worn. The radar base can now be likened to more of a ruin than a military outpost.

The 676th Radar Squadron opened in 1952, as the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union reached a crescendo. The base was outfitted with three radars, a tall radar, that reached hundreds of feet into the air, for detecting potential threats, and two smaller radars, used to find the height of the threats. Those radars have been removed since the base closed in the late ‘70s, but at the time, they helped to make up a highly sophisticated first line of defense for the northern part of the country, called the Pine Tree Line. The line stretched from coast to coast and was on alert for attacks that would have been launched over the North Pole.

Walking through the base now, which has been stripped of metals and used for storage for years, it’s impossible to see the history behind the buildings with chipped paint and cracked walls.

Paul Fisher, who served at the base as an administrative clerk from September 1960 through January 1965, recalled his time there fondly. He returned from his home in Nevada in mid-September for a reunion, something that the airmen who were stationed in Antigo do every few years. Fisher is in his 70s now, but since leaving Antigo he’s kept his memories of the base alive through photo albums.

Although Fisher and his friends didn’t recall ever feeling the pressures of the Cold War at the base, they did participate in drills.

“We were given guns,” Fisher said. “Made of two-by-fours. And we had to patrol the perimeter during drills.”

He remembered talking with buddies about how they’d have to poke an intruder to death were they to come across something, which they never did.

Documents that the former airman gave to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin show that one of the most serious times at the base was during the Cuban missile crisis, a tense 13-day standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over nuclear-armed Soviet missiles placed in Cuba. The base was moved up to high alert, according to the once-classified documents, and set at DEFCON 3, which meant officers were ready to flee the site if they needed to survive.

Antigo is far from Cuba, but there was nothing more important than being prepared for the worst.

Just as the Cold War faded into the past, the base has too.

Once, the yellow-and-black fallout signs stood out against the concrete and brick of city buildings. Those signs signaled a safe space to hunker down if hostile missiles were ever to be spotted by the radar base, or if larger cities within America were attacked. The shelters would provide protection from harmful radiation, which experts expected to be carried to northern Wisconsin from cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis.

Fallout shelter signs can still be spotted in downtown Wausau, although they no longer carry any sort of modern purpose.

And some of the shelters residents built in their backyards and basements remain, too.

Wausau resident Bill Holm, who has lived in his house for two years, discovered a Cold War secret in his basement.

In a small room off the main basement lies a heavy metal door, mostly hidden to entrants. Behind the door lies a time machine to the 1950s, when families were prepared to hide underground were a bomb to go off.

The fallout shelter lies beneath the D.C. Everest Junior house, a home built for the son of D.C. Everest, right next to the original D.C. Everest house, which was built for the Marathon Mills Paper Co. manager in the early 1900s. The small space is underneath feet of concrete and dirt, in the basement. It contains its own kitchen, bathroom and independent water tankard.

“It was designed in the late ‘50s,” Holm said. “It was built in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s.”

In the time Holm has lived in the house, his family has used the old shelter only as protection from tornadoes and for storage. He had the space permanently winterized so that water no longer reaches it. The shelter could no longer support a family because the updates it needs would take a great amount of money. But Holm is fascinated by the history of both his home and the shelter.

“It’s an eclectic addition,” he said.

The house was designed by architect George Foster and has many far-out features, such as a self-watering planter in the foyer. The longer Holm lived in the home, the more research he’s done - including having a friend who specialized in fallout shelters look into floor plans for the house.

“It has its own circulation system,” Holm said, and he showed a tube sticking out of the wall. “If power failed, then there was a hand crank.”

Another feature is the tankard of water in the corner behind the second door to the shelter.

“The tank appears to be 30 to 40 gallons,” he said. “It’s not plugged into the toilet; it’s not connected to the sink, but as soon as you didn’t trust water (from the tap), you started using it.”

Although the shelter no longer is a functioning part of the home, it still brings to mind the times when families spared no expense to make sure they survived nuclear conflict.

Among other shelters still visible in the region is one in the Wausau fire station along Grand Avenue. Although the basement of the building wasn’t specifically built to be a shelter, the government approved it to hold people in the case of an emergency because of the thick concrete walls and its depth underground. Public shelters like it would have been assigned to people who lived or worked nearby and didn’t have their own shelters.

The basement of the Fire Department is no longer used as a shelter, said Battalion Chief Jeremy Kopp. Instead, the space is filled with supplies.

Kopp said through the years many people have asked if they could have the shelter sign that hangs outside the building, but the department wants to keep it for the nostalgia.

One sign still hangs on the outside of the building and one at the top of the stairs to the basement, to remind those who enter of the history of the space.

The fear surrounding the Cold War era didn’t just push families to build shelters in their backyards and basements and businesses to register as public shelters. Local schools also prepared students through weekly drills.

Alarms would sound outside and teachers would pull blackout curtains over the windows while children crouched in corners and underneath desks. Some even would retreat to the dark, musty basements of the buildings.

“We would do it once a week, maybe,” said Kevin Rusch, who recalled memories as a second-grader at Lincoln Elementary School. “They would say ‘It’s time for a drill.’ and they would lower the blinds and make us get under the desks in a kneeling position. We would kneel down until it was over.”

Though Rusch participated in a large number of drills as a kid, he never feared the outcome if an atomic bomb was dropped near Wausau.

“I was never afraid,” he said. “I had more important things to worry about - like when the next baseball game was.”

Theresa Slaman, who went to St. James Elementary school, recalled having much different feelings during the drills when she was young.

“I mostly remember elementary school,” she said. The drills were real for Slaman.

“There was a sentiment that the Soviets were a danger to the world,” she said. “As a kid, any drill like this sparks the imagination. It’s a scary thing for kids to go through.”

Slaman got her information not only from the nuns at her school. She’d turn to movies and TV programs that her parents were often watching for information, which is why the drills had such a great effect.

“The idea that Russia could come to the U.S. and bomb us,” she said. “It was well-grounded.”

The threat was considered so real that communities like Wausau organized groups of people to watch the day and night skies for enemies.

Ground Observer Corps advertisements can be seen throughout old newspapers from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, boldly asking families which neighbor was watching over their child tonight. The ads showed volunteers keeping watch over the sky, and asked that more people step forward to make the area a safer place. It was a part of everyday life for adults to search the sky for potential threats.

The city of Wausau also participated in various types of drills, whether turning to the skies to watch for planes or preparing the town for an influx of refugees.

According to newspaper clippings, Wausau would have been the new home for thousands of people displaced by bombs in the bigger cities. The national government even sent in a 200-bed mobile hospital to help treat the injured. The government also helped to stock personal and public shelters with supplies such as foods and medicines.

Of course, the threats never materialized into attacks in Wisconsin, only long-abandoned shelters, a grown-over radar base, a few childhood memories and faded signs left in place for nostalgic effect.

___

Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, https://www.wausaudailyherald.com

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