Bill Anderson knows a lot more than bikes

AKA the bicycle man, Mr. Anderson helped create a wall of protection against nuclear threat, starting with Chilmark’s Peaked Hill. 

In 1946 in the Westminster College gymnasium in Fulton, Mo., Sir Winston Churchill warned about encroaching Soviet totalitarianism in Europe in what has became known as “the Iron Curtain speech.” Many historians say that the Cold War began that day. In the decades that followed, legions of Americans — both in and out of uniform — used their skills in technology and intelligence to erect a wall of vigilance and protection that would prevent either side of the Iron Curtain from triggering nuclear conflict.

Oak Bluffs resident Bill Anderson, known to many as the man who runs Anderson’s Bike Rentals on the harbor, was a radar technician working in Europe — and in Chilmark — to help protect us. When Bill was 14, he said, he lost his father to a heart attack; after high school graduation in 1954, he could have avoided the draft by claiming he was needed at home in Grand Haven, Mich. But he felt a sense of duty, he said, and he wanted to see the world. A boss on a summer job suggested the Air Force, where he might get specialized training that would be useful in a future career. At basic training, he signed up for radar training. “I picked radar because I was good in math,” he said. “Plus, it was interesting because it was fairly new at the time,” he said.

He scored so well on his tests that the Air Force sent him to Biloxi, Miss., where he trained at Keesler AFB, and he said, squeezed four years of training into nine months, graduating at the top of his class in repairing ground radar.

His superiors took note and sent Bill to Hanscom AFB in Bedford, where his security clearance was boosted from Confidential to Secret. They told him that, as part of a special research project being conducted by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, he would be going to an island with a “gap radar site,” a type of radar installation that covered low-altitude holes between the coverage of other radar sites — holes a plane or missile might exploit.

“Now, I’m 19 years old. First thing when somebody mentions an island to you, you think of palm trees and girls with grass skirts,” he said. “I’d never heard of Martha’s Vineyard before. I didn’t know what it was.”

He came to the Vineyard as a corporal, replacing an outgoing staff sergeant in what was a decidedly un-Polynesian environment atop Peaked Hill in Chilmark.

“Bill Anderson was my replacement,” said Oak Bluffs Wastewater Commissioner Bob Iadicicco in a telephone interview, adding that the few days he and Bill were together on Island before Bob went off to college in Philadelphia were sufficient to spark a friendship.

“Bill’s still a good friend,” he said.

Bill spent the next two years working on Peaked Hill in a pair of drab trailers. One housed the radar equipment, the other a handmade computer and a device he likened to a primitive fax machine. Both relayed information to civilian overseers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory for a research project known as the Cape Cod System, the prototype for a radar-based integrated defense system called SAGE (an acronym of semi-automatic ground environment;see sidebar) which would eventually become a key defense system for U.S. airspace.

Bill and the other airmen on Peaked Hill lived in a cottage atop the hill, bought their own groceries and cooked their own meals, preferring, as Bill recalls, First National to Cronig’s because of the cheaper prices. Their shifts ran from 8 am to 4:30 pm, with nights free.

In 1955 Bill went home for Christmas, and his older sister asked if he’d met any girls. He said he “hadn’t seen any good-looking girls on Martha’s Vineyard.”

When he returned from vacation, he attended a basketball game at Oak Bluffs High School. The cheerleaders took the floor, and one of them caught his eye. “That’s a good-looking cheerleader,” he said of Maureen Fisher, a girl from Vineyard Avenue.

“You just saw me and it was over,” Maureen Anderson recently said to her husband during a visit with a Times reporter.

Bill grew up near Lake Michigan, was Dutch Reform, of Swedish-Dutch descent, and was used to going to church three times on Sunday back home. Maureen grew up near Vineyard Sound, was Catholic, of English-Portuguese descent, and “went off to confession on Saturday morning and Mass on Sunday,” Maureen said, and added, “I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican.”

Evidently, it was a balanced equation. By 1956, they’d married in Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs. Soon after that he got a transfer order to Italy.

With his wife back on the Vineyard, Bill reluctantly traveled to Manhattan Air Force Station in Brooklyn, en route to Europe. After a hard-to-follow series of train rides across the continent, including through neutral Switzerland, Bill and his companions found themselves in Udine, Italy, where they would be stationed.

“It was a funny thing going through the Italian towns. They were built like Vineyard Haven. They had one main road and the buildings were right up on the street,” he said. As they passed by, people would gather along the road to watch as the trucks downshifted, then backfired, creating reports that sounded like gunfire. “The echoes off the buildings were tremendous,” he said. In the five months he spent in Italy, he wrote his wife almost daily.

By the time Bill moved on to his next post in Adana, Turkey, his security clearance had been upgraded to Top Secret. He soon found himself in a room with the other radar personnel he’d flown in with.

“A full bird colonel came along and said, ‘We have something you never saw in your life and we don’t talk about it, so we’re not talking about it.’”

The first morning in Turkey his roll call took place next to the flight line. He saw a glider-like plane that made a funny engine noise take off and ascend at an unusually steep angle.

