In any discussion of Mt. Umunhum and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's nine-year, $13.1 million project, one is bound to stumble over a key talking point: the iconic radar tower.
The Almaden Air Force Station, which was active atop Mt. Umunhum from 1957-1980 and whose motto was "vigilance and prudence," was part of the vast defense network called North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD.
“No one else knows but us radar guys what it was like during the Cold War,” says G. Pittenger, who served at the station from 1974-75. “We didn't fight with guns. We fought with scopes and meters. We fought with our intelligence ... Our country depended on us—and we came through.”
At a public meeting about the project in December, local residents were quick to give their opinions on the fate of the tower. To some, it was an emotional stand; many veterans were in attendance to show their solidarity with the idea that any construction of public amenities should incorporate or acknowledge a respect for the history of the mountain and the AFS.
Basim Jaber, a civil engineer and part-time photographer who has become a historian and archivist for the Almaden Air Force Station (AFS), has organized several veteran reunions, some of which had more than 100 attendees from all over the country.
"Imagine looking at blips on a screen for 10 hours a day," says Jaber, "and not knowing if what you're seeing is friend or foe. ... people either underestimate [that history] or have no idea. They just see a building on a hill."
In October 2008, he established a private Yahoo group for AFS vets that now has more than 100 members. He says it is very rewarding to see old friends reconnect and share memories.
Jaber personally continues to collect what he calls "priceless artifacts" that have been mailed to him by grateful veterans—memorabilia, such as flags, small pieces of the radar antenna/sail and old photos.
J. Smith, whose father was the station medic, lived on the site at age 14. “I am hoping that the tower will remain," he says. "I truly believe that there is really only a handful of people in the greater San Jose area who are pushing for it to be removed.”
He says those who were stationed at AFS share a common love for the place. "Although visits to the mountain are bittersweet due to its present state of disrepair, it always conjures up wonderful memories of a special time in my life."
Jaber says he hopes to raise money for the veterans association as well as publish a book with a collection of AFS photography.
“My intentions are not for self-advancement,” he says, “[but] just to make sure people learn about, understand and remember a key piece of Bay Area military history—and the people who were involved in it—which is about to be demolished and removed forever.”
At this point, the fate of the radar tower has yet to be decided, but the costs are estimated at $700,000 to secure and maintain the site and $300,000 to demolish it.
"I know why it's so hard for that tower to stay," says Jaber. "In this economy, can you see someone wanting to throw that much money at it?" He says the legacy of the AFS is more important to protect than the physical remains, and he hopes there will be a cultural and historical resource available to the public included in the structures being planned by the district.
“For me, it was small-town America on a mountaintop,” says Smith. “It was paradise.”
As Pittenger put it, “The 682nd was our home. We are still there in spirit. We protected our country so that others could live. We are not forgotten.”