Eyes to the Sky

Plane-Spotters in the San Juan Islands During WWII

Though no combat occurred on the islands, some San Juan Islanders kept a sharp eye out for enemy aircraft.

The boldness of the Japanese surprise attack in 1941 shocked Americans, and some wondered if the West Coast itself was vulnerable. In the days before radar, only human observation could detect an incoming aerial assault. The US government mobilized the civilian populations of the East and West coasts to form a system of plane-spotters which included roughly 1.5 million volunteers at the program's height.

U.S. Fighter Command, the American Legion, and the Office for Civilian Defense worked together to establish civilian “outposts” where Americans, young, old, male, and female, would look and listen to the sky. Any enemy activity would then be reported by a direct line to the Army Information Center. Teams would usually consist of two or three individuals working two- to four-hour shifts.

Here in the San Juans, spotters logged plenty of activity, but never any Japanese aircraft. On August 5th, 1943 12-year-old Thomas Greger reported spotting 73 American P-38 Lightnings fly over his post on Roche Harbor, a record for the Islands.

Like Thomas, Sonya Ayend Flaherty was a spotter. Sonya's post was located at America camp. Sonya also drove other spotters to their posts. Years later Sonya reflected that the work of a spotter was, “Not a very exciting job really but they all took their jobs seriously. We were at war with a very aggressive enemy.”

Although no raids occurred on the San Juan Islands, the precautions were not unreasonable. Nearby Oregon was the scene of a daring Japanese raid in September of 1942 when a Japanese submarine launched a floatplane carrying incendiary bombs. The Japanese hoped that setting western forests ablaze would impede the war efforts of their enemy. However, the fire that was set, in Siskiyou National Forest, was quickly extinguished.

Most plane-spotters would never actually spot an enemy plane, but they were prepared. Towards the end of the Second World War, a captured German plane was flown along the East coast to test the skills of the civilian spotters. Sure enough, the Nazi plane was accurately identified and reported by hundreds of spotters.