“It took us about one minute to figure out that was what we were told we don’t talk about.”

Unbeknownst to Bill Anderson, he’d arrived at one of the most secret places in the world, the home of Detachment B, a unit of the CIA’s U-2 spy plane program. Furthermore, he’d arrived in the midst of Operation Soft Touch, a series of reconnaissance overflights described in declassified material from the Agency’s Center for the Study of Intelligence as “the high water mark of U-2 operations against the Soviet Union.”

“The guys guarding the hangers that the U-2s were in weren’t U.S. soldiers. They were Turkish soldiers,” he said. He was told that “you better not goof with these Turkish soldiers, because they shoot first and ask questions later.”

Along with 15 other airmen, Bill helped secure the airspace around the base by setting up a long-range radar system. Some mornings, Bill and his friend Jim Stockwell would test the radar and found themselves inadvertently tracking U-2s after takeoff. But because the planes climbed to extraordinary altitudes, they would vanish off the scopes.

There were other unusual happenings. “I saw civilians walking around with sidearms, and you don’t see that on a military base,” he remembered. In retrospect, he assumed those were the pilots — any one of whom may have been Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 was later shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Mr. Powers reportedly flew regularly from Adana.

Bill spent 40 days in Adana, a place he said was so dry, electrical grounding rods disappeared into the earth when hammered down, unless he soaked the ground first. “There wasn’t a green thing in sight,” he said.

He was glad when he was finally able to ship out, but not so glad that he would be leaving in a Fairchild C-119, nicknamed by servicemen “flying boxcars.” After cramming in as much sightseeing as he could during an overnight layover in Athens, he departed for Rome. He sat next to a lieutenant and, oddly enough, a “hound dog” that was apparently somebody’s pet. Bill immediately fell asleep. Somewhere near Rome, Bill awoke to a storm. He was told that turbulence was expected and to put on his safety belt. He already wore a life jacket and parachute.The plane suddenly dropped.

“When we started to fall, I was watching that dog up on the ceiling,” he remembered.

The lieutenant next to him had opted not to buckle himself in. “His backside was over my head. He was holding on to the bar [of the seat] or he would’ve been up on the ceiling.”

Somebody yelled that there was fuel leaking.

“I always said to myself I would never jump out of an aircraft. But right then I would have jumped. I was so damned scared it wasn’t funny.”

The plane recovered, as did the dog. Bill discovered later they had dropped thousands of feet. The fuel leak was storm-driven rainwater that had penetrated the fuselage.

Bill served a brief spell back in Udine, where the Air Force closed down its base, then new orders sent him to Wheelus AFB in Tripoli.

Unlike Turkey, “There were a couple green things in Libya. But not much,” he said. He couldn’t understand what he was doing at a “big base” that already had a radar site and a complement of radar techs. But after a bus brought him and his friend Jim Stockwell to a storage area full of portable radar equipment, he knew why he was there.

The lieutenant in charge of the portable radar told him he had 24 hours to assemble a portable radar site. There was a truck waiting on the runway, and 40 men scrounged from across the base. Bill and the assembled crew began building the radar at 10 am and by around 8 pm, the work was “95 percent” done.

A review of high-level officers, including three or four generals, came to watch the last phases of assembly.

“They were impressed with what was going on,” Bill remembered.

Bill and Jim Stockwell, however, were not. A master sergeant had taken the opportunity to steal the thunder from Bill’s crew and execute the finishing touches to the portable radar site himself. But the sergeant had attached the antenna upside down. The lieutenant examined the mistake and asked Bill, Jim Stockwell, and another tech to fix it. Two days later, the lieutenant was promoted for having spotted and rectified the mistake. He shared the wealth, so to speak, with Bill and his two colleagues, asking them what they might want.

Bill had just received a telegram from Martha’s Vineyard announcing the birth of his daughter Kate, the first of his four children. Bill asked for leave back to Massachusetts. The lieutenant furnished him with a “very rare” 30-day leave.

His journey was far from easy, but he managed to hop a Lockheed C-121 Constellation out of Tripoli and via Morocco, the Azores, and Bermuda, fly to South Carolina. From there, a train and another plane got him to the Vineyard on Halloween, where he entered his mother-in-law’s house and there, in his wife’s arms, was his baby daughter Kristen, who upon seeing a stranger in uniform, started bawling.

A month later, Bill returned to Tripoli. His lieutenant offered him staff sergeant stripes and $6,000 to re-enlist — more money than he believed most people made on Martha’s Vineyard in a year at that time. It was 1958. With a wife and a baby at home, he opted to take advantage of a military reduction program offered by the Eisenhower administration, and he bowed out from active duty.

He returned to the Vineyard, and he and his wife bought a house on Oak Bluffs Harbor. Bill worked at Alley’s TV in Oak Bluffs for a year, then for five years at Brook Carter’s Electrical in Vineyard Haven. He went on to work for the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard from 1965 to 1985, and while working there, also opened a successful bicycle business at his home in 1971. He worked in that business full-time after his shipyard days.

