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The Cold War as experienced in Lake Geneva



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March 05, 2013 | 12:16 PM
Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union commenced. Lake Geneva was not immune from the effects of the Cold War.

In the wake of the nuclear bombs that the U.S. devised during World War II and their destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the fear of the atomic bomb being dropped became one of the hallmarks of the Cold War both in the United States and in the Soviet Union. The "arms race" that the Cold War generated was manifested by the development of huge fleets of massive B-47 and B-52 bombers by the United States and similar bombers by the Soviet Union. Wisconsin's U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, from Appleton, accelerated the fears of the Cold War by charging that the U.S. government had been infiltrated by a host of "Communists" and the "Communists" were lurking behind virtually every bush in the U.S.

In the Lake Geneva elementary schools, few will forget the "duck and cover" drills in which students, following an announcement on the classroom loudspeaker, would dive under their desks in order to protect themselves from the dropping of an atomic bomb. Some of the students, however young, were nonetheless aware that they would be blown to dust by an atomic bomb and that diving under one's desk was a useless exercise.

More conspicuous was the institutionalization of more visceral Cold War responses to the threat of the atomic bomb. At the top of the hill at the north end of Williams Street in Lake Geneva, the Ground Observer Corps, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, built an observation tower, which was staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by volunteers armed with binoculars who scanned the skies to the north looking for approaching Soviet bombers. As soon as they spotted one in the sky, they were to call the authorities in Chicago and warn them that bombers were on the way to blow Chicago to oblivion. A few residents of Lake Geneva saw this procedure as ludicrous, arguing that by the time the Soviet bombers reached Lake Geneva, Chicago was doomed.

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Perhaps equally questionable was the decision by the U.S. Air Force to build a radar base at the southeast corner of Palmer Road and Highway 67 in Geneva Township. Once constructed, the radar in the dome-shaped structures at the base swept the skies in quest of approaching Soviet bombers. Of course, no Soviet bombers ever came, but the existence of the U.S. Air Force radar base would come to have significant social consequences for Lake Geneva and the surrounding area.

As the radar base became fully operational, it became quite common to see young Air Force personnel in their snazzy blue uniforms walking the streets of Lake Geneva and other nearby towns and chatting up local girls. The young men of Lake Geneva were no match for these spiffy Air Force personnel and many a local romance was rendered asunder by the interloping "flyboys." The radar base is, of course, long gone. It later became a minimum security Wisconsin state prison, but the officers' houses and the enlisted mens' barracks still exist and the site is marked with a Wisconsin Historical Society information plaque.

Of other structural "products" of the Cold War in the Lake Geneva area, one never quite materialized. The rich farmland east of Burlington in Racine County was cleared to make way for Bong Air Force Base. The Air Force Base was named after Richard Ira Bong, the heroic World War II fighter pilot from Poplar. The Bong Air Force Base was to be built to house fighter jets — F-84s "Thunder" Jets and F-86s "Saber" Jets — that were intended to intercept Soviet bombers en route to drop atomic bombs on Chicago and Milwaukee. However, because ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) made the Bong Air Force Base obsolete even as its construction got underway, it never became operational. It is now a State Recreation Area. The proposed base did provide jobs for young men from Lake Geneva in the mid-1950s who were hired to move the bodies buried in rural cemeteries that the Bong Air Force Base's concrete runways were intended to cover.

Another manifestation of the Cold War in Lake Geneva was the locked and secretive basement of the Lake Geneva Post Office. Stored there were tons of supplies to be used in the event of an atomic bomb attack, including gas masks, purified water, dried food, radiation decontamination suits, etc. The existence of these supplies was top secret, and no one was supposed to know what the Lake Geneva Post Office basement contained.

An indication of the fear, paranoia and occasional hysteria generated by the Cold War in Lake Geneva is perhaps reflected by three incidents that happened in the city. In the early 1950s, an elderly couple from Poland moved into a house on Madison Street across the street from the Lake Geneva High School. They were refugees or DPs (displaced persons), who had fled Soviet-dominated Poland. However, the word spread that the elderly couple were "Commies," since they had obviously come from Communist Poland. Their windows were soon egged and the words "Commies — get out of town. We don't want you here" were scrawled in red paint on their garage and house. The Polish couple soon disappeared from the city.

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In 1953, as the Korean War was winding down, an exchange of prisoners of war was held and among those exchanged was a young man from Lake Geneva who had been drafted into the Army and sent to fight in Korea where he was captured by the North Koreans. When he returned to Lake Geneva, he was given a parade and a hero's welcome. But not too long afterwards a story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal that the young man had somehow "collaborated" with the enemy while he was in their prisoner of war camp. The young man was instantly reviled in Lake Geneva and called a "Commie" and a traitor. He had no choice but to leave the city.

An aspect of the Cold War that few probably remember were the evacuation signs on the highways that directed people in Chicago and Milwaukee where to go in the event that Soviet bombers were about to drop atomic bombs on those cities, assuming that millions of people would have sufficient time to evacuate the cities if an atomic bomb was dropped or if they could surmount the inevitable traffic jams that would form in those pre-interstate highway days. A young boy recalled a conversation that he witnessed in a Lake Geneva barber shop as he was getting his hair cut.

"Hey, did ya see all those evacuation route signs that they have been putting up?"

"Yeah, it looks like all the evacuation routes will end right here in Lake Geneva."

"Hell, does that mean that they're gonna evacuate all those people from Chicago and bring them up here?"

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"I guess so."

"That means that they're planning to evacuate all of the (expletive deleted) from Chicago and bring them up here. We can't let that happen."

"Well, what can we do to stop them?

"I'll tell you what we can do. We can set up machine guns at Richmond on the state line and make damn well sure that none of them cross that line. That's what we're gonna do."

For many of Lake Geneva's residents, the Cold War era was an interesting time, to be sure, but perhaps the best way to characterize the era is to quote a line from Charles Dickens' superb novel of the French Revolution, "A Tale of Two Cities," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

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