Transformation of North Truro Air Force Station to Public Use Defies Easy Answers

Dec 20, 2016

The North Truro Air Force Base was located at the very eastern edge of the Highland Plains, and thus afforded a spectacular ocean view to the military personnel and their families that lived there. A double cyclone fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the base: an outer one around its perimeter, including the cliff edge, and an inner one protecting the military compound, the command center, and the radar domes.

This concludes a two-part essay on the old North Truro Air Force Base and its role in Cape Cod's history. Part one is here.

The outer perimeter was patrolled by personnel at all seasons and in all weathers, though what they were looking for I cannot imagine (Soviet spies surreptitiously landing on the Outer Beach and scaling the cliffs?), and perhaps neither could they, for, according to one of the plaques installed on the grounds, “The men complained about going out on winter nights, or in blizzards.” In a superficial sense, these patrols echoed those of the Life Saving Service crews who also patrolled the length of the Outer Beach in all hours and weathers a century before, looking for wrecks, but those men, at least, knew what they were looking for, and actually saved lives.

The base was officially decommissioned in 1985. The radar installation was taken over by the Federal Aviation Administration and the rest of the property, along with all of its buildings, were turned over to the Cape Cod National Seashore. Since then the Seashore has attempted to beat this Cold War sword into a peacetime ploughshare. It has renamed the property the Highland Center and has sought private non-profit “partners” to help “foster the unique cultural and natural heritage of Cape Cod by facilitating scientific research, the arts tradition, and educational programs atop the dramatic sea cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.”

So far the results have been fairly modest. A summer music tent-theater now stands on the site of the former chapel; a small scientific lab inhabits one of the old military buildings; local high school students have painted ecological murals on some of the masonry building walls; a few abstract sculptures have been commissioned and placed in various locations around the property; and signage and guided walks have been initiated by the Seashore to inform the public of the base’s history.

One stated long-range goal is to dismantle the deteriorating family housing buildings and restore the site to native heathland. But the overall impression remains that of an ugly, empty, and deteriorating military compound. The reasons are many: The Seashore has no funding to reimburse potential “partners” for necessary renovations and, ironically, because it is National Seashore property, no new buildings can be built. There have been proposals to renovate and convert the old dormitories and houses to AmeriCorps facilities and low-income housing, but these have also been delayed due to lack of funding, the expense of removing asbestos, and the specter of past toxic dumping on the base.

In other words, the basic aspect of the old air force base remains essentially unchanged, and walking through it, it is easy to imagine the lost life here, when the air force personnel and their families lived in the houses, mowed lawns, celebrated birthdays, cooked barbecues, played baseball games, went bowling, watched movies, prayed at services, or had a drink at the NCO club - all in the service of the official United States nuclear policy at the time, a policy which, with an astounding lack of irony, was known as Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. 

The aims of the Highland Center are admirable, and I wish them luck in achieving them. But part of me also hopes that the tangible evidence of its previous identity as part of an insane military policy remains, since monuments to folly, as well as monuments to wisdom, should also be preserved.