Bill and Maureen Anderson have been married for 58 years. During that time, he’s frequently reflected on his Air Force days, and sometimes on the terrible realities of the era he served in.

“Back of my mind I knew we could be at war tomorrow. They had nuclear missiles, nuclear bombs. We had the same thing. Maybe the world wouldn’t be here [tomorrow].”

Bill’s grandson, also Bill Anderson, called him up last Veteran’s Day and acknowledged his grandfather’s service in the Air Force. “On Veteran’s Day he called me up and said, ‘Hey Pop, thanks for being a veteran.’” Bill said, “Nobody ever called me up and said that to me in all my life.”

SAGE: Radar on Chilmark’s Peaked Hill protected America in the Cold War

As a portable gap-filler radar site, the top of Peaked Hill in Chilmark was one of several locations around Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket that not only served as research locations for the development of Cold War–era aerial security, but became fixed radar positions providing surveillance for SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment), a sophisticated defense system that guarded U.S. airspace against attacks by the Soviet Union.

Born from military-funded research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, SAGE was a necessary evolution in aerial tracking, according to Tom Page, historian for the Online Air-Defense Radar Museum.

“When the computer-based SAGE command-and-control system was first developed in the 1950s, it replaced a manual system of humans plotting aircraft tracks on Plexiglas boards,” he said in an email to The Times. “The aircraft-track information was called in to a region direction center by telephone from various remote radar stations, and from ground observer corps (GOC) members with binoculars. As the amount of air traffic increased, this manual system was quickly becoming overwhelmed. Given that the perceived prime threat in the 1950s was manned bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons, the manual aircraft control and warning (AC&W) system was unacceptable.”

Developing and implementing a new system, however, was nothing short of a colossal undertaking.

“The scope of the SAGE Air Defense System as it evolved from its inception in 1951 to its full deployment in 1963,” states MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory web site [], “was enormous. The cost of the project, both in funding and the number of military, civilian, and contractor personnel involved, exceeded that of the Manhattan Project.”

“Early development included the 1953 and 1954 Cape Cod Systems,” Mr. Page said, “and the Experimental SAGE Subsector (ESS) in 1955. The ESS direction center was constructed at MIT Lincoln Lab (adjacent to Hanscom AFB), and several remote radar stations (both long-range and gap-filler) were deployed mainly around southern New England. One of the ESS gap-filler radar sites … was built atop Peaked Hill on Martha’s Vineyard, at the site of the U.S. Army’s former World War II air warning system radar site, AWS No. 6. Later, circa 1956, the U.S. Air Force would build a ‘permanent’ gap-filler radar facility adjacent to the ESS site on Peaked Hill, and named it the “Chilmark Gap-Filler Annex.” This GFA radar reportedly became fully operational in June 1957, and continued in service until June 1968.”

While Bill Anderson was on duty at the portable gap-filler site atop Peaked Hill, he witnessed the construction of the permanent site next door. Late Islander Bob Chapman, a longtime telephone company engineer, worked on and monitored aspects of that permanent site. In a 2002, in an interview conducted by Oral History Curator Linsey Lee for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, he recalled that the radar equipment for that site was built by the Eureka Vacuum Cleaner Co. Bill Anderson recalled that at least one component, a type of computer, was made by the Singer Manufacturing Co.

Better coverage was the reason for gap-filling radars, according to the Lincoln Laboratory web site.

“A long-range AN/FPS-3 radar, the workhorse of the operational air defense net, was installed at South Truro, Mass., near the tip of Cape Cod, and equipped with an improved digital radar relay. Less powerful radars, known as gap fillers, were installed to enhance the coverage provided by the long-range system. Because near-total coverage was required, the beams of the radars in the network had to overlap, meaning that the radars could be separated by no more than 25 miles.”

In his interview with Linsey Lee, Mr. Chapman elaborated on why Chilmark needed enhanced radar coverage.

“The main radar in Truro had one little problem it could not do,” he said. “It had a blank spot in back of the Island up Chilmark and back of Menemsha. They got nothing out of there. They’d sweep around, come to there, nothing. Blank spot. And that’s because of the hill … They built what they called a gap-filler and that’s just what it was. It was to fill in this blank gap, and they put a radar up there to sweep and search.”

Tim Jones, public affairs manager for the Eastern Air Defense Sector (EADS), said in an email to The Times that “[SAGE] was the first large computer network to provide man-machine interaction in real time. The system was gigantic by today’s standards. The AN/FSQ-7 computer system [developed by IBM], for instance, weighed 250 tons and occupied an acre of floor space.”

“SAGE and its successors played an important role in keeping the peace,” said Columbia University professor of international affairs Dr. Robert Jervis in an email to The Times. “Not only did they discourage the U.S.S.R. from attacking, but by giving American leaders confidence that they could not be taken by surprise by a Soviet strike, they decreased the pressures for an American preventive war.”

“The Joint Surveillance System (JSS), a joint United States Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration system, replaced SAGE in 1983,” Major Beth Smith, NORAD’s chief of media operations, told The Times in an email.

To learn more about radar history, visit

To see an excellent video about SAGE:

This article by Rich Saltzberg originally appeared on