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Coast Guard Air Station Salem: fate unknown.

It's not unusual to feel a sense of nostalgia after driving through the gates of the old air station, where a lone sign reading "U.S. Coast Guard" appears faintly above the hangar door as a reminder of times past. One might even imagine the ghosts of pilots approaching their aircraft to conduct preflight inspections in the shadows of the buildings, or the sound of whirring rotor blades preparing for takeoff in the howl of the wind.

Coast Guard Air Station Salem, situated on Winter Island on the northern shore of Massachusetts, was established in February 1935 and remained in service until fall 1970. The air station's missions included search and rescue, law enforcement, counting migratory waterfowl for the U.S. Biological Survey and assisting icebound islands by delivering provisions.

During its first year, the air station performed 26 medevacs of troubled boaters. From 1942 to 1944, it assumed the role of antisubmarine warfare, patrolling for German submarines that frequented New England waters. On 21 October 1944, Air Station Salem was officially designated as the first U.S. Air-Sea Rescue service on the eastern seaboard.

Salem served as home to a long list of aircraft types, including the Douglas RD-4 Dolphin, Grumman JRF-2 Goose, Grumman J4F-1 Widgeon and various Sikorsky helicopters. Constructed with a sea lane especially designed for launching large flying boats, the air station played host to seaplanes such as the Vought VO-4, the larger General Aviation "Flying Lifeboats" of the 1930s and even larger flying boats/amphibians, including PBY Catalinas. As HH-52A Seaguard amphibious helicopters entered service, the need for flying boats had declined. Air stations like Salem having only water-landing abilities were being phased out. Air Station Salem was disestablished and replaced by Air Station Cape Cod in fall 1970. The history-rich property was turned over to the city of Salem on 20 July 1972, and shortly thereafter the Department of Defense gave up its ownership of the land.

Today, the original hangar, barracks, dining facilities, radio shack and motor pool buildings still stand, but are in disrepair. Salem's facilities were in pristine condition when it was turned over to the city, but vandals have rendered the former air station almost unrecognizable.

"I recently saw some pictures of the buildings at the old Coast Guard Air Station Salem. It's a shame they have been allowed to fall into such deplorable condition," said Jim O'Neill, a retired Coast Guard enlisted member who served at Salem. "When I was stationed there in the early to mid-1960s, these buildings weren't the most modern, but the Coast Guard did its best to keep them well maintained and took pride in their condition."

"This once-handsome place today serves only as a shelter for rats and a perch for seagulls, pigeons and redtailed hawks," said Doug Sabin, a member of the Alliance of Salem Neighborhood Association and an advocate for the preservation of Winter Island.

Winter Island now serves as a campground for tourists, with little attention given to the historical value of the area. In the early 1990s, a proposal was brought forth to tear down the hangar and replace it with a parking lot in order to provide campers more space. Recently, the $100,000 allotted for demolition was redirected to the stabilization of the hangar.

In 2000, Historic Salem, Inc., placed Winter Island on the "Most Endangered Historic Resources" list, and the organization has since been actively advocating the revitalization of the old air station. Winter Island is also listed on the National Register as a Historic District and Archeological site.

In summer 2002, one of Salem's local newspapers ran a poll asking the public what should be done with Winter Island. Suggestions ranged from turning the old buildings into fast food restaurants to tearing everything down and updating and beautifying the campgrounds.

Others, like Doug Sabin, had different ideas. "I would like to see them turn the island into a Coast Guard museum of sorts, maybe by getting aircraft of the WW II period for display in the hangar along with some other exhibits," he suggested. "Perhaps we could get some classic cars to put in the old motor pool building, and the radio shack could display period radio equipment. The other Coast Guard structures could be used for interpretive purposes."

Since its placement on the endangered list, Winter Island has received new attention. The city of Salem is working to get funding for its revamping.

"Hopefully, Historic Salem, Inc., will be able to keep and restore the old air station, which for 35 years played an important role for the seafaring region and also for our country, especially during WW II," said Mike Grobbel, whose father, Vince, was stationed at Salem in the 1940s. "It took both Coast Guard aviators and seamen to conduct Air Station Salem's search and rescue and antisubmarine warfare missions, and it is important that their work, heroics and sacrifices are not forgotten."

by PA2 Jaimie L. Knife

PA2 Knife is assigned to First Coast Guard District Public Affairs in Boston, Mass.
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Author:Knife, Jaimie L.
Publication:Naval Aviation News
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:May 1, 2004
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