Lester L. Mahon, U.S. Air Force

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – Jan. 16 1963 – Three Air Force officers assigned to the Barter Island distant early warning system program lost their lives when the plane they were traveling in crashed while attempting to land at the Barter Island station.

Early investigations revealed the radar and communications on the aircraft were lost four hours after the plane left Cape Perry, approximately 400 miles from Barter Island. The passengers on board were part of the Barter Islands’ distant early warning system and were returning from the headquarters of the Federal Electric Co. in Paramus, N.J.

Maintaining the latest updates in the warning security system required numerous meetings between the military and its major civilian contractor. Listed as one of the Air Force officers was Capt. Lester L. Mahon of Dunkirk. Capt. Mahon was the husband of Anna Julia (Mucha) Mahon and father of David, Michael and Mark Mahon.

Served the United States Army Air Corps and Air Force.

Served in World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War. He achieved the rank of captain. His military occupation specialties were radar night flight operator and aircraft observer.

Military training included pre-flight school at Kent State University; primary flight school in Ballinger, Texas; basic flight school in San Angelo, Texas; aerial gunnery school in Fort Myers, Fla.; radar operations school in Boca Raton, Fla.; air training command school at Lackland Air Force Base; USAF recruiting sales supervising course at MacDill Air Force Base; an aviation psychological course in London, England; and air observation officers training in Anchorage, Alaska.

Military units included the 427th night fighting squadron, Myitkyina airport in Burma, (Myanmar); the 350th 1st Air Force base unit, Boca Raton, Fla.; the HQ 10th Air Force European Theatre; the 20th Air Base squadron; and a temporary assigned duty with the distant early warning system. His World War II combat missions included 324 hours logged as combat missions, consisting of 62 combat flights.

He was awarded the Asian Pacific Theater Ribbon with four battle stars, the WWII Victory Medal, the NATO ribbon, the air medal, the sharpshooter M-1 Carbine award, the expert 45 cal. pistol award and the sharpshooter M-1 Garand award.

The early warning line was also know as DEW. It was a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada, with additional stations along the north coastland of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, in addition to the Faroe Islands of Denmark.

It was set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and to provide early warnings of any sea and land invasions by the Soviets. The DEW line was the northernmost and most capable of three radar lines in Canada and Alaska. The joint Canadian-U.S. Pinetree line ran from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island and the mid-Canadian line ran north of this. At that time, it was the most significant achievement of the Cold War initiatives in the Arctic, a successful combination of scientific design and logistical planning. The project demanded military planning and knowledge of new designs in Soviet military equipment. As Soviet aircraft and warship technology advanced, the DEW also had to protect itself to guard against this modern technology. Working this top secret project meant numerous travels between the civilian main contractor (the Federal Electric Company main project headquarters in Paramus, N.J.) and the onsite project in the Barter Island complex near Anchorage, Alaska.

On a special assignment, Capt. Lester L. Mahon was sent by the Air Force to work jointly with the Federal Electric Co. from Paramus, N.J. His orders were to install, maintain, upgrade, and secure the distant early warning system located near Barter Island in the Anchorage, Alaska area. Working jointly with the Federal Electric Co. involved many meetings and classes pertaining to this highly top secret military early warning system. Working on the DEW included highly educated personnel not only from the private sector, but also highly educated and responsible military personnel.

At the time, this system was regarded as America’s number one defense warning system. As for the Air Force, it was the top gun unit for its air officers. The system demanded dedication along with countless meetings, classes and air travel between Barter Island in Alaska and the Federal Electric main office in Paramus, N.J.

Lester L. Mahon was born in Conrad, Pa., on Feb. 4, 1924, the son of Lester and Ruth Mahon. When school time came, Lester was off to the Bradford school system where he played football and baseball. Later on during high school, Lester excelled in science, always coming up with and enjoying building different science projects. Lester dreamed of one day being a science teacher.

After graduation, Lester had to make some serious decisions. He knew he wanted to join the Air Force, but he also wanted to fly. Joining the Air Force with only a high school diploma cut his chances of being an Air Force pilot by 90 percent. Knowing that someday he would be a pilot, Lester decided that going to college would give him his best chance to fulfill his dream of being a pilot and flying airplanes for his country.

With the schools’ next semester starting in a few weeks, Lester then enrolled and was accepted at Grove City College, near home. At college, Lester took chemical engineering courses. While there, Lester received fantastic grades. After a few talks with the Air Force recruiter in Pittsburgh, Pa., Lester was informed that because of his outstanding grades, he would qualify for the Air Force pilots enlistment program.

It was understood that while in training, he would be required to pass every course or he would lose his officer’s rank and not pilot a plane for the United States Air Force. On Nov. 25, 1942, Lester Mahon enlisted in the United States Army Air Corp, the first of his two Air Force enlistments that would last until Jan. 28, 1946.

His second enlistment came again with the news of the Korean Police Action. It “wasn’t a war.” The president of the United States called the conflict in Korea “a simple police action.” Wanting to fly again, Lt. Lester Mahon was offered a promotion to captain, a rank that was now a U.S. Air Force Captain.

Remembering the old days in the Army Air Corp, holding the rank of captain meant that any captains or higher grade officers had a say and could make decisions that could easily change careers or even duty stations and assignments.

Now the new Air Force had its own chain of command and list of officers. The United States Air Force could promote or reassign by their own merits. This meant to Lester if one knew his job and did his duty, he could advance or be assigned a command that suited him. This new Air Force meant no more approvals from the department of the Army now. Not having to answer to the United States Army, Lester was told that this new Air Force would open more doors and be a better place for pilots to advance.

Next week: Part two.