By: Paul Prosise
My first outfit after MCRD San Diego (Platoon 349) and 2nd ITR in 1958 was the 1st 75mm Anti-Aircraft (SkySweeper) Battalion in 29 Palms, CA. The Marine Corps Base in 29 Palms is 994 square miles of sand and dried up lava flows with both flat deserts and hills. The temperature was 120° up to 133° in the summer and below freezing in the winter. What a fun place for me to be stationed for almost four years.
The SkySweeper is a 75mm Anti-Aircraft gun that was deployed in the early 1950s. It was the first Anti-Aircraft gun to combine all the various systems needed for effective use against high-speed aircraft into a single carriage, namely radar, an analog computer for calculating “lead”, and an autoloader for high-speed fire.
Now, that sounds good – but remember this was 50s technology. In live firing in the field, a drone would fly over towing a wire mesh banner on a steel cable that would give a bigger radar signature than the drone so that the gun would lock onto the banner. That’s how it was supposed to work. Frequently, when it was on fully automatic and firing at high speed, it would hit the banner several times cutting off part of the banner or twisting the banner so that it gave a smaller profile than the drone on the radar. That would make the guns shoot right up the cable and hit the drone which would then burst into flames and usually crash into a nearby hill or canyon. It looked like some special effect out of a movie. (Sorry, taxpayers, the drones weren’t supposed to be shot down, but it was pretty neat).
Since this was a live firing range, aircraft were restricted from flying over, but every now and then someone in a small plane or a commercial airline on its way to Palm Springs would cut across the base. As we were firing and the banner was being pulverized, the Anti-Aircraft gun would go nuts and try to lock onto the plane. The plane was obviously giving a bigger radar profile for it to fire at. Fortunately, the safety officer was always able to stop it in time. Sometimes the guns would even lock onto trucks on a hill down range – almost giving some lost Marine driving around a really bad day.
In 1960 the 1st 75mm Anti-Aircraft (SkySweeper) Battalion was disbanded and re-formed as the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion or 1st LAAM Battalion replacing the 75MM guns with the Hawk Missile. I was in 1st LAAM until 1962. Part of the time I was TAD to Base Special Services teaching photography until I left the Marine Corps.
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