02/16/2011 03:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Honoring the Heroes of 'Old Shaky'


On Wednesday, February 9, President Obama recognized the 28 men who died when Texas Tower No. 4, located 85 miles southeast of New York City, collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean 50 years ago.

What was a "Texas Tower" doing 85 miles off New York City, you ask.

We'll have to go back in time to explain. Back to when I was a young crew member aboard U.S. Air Force EC-121D Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, "Warning Star." Our mission: to detect and help defend against Soviet "air-breathing" bombers and other threats.

The missions were long and boring -- except for when we thought we detected a Soviet "Bear," the flying kind -- and sometimes a little hazardous. Hazardous for a couple of reasons. The aircraft had to stay "on station," several hundred miles off the U.S. coast, until the "relief" aircraft arrived. Sometimes, because of weather or mechanical problems, the relief aircraft was very late, and after 12 or more hours on station one had to virtually glide home on fumes from the extra fuel tanks at the wing tips of the Lockheed "Super Constellation."

The same foul winter weather off the Massachusetts coast could make the return home a rather unpleasant affair, especially when fog and snow made it hard to find your home base, let alone your landing runway.

But we always felt a little safer, a little more comfortable than the men working on those fragile-looking "Texas Towers" about 100 miles off the northeastern Atlantic seaboard.

Especially when returning home from our mission on those dark, cold and stormy winter nights so typical off the North-Eastern Atlantic coast, we would feel very bad for them -- even concerned. While we would soon be in the safety and comfort of our barracks, on solid ground, the Texas Tower crews would be riding out some of the most vicious winter storms, hoping their "structure" would indeed meet its design specifications: to withstand 125-mile per hour winds and 35-foot high waves.

Five of these Texas Towers -- so named because of their similarity to the offshore oil-drilling rigs employed in the Gulf of Mexico -- were planned, but only three built.

The tower we would most often spot was Texas Tower No. 2 (TT2), an engineering and construction marvel situated some 110 miles east of Cape Cod, where our home base -- Otis Air Force Base -- was located. It became operational in 1958.

Weighing approximately 6,500 tons, its half-acre steel platform bristling with radar, communications and other electronic gear, its mission was to augment the surveillance and control capabilities of our AEW&C aircraft. Each tower had a crew of about 50 souls "on board," rotating 30 days on-station, with 30 days off, on firm land.

Two more towers were built and erected, TT3 and TT4.

Texas Tower No. 4, the one located 85 miles southeast of New York City, was the last one to be commissioned in 1957. Standing in 185 feet of water -- two to three times deeper than the other towers -- TT4 became the most "troublesome."

According to Thomas W. Ray, a military historian who wrote an account of the Texas Towers:

A problem of inherent stability at Texas Tower 4 loomed so large at this time that it overshadowed all previous Texas Tower problems. Ever since TT-4 was towed to site in mid-1957, it had become an engineering nightmare.

Ray goes on to cite several other engineering and construction problems that plagued TT4 from the time it was erected. It "wobbled" ominously during brisk winds and waves, earning the tower the name of "Old Shaky."

For three years, the Navy and contractors attempted to correct the problems that became quite serious during winter storms.

One of these storms, hurricane "Donna" struck the tower in September 1960 with 132 mile per hour winds and breaking waves over 50-foot heights -- both exceeding design specifications.

Fortunately all personnel had been evacuated before Donna shook and rocked TT4, destroying part of the superstructure and fracturing below-water bracings, severely affecting the structural integrity of the tower.

Then, on January 15, 1961 -- 50 years ago -- while a maintenance crew of 28 persons (14 U.S. Air Force and 14 contractor personnel) were aboard the tower to perform repairs, another storm hit the tower battering it with winds up to 85 miles per hour and waves up to 35 feet high.

TT-4 could stand no more. On the night of January 15, one of its three legs snapped in half; subsequently the other two broke and Texas Tower No. 4 slipped under the waves and sank to the ocean's bottom with all souls on board.

Only two bodies were recovered from the frigid waters.

And that's why, last week, President Obama recognized these brave men from Texas Tower No. 4.

In a letter to an organization of their surviving friends and relatives, the president said, "Our nation is grateful for the dedication, pride, and commitment of all those who have risked their lives to ensure the safety of their fellow Americans."

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who had lobbied the White House for more than a decade to recognize the men added a personal note to the president's letter:

Time shouldn't be able to wash away the contributions of citizens who served and sacrificed in the name of country. It should've happened a lot earlier. But 50 years later, there's still a hole that can't be filled and there's still a place missing at family gatherings for these families.

A few years after the tragedy, the Air Force decommissioned and sank the two other towers.

Please visit the United States Air Force Texas Tower Association for a moving "In Memoriam" to those who died on Texas Tower No. 4.

Note: Thomas W. Ray's "A History of Texas Towers in Air Defense" is the source for many of the historical and technical details in this story.

Image: Courtesy United States Air Force Texas Tower Association.