In the dark, early morning hours of Jan. 15, 1961, the little Navy vessel AKL-17 plowed through monster waves toward Texas Tower No. 4, bucking and heaving in the teeth of a fierce nor’easter. The coastal freighter had supplies for the 28 crew members on board the huge radar platform. Most of the men on Texas Tower No. 4 were New Englanders stationed at Otis Air Force Base.
The tower’s commanding officer, Capt. Gordon Phelan, had radioed Skipper Sixto Mangual of the AKL-17 to ask him to stand by. He hoped his men could be saved from the lurching radar platform. Mangual would end up trying to save his own ship in the teeth of 80 mph winds and towering waves.
The radar platform resembled Gulf of Mexico oil platforms, thus the name 'Texas Tower.' The Air Force planned five of them. It had already built Nos. 2 and 3 on the rocky ledges off Cape Cod and Nantucket. Texas Tower No. 4 was built twice as deep as the others in mud and sand 80 miles off the coast of New York. The Air Force planned Nos. 1 and 5 for the coasts of New Hampshire and Nova Scotia. But after what happened to Texas Tower No. 4, the military scrapped plans for the remaining two.
The radar surveillance towers belonged to the Cold War. They comprised a ring of early-warning beacons in case Soviet bombers approached the East Coast. Fifty men lived and worked in each of the towers high above the sea’s surface. They functioned as virtual cities with sleeping quarters, hobby shops, galleys, infirmaries and control and generator rooms.
Texas Tower No. 4 was built in Portland, Maine, and plagued by problems from the start. As a ship hauled it out to sea in 1957 it encountered a storm that tore off two legs. In 1959, Hurricane Daisy forced its evacuation and $500,000 worth of repairs. The next year, Hurricane Donna pounded the tower, weakening its legs. By then Texas Tower No. 4 had a nickname: Old Shaky. Its crewmen half-joked they shouldn't shave with a straight razor.
In November 1960, the Air Force tried more repairs. The tower still bucked and heaved so violently that workers fell to the floor of the platform. Welder Vincent Brown called his wife to say the tower swayed too much to work on it. "Air Force boys were forever kneeling and saying their rosaries,” he said. “The horror of it was awful."
Capt. Gordon Phelan repeatedly asked to evacuate Texas Tower No. 4, but Air Force brass refused. They didn't want to ‘just walk off and leave millions of dollars of radar equipment lying around untended.’
The storm had such ferocity that January morning that the AKL-17 couldn’t hope to reach the doomed tower.
The men on Texas Tower No. 4 tried to reach their loved ones. At 7:30 a.m., one crewman called his wife. She recalled,
You could hear an awful clanging, metal against metal. You could hear them screaming and yelling.
At 10:30 am an underwater support broke loose with a loud bang. Capt. Phelan asked his superiors to evacuate the tower. They refused. At 1 pm he called his wife to tell her the tower was gyrating. She asked if it would float if it collapsed. He said no, it would go down fast and no one would survive.
At 2 pm came another loud bang and cracks appeared above the water. Texas Tower No. 4 was beginning to come apart in the 80 mph winds.
Finally at 4 pm the Air Force granted an evacuation order. Capt. Phelan ordered the helicopter pad cleared, but the howling winds didn't allow the choppers to launch.
At 6 pm, Capt. Phelan called his wife. Above the clanging metal and shrieking winds, he told her the tower was collapsing. He said he didn’t know so many of his men had religion because so many were praying.
At 7 pm two Coast Guard cutters and a Navy destroyer tried to make their way through the roiling seas. On the storm-tossed AKL-17, Skipper Mangual watched the pip on the radar screen that showed the tower’s location. At 7:28 pm, the blip disappeared. Texas Tower No. 4 disappeared.
Rescuers had no hope. They found none of the 28 men that night. After two days of searching, they found the body of only one crewman, Master Sgt. Troy Williams.
A Senate investigation found serious errors and lapses in judgment along the entire chain of command. The regional commander in charge of the tower was court-martialed. But then he received an acquittal.
In 2011, President Obama officially recognized the men’s sacrifice in formal letters to their families.
Watch a short documentary about the collapse of Texas Tower No. 4 here. This story was updated in 2019.