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Finland Air Force Station personnel to gather for reunion

From a hillside three miles northeast of Finland, for 30 years during the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force watched the skies for any unknown aircraft entering U.S. airspace.

1st Lt. Raymond Crump walks through a nearly empty row of military housing at the Finland Air Force Station
1st Lt. Raymond Crump walks through a nearly empty row of military housing at the Finland Air Force Station shortly before the base closed in May 1980. (News Tribune file photo)
File / Duluth News Tribune
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From a hillside three miles northeast of Finland, for 30 years during the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force watched the skies for any unknown aircraft entering U.S. airspace.

The Finland Air Force Station in Lake County was a self-contained community that could continue to function if it was cut off from the outside world. Opening in November 1951, the 163-acre station operated radar surveillance until its technology became obsolete and the base closed on June 15, 1980.

In its final months of operation, the News Tribune reported at the time, names were listed on a 1980 calendar, marking when groups of service members were scheduled to leave.

"The last name, the only one under June 15, is base commander Maj. Richard Hughes. 'I'll turn out the lights,' he said," according to a 1980 News Tribune report.

Thirty-five years later, 756th Radar Squadron veterans who served at the Finland base are planning their first reunion. Saturday's event will be an informal gathering, organizer Marvin Crawford said. People can drive or walk around the former base in the morning; the reunion, open to anyone who served during the station's 30 years, is scheduled for 1-5 p.m. in the lower level at the Silver Bay Lounge.

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Crawford's wife's high school reunion in Silver Bay prompted the idea of a squadron reunion.

"You know all these years, there's never really been one - so I called some people and they called some people and they called some people and they called some people," Crawford said.

About 250 people have been notified through word of mouth, Crawford said, although he expects about 50 to 100 people to attend the reunion.

In addition to military personnel stationed at the Finland installation during its existence, residents in nearby communities also worked at the station and 25 civilians lost their jobs when the facility closed in 1980. Crawford said he hopes residents who worked at the Air Force station stop by the reunion as well.

"I hope everyone has a good time, sees people they know and trades a lot of stories," Crawford said.

Crawford served in radar maintenance at the station from 1965 until 1968. A native of Kentucky, he had been serving in tropical climates before being assigned to the Finland Air Force Station.

"I really didn't know very much about Minnesota," he said. "It was a shock. Fortunately it was in July, but I came up - drove up - and I spent the night in Eau Claire, Wis., and I got about 40 miles out of Superior and I had to turn the car heater on. On July 1. I went, 'What is this?'"

During his time in Finland, he met his wife, who was the daughter of the Silver Bay police chief at the time. Crawford's time in Finland wrapped up eight years in the Air Force and he left the service, heading to the University of Minnesota to receive his engineering degree.

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Not much changed over time at the Finland Air Force Station and many of the veterans had similar experiences, Crawford said.

"One thing about it, no matter when you were there, you pretty much got the same tales to tell," he said.

Built for $5 million in 1951, the Finland Air Force Station contained 26 military buildings and 44 homes for the service members' families.

To be self-sufficient, the station included gas pumps and a commissary. It had its own ski tow, bowling lanes, movie theater and library and was the only Air Force installation outside of Alaska with its own curling rink, according to a 1968 Duluth News Tribune series on the station.

The station's radar technology became obsolete in the late 1970s and the U.S. Department of Defense announced in 1978 that it was one of 40 radar sites that would be phased out in the next two years.

Although local residents working at the station - some of them close to receiving their pensions - were upset about losing their jobs, some military wives were happy to be leaving the Finland post, where they felt isolated.

"When the search tower was shut down April 30, ending the station's main mission, the women said they climbed up into the tower and broke open bottles of champagne," the News Tribune reported at the time.

The station was sold to an developer in 1982, but no changes were made to the base. It was sold in 1983 to a Twin Cities family that owned it for more than two decades under the name Finlandia LLC, according to previous News Tribune stories.

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A well used by housing on the site in the mid-1990s was found to be polluted by contaminants from the closed station, and the area is now monitored by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Today, most of the station's property is used as a prayer retreat center by Eagle Ministries.

More information

For more information about Saturday's Finland Air Force Station reunion, contact Marvin Crawford at mdcrawford@earthlink.net or (402) 320-2980.

Related Topics: LAKE COUNTYSILVER BAY
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