By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
The now-defunct radar station atop Lookout Mountain in Dade County came to the Sentinel’s attention only a couple of years ago, and then only in connection with the nearby Flintstone subdivision, which began life as housing for the station’s personnel.
The subdivision was served – sort of – by an aging clay-pipe sewer that was giving homeowners fits. The malfunctioning system was a bone of contention between the homeowners and Covenant College, which had become its custodian through an expansion deal it made with the state, and between both those parties and Dade County, in whose geographical bounds the sewer lay.
It was a situation that made for contentious public meetings in which someone was shouting “Poop!” more or less all the time; but that’s beside the point. The point is, during its reporting on that issue, the Sentinel repeatedly referred to the Flintstone radar base as a World-War-II-era military installation.
One reader sent in the correction that Flintstone was not built during WWII but was in fact a Cold War installation. The Sentinel found that interesting – and a little embarrassing – but only stashed the information away for future reference. Recently, however, the matter came back to light when the Sentinel was fortunate enough to encounter an Air Force veteran who actually served at the Flintstone station. This is his story.
“It was one of the best-kept secrets in the area,” said New Salem resident Jim Bowen of the Flintstone radar station where he was stationed in 1958.
Originally from central Pennsylvania, Bowen began fraternizing with Dade natives early on: Within a few months of arriving at Flintstone, he met and married the local girl he still calls his “Georgia peach.”
What he noticed immediately was: “Very few people knew much about the radar site there.”
Bowen’s air traffic control work at the radar base required top-secret clearance because operators had to know the locations of all regional aircraft destinations, however sensitive.
But he doesn’t think that’s why Flintstone was so cloaked in mystery. Rather, he said, it was just because it was tiny and it wasn’t there that long. “It was just a small filler radar site,” he said.
A filer station, Bowen explained, covered the gaps in radar range between the bigger installations. Before the Flintstone station was established, he said, a plane flying north from Cuba could pass from Chattanooga to Knoxville undetected. “What’s next? Oak Ridge. What’s next? Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Thus the Flintstone station opened in 1955. But technology progressed so rapidly that by five years later it was obsolete and the USAF closed it up. So people barely had a chance to register it was there before it was gone.
But it certainly registered in Jim Bowen’s life, so let’s back up to November 1958, when a 19-year-old boot camp graduate had just finished up his aircraft control and warning (AC&W) training in Biloxi, Miss.
Of the 21 in Bowen’s class, 18 were assigned to Okinawa and three were to stay Stateside. Only Bowen was ordered to Flintstone.
The problem was, no one could tell him how to get there. “We had a big map of the world with all the United States Air Force bases and sites and everything,” said Bowen. “It ain’t on there.”
Eventually, he talked to a recruit from Colorado who thought his cousin had been stationed at Flintstone. “He calls his mother, who in turn calls her sister,” said Bowen. “Three or four days later he comes down the hallway just a-running, calling, Jim, Jim, I found out where Flintstone Air Force Base is.”
What you do, his friend had learned, was go to Chattanooga, Tenn., and the station was just across the border in Georgia, on top of Lookout Mountain. So Bowen bought himself a Greyhound Bus ticket to Chattanooga.
He pulled into Broad Street on a Sunday evening, only to find no one there had heard of Flinstone, either. A policeman pointed to a huge, looming shape in the gathering darkness and said, “That’s Lookout Mountain, but as far as an Air Force installation, I don’t know of any.”
But finally a ticket agent was able to get in touch with Flintstone personnel for him, and a first sergeant arrived to pick Bowen up.
He still remembers that trip. He was used to mountains, sure, but not big flat ones like Lookout. He told himself, “Lord have mercy, if I can make it to the top of this, I ain’t going off.”
The car passed through Rock City, Fairyland and what is now Covenant but was then the Castle in the Clouds Hotel, a swanky gambling mecca where Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor spent their honeymoon. “Those of us in the Air Force couldn’t even afford to look up there,” said Bowen.
Just past the hotel was a sign for Flintstone Radar Station, and the car turned at a guard shack into an arrangement of metal buildings: orderly room, dining hall, operations center, barracks. “This whole thing was set up, my understanding is, so it could be torn down and gone in 72 hours,” said Bowen.
About 150 men were stationed at Flintstone, and within a day or so Bowen was one of the gang. During a shift, he and the others alternated from operating the radar to support functions called teller, plotter and recorder. All working manually, they recorded the information from the radar, recorded it and transmitted it.
This was just after the Korean War and just before the Bay of Pigs. For right now, though, enemy threats were few and far between in Dade County. “Our job was to keep all the air traffic moving smoothly and be prepared,” said Bowen. “We practiced all the time in case something did happen.”
Even in peacetime, Bowen and crew did serve a useful function, providing flight information to commercial as well as military pilots. But one of their tasks, giving out weather information, was always a problem because of the geography. The area’s mountains and ridges could change the weather radically in no time, so that pilots caught in storms would cuss the operators out for lying to them about sunny-and-fair. “That was two hours ago,” they’d explain.
Bowen lived in the barracks. Married personnel and officers lived in rented quarters in St. Elmo and Fairyland because there was nowhere on base to put them. The houses that became the Flintstone subdivision weren’t started when Bowen arrived and in fact weren’t completed until just before the base closed.
Off-duty, young Bowen cruised the surrounding area with a friend who had a car, mostly on dirt roads: Only Scenic Highway and Highway 136 were paved at that point.
Once they came to the top of a hill and saw a man out plowing his garden with a mule. “He didn’t know who we were, had never seen the car,” said Bowen. “But the man stopped his work for us, raised his hand –‘Hi, partner, how are you?’ I turned around to my buddy and I said, ‘If there’s any possible way, this is where I want to make my home. This is my kind of folks.”
And then there was the Georgia peach. Bowen must have met Louise Baker within a few weeks of stepping off that Greyhound in November, because he married her the following March. “Neither one of us believe in love at first site, but yet within three months we were married,” he said.
Before Bowen was transferred to Newfoundland in May 1960, the couple had had their first child. They would eventually have three more.
In Newfoundland, Bowen found the Cold War had heated up some. With Russian spy ships masquerading as fishing trawlers and Castro getting cozy with Khrushchev, said Bowen: “It was like a basketball game with a score of 45 to 47 and two and a half minutes left in the ballgame.” It was a great deal more exciting for a radar man, but Bowen was grateful for the quiet time he’d had at Flintstone to hone his skills.
Anyway he wanted to go back. Soon after his transfer he put in a request for Flintstone for his reassignment Stateside. But in September, his commander called him in and said, “I got some bad news for you, Bowen. They closed Flintstone down the middle of August.”
The radar station had stayed operational a scant five years, and when it was decommissioned the Air Force found no need for those metal buildings. Uncle Sam gave the whole shebangs to Dade County to use as an elementary school.
Meanwhile Bowen, who was discharged in November 1961, came home to his peach, went to college on the GI Bill and served on the Dade school board most of the time that the elementary school was up and running. The old barracks became classrooms, he said: “And the radar site where we had the operations center, it was big enough that that’s where they put the gymnasium.”
After Dade made the financial decision in the 1980s to close down that school, Dade sold the old station to Covenant College, where it is now part of the soccer fields, said Bowen.
As for the military housing across the road that eventually became the Flintstone subdivision, Bowen has no idea how that transpired. That is the subject of another study, perhaps.
But this has been the story of the Flintstone Air Force Radar Station’s five-year existence and how it led Jim Bowen to spend the next 50 of his in Dade County.
“I found home here,” he said.