WINTER HARBOR — On Aug. 12, the Schoodic Institute hosted Cmdr. James Guest, USN (retired) to speak about the history of the United States Navy at Schoodic Point, and the story of the naval base in Winter Harbor. This was part of a series of events hosted by the Schoodic Institute for the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Winter Harbor naval base in 2002.
Guest began by speaking about the origins of naval activity on the Schoodic Peninsula, which goes back to the 1930s when the base was established.
“This is the most unusual military story that I have ever heard,” said Guest, “and it all started with a guy named Alessandro Fabbri.”
Fabbri, who lived from 1877 to 1922, was a wealthy radio enthusiast from New York who happened to have a summer home in Bar Harbor. Being both a radio and yachting enthusiast, he had a desire to join the Navy, and offered to build the Navy a radio communications station at Otter Cliffs. The station was commissioned in 1917, and Fabbri commanded the station until the end of World War I.
“What was unique is the radio reception from Otter Cliffs was literally better than any other radio station on the East Coast, and the clarity of the signal that they were able to pull in was tremendous,” Guest said.
The pristine clarity of the radio signal in this area made Maine’s Downeast region of particular interest and value to U.S. Naval Communications.
In a few years, when the infrastructure in Acadia National Park was being built, John D. Rockefeller wanted the Park Loop Road to connect to Otter Cliffs. The Navy was opposed, given the value of the radio station there. It was eventually agreed that the base and radio communications would be moved to the Schoodic Peninsula, where facilities were built in 1933 with Rockefeller’s help.
“It is by far one of the nicest Navy bases,” Guest said. “The utility of the radio base and the glory of Schoodic.”
After a brief history of how the Navy’s presence on the Schoodic Peninsula came to be, Guest spoke about what went on at the base, and the importance of its work to national security.
“Naval Security Group Command was the signals intelligence arm of the U.S. Navy,” said Guest. “They have a security group command whose job was to intercept signals of interest and trying to find out what targets of interest we’re doing.”
The work done at the Schoodic base was very important to the communication and security of the United States and its allies during the Cold War.
“We were able to utilize sites all over the world where the Russians pretty much were stuck with the Soviet Union and Cuba,” said Guest, “but we had a lot better access to their signals and tracking them than they did to us.”
Two radio programs were run out of the base. The first, Classic Bullseye, was started in 1959. This was a High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) system, used for identifying interfering sources, locating enemy forces and military signals intelligence. This system had sites all over the world, including Canada, Britain, Iceland, Japan, Guam and Puerto Rico, and other parts of the United States such as Florida, Virginia, Alaska, California, Hawaii and Washington.
“We used it to locate enemies,” said Guest. “If you don’t know where somebody is, anything could happen. We were able to track them when they left port, follow them all the way down the North Atlantic, and follow home.”
The other program operated out of the base was Classic Wizard, which was an advanced surveillance system that operated off three satellites orbiting in cluster groups.
The Schoodic base was very significant to the Wizard program because the school for learning the program was located at this base. This meant that anyone who was trained for Wizard learned the program at the Schoodic base.
“Winter Harbor became a soft spot in many sailors’ hearts because we had the school for Wizard,” said Guest. “Everybody who went to Wizard came here for the school, whether it be an operator or a maintainer, they all came through.”
Guest finished his talk by highlighting the significance of the base to the community of Winter Harbor, and the significance that Winter Harbor had to those who served on the base.
“Four hundred sailors, all of their families, 140 civilians left, it affected Winter Harbor tremendously,” Guest said.
The grammar school lost roughly 100 students when the base closed and sailors and their families left the town. Some businesses and restaurants closed due to a sudden lack of clients and customers.
Guest finished with some words of gratitude for Winter Harbor and the Schoodic area, saying that it was the best place he was ever stationed during his naval career.
“A great place to work and an even better place to have lived,” said Guest. “Thirty years of the Navy and this was the friendliest place.”